Bolivia Menu Main Menu What's New Best of this Site Radio History Clandestine Radio


By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the June, 1994 issue of Monitoring Times magazine.


When I first spotted Radio Nacional Huanuni while walking up a dusty street in a rundown mining town, I knew there was something different about this station from the dozens of others I had visited. It was surrounded by a high fence topped with barbed wire, the building had thick fortress-like walls, and the antenna towers were on the building itself, not outside of town. Inside was even stranger. Although the offices were on the first floor, the studio, transmitters, and generator were in well-shielded corners in the basement. I asked the assistant director, who was giving me a tour, about this. He looked up and calmly replied, "We need to keep the station on the air while we are defending ourselves from the army. In 1980 we held out for three days."

In the unstable world of Latin American politics, nowhere more than Bolivia has the sudden coup and a new presidente been the rule of the day. Since obtaining independence from Spain in 1825, Bolivia has had nearly 200 governments - an average of one every nine months. Nearly two-thirds of Bolivia's people are Aymara or Quechua Indian. In colonial times those not working in the fields were forced into near slavery in the silver mines. An entire mountain of silver in Potosi made Spain the world's wealthiest nation in the 1500s, although the Indians that mined it gained nothing but hardship and death. By the late 1800s, the silver was gone, but the world had discovered the tin can, and Bolivia had the world's richest deposits of tin. The mineral was different, but the game was the same. A small elite class lived in luxury produced by miners with a lifespan of 30 years who worked twelve hours a day, lived in dirt-floored huts, and barely made enough to feed their families. In this harsh environment, half the children died before the age of two. Some said they were the lucky ones.

But this brutal life produced strong bonds among the miners. They knew they produced Bolivia's wealth and they knew they deserved better. Periodic strikes and rebellions were always bloodily crushed, but the miners never lost their spirit. Around 1946 some miners and teachers in the Siglo Viente mines began to fight back through clandestine radio. Using homemade equipment, "Radio Sucre" broadcast to the miners irregularly until discovered by the army and destroyed in 1949.


Before 1951, Bolivia had had few elections and in those, laws restricting the vote to those with education had effectively reserved power for the upper classes. However, this time Bolivia's small, growing middle class altered the equation by giving victory to Victor Paz and his reformist MNR party. But before Paz could take office, the military took over the government, annulled the elections, and outlawed the MNR.

This time the forces of change were stonger than anyone imagined. In April, 1952 urban workers and university students joined tin miners and Indian peasants under the MNR banner in a truly populist coup against the military. Early on, the MNR captured the government radio station, Radio Illimani, and turned the station into their communciations center. It was just two blocks from the focus of military resistance at the Presidential Palace, and a bloody street battle raged between the two sites and elsewhere in the city for three days before the army surrendered.

The new government went to work and new laws were enacted to protect workers, legalize trade unions, allow rural peasants to acquire land, and extend the vote to all adult citizens. To end political manipulations by the big mine owners, the mines were nationalized. Obtaining broadcasting licenses also became easier, and within a few months the new miners' union had started two stations, La Voz del Minero in Siglo Viente and nearby Radio 21 de Diciembre (commemorating a 1942 massacre of striking miners).

The Indians' strong oral traditions made radio a very effective means of communication, as the miners quickly realized. Each mining community and local union wanted its own station. In some towns, miners donated a day's pay each month towards equipment. Radio San Jose in Oruro raised money by collecting empty burlap sacks and jars for their deposits. By 1956, the miners had 19 stations averaging 220 watts. Some operated without a license until they got around to applying for one. Some never got around to it. Because the station staff were of the mines, there was a sense of oneness between station and audience not often found in broadcasting. The miners remained poor, but now they had strength and hope. As other unions, including the peasants' union and railroad workers' union, established their own stations, Bolivia became the only country in the world where small grass-roots unions were an important part of the broadcasting system.


