Leaders of a local miners' union are protesting the recent military takeover of the government by leading a strike from the bottom of a 1,400-foot shaft.
The men have been living at the bottom of the shaft since the three-man junta seized power two weeks ago. They sleep on blankets laid over rocks and in crevices.
"We will not go to work for this government that has taken away our democracy," one of the miners said.
"This mine will not operate until the union leaders are released and the persecution ends."
Some of the miners wear sticks of dynamite like bandoliers, but they say their resistance is "passive."
"Our weapon is an economic one," a union member said during an interview at the bottom of the shaft. "And we hope for support from your country and others."
Mining unions throughout the country have been leading the resistance to the military junta, which busted civilian president Lidia Gueiler July 17.
The United States had strongly supported Gueiler.
Army troops are trying to break the miners' resistance by sealing off areas such as Huanumi, Siglo and Catavi, and attempting to starve miners and their families into submission.
Reports from clandestine radio stations say jet fighters have attacked some mining villages.
Troops reportedly killed more than 20 persons in Huanuni, a major mining center about 120 miles south of La Paz.
Most were women and children killed by soldiers who "shot their automatic weapons into the houses," according to a miners' union leader in Oruro, a mining town south o La Paz.
Union leaders say one soldier was executed by his commanding officer when he refused to fire on the miners.
Miners leading the Oruro strike feel the mining unions can exert significant economic pressure on the military government.
Minerals, especially tin, account for 70 percent of Bolivia's export earnings. The country's economy is already staggering under a $3.1 billion foreign debt Union leaders believe that if the miners continue their strike, the economy could collapse.
In La Paz, the government-controlled media are reporting that the country's miners have given up the fight, and that the strikes occuring now are not having a significant impact on the country.
But the striking miners here tell a different story. The cramped rows of plastered adobe houses are sprayed with political slogans revealing the vigorous political debate that took place here during the national elections.
The rusting ore wagons loaded with rock are standing empty at the entrance to the mine, which is usually worked by 200 men.
The miners' unions historically have been in the forefront of democratic political movements in Bolivia.
Their living conditions indicate some of the reasons why. The miners earn less than $2 a day, and their life expectancy is 35 years.
"We produce the country's wealth, but we get paid less than a messenger for the mayor," said a union leader who has worked underground for 30 years. He makes a base pay of $1.60 a day. He takes home approximately $90 a month, including bonuses.
Bolivia has the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy of any Latin American nation.
"Our hospitals don't have medicines. The teachers in our schools aren't well prepared," one union leaders said. "Instead of knocking on the door to the university, our sons knock on the door of their fathers' job in the mines.
During the past 30 years, miners have actively supported attempts at civilian government in Bolivia.
Tin miners led the fight against the Army in the country's 1952 revolution, which, along with those in Mexico and Cuba, is considered one of the most significant in Latin America. Indians and women were given the right to vote, most of the country's resources were nationalized and many of the largest estates were broken up.
Last November, when another right-wing Army officer deposed a civilian government, tin miners refused to work -- even after Bolivia's powerful labor unions had lifted their general strike -- until the colonel left the presidential palace.
Although Bolivia's new military rulers say there is freedom of the press, the Army tried to prevent several journalists -- including myself -- from reaching Oruro.
The government had issued us "safe conduct passes," which are supposed to allow reporters to travel freely.
But the passes are almost useless on the desolate road to Huanuni and other mining centers, where Indians tending their small Ilama herds seem perplexed by the Army encampment that blocks reporters and food from reaching the miners.
In a row of pup tents behind some sage, soldiers wrapped in heavy green wool uniforms cradled tin coffee cups in the bitter early morning cold. On the other side of the narrow road, a lookout post sat on top of the only hill.
The scene seemed unreal. Even te mud adobe bricks used as a roadblock were not enough to stop a vehicle. But the soldiers carry black Belgian-made automatic rifles, and when they motioned us to stop, we did. The safe conduct pass got a young officer to call the colonel, who emerged from behind a high mud adobe wall. He looked like a movie character -- pressed green camouflaged Jungle trousers, gray flight jacket over a white turtleneck sweater, sideburns, bone-handled knife.
We showed our pass. "Sorry he said smiling under his neatly trimmed moustache. "But this isn't valid here. This is a military zone."
Finally, he allowed us to pass. But when we had finished interviewing the miners and were leaving the area, we encountered more problems.
We had gone just a few blocks down the dusty road leading from the mine when a well-dressed young man hailed our cab. He got in and ordered the driver to go to the internal security office. We hid tape recordings and film in our socks and boots.
But we were soon moved to the Army headquarters nearby. A colonel with slicked back hair smiled and informed us that the minister who had issued the safe conduct passes "has no authority in my military zone."
We were searched, and our belongings were confiscated.
Two hours later, we were released. Officials refused to return tapes, film and my notebook.
When I pointed out that the junta had declared there was freedom of the press, a civilian official glared at me and snapped. "Yes, there is freedom of the press, but there is also censorship."
Then he drew a line across his throat with his hand and said, "There is a limit, you know."