The first article, an informed account of the events, was published by the Bolivia Information Forum based in Britain. The second article, by Alfredo Rada Vélez, vice-minister of coordination with the social movements, has been translated by me from the web site of the Escuela Nacional de Formación Política [National political cadre school].
– Richard Fidler
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Cooperative miners behind violent protests that ended in the killing of a government minister
The bludgeoning to death of Rodolfo Illanes, vice-minister of the interior, by cooperative miners who took him hostage as he went in good faith to seek dialogue, has caused widespread stupefaction in Bolivia. Among the consequences are the weakening of the alliance between the government and cooperative miners and a number of new controls on this sector.
Chronology of events
At the beginning of August, the leaders of Bolivia’s mining cooperatives threatened to block roads if the government went ahead with passing a law that allowed workers in service sector cooperatives to form unions. The law was not to be applied in the case of cooperative miners, but to workers in electricity and gas, water and telecommunications cooperatives, all of whom supported the proposal. The mining cooperatives were therefore taking sides with the members-owners of the cooperatives, not their workers.
The cooperative miners came out in force on 10 August, blocking roads in La Paz, Cochabamba and Potosí in particular. The apparent cause was the question of unionisation (of service sector workers only). They did not present their own demands until after the road blocks started (see below). Miners clashed with police brought in to keep the roads open. Police were armed with tear gas, the miners with dynamite and other explosive devices. In the melee, some 40 police were taken hostage by the miners and given a drubbing. Though the police were under strict orders not to carry guns, two cooperative miners were killed in circumstances that are as yet unclear. Some 18 miners were arrested and ten formally charged.
The conflict was brought to a temporary halt on 12 August in a stand-off, with miners demanding the release of their colleagues as a condition for sitting down to talk, whilst the ten detainees had already passed into the hands of the legal system. On 19 August, the government approved the law allowing unionisation of workers in service sector cooperatives, much to the jubilation of the workers involved.
With the passage of the law, the national cooperative organisation, Concobol, entered the fray. It is the powerful service cooperatives – in Santa Cruz in particular – that feel their interests most affected. As the conflict once again intensified, Albino García, currently president of Concobol and a past president of the national miners’ cooperative federation, Fencomin, announced the renewal of road blocks and the occupation of state institutions. The latter was reminiscent of the violent attacks on public institutions in 2008 during the so-called ‘civic-prefectural coup’ attempt in the lowlands. Organisations representing gold mining cooperatives said they would support the striking miners.
Consequently, the blocking of roads in La Paz and Cochabamba started again on 23 August. Attempts by the ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) to bring the two sides together failed and violent conflict continued, especially in and around the village of Panduro on the road between La Paz and Oruro. On the morning of 25 August, Rodolfo Illanes was taken hostage as he went to talk to miners’ leaders, many of whom he knew personally. Videos taken on mobile phones showed how the situation deteriorated as the day wore on. Illanes was beaten and then stoned to death at the end of the afternoon.
The miners (about 10,000 people that day) disbanded immediately, returning to their workplaces or, in the case of the leaders, going into hiding to prevent possible reprisals and/or detention. In this, the second round of conflict, three cooperative miners were killed, two by bullets and one by accidental manhandling of dynamite. Detention orders are out for several miners’ leaders; the president and vice-president of Fencomin, there at the time when Illanes was tortured and killed, are in prison and have been charged with his assassination.
Who are the cooperative miners?
In colonial times, Potosí required large numbers of workers to extract the silver exported to Spain. There were two main sources of labour, the mitayos, sent by communities throughout the Altiplano to provide labour for the mines as part of their tribute to the colonial power, and the k’ajchas, groups of ‘free’ labourers employed to work in the mines. Cooperative mining in Bolivia has its origins in the latter group.
Since the mines were first nationalised in 1952, cooperative mining has witnessed different moments of growth. A first set of cooperatives was formed in the years after 1952, as the state company Comibol closed down operations in less productive mines, such as Kami and Bolsa Negra. A second period of growth was from 1985 onwards, when much of the state mining sector was closed down: the more profitable mines were either rented out or worked as joint ventures with private companies, whilst the less profitable ones were offered to former workers as cooperatives.
In theory, mining cooperatives abide by cooperative principles, with all members or associates holding equal rights and responsibilities, but in practice this is often not the case and many associates take on day labourers to work for them. Also, the principle of pooling production and sharing benefits is generally not respected, with associates making a living from what they individually extract from the mine. Cooperatives tend not to carry out exploration work or investment, and they depend on the state to provide them with workable mines and often the machinery to exploit them. Working conditions are usually precarious, and the cooperatives do little to respect such rudimentary norms as health and safety.
Cooperatives are one of the three main sectors working the mines; the biggest (in terms of output) is the private sector, which produces about 70% of total exports, followed by cooperative miners, with 22%, and finally the state sector which produces only 8%. Cooperative miners pay Comibol rent for the areas they control (1% of the value of the mineral produced) and royalties to the department in which they are situated (5% of value of mineral produced). They do not pay taxes on the profits they make or a special tax payable by private and state mines when prices are high. This helps to explain why several members of mining cooperatives have emerged as part of the country’s new rich, particularly over the decade of booming mineral prices.
