In this extract from a review of the book From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia: Class Struggle, Indigenous Liberation, and the Politics of Evo Morales, by Jeffrey Webber, Fuentes considers the Morales’ governments approach to conflict between social groups, including different groups of miners. He is critical of Webber’s portrayal of the government as reformist and opposed to social movements. 

Class struggle under Morales

Webber’s conviction that Morales’ election victory represented a shift from mobilisation to negotiation leads him to make ludicrous statements. For instance, Webber describes a period marked by a polarisation that threatened to plunge the country into civil war as characteristic of the “demobilization of independent political actions from below and an increasing reliance on elite negotiations”. Far from entering “tamer terrain”, the period of the first Morales government was filled with constant street battles between pro- and anti-government forces. Ultimately, victory was obtained, not via negotiations, but the crushing defeat of a coup attempt.

Webber’s confusion on the question of independence from the government also leads him to tie himself in knots, in some cases to painting conservative forces as “radical”. Webber is convinced that the MAS loyalists oppose independent mobilisation; once again, this claim is false. The fact that no government in the last three decades has had to contend with as many conflicts and protests as the Morales government surely demonstrates that Bolivia’s social movements are far from subordinated to government dictates. This is true not only in the quantitative sense (regarding the number of protests and the largest one in Bolivian history, when 1 million people marched in La Paz), but also in the qualitative sense (the profound nature of the combined military-social movement mobilisation to defeat the coup attempt). The key issue in debate is not that of independence from the government, but rather independence for what aims. That is, do these independent mobilisations serve to further fundamental change or are they simply expressions of corporative movements that prioritise self-interest?

On several key occasions, the Morales government has demonstrated its ability to maintain the maximum unity possible among the competing interests of corporative movements while pushing the process to the left. Chapter 4 of Webber’s book purports to demonstrate the opposite, where radical independent social movements are constantly struggling against a right-wing Morales government. Instead, it only serves to demonstrate Webber’s inability to understand such complex interactions and his selective use of facts.

Take for example his description of the events surrounding the 2006 conflict in Huanuni, where clashes between cooperative and wage-earning miners left 18 dead. Selectively choosing what information to provide and conceal from the reader, Webber claims that the situation can be characterised as a reformist government aligning itself with “the privileged layer of cooperative miners” to drown the revolutionary Huanuni miners in blood. Thankfully, according to Webber, the heroic resistance of the Huanuni miners forced the government to back down, but only temporarily, as Morales then proceeded as he always does, to water down his promises of further nationalisations.

Such a view of events however is only possible when omitting or falsifying facts. This occurs with even the simplest of details. Webber claims that the national miners’ federation (FSTMB) is made up of miners “employed by the state mining company COMIBOL”. But FSTMB also incorporates a much larger bloc of traditionally more conservative mineworkers from the private sector. Webber also tells us that the Posokoni hills were home to the state-employed Huanuni miners, and cooperative miners who existed in “far fewer in numbers”. At the time, the state-owned Huanuni Mining Company (EMH) employed 800 workers while some 4000 were affiliated to cooperatives working there. More broadly, miners in Bolivia are separated into state-employed miners, numbering 800; those employed in the private sector, which total several thousand; and between 60,000 to 65,000 miners working in the cooperative sector. None of these sectors are organically part of the MAS, each has competing interests and needs, and all form part of the government’s social base. This may seem like fiddling over detail, but as we will see these elements are crucial to understanding the conflict.

Webber refers to a road blockade organised by Huanuni miners and local campesinos in September 2006 to demand more public investment in COMIBOL and the creation of 1500 jobs, although at no time did this include the demand to incorporate the existing cooperative miners working in the surrounding mines. Ignored are the other 28 conflicts that were engulfing the mining sector at the time, each pitting different sectors and interests against each other and local communities. Despite the blockade in Huanuni shutting down one of the most important highways in Bolivia for three days, not once was violence used to deal with these conflicts, the preferred response of neoliberal governments. Instead, the government attempted to simultaneously resolve each individual conflict while negotiating a decree with all sectors that would cover the entire mining industry. The complexity of the situation where each sector was fighting to defend their own interests militated against coming up with a common agreement.

Nevertheless, the government agreed to the demands of the protesters at Huanuni, an elementary fact omitted by Webber. The problem was that this triggered a response from the much larger bloc of cooperative miners, who rejected the deal. Within days violence broke out in Huanuni as cooperative miners moved to take over the mine operated by EMH, a scenario that has occurred many times before. The clashes left 18 dead, with each side blaming each other for the confrontation, and the country was convulsed by the images of miners clashing with miners.

In response, Morales sacked his mines minister, who was publicly criticised for his role in the ordeal. In his place was appointed a new minister closely aligned with the FSTMB. The new minister moved immediately to reach an agreement between representatives from both sides at Huanuni. The final result was the conversion of all 4000 cooperative miners into employees of EMH. The deal was supported by the local cooperative miners but rejected by the national cooperative miners’ federation, FENCOMIN, which declared it would demonstrate its “independence” through a series of mobilisations against the government. Contrary to Webber’s portrayal of the government backing down to FENCOMIN demands, the deal not only remained but was also followed by further attempts to nationalise mines.

While continued tensions between the different sectors prevented the government from carrying out its original plan immediately, it nevertheless continued pushing forward with its policy of reasserting state control. In February 2007 it moved to nationalise the Vinto tin smelter and announced the possibility of further nationalisations. At the time, however, it was the FSTMB-affiliated unions in the private sector, including those in the Colquiri mine, that threatened “independent” mobilisations against any further nationalisations. For some reason, Webber forgets to mention this fact.

This is all the more startling given his attempts to portray the Colquiri mineworkers as part of the independent revolutionary left who need to be supported in their struggle against the Morales government. Or does Webber suggest we should have also come to their defence when the government, with the support of the Huanuni miners, announced its intention last April to nationalise the Colquiri mine (along with at least three others), and the “radical” local miners’ unions demonstrated their independence by protesting any such move?

Perhaps the most startling omission, and one that can only lead to the conclusion that there is a deliberate attempt by Webber to falsify history and attack the Morales government is that on May 1, 2007, the government decreed the state takeover of all mineral deposits! Going against Webber’s claim that Morales swung back to supporting FENCOMIN, the decree reaffirmed the strong alliance forged between the government and the FSTMB. While the decree was supported by FSTMB and the Huanuni miners, it was opposed by FENCOMIN.

It is clear that the picture is much more complex than Webber’s simplistic portrayal of a “reformist” government versus “independent, increasingly radical popular class forces”. Instead, the Morales government has clearly attempted to move forward with an integral policy for the mining sector, while taking into consideration competing self-interests among its base. To do so it has had to deal with myriad independent social forces, many of which have opposed progressive measures and sought to defend their own corporative interests.

While not free from error, each time the government has attempted to stay in tune with its diverse base, while taking a clear leftist position. It has also worked to strengthen the position of those independent forces on the left, while working to win over other sectors to such a vision. Of course, all advances have not been solely the work of the government; the mobilisations of the Huanuni miners and other progressive sectors have been fundamental. The point is that the trend has been one of combined action from the social movements on the ground and in government. This dynamic relationship will continue to be critical if, for example, the miners in the private and cooperative sectors are to be won over to a radical perspective. What is clear is that far from selling out the movements or holding them back, in the majority of cases the government has played a role of uniting the social movements in order to press forward with the process of change.