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A History of Bolivian Radio

By Michiel Schaay

(This article was originally published in the September 1980 issue of the Benelux DX Club and later republished in the December 1980 issue of Review of International Broadcasting. It appears here with permission of the author.)


Radio stations have played, and still are playing, an important role in Bolivia's modern history. This summer brought another violent coup d'etat and European newspapers almost daily told us that the local radio stations of this or that Bolivian city calling upon the people to resist the military forces. Press reports however, never tell you much about frequencies, station names and background. So I did some research on the subject and you are now about to read the resulting exclusive background article.

One of the most important groups of the Bolivian resistance are the miners. Digging for tin (Bolivia's most important source of income) in very dangerous circumstances, and most of them dying of silicose (dust lungs) before they reach the age of fourty, it is not a very pleasant life you can imagine. The region we are talking about is called the "Altiplano" and is situated at + 4000 in. above sea level. The South American Handbook writes about this area: "The Altiplano is a harsh, strange land, a grey solitude except for the bursts of green after rain. But rain comes seldom". Cold winds and duststorms dominate the scenery. So much for the "couleur locale". There are 4 radio stations operated by the miners. (Webmaster's note: Actually there were many more at the time this article was written.) In fact the funds for purchasing the transmitting equipment were raised between themselves. The stations are:

- LA VOZ DEL MINERO in Siglo Veinte frequency unknown
- RADIO 21 DE DICIEMBRE in Catavi operating on 6082 kHz in the 49
- RADIO LLALLAGUA in Llallagua on mediumwave 1580 kHz
- RADIO HUANUNI in Huanuni frequency unknown

A fifth involved station is RADIO PIO DOCE in Siglo Veinte, operated by the Roman Catholic fathers Oblates and transmitting on 1550 kHz mediumwave and 5955 kHz shortwave. This station is named after Pope Pius XII who called upon the priests to "fight communism" and gave the station a special task in this respect. Obviously its programmes were hostile to the before mentioned miners stations. But since the mid-seventies Radio Pio Doce has developed more into the direction of the miners.

The role of the miners stations is a very active one. Let's pick up history in 1963 when many trade union leaders were imprisoned and miners, in an utmost effort to accomplish the release of their compancros, took 4 foreigners hostage who were attending a meeting of the board of directors of COMIBOL, the mining company. Via Radio LA VOZ DEL MINERO women were asked to help guard the hostages. Later the station played an important role in the (peaceful) ending of this dramatic event. It also happens that the stations have mutual contact over the air (a kind of split frequency p-t-p operation), like LA VOZ DEL MINERO and RADIO HUANUNI during the bloody clashes between miners and army in the pampas of Sora-Sora in 1964, during the last weeks of the government of president Paz Estenssoro.

The existence of employees of the miners radio stations is often very insecure. In November 1964 press people of LA VOZ DEL MINERO were expelled to an exile in Argentina, just after general Barrientos had taken over power.

In 1967 the miners radio stations broadcasted a manifest of Che Guevara's guerillas, through which the miners first learned about the existence of a guerilla in the mountains. On the 24th of June 1967, St. John's night, during the yearly local festival, soldiers attacked the miners. LA VOZ DEL MINERO asked the miners over the air to help defending the station, while it was surrounded by the military. A trade union leader was shot dead, protecting a radio announcer of LA VOZ DEL MINERO.

One of the first things general Hugo Banzer did when he took over power from general Torres in August 1971, was to order the close down of the miners radio stations. But the measure wasn't a lasting success. Some months later, during a dispute over the food package for the miners, their wives had a discussion over the air via RADIO 21 DE DICIEMBRE with the president of the COMIBOL, who spoke over a company transmitter.

On a Saturday morning in January 1975, the army unexpectedly invaded the mining centre, occupied the radio stations and stole valuable folk records, radio receivers, historical tape recordings, etc. Also the transmitting equipment was dismantled. The miners went on strike, demanding their radio stations back. The miners' villages were surrounded by the military, but the strike threatened to spread over other parts of Bolivia. The government sent a commission to negotiate and finally the result was that the stations were returned to the miners on the 1st of May 1975, except for RADIO PIO DOCE, which stayed closed for several months. In 1976, during a congress in Corocuro, the miners demanded higher wages and better working conditions. In answer, on June the 4th, the government's armed forces attacked the miner villages by surprise, occupied the stations and destroyed the transmitters. Only the transmitter of LA VOZ DEL MINERO was not damaged, and the station was transformed into LA VOZ DE LAOS MILITARES (no translation needed ... ).

However, over the years the miners have always succeeded to retake their radio stations. This July another military coup d'etat was committed. Miners radio stations called for resistance against the new authorities and not in vain. Some other (private) stations didn't condemn the coup.

The l8th of July (one day after the coup) I received RADIO ABAROA (4719 kHz) from Riberalta in the northern Beni Department, with "informes de la junta", apparently not hostile to the new dictator. No special programme was received from RADIO MOVINIA (4467 khz) in Santa Ana de Yacuma. RADIO COMARAPA (4095 kHz) in the Santa Cruz Department also had a quite entertaining programme, not the type of broadcasting you expect on crucial moments. For these last two stations you could apply the saying: if you don't act against, you apparently are in favour (of the coup, in this case). RADIO EM. ALFONSO PADILLA (3480 kHz) in the southern Chuquisaca Department transmitted non-stop popular Bolivian folk music (could indicate a 'let's-wait-and-see-who's-gonna-win" attitude).

Some days later a Dutch broadcasting organisation (IKON) reported on television that all stations had been closed down, except one national station, which logically spoken would be RADIO NACIONAL DE BOLIVIA in La Paz (1390 and 4817 kHz.). Indeed I have not received any Bolivian stations since, so I believe the report to be correct. (Webmaster's Note: Actually, Radio Nacional de Bolivia is a privately owned station. The government broadcaster, which was not closed down, is Radio Illimani.)


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