REPORT ON THE SITUATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE REPUBLIC OF BOLIVIA
OF ASSEMBLY AND FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION: 1
As stated in Chapter I of the present Report, the 1967 Bolivian
Constitution, which is currently in effect, provides in Article 7 c) that
everyone has the right of assembly and the right of association for lawful
In Part Three of the Charter, which deals with special regimens, Title
two refers to the social order, and in its Article 159 recognizes and guarantees
trade-unionism as a means of protection, representation, welfare, education and
culture of workers. It also
established a guarantee for trade unions as regards the activities they carry
out in the specific performance of their duties, and says that those that enjoy
such a guarantee may not be prosecuted nor arrested.
The same law upholds “the right to strike as the exercise of the
workers’ legal entitlement to withhold their labor to defend their rights,
after complying with the legal formalities.”
According to the Constitution, work is a right and a duty, and is the
basis for the economic and social order (Article 156), and because of that,
“labor and capital enjoy the protection of the State, and the law shall
regulate their relations by establishing regulations on individual contracts and
collective bargaining, the minimum wage, the maximum work day, child and female
labor, paid weekly and annual vacations, holidays, bonuses, awards or other
profit-sharing systems, indemnity for length of service, dismissal, professional
training and other social and worker protection benefits.”
It is a function of the State to create conditions which will guarantee
employment, job stability and fair wages for all.”2
The State also grants social security benefits on the basis of principles
of universal coverage, solidarity, uniformity of treatment, economy, timeliness
It should also be noted that the Bolivian State is a party to a number of
international juridical instruments that uphold the aforementioned rights and in
particular, it should be recalled that Bolivia has ratified ILO Conventions No.
87 concerning “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to
Organize” and No. 98 concerning the “Application of the Principles of the
Right to Organize and to Bargain Collectively.”
After the coup d’etat on July 17, 1980, the right of assembly and
freedom of association underwent serious changes, in contrast to the broad
freedom that characterized the previous constitutional rule of President Lidya
Gueiler Tehada. As will be seen
below, these rights have in practice been suspended in Bolivia today, as regards
the trade union sectors.
As the Military Government proceeded to “pacify” and control the
civilian population and organized labor, it adopted a number of Supreme Decrees
suspending the freedom of assembly and association upheld in the Constitution
and a number of international agreements.
These measures included:
Decree No. 17531, issued four days after the take over of power, Article
One of which declares: “that the
trade union leadership and the employers and professional associations of active
workers, with the exception of the auto transportation workers, whose trade
union activities were conducted outside any political activity and who resisted
the extremist dictatorship, are in recess”4
Article two of the aforementioned decree stipulates that “the corresponding entities shall establish, in the shortest time possible, the procedure and bases for reorganizing the new trade union leadership at all levels, with the participation of workers who have a record of good trade union behavior.”
Finally, Article three obliges former trade union leaders to render accounts to the corresponding agencies of their organization’s income as long as the reorganization called for in the preceding article is in process.
ii. On August 4,
1980, Ministerial Resolution No. 452 ordered the freezing, as of that date, of
all bank accounts belong to trade union organizations, for the purpose of
preserving their economic interests.
On August 12, the Government enacted Supreme Decree No. 17545, which
established a transitional rule to regulate employer-employee relations: each
workplace had to propose a slate of candidates for the post of “Labor
Liaison,” who would be selected by the Ministry of Labor and Labor
Development. In order to be chosen,
the worker must, among other requirements, never at any time have been a trade
union representative. This union official represents the workers before the
employer entities, he administers and organizes labor funds, and renders
accounts to the competent authority on the financial and administrative
new trade union representative, who, according to this decree, is chosen by the
government itself and is made responsible for labor funds, cannot, in the
Commission’s opinion replace the free trade union organization, which also
means the freedom to affiliate to any labor organization of the worker’s
Another decree that affects the employer-union balance is No. 17536
which, after July 30, 1980. instituted what is known as the “Patriotic Service
to the State.” Article 2 of that decree provides that “No citizen whose
services are requested under the present Decree-Law may be excused from service,
under penalty of law and in defiance of orders given by the Supreme
3 stipulates that citizens who have to perform the duties specified in the
decree shall be declared to be maintaining their original jobs.
practice, this decree is a de facto denial of the right to strike, since the
worker is compelled, under penalty of law, to comply with the requirements of
As part of the reorganization of the Judiciary proposed by the Military
Government, it promulgated Decree No. 17840 on December 3, 1980.
