Bolivia: ‘Governing with the people’ brings benefits, challenges

Evo Morales meets with cooperative miners in Marach after protests and street blackades against a new mining law

When Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia in 2005, he promised to “govern by obeying the people”.

The recent approval by the Plurinational Assembly of laws dealing with mining and children’s rights are two examples of the challenges and benefits of this radical approach to governing.

Breaking with the idea that legislating should be confined to parliament, the Bolivian government has made repeated efforts to involve broad sections of society in rewriting laws.

The first, and most important, step taken in this regard was organising the 2006/07 Constituent Assembly. Elected delegates, with representatives of the country’s powerful social movements and other civil society groups, drew up a new constitution.

The new charter was approved by a large majority in the 2009 referendum, despite often-violent resistance by right-wing opposition groups.

Making the constitution reality

Since then, the government has sought to turn some of the novel ideas in the constitution — such as granting rights to Mother Earth, indigenous autonomy, and nationalising natural resources — into enforceable laws.

Seeking to legislate with and for the people, the government has paid particular attention to debating new laws with the sectors most directly affected by the changes.

The presence of highly combative social movements, aware of what parliament has taken from them in the past, has won changes via the streets. This has made the process somewhat volatile at times.

Yet, rather than fear street mobilisations, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government has come to view them as “creative tensions” within the small Andean nation’s revolutionary process.

Vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera said, in a 2011 pamphlet, tensions between sectors leading the process of change were inevitable. However, he added they can be “creative because they have the potential to help drive forward the course of the revolution itself”.

Mining law

After three years of intense debate, Bolivia’s parliament approved a new mining law in late May.

Under past neoliberal governments, tumbling global mineral prices were used to justify privatising Bolivia’s entire mining sector.

State mining company COMIBOL was split up, almost 30,000 miners were left without a job, and the cooperative miners sector gradually became a powerful political force. Today, there are about 110,000 cooperative miners, or 85% of the mining workforce.

The new law seeks to bring legislation in line with the new constitution. This states that minerals are the property of the Bolivian people, to be administered by the state “in the interest of the collective”.

The new law also builds on the series of government actions taken in the sector. These include nationalising mineral deposits and tin smelters, renegotiating contracts to ensure greater state control and revenues, and steps towards greater industrialisation.

John Crabtree and Ann Chaplin wrote in their book Bolivia: Process of Change published last year that the government’s policies have helped resuscitate COMIBOL “as a key planner in the sector, as the owner of important subsoil resources … and as a producer in its own right”.

Most importantly, the new law has been heavily shaped by debate — at times violent — between different sectors in the mining workforce and indigenous communities affected by mining operations.

Discussions may have started at meetings inside the mining ministry, but issues causing the most conflict were generally resolved in the mines or the streets.

In response, the government has largely sought to facilitate dialogue between miners and affected indigenous communities, to help overcome tension and advance mutual aims.

Overall, the MAS government has favoured nationalisation and industrialisation, while acknowledging that some concessions have had to be made to the powerful cooperative sector.

An example was the Colquiri mine dispute in May-June 2012. What began as a mine occupation by a local mining cooperative quickly took on a national dimension.

The Trade Union Federation of Mineworkers of Bolivia (FSTMB) and the National Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN) took up the cause of their respective local affiliates who were at logger heads.

In a bid to reconcile the warring factions, the government offered to nationalise the mine to secure the jobs of existing mineworkers and offer employment to the occupiers. The government also said it was willing to grant the cooperative access to certain mineral veins.

Trade unions representing private mineworkers initially opposed the deal, believing it could threaten the jobs of its members elsewhere, but they soon came onboard.

On the other hand, the local cooperative refused the offer. Instead, it signed a deal with private mine owner Glencore. This allowed the cooperative to work part of the mine in return for handing what they extracted over to the company.

With support for nationalisation growing among mineworkers, local communities and even some cooperative miners, the government finally ordered COMIBOL to take complete control over operations at Colquiri. It also granted the 26 de Febrero cooperative access to the Rosario vein.

