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Bolivian miners defend nationalised industry – 16 die in clashes

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On Thursday October 5, violent confrontations broke out in the mining city of Huanuni, Oruro, in Bolivia, which left 16 dead and scores of others injured. Clashes started as 4,000 "cooperativistas" tried to take over the main Huanuni mine, and the 1,100 miners who work there, organised in the powerful Bolivian Union Federation of Mine Workers, FSTMB, defended the mine.

On Thursday October 5, violent confrontations broke out in the mining city of Huanuni, Oruro, in Bolivia, which left 16 dead and scores of others injured. Clashes started as 4,000 "cooperativistas" tried to take over the main Huanuni mine, and the 1,100 miners who work there, organised in the powerful Bolivian Union Federation of Mine Workers, FSTMB, defended the mine.

The roots of this conflict go back to the defeats the miners suffered in the 1980s after heroic struggles. The miners have always been the most militant and revolutionary section of the Bolivian working class. Working in conditions of extreme exploitation they were highly organised. The FSTMB was one of the first organisations of the Bolivian workers and in 1946 passed the famous Pulacayo Theses which set the socialist goals of their struggle, and remain the most advanced programme ever adopted by workers in Latin America.

In the mid 1980s the Paz Estenssoro government introduced a package of "neoliberal" policies, but in a similar way to the Thatcher government in Britain, it first had to crush the mighty power of the miners if it wanted to be able to carry them through. In 1986 the miners' strike movement was crushed and more than 20,000 miners were laid off as a result. The workforce in the state-owned mining company (which had been created as a result of the 1952 Revolution) shrunk from 30,000 to 7,000.

Thousands of miners and their families had to emigrate from the mining towns since the houses they lived in belonged to the company and they did not have jobs anymore. Many moved to the tropical region of Chaparé, where they became coca-growers. They brought with them their militant traditions and set up peasant trade unions which later on became the backbone of Evo Morales' Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). Others moved to El Alto, which in time also became a key place of revolutionary struggle.

Finally, others grouped together and took over mines that had already been abandoned and were nearly exhausted. Over a period of time a managerial layer emerged in these cooperatives which became rich and most of their members became just salaried miners working in conditions much worse than those of their counterparts in what remained of Comibol, and with no trade union rights.

The inmediate origins of the conflict in Huanuni go back to 2002 when the licence of the private company that was running the mine (the British multinational RBG) was withdrawn by the Bolivian government. Since then, the Huanuni miners have been running the mine under a sort of workers' control. Helped by the rising price of tin on the world market, is has become a very profitable company, giving the Bolivian state a massive source of income. The 1,100 miners at Huanuni produce 300-350 tonnes of refined tin a month with yearly profits of 12 million dollars.

It was precisely the rising price of tin that increased the voracity of the FENCOMIN (the Federation of "cooperativistas") which employs some 60,000 people in total. In the last few years they had already taken over mines in Caracoles, and sectors of Colquiri and Vinto, which in this way were privatised. FENCOMIN has become a powerful economic pressure group in the mining regions, reaching agreements with successive governments to guarantee its status and maintain the privatisation of the mines. As a counter balance to the powerful left-wing FSTMB, which in turn controls the Bolivian Workers Confederation COB, the MAS leaders made an alliance with FENCOMIN. Thus, when Evo Morales won the elections in December 2005, FENCOMIN was given the Ministry of Mines, and one of its leaders, Walter Villaroel became the minister and started to rule in favour of the private "cooperative" companies he represents.

In September, FENCOMIN representatives travelled to London and met with Grant Thornton, the accountancy firm which acts as the liquidators for RBG, and were promised the sale of the RBG contract of exploitation of Huanuni mine (which RBG had in fact already lost). This led directly to FENCOMIN "cooperativistas" trying to take over Huanuni on October 5th and the miners union defending the nationalised character of the mine.

The miners' union makes the Morales government responsible for the clashes, as they had warned them in advanced of the conflict that was brewing. In fact the miners at Huanuni had arrived at an agreement with the peasant organisations in the region in order to defend the mine, as part of a plan to expand its operations and create 1,500 new jobs.

This is the crux of the matter. The FSTMB is struggling for the nationalisation of the whole of the mining sector and the refoundation of Comibol as the sole state-owned mining company in Bolivia, under workers' control.

As a result of the clashes in the last few days, the Minister of Mines Villaroel has resigned and the government has appointed a new minister who is linked to unionised miners. FENCOMIN has announced it is breaking its political agreement with the MAS government.

This tragic conflict is the result of the vacillations in the policies of the MAS government (that are explained in an earlier article). Every half step taken to defend the interests of workers and peasants and to move against the privileges of the oligarchy and the multinationals has been met with fierce resistance. Faced with this resistance the MAS government, and particularly the wing around vice-president Garcia Linera, has made concessions (regarding the nationalisation of hydrocarbons, the land reform, the reactionary autonomy for the Eastern regions, the Constituent Assembly, etc).

This policy has only strengthened the resolve of the right wing which has now stepped up its campaign against the government, with international diplomatic attacks, hysteria in the mass media, the reactionary mobilisations in Santa Cruz, the "strike" of bus owners in La Paz, rumours of military coups, etc.

The only way to come out of this impasse, which threatens to demoralise the mass base of support of the Morales government, is to take serious steps forward towards the nationalisation of the country's natural resources, gas, mining and land, and put them firmly into the hands of workers and peasants. If the government of Morales wants to survive it has to get rid of its right-wing reformist elements, and lean decisively on the workers' and peasants' organisations to carry out a socialist programme. Anything short of that would only strengthen the resolve of the oligarchy and imperialism, demoralise the workers and peasants and ultimately lead to a bloodbath.


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