The strong bonds of the miners and their well-organized unions and growing network of radio stations soon made them one of the most powerful political and economical forces in Bolivia. Although they represented less than ten percent of the work force the miners produced two-thirds of the country's export earnings. The miners worked with the government, but refused to become subserviant to it, causing the MNR to see them as a threat to its power.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church had decided that Latin America was about to fall to Communism, starting with Bolivia's mines. Several Canadian Oblate priests were sent to Siglo Veinte to save the people, and their main tool would be radio. With financial support from the Church and political support from the MNR, Radio Pio Doce (Pius XII) was founded in 1959 to eradicate "alcoholism, psychosis, and Communism". The most modern and professional station in Bolivia, its 2000 watt transmitter effectively covered most of the country. The miners' stations, especially cross-town La Voz del Minero, were the enemy and the priests went after them with a vengeance. For the next five years, the icy mountain air was heated by a viscious war of words between Pio Doce and the miners' network. A few miners, not content with words, put Pio Doce off the air briefly twice by dynamiting the antenna towers.

But the effect of Pio Doce was not totally bad. The competition forced the miners to improve their stations and previously amateurish broadcasting gave way to professional standards. The stations developed a programming formula still in effect today with a mix of news, folk music, education and information, and union messages. Local events including festivals and meetings were broadcast live. Either Spanish or Indian languages were used, depending on what was spoken in each community. Union dues covered most expenses with carefully selected advertising adding a bit extra.

Pio Doce was the impetus for the 1959 founding of Radio Nacional Huanuni, the first miners' station with professional imported equipment (from France). It became the pilot station of the Cadena Nacional Minera network as additional stations brought the network up to 28 stations. Actually, there has never been a formal network structure. Each station was independent, but the stations sometimes listened to and talked to one another on the air to exchange information. It wasn't efficient, but it promoted a deep unity among the stations, a unity that would be needed in the years ahead.


Corrupt with power, the MNR leadership gradually moved away from its populist roots and began to align with the old power structure by nominating General Rene Barrientos for vice president in 1963. When pressure was put on the miners' unions to endorse Barrientos, they refused. A few days later a small army unit attacked Radio Nacional Huanuni, briefly fighting the hastily assembled miners protecting the station. It was a small incident, but the first in a long string of violence against the miners' stations. The miners' reservations were justified when just weeks after the 1964 election, vice-president Barrientos mobilized the military and ousted the president and congress. Unlike the MNR, Barrientos would tolerate no dissent. The miners' stations were closed and some destroyed. Then he placed the mining communities under military occupation and slashed the miners' already low wages by forty percent.

The sudden repression by the Barrientos government, however, caused an unexpected political shift. The reality of how the miners lived and were treated had sunk in slowly to the priests at Radio Pio Doce. Communist subversion, they saw, was not the enemy here, but rather a brutal economic system that might make Communism the only hope for change. When Barrientos placed the mines under military rule, the priests made a 180 degree turn and became strong defenders of the miners and their rights, heavily criticizing the government. The miners' stations were closed, but this new voice took their place. The switch of Radio Pio Doce gave the miners renewed strength and hope just when it was needed most.

By 1967, the miners could take no more and strikes broke out across the country. When hundreds of miners and their families gathered outside the mines at Siglo Viente, the army marched in and opened fire, massacreing men, women, and children. The event was to have been covered up, but Radio Pio Doce went on the air detailing the massacre to the rest of the country, so the troops retaliated by destroying the station. But political pressure from the Catholic Church forced the government to allow Pio Doce to reopen, and funds from abroad poured in to rebuild it. The events in Siglo Viente had created a bond of blood between Radio Pio Doce and the miners, who now considered the station as one of their own.