This Decree reorganized the Labor Courts, appointing seven judges to the
National Labor and Social Security Court and the Labor Judges of the various
districts of the country.
It should be noted that in its Decree No. 17604 of September 12, 1980,
the Supreme Government ordered construction of a building consisting of a
parking garage and social center for workers, on the site of the old
headquarters of the Bolivian Workers’ Federation (COB).
Since publication of this Decree, the COB union headquarters have been
torn down to begin the new construction.
From the very moment the present regime took power, it has been the
Government’s desire, as stated in the proclamation on the participation of the
Armed Forces in the process of National Reconstruction, to issue new laws for
the trade union and labor sectors, in order to normalize their activities. This required de-certification of existing entities,
including political organizations, and the appointment of new trade union
leaders controlled and oriented by the Government.
The Government has stated that the justification for and the origin of
these measures, which in its opinion are temporary in nature, lie in the fact
that the trade union representatives had moved away from the true objectives of
trade union representation, and had manipulated the country’s social policies
in a demagogic fashion. This had
made it necessary to uproot once and for all the influence exercised by those
who had placed the union leadership in the service of foreign, anti-national
The legal framework described above puts severe limits on the
constitutional guidelines on the right of assembly and association, and ignores
international regulations on the matter, thus making it difficult to attain the
basic objectives that have been states and restated by the Military Government.
The Position of the Trade Unions during the Events on July 17, 1980
Trade Unionism and the Military Coup
1. Ever since the events of 1952 and what is known as the National Revolution, Bolivian trade unions have gained very great socio-economic importance, despite the periods when they were temporarily suppressed or controlled by different governments.
The miners unions are considered to be the most militant and insistent on
demanding better working conditions compatible with elemental principles of
According to information and testimony received by the Commission, the
workers in the largest tin and other mines, such as the Siglo CC, Miraflores,
Caracoles in Oruro, Huanuni, Viloco, Calguisi, Corocoro and Catavi, were the
first targets of the military repression. For
several weeks after the coup, there were violent confrontations between the
military forces and the miners in their various hometowns.
The army even used high-powered weapons in the battles, and bombed a
number of centers with small aircraft and helicopters.
Other tactics included control of transportation and communications,
which effectively prevented food from reaching the miners and their families.
The headquarters and regional offices of the most powerful trade union,
the Bolivian Workers Federation (COB) were subject to a military attack at the
beginning of the hostilities; this clearly indicates that from the beginning,
the trade union organizations were attacked by the new government authorities as
the most threatening centers of resistance.
Previous chapters have told in more detail of the events surrounding the
attacks, detentions, torture, and in some cases, murder of labor leaders.7
After the COB headquarters was taken by force of arms and its leaders
jailed, most of the various industrial, teachers, journalists and peasant unions
were attacked in an attempt to completely dismantle the labor movement.8
b. International Organizations and the Trade Union
Situation in Bolivia
6. The position of trade unions in Bolivia after the coup d’etat caused particular concern internationally, and has been the subject of continuing analysis by, among other bodies, the International Labour Organization. In 1980, two representatives of the Committee on Freedom of Association visited the country with the prior consent of the Government, and talked with government authorities. After examining the Bolivian situation, the ILO Committee, at is 215th Session held on March 3-6, 1981, voiced its concern over the seriousness of the charges that it was continuing to receive about the death and detention of trade union leaders. It noted that the trade union movement can be free and independent only where fundamental human rights are respected. The Committee appealed to Bolivia rapidly to restore freedom of association, and to report to it on any new legislation issued by the Government, which it was confident would be compatible with ILO conventions 87 and 98, ratified by the State of Bolivia.