Cooperative miners have been one of the organised movements that have formed the social base of the Morales government. Numerically, the sector is important, accounting for 110-130,000 workers, though the figures are unreliable, and only 10,000 are registered for health care in the Caja Nacional de Salud. The sector has provided jobs for large numbers of young people in recent years.
The government has helped the sector, for instance by providing heavy machinery and building mills, setting up an investment fund (Fofim), and creating a minerals marketing company. However, both the constitution and the mining law lay down rules regarding new mining concessions and outlaw alliances with private companies whereby cooperatives provide a back door to private companies to take advantage of their tax benefits. In spite of their involvement in discussions on the mining law over several years, their opposition to parts of the law led to a period of violent protest in 2014.
The recent conflict has shown the extent to which the mining cooperatives’ support to the government has been conditional on the economic favours they have received.
The main demands
Fencomin’s list of demands included ten points. Besides the stance taken against unionisation (in the service cooperatives) the main points were:
- changes to the mining law to allow cooperatives to establish relationships with private companies, whether Bolivian or foreign;
- the opening of new areas for exploitation by cooperatives, including protected areas;
- greater flexibility for cooperative miners in the way environmental norms are applied; and
- other financial benefits.
A conspiracy? What lay behind the conflict?
President Evo Morales strongly condemned the cooperative miners and the action they took, pointing to a possible wider conspiracy in which the miners formed a part. He spoke of the conflict as seeking to create the conditions for a coup d’état. The way the conflict was conducted would suggest that there may have been some truth in this:
- Why did the miners involve themselves (so violently and refusing all efforts at negotiation) in an issue that clearly did not affect them? Unionisation only affected service sector cooperatives, and the workers of these were all much in favour of being able to join a union. It would certainly seem that Concobol was the chief opponent to the unionisation in service cooperatives, and the electricity and telecommunications cooperatives in Santa Cruz have close links with the civic committee and the most conservative sectors of cruceño society.
- Why did they not present their ten-point list of demands before they began blocking the roads?
- Why such a show of force? It is estimated that some 10,000 miners were present in Panduro on 25 August, with the police apparently numbering around 1,500. To organise and sustain such a mobilisation would require substantial economic and logistical resources.
- Why so violent? After the conflict came to an end, Interior Minister Carlos Romero exhibited some of the explosive devices left behind by the miners, devised to cause maximum harm (fragmentation of stones, metal, etc.). Preparation of such weapons (not just sticks of dynamite as are often used in miners’ demonstrations) would involve some considerable prior planning.
- Why did national cooperative leaders, present during the capture and killing of Illanes, not intervene? The speed at which the miners disbanded suggests that they realised they had made a serious mistake. Did they begin to see that they were being used for a wider political purpose?
The way the mobilisation was organised and conducted would suggest that it was indeed part of a wider attempt to discredit and possibly destabilise the government.
The government’s response has been speedy and tough:
- All areas where mining cooperatives have been working with private companies will now revert to the state. These involve some 31 contracts, including important foreign concerns such as Manquiri-San Bartolomé (Coeur de Lion, USA) on the Cerro Rico in Potosí and Sinchi Wayra with cooperatives in Poopó, Oruro. Sinchi Wayra was formerly Comsur, the company belonging to ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, and now forming part of Glencore. Concessions not being worked will also revert to the state.
- There will be greater controls on mining cooperatives that take into account cooperative principles. Information will be required on levels of production, profits (and their distribution amongst all associates), lists of workers, monthly accounts (including payments to associates and workers).
- People employed by cooperatives should be protected by labour law and so also be able to unionise and be registered in the Caja Nacional de Salud (to gain access to health care).
- The use of dynamite (and alcohol) in protests and marches will be prohibited.
- Cooperative miners will no longer have representatives sitting on the Comibol board and the government will no longer deduct a percentage of cooperative sales to fund the running costs of their organisation.
Even in a country used to occasional violent protest, the violence of this conflict was exceptional from the start, with five workers killed and a member of government – in effect carrying a white flag – beaten to death, a crime which the local UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has called a crime against humanity. In spite of orders, it seems that some police were carrying guns and not just tear gas.
The conflict has led to the breaking of relations between the government and one of its traditional associates, whose support largely derived from the benefits they received. The government has made it clear that it does not accept the cooperatives’ demands and intends to terminate their privileges.
It is unlikely that the cooperative miners will take the measures lying down: they will probably regroup over the coming months and try to renegotiate some of the decisions taken. The government appears to have opened up a new flank of opposition, unless those who work in the mining cooperatives start to take advantage of their rights, something no doubt the members of the cooperatives will do their best to prevent.
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The biggest advance in workers’ rights in a decade
by Alfredo Rada Vélez
As night fell in Panduro on Thursday 25 August the air still reeked of gas, dynamite and death. We now knew about the terrible assassination of the vice-minister Rodolfo Illanes, and within a few hours the huge movement of thousands of cooperativistas had been dispersed, not by the coercive force of the state but by the generalized repudiation of the people.
