Home Countries Bolivia The death of Domitila – an extraordinary leader

The death of Domitila – an extraordinary leader

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Domitila with other miners on hunger strike in 1977Domitila with other miners on hunger strike in 1977

The writer, film-maker and journalist, Alfonso Gumucio Dagron, was a close friend of Domitila Barrios de Chungara, the woman leader from the Bolivian mines. He visited her on hunger strike, took photographs (see one above) and made an influential documentary about the hunger strike. In a tribute to her, he writes:

“She was a woman of great courage and one who was able to articulate, with passion and intelligence, what was going on in the mines. Nobody did it like her, no other woman in the mines described with such exactness and sensitivity the situation of the Bolivian workers. … A tireless fighter, she was one of five mining women who began the hunger strike that was one of the determining factors in the overthrow of the dictator Hugo Banzer. At the time of the strike, at the end of 1977 and the beginning of 1978, I visited the group that was holding the hunger strike in the office of the newspaper, Presencia, and I spoke to Domitila, Xavier Albó, Luis Espinal and other friends who were joining the group of hunger strikers. The photographs I took – a whole film – have been reproduced many times.” 

Alfonso Gumucio Dagron ends his tribute, quoting the Uruguyan writer, Eduardo Galeano:

“I remember a workers’ assembly, in the mines of Bolivia, some time ago, move than 30 years: a woman stood up, among all the men, and asked who was the main enemy. There were various replies: ‘Imperialism’, ‘the Oligarchy'” ‘bureaucracy” … And she, Domitila Chungara, put them right: ‘No, comrades. Our main enemy is fear and we have it within us.’ I had the luck to be there. I have never forgotten.”

The full article, in Spanish, can be read here.

Another tribute speaks of her personal suffering because of her militancy:

“The government of General René Barrientos intervened militarily in the mining districts in June of 1967 to crush a strike and on the night of San Juan [24 June] killed dozens of men and women in the mines of Catavi and Sigle XX. Domitila’s indignation with the military after what has become known as “the massacre of San Juan”  cost the life of the child she was carrying, who died shortly after being born in a gloomy cell, and after Domitila had been kicked and beaten by the soldiers who arrested her. T

“The mining districts were once again militarily occupied after a protest strike against the government of Hugo Bánzer (1971-1978) and Domitila Chungara hid in a mine with other leaders. But she had to leave, when labour started. She was pregnant this time with twins but one died in her womb, apparently intoxicated by  poisonous gases from the mine.”

The full article, in Spanish, can be read here.

 

 

LAB’s Javier Farje also knew Domitila. Here is his tribute.

 

I met Domitila Chungara in Copenhagen in 1985. She had come to visit the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, where I worked as a press officer. I was asked to interview her about her struggle in the Bolivian mines. Before she became involved in this campaign, she was a “simple” miners’ wife. In fact, she became involved as a member, and later leader of the miners’ wives movement in support of their husbands. Behind the miners protesting, with dynamite sticks in their belts, were the women who attended to their “domestic” needs.

It was in this struggle that Domitila found her own voice. From being a support group, the women’s movement became a political force in its own right. Domitila, a humble, soft-spoken woman, became their natural leader. She told me she had realised the need to have her own identity as a fighter. I remember her as dressed in black, with short, shiny black hair where some streaks of grey had started to appear.

Her experiences were gathered in the book Si me permiten hablar (the English version of which, Let me Speak! was published by LAB). After its publication she travelled all over the world telling people about the struggle of the Bolivian people against the dictatorships that had plagued her country for most of her life. She was welcomed by politicians and world leaders, but never lost her humility and kindness.

As long as the Bolivian wives’ movement was a support column for their husbands, things were fine, but once those brave women discovered they too had rights and had the duty to fight for equality, things started to go wrong at home for Domitila. Her marriage collapsed because her husband, still tied to old macho “values”, could not stand the fact that his once obedient wife had not only found her own path but had become famous.

Domitila was now a “star”, a status she was uncomfortable with. I remember that she wept when she spoke about her separation from her husband; her voice trembled and her round, kind face took on an incredibly sad look. “Any regrets?” I asked timidly. “None whatsoever,” she replied, her voice regaining the strength and power that helped her lead her movement. We became friends. I said goodbye to her with the hug you give an elder sister you look up to in admiration.

Years later, after we lost touch – no emails or Skype in those days – I found out that after the women miners’ movement faded away, Domitila became presidential candidate for a tiny left-wing group. She failed, but she was one of the first left-wing leaders in Bolivia who dared stand for vice-president, and Evo Morales owes her a debt of gratitude because, in many ways, she paved the way for MAS to become the political force it now is.

After her failed attempt to become one of Bolivia’s elected leaders, she went back to her activism in the mines, this time fighting against the growing influence of Christian fundamentalist churches in the mining sector.

Domitila Chungara has left this world after a long struggle with cancer. She never benefitted from her fame and, when she grew ill, she needed the help of her old comrades to pay her medical bill.

She lived long enough to see the end of the authoritarian regimes that ruled her country for so many years and the election of a left-wing leader, something that was unthinkable when I met her in a warm spring day in Copenhagen 27 years ago.

Now that she’s gone, I remember her kind face, her soft and almost musical voice, her warmth and the privilege she granted me to become her friend. Adiós Domitila, y gracias.