After Domitila Chungara died in Cochabamba on March 13 of this year, three days of national mourning were decreed, honoring her heroic life of struggle on behalf of the working class and of women. Married to a miner, she organized other women in mining communities to struggle for justice and for better conditions of life. She was jailed, tortured, and driven into exile; she is most famous for joining four other women in leading a hunger strike that began in 1977 and finally brought down the Banzer dictatorship in 1978. Her autobiography, Let Me Speak!: Testimony of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines, was translated and published in English by Monthly Review Press in 1978 (See a review of this book by Ben Dangl).
A mutual friend introduced us to Domitila on January 28 of this year, and we recorded this interview in the kitchen of the house in Cochabamba where she lived with her family. Later we learned that it was the last interview of her life.
Sharyl Green: We know about your courage and your reputation, not only in the [hunger] strike [of 1977-78 that led to the fall of the Banzer dictatorship] but throughout your life, that you have been a heroine. It took a lot of courage to do such things. How did you lose your fear when you had to act? You must have been afraid, right? But how did you overcome your fear and continue to struggle?
Domitila Chungara: That's a good question! What gave us the most strength was that we were not alone. The people, compañeros and compañeras, were at our side when the police persecuted us. People hid us in their houses, and when the children were left alone [while we were in prison], they took them in and fed them. It is solidarity. It is important that there was solidarity in the mines. Here [in Cochabamba] you don't see it so much.
SG: But nevertheless at a personal level you also were afraid at the moment, weren't you?
DC: Of course. There was much fear in my life. There were times that I had doubts, but then I thought that we were doing what was right, no?
SG: First you felt that yourself, then afterwards you shared that feeling to inspire others as well.
DC: Yes, if you are also going to be a leader, you have an obligation to carry on. I think I got that from my father. My father went off to the revolution of 1952. My mother had died and we were alone. Then he had to decide to join the struggle. We were four sisters and there was no mother, and my father had gone away to fight. Years later I asked him, "Why did you leave us alone at that time?" He answered that he was a leader and he was committed to that. There are two things that he said, "First, it made me sad that if I died you would be left with nothing, but also, I had to struggle for your future."
SG: Given your dedicated experience, what do you think about young people today? First, how are young people in general - do they have the same courage that your generation had, and also do you see any difference between young women and young men. So, young people in general and second women...what is the difference?
DC: Well, in the past it was not easy for women to participate; women participating was prohibited. But now the political process provides for more inclusion of women, including the provision that women have 30% of the power. [Voting in Bolivia is for a party list. 30% of each list must be women. In practice, women tend to be lower down on the lists, so not so many are actually elected.--SG+PL] Previously, in the universities and high schools, young people were oriented toward being at the side of the people and struggling together with the people. But not now. Before, when we were in the mines the university invited us to give workshops, and the rooms would be full and nobody would move until the conversation was over. But now...That was in the 1970's and 80's.
SG: So there is not much education about, for example, your time?
DC: Yes, that's true. Recently I was invited to the university. In the past when I was invited they would know to play or sing protest songs. When I came in they were playing protestant hymns! So I said to them, when they finished playing and indicated that I should sit down, I said to them, "Excuse me, but it seems that I am mistaken. I was invited to the university but it seems that I have come to a protestant church." [laughs]
SG: Which university was that?
DC: Here, at the National University. Earlier, last year I think, or the year before, they also invited me. We were having a nice discussion, there were a lot of people, about one hundred. Suddenly a band started playing, and they left. They said, "We have to go to rehearsal because we are dance students and we have to practice, so please excuse us."
SG: And do you see any difference between young women and young men?
DC: Yes, women by their nature are more responsible. We used to see that in school; in school there were male teachers who would come in on Monday with alcohol on their breath, but we would never see a female teacher who would come in like that.
SG: Nowadays when you are invited to the university do the students who attend ask good questions?
DC: Some, yes.
Peter Lackowski: Changing the subject a little, what is your impression of the current government?
DC: [Laughs] Well, for me at least, it has not fulfilled my expectations.
DC: Can you give some examples, in one sector or another?
DC: You know I come from the mines, my father was a miner. The current government has not taken into account the former mine workers. For example, they talk about 500 years of resistance, and they talk about how ten years ago they have organized themselves and now they are in power, but they have forgotten those who struggled in the last century.
Furthermore, they show favor to the [private mining] cooperatives, members of cooperatives are everywhere in parliament, but they have forgotten us [the unionized miners.] Now they have said that they are going to nationalize all the enterprises that are in the hands of foreigners, but they have done nothing. The foreigners continue to operate in obedience to their separate economy.
PL: How is this process going to change, are there alternatives, is there an alternative vision, are there any movements that give you hope?
DC: Yes, in the last congress of the miners' federation, the federation from before, their analysis was that what they [the MAS government] are proclaiming to be socialism is not really socialism, that it is not doing what the people want. They are going to create another political instrument that will be at the head of the miners' movement.
[At this point Domitila was coughing more frequently and she was clearly tired, so we thanked her and ended the interview.]