Bolivia: Evo averts crisis, hails day of indigenous resistance

Thousands of Bolivians marked Oct. 12 with a demonstration in a central plaza in La Paz which was also a show of support for leftist president Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president. Accompanied by indigenous leaders from 12 countries–who were attending the Continental Meeting of Indigenous Peoples and Nationalities of AbyaYala (an ancient indigenous name for the Americas)–Morales announced that the date had gone from marking the “misfortune” of the European colonization to marking the “liberation” of the indigenous people of the continent. About 10,000 people participated, according to the Spanish wire service EFE, far less than the 100,000 the government had anticipated.

The demonstration came after a series of last-minute negotiations with which Morales’ government appeared to have cooled off a crisis that set sectors of his base against each other and the government. (EFE, Oct. 12; AFP, EFE, Oct. 13)

In the early morning of Oct. 5 a long-standing dispute between workers in the state-owned Corporacion Minera de Bolivia (COMIBOL) and private mining cooperatives erupted into violence at the Posokoni hill tin mine in Huanuni, in the southwestern department of Oruro. Cooperative workers tried to seize control of the mine, and COMIBOL workers resisted, with both sides hurling sticks of dynamite at each other–and firing guns, according to some reports. The confrontation continued into Oct. 6, leaving 16 people dead and 61 injured.

The cooperatives sprang up after much of the mining sector was privatized in the 1990s; they now employ more workers than the COMIBOL mines. The miners are poorly paid in both sectors, but the COMIBOL workers are unionized and receive some benefits. The Posokoni mine accounts for almost half of Bolivia’s tin production and 5% of world production, and with world tin prices rising, the cooperatives wanted a larger share in the mine. Both sectors have supported the Morales government; the mining minister, Walter Villarroel, was a registered member of one of the cooperatives. The government held 16 meetings with the two sides from March to October but apparently didn’t take the threat of major violence seriously enough. Villarroel was dismissed after the incidents of Oct. 5-6. (AFP, EFE, Oct. 13; Upside Down World, Oct. 10)

On Oct. 10 hundreds of members of the Bolivian Workers Central (COB), the main union confederation, marched in La Paz to protest what it said was the government’s failure to prevent the violent confrontation between miners. Hundreds of Morales supporters held a counterdemonstration and confronted the COB members, who responded by detonating sticks of dynamite, but without injuring anyone. Adding to the tensions, public transport workers in La Paz started an open-ended strike on Oct. 9 against the municipal government. On Oct. 10 about 400 bus owners and drivers began a hunger strike to protest the national government’s decision to legalize some 60,000 vehicles that have been smuggled into the country in recently years; the transport owners and workers feel the presence of the vehicles is cutting into their business. (AP, Oct. 11)

Transport workers were planning a 48-hour national strike starting Oct. 12, while newspapers carried reports that rightwing military and police sectors were planning a coup. But after 14 hours of negotiations, the government and the bus drivers’ union signed an agreement the morning of Oct. 12: the legalization of smuggled vehicles is postponed for 60 days, and the transport workers will have input into the form of the legalization decree. Meanwhile, the government appeared to have cooled off the situation with the miners by opening separate talks with the two sides. The government agreed to provide economic assistance to families of the people killed in the fighting and to cover medical expenses for the injured; the most seriously wounded may be sent to Cuba for treatment. (AFP, EFE, Oct. 13)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Oct. 15

See our last post on Bolivia and the miners struggle.