The miners' fortunes changed in 1969 when Barrientos was killed in a helicopter crash. The next two years Boliva had two military presidents, but they were less authoritarian and allowed the miners' stations to reopen and rebuild. But the iron hand struck again on August 21, 1971 with a coup by General Hugo Banzer. Again, political dissent was strictly repressed and one of his first acts was to close the miners' stations (although a few were eventually allowed to reopen). But Banzer couldn't touch Pio Doce without alienating the Church, so it became an important voice for the miners' rights. Other religious stations such as Baptist La Cruz del Sur and Catholic Radio Fides in La Paz joined in supporting the miners. Some stations, such as these two, offered training programs to personnel from the miners' stations, making them more effective once they got back on the air. In an unusual move in 1974, the Banzer government distributed 5,000 TV sets in mining communities trying to get the miners to watch commercial TV instead of listening to the radio, but it never proved popular.

In 1978, after seven years of Banzer, four miners' wives began a hunger strike demanding the reopening of miners' radio stations and amnesty for miners arrested for political reasons. Within two weeks, two thousand more women joined the strike and it became a catalyst for more widespread opposition to the government. Embarrassed, Banzer was forced to call elections, but when his hand-picked successor was fraudulently declared the winner, Bolivia erupted into political chaos. For two years, coup followed coup, sometimes just weeks apart, as factions within the military jockeyed for power. But gradually a consensus emerged that Bolivia had to be returned to democratic rule. An interim civilian government under Bolivia's first woman president, Lydia Guelier, was formed, and elections scheduled for May, 1980. When Hernan Siles, a moderate politician from the old MNR won, everything seemed well on track for his August inauguration.


But not everyone wanted to see Siles take power. Many military officers were still opposed to civilian rule and Bolivia's cocaine lords were disturbed by Siles' promises to work more closely with the US DEA. Neighboring Argentina's military government wasn't happy about the example Bolivian democracy might make to the Argentine people. With advice from exiled Nazi Klaus Barbie ("the butcher of Lyon"), they planned and carried out one of the most systematic and ruthless coups in Latin American history.

On July 17, 1980, the coup began with a garrison uprising in a provincial capital. When the military in La Paz remained loyal, the congress and officials of Guelier's government met in the Presidential Palace to discuss a plan of action, just as coup leader General Luis Garcia had expected. The La Paz forces now moved in on the palace and easily arrested almost the entire civilian government in one move. Squadrons of soldiers and the cocaine lords' paramilitary units fanned out over La Paz and other major cities arresting all potential opposition leaders, including Catholic Church, union, civil, and university officials. Even international reporters were picked up to prevent them from filing stories. While most officials were simply locked up and tortured, a few were gunned down on the spot, such as the losing presidential candidate of the trade unions' party. President-elect Siles managed to stay in hiding and make his way safely out of the country.

Any coup requires control of the media and soldiers quickly occupied all the radio and TV stations in La Paz and other major cities. One station, however, had been marked for special treatment. Jesuit-owned Radio Fides had long been a thorn in the side of both the military and the drug lords for its strident commentaries criticizing their power. When drug smuggler Fernando "Mosca" Monroy lead a group of soldiers and paramilitary thugs to the station, they didn't bother to ask for a formal surrender. Instead, they opened up with machine-guns and a tank, demolishing the station and killing the announcer on duty, Luis Espinel.

Garcia now controlled the cities, but he hadn't gone after the miners yet. The miners' stations allowed the scattered mining towns to communicate with one another and gave hope to the rest of the country listening in. Renaming their network the Cadena de la Democracia, the miners called for Bolivians to defend democracy through a total and indefinate strike. Their stations became the center of resistance, and Garcia's declared that anyone caught listening would be jailed. But, some listened anyway ...