The road blockades organized by the Federación Nacional de Cooperativas Mineras (Fencomin) were a violent action in a context of falling international mineral prices. Employers who have acquired economic power in the cooperatives wanted to maintain the rate of profit they have gained from three things: (1) greater state subsidies and financing for the industry; (2) preservation of the flexible forms of exploitation of labour within the cooperatives; and (3) de facto recognition of contracts between the cooperativista bosses and national companies and foreign transnational corporations.
These objectives had a clear bourgeois class content, in this case that of a new bourgeoisie that has developed in the larger cooperatives such that they ceased to be “not for profit entities” and have become semiformal capitalist enterprises. The cooperativista bourgeoisie is made up of nouveaux riches that enjoy an elevated status due to the exploitation of the labour of the so-called “second hands” or labourers paid on a piecework basis, without contracts or labour rights. To block the unionization of those workers the bosses also invoke the lie that “within the cooperatives we are all equal” when we know this is not true, that within the big cooperatives there are bosses and there are labourers.
How was this bourgeoisie able to mobilize large contingents of workers? By converting their class interest into a general interest under the slogan of “labour stability.” The bosses blackmailed the workers: “If you don’t mobilize to get the government to stay clear of us, you will have no job.” That’s how the bosses in the mining cooperatives (who are generally the oldest partners) deceived a social base and converted it into a hit squad.
Within the government, the question of our policy in relation to mining cooperatives has up to now not been addressed from a revolutionary standpoint. We fell into the error of considering Fencomin as an ally without seeing that within it social classes were being constituted, a semiformal bourgeoisie and a precarious proletariat, and that, as a government, we had to include this proletariat in the process of change, supporting its organization and defending its rights. In other words, to differentiate the worker base from the bosses’ hierarchy within the cooperatives. Instead, we trusted the leaders, many of them hypocritically aligned with the government not out of conviction but for convenience. To maintain the alliance the government refrained from intervening in matters involving the workers within the cooperatives; it was flexible with them when it came to compliance with environmental standards, and their taxes were not increased. Today we see that this pragmatic orientation has simply led to strengthening the class enemy.
The relation between bosses and workers is central to cooperative mining. It is no accident that what started the conflict was the approval by the Plurinational Legislative Assembly of a law that recognized trade unions within the service sector cooperatives. If the tendency toward self-organization of the workers were to grow, the precarious status of the workers, one of the sources of the concentration of capital in the hands of the bosses, will begin to erode.
The current citizen condemnation of the cooperative mining leadership is similar to the circumstances surrounding the tragedy of September 2006, when the deadly fight between cooperativistas and waged workers for control of the Posokoni hill in Huanuni resulted in the closure of four cooperatives and nationalization of that entire mining district. Today the government, by acting without hesitation, has sent a clear message to the worker base of the cooperatives: we are a government of the workers and will no longer tolerate abuses and exploitation within the mining cooperatives. Equally clear is the message to the employers’ leadership: we are a government that defends the sovereignty of the Bolivian people over mineral resources and we will not permit their privatization or subjection to foreign ownership.
The economic power of the “cooperativista” bourgeoisie must be cut back because it is apparent that it will not hesitate one second to turn against the process of change as soon as its privileges are threatened. I said earlier that this power originates in the accumulation and concentration of capital due to the exploitation of labour and pillage of nature, but it should not be forgotten that this accumulation was facilitated by government concessions.
The conflict with the Fencomin leadership and its tragic outcome have led Evo’s government to take the following decisions: (1) preserving the real cooperative mining industry, separating out the semiformal capitalist enterprises that thrive within it; (2) returning to state ownership the areas granted to cooperatives that have signed contracts with private national or transnational corporations; and (3) stepping up the enforcement of labour laws for all workers in cooperatives, be they casual, day labourers, hired hands, k’ajchas or pieceworkers.
The bosses’ Fencomin is going through one of its worst crises and may well lose all the advantages it obtained from the government. The link disclosed between that cooperativista bourgeoisie and foreign interests — for example, in the contracts signed by Potosí cooperatives with Manquiri, the Bolivian name of the U.S. transnational Coeur de Lion Mines Corporation, which is mining the second biggest gold deposit in the country, in San Bartolomé — has also opened an opportunity to carry out further nationalizations in the mining industry since we have leaped over one of the “allies” that was always hostile to such an advance.
The true ally of the process of change are the more than 100,000 workers in the mining cooperatives, most of them Aymara and Quechua workers. It is Evo’s government that is decreeing that this labour force is likewise governed by the General Labour Law, an act unprecedented in the history of cooperative mining. This is the biggest advance in workers’ rights in a decade, which also indicates the error that a conservative tendency within the process of change had fallen into when it clung to the argument that in times of economic downturn we should not create new social rights, but simply defend those already won. The conquest and expansion of social rights is not dependent on an economic determinism or calculation of costs, it is won by dint of an historical-structural factor called class struggle.