The Bolivian cooperatives’ protests and their August 25 killing of the Bolivian Vice Minister of the Interior Rodolfo Illanes requires us to question our assumptions about cooperatives. What are the Bolivian mining cooperatives? Most began during the Great Depression as miners banded together to work a mine in common. However, like many cooperatives in the US that arose out of the 1960s, they have turned into small businesses. Regardless of their initial intentions, cooperatives existing in a surrounding capitalist environment must compete in business practices or go under.
The Bolivian mining cooperatives themselves underwent this process, and have become businesses whose owners hire labor. Roughly 95% of the cooperative miners are workers, and 5% are owners. It is common for the employed workers to be temps, or contracted out employees as we refer to them here. They have no social security, no job security, no health or retirement benefits.
The mining cooperatives made ten demands on the government, and during the second week of August, they announced an indefinite strike if the government did not meet their demands, later adding another 14 to the first 10.
The three most significant demands included rejection of the General Law of Cooperative Mines, which guaranteed cooperative employees the right to unionize, since they are not cooperative co-owners. The cooperatives owners did not want their workers represented by unions.
Reuters, and the corporate press, true to form, falsely claimed the opposite, that the cooperative miners were protesting against the government and demanded their right to form unions.
A second demand was loosening of environmental regulations for the mining cooperatives.
The third key demand was to revoke the law disallowing national or transnational businesses from partnering in cooperatives. At present cooperatives have 31 contracts with private businesses, most signed before the Evo Morales era.
The cooperatives want the right to form partnerships with multi-nationals and exploit the natural resources without the laws protecting the environment. Opening the cooperatives to such privatization ran counter to what was voted on in the Constitution: “The natural resources are the property of the Bolivian people and will be administered by the State.”
The Evo Morales government nationalized Bolivia’s natural resources in 2006. Because of this the government share of the profits with corporations from the sale of gas and other natural resources has risen from around 15% to 85%. Previously under neoliberal governments, about 85% of the profits went to corporations. As a result, the Bolivian state has gained an extra $31.5 billion through 2015, which it has used to develop industry, infrastructure, schools, health care and hospitals to the mostly Original Peoples population. It has also provided many subsidies for the poor, benefiting 4.8 million Bolivians out of a population of just over 10 million. This has cut in half the number of Bolivians living in extreme poverty.
During the August cooperatives’ protests, the Evo Morales government had repeatedly stated it was open to dialogue, but pointed out it cannot violate the Constitution when faced with the demands of the cooperatives, which are thinking only of their personal profits.
Vice Minister Illanes went to meet with the miner cooperatives’ leaders of the FENCOMIN, Federacion de Cooperativas Mineras. He was tortured and killed and so far 9 have been charged, including the President of FENCOMIN, who was a leader in the violent protests.
Before this, Bolivian TV broadcast news of rioting miners charging at police, hurling stones and even sticks of dynamite. The police responded with tear gas to disperse the protesters. A number of police were injured during the protests. On August 24, two miners were shot at close range during the road blockades. If the police were responsible, it contravened the order of President Morales not only not to shoot, but to not bring firearms in the area of the road blockades.
Vice Minister of Coordination with Social Movements, Alfredo Rada, said after the murder that the issue of the mine cooperatives should be part of a national debate. He pointed out the cooperative workers are exploited by the owners, who have created a hierarchy inside the organizations for their private benefit. Rada added, “We respect true cooperativism, where all are equal, but these companies have been converted into semi-formal capitalist businesses.”
After the murder of Vice-Minister Illanes, Evo declared, “Once again, the national government has squashed an attempted coup.” He added that the miners had planned to entrench themselves at the roadblocks they had established and that documents confiscated from the offices of the cooperative miners mention “overthrowing the government.” He stated that some of the private business and cooperatives’ owners had deceived their workers.
The US has sought to undermine Evo Morales, going back to his first presidential election campaign. Bolivia’s Cabinet Chief Juan Ramon Quintana stated over the past eight years the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has funded around 40 institutions in Bolivia including economic and social centers, foundations and non-governmental organizations, at a total amount of over $10 million. US soft coup efforts reached their heights during the separatist movement by the rich white elite in the Media Luna, and during in the TIPNIS protests in 2011.
In the fall of 2015 the US developed the Strategic Plan for Bolivia to reverse the progressive popular changes in Bolivia and restore neoliberal-neocolonial rule. This was written by Carlos Alberto Montaner, a counter-revolutionary Cuban exile, US Congresspeople such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, in charge of USAID for Latin America, and chief leaders of the Bolivian opposition. One early result was the defeat of the Bolivian referendum to allow Evo Morales to run for president for a third term.
Venezuelan President Maduro has pointed out that the Dilma coup, the killing of the Bolivian minister, are part of an imperialist attack on the progressive governments of Latin America. “It is a continent-wide attack by the oligarchies and the pro-imperialist right wing against all the leaders, governments and popular movements, progressive and revolutionary left” said Maduro. “With Dilma in Brazil, with Evo in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, with Daniel in Nicaragua and with all the peoples and social movements of Latin America, Venezuela is going to struggle for a sovereign, independent, humane, and popular future.”
So far the US anti-war, anti-interventionist movements have not strongly responded to the escalating US coup attempts against progressive elected Latin American governments.