After vice-minister beaten to death by miners, Bolivia reflects
By Pablo Stefanoni, translated by Federico Fuentes August 31, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal originally published in Spanish at Nueva Sociedad — The conflict between the Bolivian government and cooperative miners is new not in terms of its dynamic, but in terms of its scale: the brutal death of a vice-minister, beaten after being kidnapped, has cause a commotion in a country accustomed to radical social protests. Moreover, the crime has put in doubt the advances made towards creating a “strong state”, Evo Morales goal since 2006: not even during the 2003 Gas War, which brought down the Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada government, has a similar type of aggression occurred against such a high level functionary. As vice-minister for the Interior and part of the president’s team since 2006, Rodolfo Illanes went to the town of Panduro (185 kilometres from La Paz) to negotiate with the cooperative miners. There he was taken hostage and later beaten to death while two miners were victims of police repression during attempts to clear the road. “We will no longer negotiate with him [Minister for the Government Carlos Romero], he should hand in his letter [of resignation]; otherwise we will hang his vice-minister and I will take charge” a leader of the miners told the media in the midst of government attempts to reopen dialogue. The dynamic of road blockades-repression-outrage-escalation of violence is part and parcel of the social struggles in Bolivia. But since coming to power, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government has reduced social conflict, even if there were critical moments such as the mobilization against the “gasolinazo” (gas price hikes) in 2010 and the protests against the construction of a road in the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) in 2011. On that occasion, foreign minister David Choquehuanca was “detained” by indigenous protestors and used as a shield in front of the police, however events did not escalate any further. But today, unlike back then, the government is still overcoming the political impact of the defeat in the February 21, 2016 referendum [on whether to allow presidents to stand for more than two consecutive terms], with a strong fall in support in the big cities. To this we can add the drop in mineral prices and fewer resources in the budget. These cooperatives are one of the three main actors in Bolivia’s mining sector, together with the state sector and transnationals, and are accustomed to fighting over mineral veins in a fierce and even violent manner, as was left evident in 2006 by the clash between cooperative and state miners that left 16 dead. Survivors of the crisis of the state mining sector in the ’80s, the cooperatives grew under all governments, but they did so more in this decade as international mineral prices soared. The cooperative miners also participated in the cycle of popular struggles during the 2000s, and were among those who, in Sucre, impede a “neoliberal” from being sworn in following the resignation of then-president Carlos Mesa in 2005. During the constituent assembly they managed to insert an article in the new constitution that reads “the state recognizes and respects the pre-constituted rights of the mining cooperative societies, due to their social productive character.” Today the cooperatives involve some 119,000 workers, compared with 8000 in the private sector and 7500 in the state sector, although their productivity is lower and labour more artisanal. Ex-vice minister of the Interior Rafael Puente writes that “the ‘cooperative’ miners have nothing to do with cooperatives; in reality they are companies, whose owners are the so-called ‘partners’ (and not even all of them) who manage and exploit an enormous mass of workers that have no social security, no industrial security, no retirement fund, nothing. And let’s not even get started on women and child workers [in the sector].” In effect, although the figure of cooperative is used, this tends to obscure the reality of a world of asymmetries and relations between “partners” and peons, as well as contractors and other actors. “The cooperation is restricted to meetings of partners to gain access to the mine that they then parcel out, with individual labour of low productivity dominating, not the organisation of work based on cooperation” notes investigator Pablo Poveda Ávila. One of the reasons for the current protests was precisely to reject a law that would allow the peons of the cooperatives to form trade unions, something that is opposed by the “partners”. Another cause for the radicalization of the sector is the impediment that is being proposed on their ability to sign contracts with companies to operate their mines. And a third demand is for the weakening of environmental regulations. That is why the government has accused them of wanting to associate with transnationals and of being bosses dressed up as cooperative miners. Nevertheless, until now they have been part of the social and political bloc “of change” and even obtained positions as ambassadors, deputies and senators. Morales’ first mining minister, Walter Villarroel, belonged to the National Federation of Mining Cooperatives (FENCOMIN) and his terms stoked the conflict between state workers and cooperatives. An issue related to this crisis is the use of dynamite in protests. In 2012, the government banned this practice, but later authorised again as it is part of the miners’ identity. Not that long ago, Vice-president Álvaro García Linera himself told a group of students from Porco, Potosi, that “If someone from here to five or ten years from now wants to come and take our oil, our electricity, grab your stick of dynamite and go and kick them out.” “Dynamite is the essence of the workers, above all the miners; with it we can confront neoliberal governments” said executive secretary of the General Confederation of Factory Workers Víctor Quispe last May, when celebrating the annulment of the decree that prohibited its use. And the executive secretary of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) Guido Mitma also praised this measure: “How did we recuperate democracy? Thanks to the weapons that we the workers as a whole have to defend us from the neoliberal right”. But as we have seen with this conflict, the mining sector does not only refer to the heroic struggles of the mine workers – such as the 1952 Revolution or the struggle for democracy in the ’70s and ’80s – but also to the disputes for rent in a highly corporative country based on an extractive economy. It is also not an anomaly that the cooperatives are part of the MAS. The MAS is a party of small producers (rather than communitarians) that includes coca growers and informal traders, but in this case the attempts by the government to strengthen the state mining sector unleashed diverse tensions that culminated in the current escalation. Now, following these tragic events, the government may undertake deeper changes in the mining sector. For now, they have announced that the cooperatives will no longer have representation in the Bolivian Mining Corporation (Comibol). While many things have been modified since 2005, many others have barely changed and one of these is the difficulty of processing social conflicts via institutional means. At the same time, the dynamic of social conflict in Bolivia often reveals the precarious nature of the state (for example, a vice-minister who goes with almost no security detail to negotiated with a radicalized group) together with a police force that tends to be lethal when clearing roadblocks, due to a variable combination of inadequate or scarce armaments, insufficient police officers or fear of social sectors often armed with rocks or dynamite. While Morales had the authority to largely normalise the country, his principle stumbling blocks were his own base, this “social veto” that is so difficult to counteract, more so than the right-wing opposition he defeated several times in the ballot box – and on the streets. One advantage the government had in this case was that other sectors did not join in with the demands of the cooperative miners and that they have attracted little public sympathy. But it would be a mistake to read this in conspiratorial terms rather than treat it as a symptom of a new moment and a threat for the future. Once again, a conflict takes on the character of a small-scale civil war, and this time claims a victim from within the presidential team. Perhaps the assassination of Illanes will lead to a before and after, even if we are still not able to see the full dimensions of this “after”, that is the way in which the government uses this excess to recuperate the initiative and power.