A worrying incident that occurred in September 1980 had to do precisely
with the visit to Bolivia of an international humanitarian mission, consisting
of five representatives of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
(ICFTU), and its branch, the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers (ORIT).
On September 20, the group, made up of nationals of a number of European
and Latin American countries, was awakened in its hotel and detained by
authorities from the Ministry of the Interior.
Two of them were released within 24 hours; the other three remained in
detention for a week, and were subsequently deported from their country.
The international delegates, who entered the country with their visas in
order, accused government agents of having stolen $25,000, which was intended to
assist the families of imprisoned trade unionists. During their detention, the members of the mission were
threatened and in at least one case, subjected to unlawful force.
Alberto Moncada, A Colombian citizen, was severely beaten by the Security
Police. Another member of the
mission, Ulf Asp of Sweden was a witness to these events.
Asp says that after Moncada was mistreated, he was unable to talk, could
not sit down, and was bleeding. Another
member of the ICFTU – ORIT team, the Italian Enzo Friso, had all his
Another mission that visited Bolivia between September 30 and October 3,
1980, including representatives of the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) and
the Latin American Workers’ Federation (CLAT), was detained on arrival at the
airport. The members were taken to the Ministry of the Interior
Offices, and were later allowed to go to their hotels.
The interviews they requested with Huan Lechín, Father Tumiri and other
jailed trade union leaders were denied.
All the organizations working internationally to guarantee trade union
freedoms have pointed out that present conditions do not allow for full
enjoyment of the rights of association and assembly, and that any expression of
opposition is considered to be extremist and dissident, and that those making
such statements are immediately subject to reprisals by the authorities.
The Church and the Trade Unions
10. From the very first moments of the coup d’etat, the bishops have stated their strong disagreement with the acts perpetrated by the military forces.
July 18, one day after the coup, the Archbishop of La Paz, Jorge Manrique,
condemned the violence committed by the Military Junta against the people of
Bolivia, and demanded the release of the recently-detained political prisoners.
He also protested over the use of ambulances by the Security Forces to
camouflage their military missions trying to give a humanitarian image to their
July 25, the Bishops of Bolivia issued a declaration in which they backed
Monsignor Manrique, and stated their concern over the use of non-uniformed
paramilitary forces to keep down the civilian sectors.
The bishops invoked the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and
appealed to the Government to return the country to constitutional rule.
his homily of August 6, 1980, the Archbishop of La Paz referred to the
persecution that was under way, in the following terms:
Sin is everywhere in our present situation. This sin has its roots in the hearts and minds of people and penetrates into the very fabric of public life and society’s decision-making levels. There are old sins deeply rooted in the past and now institutionalized at every level for causing the death, suffering and sadness of the victims–not only individuals but entire social groups–particularly the poor, the peasants, the miners, the underprivileged. It is an extremely grave sin to kill, to apply physical and psychological torture, to terrorize by a display of armed force, to detain and imprison, without trial, people who are the sons of God and our own brothers. It is a very serious sin to silence the voice and take away the hope of an entire free and sovereign people who are called to be the people of God.
Speaking of the repression of many sectors of the civilian population, including trade union leaders and workers, the Episcopal Conference of Bolivia said in its collective Pastoral Letter of September 8, 1980, which was entitled “Dignity and Freedom”: During recent weeks, we have learned with sadness of the violent death of citizens, imprisonment and physical and psychological torture, attacks and theft, destruction of radio and other property, persecution and threat against innocent people, massive layoffs of workers and employees, the denial of safe conduct for persons in asylum in diplomatic missions, confinements, deportations and other abuses …”(p.5).
bishops also denounced other abuses committed by the Government against many
workers, including some public-sector workers:
dismissal of many public employees, without administrative due process, places
numerous families in a difficult situation, leaving them without the social
benefits established in the General Labor Law (p. 6).
same document issued by the bishops of Bolivia in Cochabamba analyzes the
relationship between various ideologies and the church, and declared that “an
ideology will be legitimate if the interests that it defends are legitimate, and
if it respects the fundamental rights of other national groups” (p. 15).
