HAHR Forum on Contemporary Bolivia and History

Rossana Barragán is a senior research at the International Institute of Social History. Her article “Working Silver for the World: Mining Labor and Popular Economy in Colonial Potosí” appeared in HAHR 97.2.

Vicissitudes of mining in the Evo Morales government

Why did the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB) and the Federación Sindical de Trabajadores Mineros de Bolivia (FSTMB) request the resignation of President Evo Morales on November 10?[1] And how are we to understand the fact that these traditional leftist organizations (the COB and the FSTMB) and a civic organization (COMCIPO) supporting the interests of Potosí opposed an indigenous president who proclaimed socialism and sovereignty by the people? In the present Bolivian crisis, Potosí played a role. Three key aspects are important: Potosí’s contribution to the economy, government policy regarding lithium, and the ambivalent relationship between the government and mining cooperativists.

  1. Potosí mining is still important. In terms both of quantity and revenue, it is Bolivia’s main mineral-exporting region (76.5 percent of mineral exports originate in Potosí). However, it remains one of the poorest regions in the country, a characteristic of extractive economies. Silver, zinc, lead, and tin are among Potosí’s main products. For some decades, lithium has been at the core of any policy relating to Potosí. Bolivia’s Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS) was committed to nationalizing the hydrocarbon sector, with royalties of 11 percent for the producing regions. In the case of mining, however, the royalties on lithium amounted to only 3 percent, and transnational, private, and state actors continued to coexist. Indeed, state mining accounted for just 8 percent of production, with large private mines accounting for 61 percent and cooperativists 31 percent.[2]
  2. Lithium catalyzed short-term and long-term regional COMCIPO-led discontent because Decree 3738 created a mixed Bolivian-German system (Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos [YLB] with a 51 percent share, ACI Systems GmbH with 49 percent), a division very similar to the “capitalization” of the Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada government (with 51 percent of shares being held in Bolivian hands).[3] Hence, the decree was described as “neoliberal and a surrender of Bolivia’s natural resources,” in part because it implied an excessively long contract (70 years) under which the country was obliged to produce 40,000 tons of lithium hydroxide. The whole city of Potosí was on strike for over a month, and Marco Antonio Pumari, president of its Civic Committee (COMCIPO) and a leading opponent of the MAS, went on hunger strike. The discontent attracted such widespread support that Morales abolished the decree. However, this contract is just one of several with Chinese companies—such as Lin YiDake Co., Beijing Maison Engineering consortium, Xinjiang TBEA Group, and CAMC Engineering Co.—or with other German companies such as K-UTEC. Speaking at a rally in September 2019, Pumari noted sardonically that the government had “an indigenous face but a capitalist soul.”[4] However, Pumari himself has been negotiating these last days his participation in the next elections, asking for important posts in the Custom Office of Potosí.
  3. Discontent among cooperativists in the ASM (artisanal and small-scale mining) sector also played a role. Their number grew from 50,000 in 2005 to 130,000 today.[5] The cooperativists worked “for their own account” and “scratched the rocks” in state concessions when mineral prices were low. The situation changed significantly with the price increase of minerals. Being a cooperativist implies exemption from some taxes and thus being “privileged.” Many of their associates might be small entrepreneurs, hiring workers in precarious conditions within a hierarchical and unequal system.[6] State and MAS policies toward cooperatives were not always aligned. Though initially relations were very close (the first MAS minister of mining was a cooperativist), they became confrontational, even turning violent. In 2015, over 120,000 people joined in denouncing the fact that the MAS “process of change” did not reach Potosí, which continued to be “looted” and to constitute “an exporting region of raw materials with low incomes.”[7] As a reaction, the Chapare Federation of Coca Growers organized a march on La Paz in support of Morales. In 2016, another conflict went much further. The cooperativists opposed a new law that included the right to unionize within cooperatives. The police arrested 113 miners, the miners seized 46 policemen, and more than 27 people were injured. Rubén Aparaya Pillco, a miner, died in the confrontation; the deputy minister of the interior, Rodolfo Illanes, was assassinated. The cooperativists also have a modus vivendi with the transnational companies. This is the case with Manquiri Enterprise (San Bartolomé Project), which operated as a subsidiary of Coeur d’Alene Mines Corporation (the largest US-based silver producer), buying ores from the cooperatives up until January 2018, when the enterprise was acquired from Argentum Investments.

The confluence of Potosí regional actors was key in the political crisis. Bolivia’s major contradiction is condensed in Potosí abundance and poverty in its long-term history and its present. All the actors mentioned above claimed that their resources continued to be looted without receiving benefits. Furthermore, these actors were generally marginal to the key decisions made by the MAS government in La Paz, which privileged other sectors such as the cocaleros from Chapare and agribusinesses in Santa Cruz. Finally, the MAS used a logic of governance to confront social actors and movements (state mineworkers versus cooperativists, coca growers of the Chapare versus coca growers of Yungas, etc.). Regional interests—those of the different mining groups, small entrepreneurs, workers—but also transnational interests are at stake today for the future. However, it is difficult to say whether the new arrangements are more likely to privilege transnational over regional interests.  It is possible that the “commodities consensus” (Maristella Svampa) or the incorporation of Latin America into the economic and political global order will have in any case few benefits for the country.

[1] https://erbol.com.bo/nacional/mineros-evo-presidente-la-gestión-ha-terminado-la-renuncia-es-inevitable, Sunday, December 10, 2019, Orlando Ramírez, Secretario Ejecutivo de la FSTMB; https://www.notimerica.com/politica/noticia-bolivia-sindicato-boliviano-cob-afin-evo-morales-pide-renuncia-presidente-20191110194144.html; “Cooperativistas de Bolivia: ‘Estimado Evo, salga por la puerta grande de su Palacio,'” https://www.noticiasfides.com/nacional/politica/cooperativistas-de-bolivia-estimado-evo-salga-por-la-puerta-grande-de-su-palacio-401935. This was to avoid further confrontation and deaths in the postelection political crisis.
[2] Ministerio de Minería y Metalurgia, Anuario Estadístico y Coyuntura del sector minero metalúrgico (La Paz, 2016).
[3] On earlier proposals relating to lithium, see Franz Flores, “Regionalismo nacionalista. El conflicto por la explotación del salar de Uyuni en 1989,” Ecuador Debate 105 (2018).
[4] COMCIPO, Facebook, Marcha, September 13, 2019.
[5] Ministerio de Minería, “Empresas e instituciones mineras se someterán a rendición de cuentas,” Bocamina 27 (2018).
[6] Jocelyn Michard, Cooperativas mineras en Bolivia. Formas de organización, producción y comercialización (CEDIB, Cochabamba, 2018); Pablo Poveda Ávila, Formas de producción de las cooperativas mineras de Bolivia (CEDLA, La Paz, 2014).
[7] COMCIPO, Facebook, 14 July 2015. The requests of COMICPO were pretty basic: the builing of an airport, hospitals, roads, and factories. See “Bolivia: Crece la tensión por el conflicto en Potosí,” La Izquierda Diario, July 23, 2015.

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Top image: Mercha a favor de Evo Morales – Buenos Aires. November 18, 2019. Photograph by Santiago Sito, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (Find the original here.)