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Bolivia assassination

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Bolivians have been shocked by the recent escalation in violence, including the brutal murder on 26 August, of vice-minister Rodolfo Illanes. With much misinformation swirling around, Bolivia Information Forum provides a succinct account of the events.

Cooperative miners behind violent protests that ended in the killing of a government minister

by Bolivia Information Forum

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.

rodolfo-illanes

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.

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Miners blockading the road   Credit: roanoke.com

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.

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The funeral of vice-minister Rodolfo Illanes   Credit: eldiarionet

Uneasy allies?

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.

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Family hand in petition to the government not to publicise the distressing images of the dreadful wounds inflicted on Illanes    Credit: correodelsur

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.

Government response

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.

Where next?

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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