Behind the deadly Bolivian miner cooperative protests

September 2, 2016
Vice-Minister of the Interior Rodolfo Illanes — assassinated on August 25.

The Bolivian mining cooperative protests and the August 25 killing of the Bolivian Vice-Minister of the Interior Rodolfo Illanes by cooperative miners requires us to question our assumptions about the cooperatives.

Most of Bolivia's mining cooperatives began during the Great Depression as miners banded together to work a mine in common. However, like many cooperatives in the US that arose out of the 1960s, they have turned into small businesses.

Regardless of their initial intentions, cooperatives existing in a capitalist environment must compete in business practices or go under.

The Bolivian mining cooperatives themselves have undergone this process and have become businesses whose owners hire labour. About 95% of the cooperative miners are workers and 5% are owners.

It is common for the employed workers to be temporary, or contracted out employees. They have no social security, no job security, no health or retirement benefits.

In their recent campaign, the mining cooperatives made 10 demands on the government. Last month, they announced an indefinite strike if the government of left-wing President Evo Morales did not meet their demands. They later added another 14 demands.

One of the most significant demands was rejection of the General Law of Cooperative Mines, which guaranteed cooperative employees the right to unionise. The cooperative owners do not want their workers represented by unions.

Reuters and the corporate press, true to form, falsely claimed the opposite — that the cooperative miners were protesting against the government and demanded their right to form unions.

Another demand was loosening environmental regulations for the mining cooperatives.

The third key demand was to revoke the law disallowing national or transnational businesses from partnering in cooperatives. At present, cooperatives have 31 contracts with private businesses, most signed before the Morales government came to power 10 years ago.

The cooperatives want the right to form partnerships with multinationals and exploit the natural resources without the laws protecting the environment. Such partnerships with multinationals amount to privatising a key part of Bolivia's natural resources.

This runs counter to Bolivia's new Constitution, adopted by popular vote in 2009, which states: “The natural resources are the property of the Bolivian people and will be administered by the State.”

The Morales government nationalised Bolivia's natural resources in 2006. Because of this, the government share of the profits from the sale of gas and other natural resources has risen from around 15% to 85%.

Under pre-Morales neoliberal governments, about 85% of the profits went to corporations. As a result, the Bolivian state has gained an extra US$31.5 billion from 2006 until last year. It has used this wealth to develop industry, infrastructure, schools, health care and hospitals to the mostly Original Peoples population.

It has also provided many subsidies for the poor, benefiting 4.8 million Bolivians out of a population of just over 10 million. This has cut in half the number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty.

During the August cooperatives protests, the Morales government had repeatedly said it was open to dialogue. But it pointed out it could not violate the Constitution.

As vice-minister, Illanes went to meet with the miner cooperative leaders of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN). He was tortured and killed.

So far, nine people have been charged over the death, including the FENCOMIN president, who was a leader in the violent protests.

Before this incident, Bolivian TV broadcast news of rioting miners charging at police, hurling stones and even sticks of dynamite. The police responded with tear gas to disperse the protesters. Several police were injured during the protests.

On August 24, two miners were shot dead at close range during the road blockades. If the police were responsible, it contravened the order of Morales to not bring firearms into the area of the road blockades at all.

Vice Minister of Coordination with Social Movements Alfredo Rada said after the murder of Illanes that the issue of the mine cooperatives should be part of a national debate. He pointed out the that cooperative workers are exploited by the owners, who have created a hierarchy inside the cooparatives for their private benefit.

Rada added: “We respect true cooperativism, where all are equal, but these companies have been converted into semi-formal capitalist businesses.”

After the murder of Illanes, Morales declared: “Once again, the national government has squashed an attempted coup.”

The president added that the miners had planned to entrench themselves at the roadblocks they had established. He said documents confiscated from the offices of the cooperative miners mention “overthrowing the government”.

He also said that some of the private business and cooperatives owners had deceived their workers.

For its part, the US has a history of seeking to undermine Morales's anti-imperialist government, going back to his first presidential election campaign in 2002.

Bolivia's Cabinet Chief Juan Ramon Quintana said that over the past eight years the National Endowment for Democracy has funded about 40 institutions in Bolivia, including economic and social centres, foundations and non-governmental organisations, to the tune of more than $10 million.

US soft coup efforts reached their heights during the violent separatist movement by the rich white elite in Bolivia's east in 2008 and during the TIPNIS protests over a proposed highway in the Beni department in 2011.

Last year, the US developed the Strategic Plan for Bolivia to reverse the progressive popular changes in Bolivia and restore neoliberal-neocolonial rule. The plan was written by Carlos Alberto Montaner, a counter-revolutionary Cuban exile, US Congresspeople and chief leaders of the Bolivian opposition.

One early result was the narrow defeat of the Bolivian referendum earlier this year to allow Evo Morales to run for president for a third term.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has pointed out that the institutional coup in Brazil against elected president Dilma Rousseff and the killing of Illanes are part of an imperialist attack on the progressive governments of Latin America.

“It is a continent-wide attack by the oligarchies and the pro-imperialist right wing against all the leaders, governments and popular movements, progressive and revolutionary left,” said Maduro.

“With Dilma in Brazil, with Evo in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, with Daniel in Nicaragua and with all the peoples and social movements of Latin America, Venezuela is going to struggle for a sovereign, independent, humane, and popular future.”

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