Bolivia: Cooperatives in Conflict

Mining cooperatives in Bolivia are currently engaged in a deep and violent conflict with the Bolivian government and the struggle is not set to be resolved any time soon. We talk to members of the cooperative movement and citizens of La Paz to find out why.

On arriving in La Paz, the unofficial capital of Bolivia where we have been living and volunteering for the past six weeks, it didn’t take us long to realise that, just like their Argentinean neighbours, the people of Bolivia are no strangers to the art of protest. Of course, President Evo Morales’ socialist policies could not be more different from Argentina’s newly elected neoliberal President Mauricio Macri. But even in a country that claims to be socialist, there is still a great deal of social conflict, and the culture of protest in Bolivia is as strong as ever.

There is currently one demonstration of social unrest that is attracting the entire nation’s attention and has been on the front page of the newspapers almost every day for over a month. That is the conflict between the government and the cooperative movement, more specifically the mining cooperatives,who are protesting against forced unionisation. The mining cooperatives are by far the strongest and most active sector within the Bolivian cooperative movement. Whenever the miners go on strike in Bolivia, cooperative or otherwise, the whole country pays attention; they are widely associated with the downfall with the previous government, and their protest tactics create headlines.

One of the tactics used by miners, common across Latin America, is to instigate road blockades. Just like the road blockades we witnessed in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, this form of protest is incredibly effective in a country like Bolivia, as the lack of alternative routes in and out of its urban hubs means that the road blockades effectively grind the country to a halt. However, on the weekend of 12 August, when the mining cooperatives first initiated the blockades, the effect was more just economic. The blockades were also a cause of grave concern for thousands of Bolivians, who were planning on travelling to Cochabamba for one of the most important religious festivals of the year, El Virgen de Urkupiña. Due to public pressure, the miners reluctantly lifted the road blockades in time for the festival. But the tactics of the protesters continue to test public support. There have also been several cases of protesters kidnapping police officers and assaulting them, in some cases leaving them in a critical medical condition.

Carlos Cardozo, Project Manager at CONCOBOL, the national confederation of cooperatives in Bolivia, explained that among other demands which specifically concerned their sector, the miners were mainly protesting against an amendment to the recent Cooperatives Law, which effectively forced the workers of all cooperatives to become members of a trade union. To readers in the UK, a country where trade unions have historically been so heavily demonised and attacked by the government, it is strange to hear of a government forcing workers to unionise, and even more difficult to understand why people would protest against this in such an extreme way. But the situation in Bolivia is very different to the UK.

Carlos explained that worker and producer cooperatives such as the Bolivian mining cooperatives do not need unions, as the worker members are democratically represented under their own cooperative structure. Furthermore, the nature of trade unions in Bolivia present a threat to the cooperative movement as they are effectively an instrument of the government and do not represent a neutral third party. Therefore, the forced unionisation of cooperatives in Bolivia would effectively strip the cooperative associations of their autonomy and independence, one of the seven key principles to which all cooperatives around the world must adhere. In other words, the influence of the powerful unions with their close links to the government would mean that certain members would likely be elected over others, and the participative democracy that is integral to any cooperative would be lost.

According to Carlos, there has long been a conflict between the cooperative movement and Evo Morales’ government. He suggests that Morales does not understand the difference between cooperatives and other private enterprises, and has been attempting to nationalise cooperatives in various sectors and make them state-run. However, others claim that the government gives cooperatives a lot of special treatment (for example, the government donated to CONCOBOL their office space), and that many businesses claim to be cooperatives in order to be treated favourably, whilst in reality practising none of the cooperative values and principles. There are even claims that some cooperatives contract cheaper labour who are not members and therefore have little to no workers rights. This brings into question the current regulation of the cooperative movement and perhaps validating calls for unionisation.

If this new law really does pose a threat to cooperatives’ autonomy and democracy, as Carlos claims, the reasons for why the mining cooperatives are protesting may be understandable. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the means they are undertaking to win their case are extreme to say the least. After a temporary lift of the blockades and a promising start to a dialogue, the miners, unsatisfied with how the conversations with the government were going, blocked the roads a second time. The violence escalated. On 25 August, the Deputy Interior Minister, Rodolfo Illanes, was kidnapped by a group of miners in Panduro and was later found to have been brutally beaten and murdered. Since then, the miners have also lost three people on their side in clashes with the police.

Many Bolivians will say that this is quite simply the way the miners protest in Bolivia, and these extreme tactics are in no way unique to the cooperative movement. Miners have a long tradition of protest methods such as road blockades, police kidnappings and the use of dynamite in their demonstrations, which have often worked in their favour. This was also Carlos’ way of justifying the cooperatives’ actions. He simply said, ‘They are miners, that is how miners have always protested.’

Unsurprisingly, according to many, the small amount of support the miners may have had at the beginning of this conflict has rapidly deteriorated following the kidnappings and now the deaths that have taken place. Unfortunately, the conflict seems to be far from being resolved, and we can only hope that more lives are not lost before a compromise is reached between the cooperatives and the Bolivian government.

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