The troops are approximately five kilometers from Siete Suyos and very near Santa Ana ... therefore we are preparing to defend ourselves ... This is Radio Animas for all the south of the country. (O'Connor, p107)
... Women of Catavi, come to our station to defend it. We know very well that Radio 21 de Diciembre is part of our homes, part of our husbands' salaries ... We have to unite ourselves as never before. Come as fast as possible to defend our radio station. (Lozada & Kuncar, p203)
No one knows how many miners and their wives died fighting in the following days. The miners fought savagely, but the military was stronger. At least one station was bombed by the Air Force. Gradually the miners were conquered and their stations silenced. The last miners' station, Radio Viloco held out until August 6, 19 days after the coup. Even then resistance didn't end as the miners used dynamite to sabotage the military and stolen shortwave radiotelephone transmitters for irregular clandestine broadcasts in the five and seven MHz bands.

But Garcia hadn't won. The bloody coup followed by the drawn-out fight with the miners, which the international press had eagerly listened in on, had exposed Garcia's government as a gang of murderous thugs. Without international support, it couldn't survive. Much of the Bolivian military had remained neutral during the coup, and a year later they rose up and ousted Garcia. Bolivia was now ready for democracy and Hernan Siles finally became president.


Military might never truly silenced the miners, but economic realities are gradually taking their toll. By the mid-80s, outmoded technology and a decline in markets had made many of Bolivia's smaller mines unprofitable. To save money, the government shut down 17 mines and laid off 75 percent of the miners. Several miners' stations closed and others barely got by. In 1984, Radio Nacional Huanuni had just 880 dollars a month from union dues to pay 18 workers and operating costs. Radio Animas had only 150 dollars a month. On these budgets, no money was left to maintain equipment and buy replacement parts, so more stations left the air. Then in 1985, the bottom dropped out of Bolivia's economy and inflation skyrocketed to an unbelievable 30,000 percent. By 1988 only nine miners' stations were regularly on the air, with a few more making occasional broadcasts.

As mines closed, miners had to look elsewhere for work, and as they and their families moved to the cities or the booming farmlands of the north and east, local unions began to disintegrate and the miners movement began to weaken. Radio Pio Doce has tried, with some success, to keep the sense of group cohesiveness through special programs on shortwave to former miners throughout the country. But even for the miners who are left, times continue to be tough. In April, 1993 many were earning just $30 a month. To keep their network functioning, the miners put a priority on keeping three key stations on the air, Radio Animas in the south, Radio Nacional Huanuni in the center, and Radio Milluni in the north. Of course, Catholic Pio Doce will be there as well.

But perhaps we shouldn't write the orbituary to miners' radio in Bolivia just yet. Mining experts have recently discovered silver deposits outside Potosi missed by the Spanish that may be worth as much as six billion dollars. This could become the biggest mining operation in Bolivian history. And, of course, mines have miners, and, in Bolivia, miners have radio stations.


Kuncar, Gridvia & Fernando Lozada. Las Voces del Coraje. CHASQUI. April, 1984; 52-57.

Lozada, Fernando & Gridvia Kuncar. Bolivia: Las Radios Mineras 1986.

O'Connor, Alan. The Miners' Radio Stations in Bolivia. Journal of Communication. Winter, 1990; 102-110.

Additional Note:
Today August 6 (2000) in the local newspaper Los Tiempos, about the slow death of Radio Huanuni, 5964.8: times are changing; It was once one of the most important mining stations in Bolivia.

It has a debt of 8 kilobolivianos (US$ 1.288) on its electricity bill. Only 580 workers are contributing half the cost (14 bolivianos or US$ 2.25) for its operation and the salary for nine employees. Divisions between the same mining workers are a problem. The quixotic director, Rafael Lineo, does what he can. It goes on the air at certain times. The union plans to convert it to FM on the air all day, and put it on AM (SW) at 1000-1100 and 1600-1700 UT. The question is: why do they resist charging for the advertising they broadcast? (via Rogildo Fontenelle Arag´┐Żo, Cochabamba, Bolivia, radioescutas, translated by Glenn Hauser in DX LISTENING DIGEST 0-101, August 10, 2000).


This article is copyright 1994 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission.

This website is maintained by Don Moore,
Association of North American Radio Clubs
DXer of the Year for 1995

My Address Is In This Graphic