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I Sweat the Flavor of Tin

Labor Activism in Early Twentieth-Century Bolivia

Robert L. Smale

Publication Year: 2010

On June 4, 1923, the Bolivian military turned a machine gun on striking miners in the northern Potosí town of Uncía. The incident is remembered as Bolivia’s first massacre of industrial workers. The violence in Uncía highlights a formative period in the development of a working class who would eventually challenge the oligarchic control of the nation. Robert L. Smale begins his study as Bolivia’s mining industry transitioned from silver to tin; specifically focusing on the region of Oruro and northern Potosí. The miners were part of a heterogeneous urban class alongside artisans, small merchants, and other laborers. Artisan mutual aid societies provided miners their first organizational models and the guidance to emancipate themselves from the mine owners’ political tutelage. During the 1910s both the Workers’ Labor Federation and the Socialist Party appeared in Oruro to spur more aggressive political action. In 1920 miners won a comprehensive contract that exceeded labor legislation debated in Congress in the years that followed. Relations between the working class and the government deteriorated soon after, leading to the 1923 massacre in Uncía. Smale ends his study with the onset of the Great Depression and premonitions of war with Paraguay—twin cataclysms that would discredit the old oligarchic order and open new horizons to the labor movement.This period’s developments marked the entry of workers and other marginalized groups into Bolivian politics and the acquisition of new freedoms and basic rights. These events prefigure the rise of Evo Morales—a union activist born in Oruro—in the early twenty-first century.

Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press

Series: Pitt Latin American Series

Front Cover

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I Sweat the Flavor of Tin

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

"I would like to acknowledge the following for their Wnancial support: the University of Missouri-Columbia Research Council; the Department of History, the Tereza Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, and the Graduate College, all at the University of Texas at Austin; the Tinker..."

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pp. 1-6

"June nights in the Bolivian Andes are clear and cold. In the mining town of Uncía, in the department of Potosí, the night of June 4, 1923, was bloody too, for on it Bolivian soldiers turned their rifles and a machine gun on a crowd of striking miners, killing workers and artisans assembled..."

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pp. 7-37

"Mining in twentieth-century Bolivia produced no greater magnate than Simón I. Patiño. From modest provincial beginnings Patiño became the country's richest man and one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. His initial success depended on the willingness of his earliest workers to..."

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Chapter 2

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pp. 38-60

"Bolivia's artisan and working classes exhibited growing political confidence during the twentieth century's early decades, as the blossoming of May Day celebrations clearly illustrates. In 1915 Oruro's Mutual Aid..."

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Chapter 3

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pp. 61-81

"Bolivia celebrates its independence on August 6. In 1916 Oruro's artisans planned to play an active role in the commemoration. A few days before the holiday, the Mutual Aid Society of Artisans, the May 1 Workers' Philharmonic, the Tunari Cooperative, and the Workers' Union of Bakers..."

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Chapter 4

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pp. 82-109

"On July 12, 1920, Republican Party militants and several military units rose in rebellion against the Liberal Party presidency of José Gutiérrez Guerra. The insurgent Republicans triumphed with little..."

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Chapter 5

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pp. 110-143

"On May 1, 1923, some five thousand workers and artisans from the most important mining towns in northern Potosí gathered on the soccer field of the provincial capital Uncía to organize a march celebrating Labor Day (i.e., May Day). At two in the afternoon, the workers began their..."

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Chapter 6

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pp. 144-165

"On April 7, 1924, Oruro prefect Aniceto Arce wrote the Antofagasta- Bolivia Railway noting that the Railway Federation had complained about an 'overseer in the north workshop' who harassed workers in that section, 'giving the example of the employee Nícanor Terrazas, who was...'

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Chapter 7

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pp. 166-192

"In April 1927 some one hundred and fifty labor representatives gathered in Oruro's municipal theater for the Third Workers' Congress. For the first time a national gathering of the labor movement included twenty delegates..."

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pp. 193-200

"As the dominant classes struggled to maintain their political monopoly in the 1930s and 1940s, government and industry ratcheted up the pressure on the country's popular classes. The Chaco War stands out as the most brutal of these exactions. Just months after the ouster of President..."


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pp. 201-228


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pp. 229-234

Back Cover

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pp. 235

E-ISBN-13: 9780822973904
E-ISBN-10: 0822973901
Print-ISBN-13: 9780822961178
Print-ISBN-10: 0822961172

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Pitt Latin American Series