Among a number of basic rights reaffirmed by the Episcopal bishops in
their letter, we should note their insistence, in their own words, on the
following social rights:
proclaim the right of assembly and association; we proclaim the right to work,
to job security and to free trade unions (p. 19)9
11. Apart from the various statements by the bishops, the clergy in general have taken specific action to attempt to alleviate to some extent the suffering of the victims of repression, particularly the imprisoned workers and their families.
Office of the Archbishopric of La Paz create a special bureau to deal with the
families of individuals detained, attempting to find information on the fate of
their relatives. A commission was
established to visit political prisoners. It
consisted of Monsignor Alejandro Mestre, Auxiliary Bishop of Sucre and Secretary
General of the Episcopal Council of Bolivia; Monsignor Julio Terrazas, Auxiliary
Bishop of La Paz, Father Jaime and Father Nino Mazoli.
However the regime did everything possible to hinder the Commission’s work, and only Father Mazoli was given permission to visit the hundreds of people detained in various places throughout the country. He was not allowed to take notes during his visits, which made it practically impossible for him to remember the names and details of the prisoners.
The Present Trade Union Situation
12. One of the evident purposes resulting from the coup d’etat of July 17 was to liquidate existing trade union organizations. Despite efforts made in that direction, the trade union movement continued to show significant vigor, considering the obstacles placed in its way. Proof of this lies in the various work stoppages that have been called and led by labor leaders from the underground, in order to demand their rights.
For example, on November 3 and 4, 1980, the miners of Catavi and Siglo XX
began a forty-eight hour strike to protest the deaths of workers in Huanuni.
Five labor leaders were then detained:
Gilberto Bernal, Mario Cussi, Hilarión Guitérrez, Florencio Ortuño and
in January 1981, the Executive Committee of the Bolivian Workers Federation
(COB) staged a forty-eight hour strike as a protect against eh so-called
government “economic package.”10
other things, the trade union members were demanding release of their imprisoned
leaders and the return of their radio stations, a question that will be dealt
with further on in the present report. The strike was partially successful, since large numbers of
workers failed to report to work. For
its part, the Government accepted none of the demands of the COB.
As a result of the strike, at least five union leaders were detained in
the Vinto (Cochabamba) area, including Bernabé Quiroz, an old labor leader.
Another factor of concern to the Commission is the information received
that there has been a massive firing of workers, because of alleged
political-trade union reasons; that wages have not been fully paid and that
overtime at the pit from has been reduced.
is alleged that 300 workers have been laid off in the industrial sector, and
that in other sectors, such as the railroads, almost 1,500 people have been
dismissed. This, of course
seriously affects the income of these family groups, which are low income and
need wages for their daily sustenance.
On March 12, 1981, the Bolivian Workers Federation wrote an open letter
to the Episcopal Conference of Bolivia. Because of its importance, the
Commission wishes to include the ideas set forth in that letter in the present
Bolivia’s workers have found in the collective pastoral letters of the church a constant reaffirmation of the action by our national majorities to restore in our country the human rights and social justice that are now being violated by the de facto Government.
identity of purpose as to the basic requirements governing public life makes it
essential that there be a dialogue between the church and the entity that
represents Bolivian workers in order to make a clear statement of the position
of the democratic sectors regarding repeated official affirmations of a possible
COB understands that at the next Episcopal Conference, there will be a positive
attitude toward resuming a campaign on behalf of human rights, including trade
union freedoms in the country; we admire this and are most grateful for it,
because it enables us to propose what in our opinion are the conditions that
would give sufficient proof of the sincerity of any hypothetical desire for an
Ever since the de facto government usurped the popular will, the economic
crisis has been getting constantly worse, with is full weight falling on the
wage-earning classes. Far from
taking positive action in this crisis, the de facto government has reacted
negatively. In these conditions,
the economic package has caused a general rise in the cost of living that fall
mainly on the working class. It is
therefore necessary to give a salary increase that will take into account the
lowest income sectors, to restore the real value of their wages and as a result,
bring them back into the national economy.
