Bolivian Women Hunger Strikers: Nellie Paniagua, Angélica Flores, Aurora Lora & Luzmila Pimentel

I was in Bolivia shortly after the election of Evo Morales, who describes himself as the first Amerindian president of a South American country. This was as profound a historical moment for Bolivia as the election of Barack Obama was for us in the U.S. Morales wouldn’t have been elected without the movement of pride and courage ignited by hunger-striking Bolivian women. I saw the continued marginalization of the indigenous women, but I also saw them bursting through again and again to express their desires and even their demands for justice.
Daniel Buttry

Four Indigenous Women Mobilize the Bolivian People

When a people discovers its own force and its own truth, it is able to forge its own history.
Permanent Assembly for Human Rights

Context & Background

Bolivia has been the poorest country in South America, and Bolivian tin miners have been among the most oppressed in that long-suffering land. A string of military dictatorships had ruled the land, including a seven-year reign by General Hugo Banzer in the 1970s. The tin mines were the focus of struggles for justice, both because of the hardship and poverty endured by the miners and their families, and because of the potential for labor organizing in the mines. The government and mining companies responded to the miners’ hopes for justice with troops, arrests, firings and other forms of repression.

Human Rights Abuses

Then, in late 1977, four Aymara Indian women—wives of miners—engaged in a nonviolent action that mobilized the Bolivian people and forced a military dictator to accede to their demands. For seven years, Banzer had ruled Bolivia for the benefit of the wealthy, freely using arrest, exile, torture and even disappearance to maintain his firm hand. The general suspended all unions and political parties. In 1977, he was feeling international pressure about his human rights abuses, so he announced an amnesty. The move was a farce, because only 14 of the country’s 348 imprisoned or exiled political dissidents were covered by the amnesty. The husbands of Nellie Paniagua and Angélica Flores had been arrested and fired. Aurora Lora’s husband was in hiding while Luzmila Pimentel’s husband was in jail for his union activities. Banzer’s amnesty did not include their husbands, so in desperation, they decided to act.

A traditional Aymara ceremony in Copacabana, on the border of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.

A traditional Aymara ceremony in Copacabana, on the border of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.
Kilobug/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Aymara Women Organize a Hunger Strike

The women launched a hunger strike. They traveled from the mining district to La Paz, the Bolivian capital. There they met with the Catholic Archbishop Jorge Manrique, who was respected by the common people and also was part Aymara. Their idea for a hunger strike had the blessing of the archbishop who even offered his own residence as a site, which provided high visibility for the action due to its short distance from the presidential palace.

Inspiration

They began the strike with readings from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of St. Matthew. This was selected because the women knew that Martin Luther King, Jr. drew most of his inspiration from this text. But another biblical story led them in a more controversial direction. The story of King Herod massacring the innocent children prompted the women to invite their children to share in the hunger strike. The women presented four demands related to their strike: amnesty for political prisoners and exiles; restoration of jobs to the workers who had been fired for union organizing; reinstatement of labor unions; and the removal of the Bolivian army from the mines.

Acting as a Catalyst

Eventually, they won. At that time, it appeared the toppling of the Banzer regime would usher in a new era of justice and democracy. As it turned out, a cycle of coups, dictatorships and death squads continued to send waves of bloodshed across Bolivia. But these courageous women proved the catalytic power of personal action. More hunger strikes would follow. Their original action energized mass movements across Bolivia in a way nothing had before.

It was the women who did this…

In a celebration mass after the strike, one woman said, I want all of you to realize that it was the women who did this, and that we are good for something more than cooking, cleaning and looking after children. The action of the four women also proved the political potential of long-oppressed groups like laborers and indigenous people. Evo Morales was an Aymara teenager when these courageous women carried out their hunger strike. In 1982, democratically elected, civilian government finally came to power

The First Indigenous Bolivian Elected President

Evo Morales, first indigenous president of Bolivia

Evo Morales, first indigenous president of Bolivia
Joel Alvarez/CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Then in 2006, Evo Morales became the first indigenous Bolivian ever elected president. Capturing the power of that first Bolivian hunger strike, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights said, When a people discovers its own force and its own truth, it is able to forge its own history.

See Also

Related Interfaith Peacemakers Profiles

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