The power of the cooperative miners

La Prensa, Oct 8

In September of last year – in the prelude to the electoral campaign leading up to the presidential elections – two figures from the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS), Santos Ramirez and Cesar Navarro, contacted Walter Villarroel, leader of the National Federation of Cooperative Miners (Fencomin), looking for a strategic alliance for the “Evo, President” project. From that moment, Villarroel negotiated two types of pacts, one with the national cooperative miners sector and another exclusively with the four cooperative of Huanuni: La Salcadora, Playa Verde, Karazapato and Relaveros. He closed the deal with two conditions: that his sector participates in the list of parliamentarians and obtain a portfolio in the executive power.

Both demands were accepted by the MAS leadership, for which there were 6 cooperative miners from La Paz, Oruro and Potosi included in the lists presented to the National Electoral Court. Today, three of those are legislators: Victor Mena, Hilarion Bustos and Alex Cerrogrande, the last one is also a member of the directorate of the lower house.

Villarroel’s work earned him the position of Minister of Mining, given the agreement, as well as the fact that he broke off the support of the Huanuni cooperative miners towards Social and Democratic Power (Podemos). The principal negotiator of the front lead by Jorge Quiroga was the actual senator for Oruro, Carlos Borth. “Due to there numbers, they represent a strong support for any party”, Afterwards, Borth had to look for other cooperative miners for his assignment; the reason why this sector also counts with two parliamentarians from Potosi.

But the majority of the followers of the cooperative miners played the winning card: Evo Morales, who, after becoming president, demanded the promulgation of measures that benefited them in their extraction work and, separately, gave positions in foreign diplomatic representations.

In this way, their capacity to find alliances with political forces that have the most possibility of winning in election fights was ratified. According to the ex-parliamentarians Hugo Carvajal (MIR) and Luis Siles (MNR), in consecutive government, the cooperative miners were always strategic allies due to the fact that they were a large group. That is how they influenced all governments since 1993.

Nevertheless, after the recent conflicts in Huanuni, the government has cut its strings with the cooperative miners, dismissing Villarroel from the cabinet. The leaders of Fencomin and the MAS legislators assure this. “We no longer have participation in the executive and therefore we are not part of the government”, said Victor Mena.

Similarly, the governing party considered that there would not be a “political cost” as a result of this rupture. The head of the MAS deputy bench, Cesar Navarro affirmed that now the executive would push forward with a real mining reactivation, which had been relegated by Villarroel.

Beneficial norms

For its political participation in consecutive governments, the cooperative miners sector was one of ones that most benefited in regards to norms in the area. Approximately 17 decrees can be counted since 1993.

In Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s first term (1993-1997), they achieved three laws in their favour. One of them, law 1786, alienated the shares of the Mining Corporation of Bolivia (Comibol) to hand them over directly to the cooperative miners, in terms of sales on credit and/or in financial leasing.

During the government of Democratic Nationalist Action (AND), between 1997 and 2002, these types of norms continued coming. The supreme decrees 26318, 26812 and 26942 created the Miners Program for Productive Employment in which the state subsidised funds lost by the mining cooperatives, via Comibol, due to the drop in the prices of minerals in the world market.

During Sanchez de Lozada’s second halted term (2002-2003), Fencomin gained half a dozen decrees. One of the most important is 27192, which opened, unconstitutionally, the directorate of Comibol to include three cooperative miners as directors.

Also, during the Carlos Mesa term (2003-2005) three other dispositions were handed over to them and, the at the time prefect of Oruro, Walter Lague, was a quota for the cooperative miners. Even the ex-president, Eduardo Rodriguez, looked to approve Decree 28459, through which funds from Comibol were to be transferred to this sector, but, in the end, the directorate of Comibol opposed this measure for being unconstitutional.

Mining Stats

Fencomin, due to the extraction of mines, owes the state $12.6 million.

The cooperative miners intended to push the government to cancel this debt with the government.

Comibol was the company that most handed over machinery to this sector in the last few years. The majority of these transfers went to lost funds, that is to say, for free.

At least 17 decrees have benefited the cooperative miners since 1993.

In May 2004, these workers initiated the violent take over of metallurgical centres. The Pacuni mine, in Caracoles, was the first to illegal fall into their hands.

The installations and equipment from the vetoes were handed over to the cooperative miners.

Mining exploitation carried out by this sector did not respond to any planning.

A sector that grows in members

There are 510 mining cooperatives in the country. It is calculated that the workers in this area are more than 100,000. If we take into consideration the families of those affiliated, this number is multiplied by five. Without doubt, a numerous sector and for that reason, consecutive governments have preferred to have them as allies.

Just in Huanuni alone there are 4000 cooperative miners, a number that doubled in the last 5 years, given that the investigation Dynamite and Contaminants (PIEB, 2002) by Hans Moeller, registered 2.250 in the four subsidiaries in the region: Karazapato (700), Libres (600), Salvadora Huanuni (600) and Playa Verde (450). The reasons? The arrival of the cooperative Relaveros, the affiliation of jukus (mineral robbers) in the zone and the return of 100s of those previously relocated.

The study also pointed out that until 1980 there existed some 17,000 cooperative miners in Bolivia and by the year 2000 the sector had tripled to counting 47,538 members and a large number of people depended on them, estimated at 251,951. The group’s numbers currently is rising, due to the attractive international prices of minerals.

Translated from La Prensa

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