We do not believe that it will be possible to normalize the most
elemental employment relationships or to achieve participation and consensus by
the working class in development of the national economy unless there is a total
respect for all trade union freedoms. As
a result, we believe that restoration of these rights is a pre-condition for any
other measure of a political, economic, or social nature.
Only through full exercise of trade union freedoms can unsolved
social problems and unheeded needs be taken care of.
Observance of trade union freedoms means firstly that we the workers
are entitled to democratic election of our leaders.
Only thus can the lines of authority in the trades unions be
reestablished as a serious, conscientious and responsible channel for the
aspirations of the rank-and-file. We
therefore reject any appointment of “Labor Liaisons” as being in violation
of the free exercise of democracy by the workers.
In the opinion of the Bolivian Workers Federation, it would be difficult
to organize an election of trade union leaders to represent their rank-and-file
if the de facto government keeps hundreds of them in exile, detention or
internal exile. We therefore
believe that only a general amnesty can help any process designed to
bring the country back to democracy.
Moreover, the arbitrariness of the government has prevented all trade
union organizations from using their union headquarters.
As a result, we are obliged to demand return of these headquarters to
the various trade unions, since they were purchased with funds collected
from the membership and are part of their property; they were not obtained
through any grant from the state or from private sources.
Without freedom of opinion, and therefore without freedom of the press,
no institutional process can take place. The
current monologue must be replaced with a dialogue among all sectors of the
nation’s community. Democracy
rests on information and exchange of opinions; only under these conditions can
all citizens be responsible for decision-making.
Return to the trade union organizations of the radio stations they own
is also an essential precondition at this time of the announced institutional
On that tragic January 15, eight public opinion leaders lost their lives,
including Artemio Camargo Crespo, a leader of the FSTMB.
We believe that the humanitarian and Christian thing to do to console his
relatives is to determine the responsibility for all that happened and to
explain it fully.
of the measures proposed here grows out of the most elemental principles of
social justice. None of them can be
side-stepped without violating the basic principles of the dignity of work and
human life. Anything else would
be to attempt to institutionalize a de facto government, and would not be a
process of opening up to democracy. Implementation
of these measures cannot therefore be partial, limited or restricted because
that would only result in postponing the foals of democratic coexistence that
Bolivians seek, and would accentuate the antagonism that the violence has been
unjustly and unnecessarily engendering in Bolivian families.
behalf of the workers of Bolivia, we therefore repeat our thanks and our
EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE COB
16. At the end of March 1980, the Ministry of the Interior issued bulletins broadcast over the communications media recalling that government decrees had ordered suspension of political parties and similar organizations, and warned public opinion that any action disturbing peace and order would be drastically penalized. Similar declaration from the Minister of Labor indicated that free trade union life would continue to be in abeyance because the conditions were not ripe for it to be opened up.
American Convention on Human Rights.
Article 15. Right of Assembly.
The right of peaceful assembly, without arms, is recognized.
No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other
than those imposed in conformity with the law and necessary in a democratic
society in the interest of national security, public safety or public order,
or to protect public health or morals or the rights or freedoms of others.
Article 16. Freedom
of Association. 1.
Everyone has the right to associate freely for ideological,
religious, political, economic, labor, social, cultural, sports or other
The exercise of this right shall be subject only to such restrictions
established by law as may be necessary in a democratic society, in the
interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect
public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.
3. The provisions of
this article do not bar the imposition of legal restrictions including even
deprivation of the exercise of the right of association, on members of the
armed forces and the police.
2. Article 157 of the Constitution.
3. Article 158 of the Constitution.
4. At its 214th session held in Geneva on November 18-21, 1980,
after examining case 983 on Bolivia, the Committee on Freedom of Association
of the International Labour Organization (ILO) indicated that under Article
4 of Convention 87, which has been ratified by Bolivia, trade union
organizations, shall not be liable to be dissolved by administrative
5. Preamble to decree 17531.
Estimates are that sales of minerals, particularly tin, represent
approximately 78% of Bolivia’s international exchange (World Bank).