In return, the cooperative had to sell what it extracted to COMIBOL and was barred from dealing with transnational companies.

This issue of mining cooperatives partnering with private companies was also the spark behind violent protests that rocked the country just as the law was reaching the final stages of approval.

Under the new law, private companies can no longer register minerals as their property. Those with pre-existing contracts have to sign new ones in line with the new tax regime, which will see the state collect most of the sector’s profits.

The initial draft also allowed cooperatives to freely sign contracts with the private sector.

Once the government presented its draft version of the law, agreed to by all sections of the mining workforce, parliamentarians sought to remove this right from cooperatives.

Free Speech Radio News reported on April 25 that MAS deputy Jaime Medrano said allowing this would have been “unconstitutional”.

The constitution allows for the cooperative sector to sign mixed contracts with private companies, but he noted this required approval from the state.

In response, cooperative miners organised large demonstrations. Most of the country’s main roadways were blockaded and 43 police officers taken hostage.

The ensuing public debate led to the revelation that more than 40 cooperative-company joint contracts were already in existence.

Through this process, the government was able to win support, including from cooperative miners, for the now amended version of the law that denies cooperatives the right to sign contracts with private companies without prior approval from the state.

This ensured the final draft was in line with the constitution’s mandate of maintaining sovereignty over the country’s mineral wealth.

Child labour

Meanwhile, debate over the recently approved law regarding the rights of children and adolescents has gone well beyond Bolivia’s borders. The International Labor Organization (ILO) criticized the government for legalising child labor from the age of 10.

Despite previous laws banning all work for those under 14, an estimated 850,000 children and adolescents now work in Bolivia.

As there are high levels of poverty, many children have to work, mainly as shoeshiners on the streets or with their parents on street stalls or farms, to help their families survive.

Much of the media has ignored the fact that the new law initially proposed raising the legal working age from 14 to 16 years of age.

It was only after sustained protests that a new draft was developed between parliamentarians and child worker groups.

MAS deputy Javier Zavaleta acknowledged it was “a very difficult debate” because these groups “strive for ideals that are sometimes difficult to achieve”.

“We met with them and they are intelligent children that understood our reasons and knew that if they could choose, they would not be working,” he added.

The final version allows children under the age of 14 to work, but only in “exceptional circumstances”.

From the age of 10, children can work for themselves, but not be employed by another person. From 12 onwards, children who have the written permission of the parents can work for others. However, they are not allowed to work certain jobs, particularly those requiring a lot of physical strength.

In an important step forward, the law states child workers must have the same rights and protections as other workers, including receiving at least the minimum wage and ensuring time is set aside for all child and adolescent workers to have their educational needs met.

In general, the new law seeks to ensure that their rights are protected, rather than criminalise or force underground those that need to work to help their families.

“We are happy with the new approval of the new law,” said Edwin Roman Davalos, a representative of the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO), “because they listened to us. The authorities, and the parliamentarians saw our reality.”

He said the new law had been approved “thanks to the struggles that we have waged for some time now on the streets, and to our president, Evo Morales, who listened to us”.

In response to the new law contravening the ILO convention on child labour, UNATSBO’s Rodrigo Medrano said: “Those are conventions that are drawn up in the UN or the ILO, but I believe that those conventions are signed without having spent much time here in Bolivia.”

Garcia Linera said it would have been “easy to pass a law that corresponded to international conventions”. But, he said, “it would not have been implemented”.
Instead, Garcia Linera said, the government chose to draft “a law that takes as its starting point what we have today and that charts out a realistic and viable path for changing the working situation of children”.
Challenges and benefits

These new laws, and the process of their approval, reveal the challenges and benefits of “legislating with the people”.

In both cases, the practice of “governing by obeying” facilitated society-wide discussions that helped the government and social movements learn from each other and find common ground over changes.

[A longer version of this article was first published on the new site.]

Green Left Weekly on Facebook and on Twitter.