It should be noted that a Bolivian miner receives a wage of about
US$2.00 a day, and that his life expectancy is on average 35 years.
By way of example, we will give below a list of the trade union
leaders who were victims of the repression, who were detained and in most
cases, subsequently set free. Juan Lechín Oquendo; Simón Reyes Rivera;
Liber Foret; Corcino Pereyra; Noel Vásquez; Vladimir Ariscurinada; Luis López
Altamirano; Victor Sosa; Max Toro; Luis Pozo; Oscar Sanjinez; Henry Aguilar;
Porfirio Rodríguez; Omar Rendón; Alfonso Landivan; Víctor Lima; Filomen
Escobar; Severo Torres; Diego Morales Barrera; Juan Chargas; Francisco
Choque Huanca; Raúl Coronel Soto; Pablo Rocha; Ascencio Cruz; Germán Gutiérrez
Ricaldi; Félix Casorlla; Gregorio Andrade; Casiano Amurrio; and Félix
In addition to the abovementioned detentions, an as yet undetermined
number of trade union leaders and workers were allegedly killed by
Government forces, as stated in the Chapter on the Right to Life.
These include Gualberto Vega; Artemio Camargo Crespo; Marcelo Quiroga
Santa Cruz and Gonzalo Barón. It
is also alleged that a significant number of workers and leaders have
disappeared, and that no one knows of their whereabouts.
We mention the following by way of example:
Rene Sánchez; Jorge Durán and Pedro Inca.
The repression by the Government Junta has also reached their legal
representatives. A number of
attorneys were detained in the days following the coup.
We need only mention the name of one of them, Dr. Anibal Peñarrieta,
who was legal adviser to the COB and a well-known defender of human rights.
The Collective Pastoral Letter to which reference is made was signed
by the following ecclesiastical authorities:
Cardinal José Clemente Maurer, Archbishop of Sucre and Honorary
President of the CEB (Episcopal Council of Bolivia); Monsignor Luis Rodríguez,
Archbishop of Santa Cruz and President of CEB; Monsignor René Fernández,
Bishop of Oruro and Vice President of the CEB; Monisgnor Alejandro Mestre,
Auxiliary Bishop of Sucre and Secretary General of the CEB; Monsignor Jorge
Manrique, Archbishop of La Paz and Officer of the CEB; Bonifacio
Maderbascher, Apolostic Vicar of Reyes and Officer of the CEB; Monsignor
Bernardo Fey, Bishop of Potosí; Monsignor Abel Costas, Bishop of Tarija;
Monsignor Tomás Manning, Bishop, Prelate of Corico; Monsignor Jacinto
Eccher, Bishop, Prelate of Corocoro; Monsignor Carlos Anasagasti, Apostolic
Vicar of Beni; Monsignor Eduardo Boesl, Apostolic Vicar of Ñuflo de Chavez;
Juan D. Pellegrini, Apolostic Vicar of Cuevo; Monsignor Carlos Brown,
Auxiliary Bishop of Santa Cruz; Monsignor Genaro Prata, Auxiliary Bishop of
La Paz; Monsignor Bernardo
Schierhoff, Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz; Monsignor Adhemar Esquivel,
Auxiliary Bishop of La Paz; Monsignor Julio Terrazas, Auxiliary Bishop of La
Paz; Monsignor Armando Gutiérrez, Archbishop; Monsignor Tomás Mc.Bride,
Apostolic Administrator of Pando, and Monsignor Walter Rosales, Capitular
Vicar of Cochabamba.
Some of the measures included a price rise on basic necessities:
bread rose by 100%, kerosene by 300%, gasoline by 150%; in addition,
some state subsidies were eliminated from products such as rice, sugar,
flour and oil, which also meant a rise in the price of those items.