What’s behind the Potosí regional strike?

As the department-wide strike in Potosí continues to edge into the international press (primarily through its effect on tourists and now upon mining companies that operate in the region), I want to give more of the background on the strike and its demands, so it’s at least understandable why people are blockading and hunger striking there.

“It can be summed up in one single thing: in misery. … We are fighting for a hill that as of yet is not a factory, just a hill; it’s raw material. For the dream that some time we, that the families that live there, might have something. They are places forgotten by the hand of God: they don’t have water. They are using up the water in the wells. There is no electricity. It is misery.”
Saúl Juarez, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

If you are from North America, this use of misery might be unfamiliar to you, but it is common in the language of Latin America. We must first organize, then-Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide once said, to move from misery to poverty. Here in the hemisphere’s second-poorest country (after Haiti), Potosí is the poorest of nine departments. The rate of extreme poverty, which is falling nationwide, is still 66.7%; meaning that two-thirds of Potosinos cannot afford to buy their family’s basic necessities. Of every 1000 live births there, 101 children will die before their fifth birthday. Both of these figures are the highest in Bolivia; in the case of child mortality, the second place departments—La Paz and Chuquisaca—see 63 deaths per 1000 children. It is for this reason that Potosinos have spread to the rest of the country in search of better opportunities.

“We can say that we are fighting for the reactivation of the productive apparatus of Potosí.”
Claudia López, Potosino hunger striker in Cochabamba

Most of the demands advanced by the Potosí mobilization are focused on specific industrial or economic projects, which in the eyes of protesters, have languished for the lack of state interest. The boundary dispute with Oruro centers around two hills that contain limestone, a key ingredient for cement, and a second demand is for a cement plant to earn money and create jobs from that resource. Likewise, Potosinos are calling for the activation of a metallurgy plant and for the creation of an international airport to connect Uyuni and its phenomenal salt flats to international tourists.

Potosí, of course, is not poor for the simple lack of investment from the outside. It has never simply languished in the absence of foreign interest. Instead, it was once the largest the city in the Western world precisely because of the rich attraction its mineral wealth held for the Spanish state and its investors. Immense wealth was symbolized by the Cerro Rico which sits above the city, or simply by the phrase “it’s worth a Potosí.” Every Bolivian, rich or poor, left or right, knows how Bolivian wealth enriched Spain, and through it Europe. And every Bolivian understands that to take part in that wealth requires doing more than extracting minerals from the ground and shipping them out of the country.

More recently, Potosí was hit hard by the shock-therapy program of neoliberal economic restructuring that began in 1985. At the time, the miners who worked for COMIBOL—the national mining company that took over the mines run by three wealthy tin barons in 1952—were the strongest social movement in the country. The government of Paz Estenssoro aimed to break this power, and essentially shut down the government-run mining sector to do so, laying off tens of thousands of workers. Those miners who did not resettle elsewhere in the country became the backbone of the cooperative mining sector, a collection of small scale mining projects that engage in uncoordinated mining of the Cerro Rico, and other mountains like it, in search of rich veins of minerals. Decades of such drilling have brought the Cerro to the brink of structural collapse, posing the threat that the hill—recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO—could become a ruin.

“They all come to promise and promise, and to say this and that could be done. The [current] government has done the same: it has promised. But after five years of their rule, of creating new laws and a new constitution, of re-electing them, there is nothing. … So, we want dates; we want concrete responses of when and how; we want specific studies; we want operational plans that establish dates for the processes that are going to happen.”
Claudia López

If one had to choose a symbol of the capacity for delay in pursuing development projects in Bolivia, it might well be Karachipampa, the metallurgical plant that the mobilization is demanding to be activated. This lead and silver smelter was built between 1985 and 1988. It has never operated.

Several years ago, in 2005, the Canadian firm Atlas Precious Metals Inc. entered a shared-risk agreement to invest in the plant. You can see on their web page an optimistic assessment of the plant’s production capacity. As of April, only 20% of the firm’s promised investment had been realized (article in Spanish). Currently, Atlas and COMIBOL are in a legal dispute in which Atlas demands its $12 million investment be repaid, and COMIBOL seeks compensation for the value of the plant, which remains unused. In a letter to the government (es), the Potosinista Civic Committee washes its hands of the whole dispute and demands:

The only thing the Potosí people want is to see, in an immediate manner, the effective functioning of the Karachipampa Plant, whether it is with the [foreign] company or through state intervention.

Beyond all these details, the strongest emotion visible here is simple, exhausted, impatience. Whether the timeline is 21 years for the plant, or 5 years for the MAS government, or three generations for the border dispute (more on that when I can provide a fuller background, or transcribe more of my interview with a Coroma resident), those who have thrown themselves into this protest have run out of patience. Against the experience of delay, they have enacted tactics based on urgency: extended blockades, hunger strikes, and so on. So far, Potosinos themselves, beginning with the hunger strikers have borne most of the costs of these urgent tactics themselves, or imposed them on the surrounding communities. However, they are increasingly enacting or talking about tactics that will cost companies operating in the region substantial losses on a daily basis.

Potosí isolated by 12-day regional protest

[There is, as of today, rising hope for negotiations to begin between the Government and Potosinos (and for three-way dialogue with Oruro on the border issue to take place as well) soon. More on that soon. This post comes as written yesterday. Also, I added a little bit on Pablo Solón’s comments on Democracy Now at the end.]

A department-wide general strike in Potosí department, Bolivia’s traditional mining center, has entered its thirteenth day today, with no clear end in sight. The strike is now taking three major forms: a comprehensive blockade of transport in and out of the department, a general closure of businesses by both their workers and owners, and a growing hunger strike reported at more than 500 people on Sunday. The mobilization was backed by a remarkable show of unity on last Tuesday, August 3, when some 100,000 people marched in the city of Potosí in support of the effort. The number is phenomenal relative to the city’s population of 160,000, and even the department’s of some 700,000.

The systematic isolation of the department has made it impossible for me to visit the protests, once it became clear (with the march) just how significant this event is. Hundreds of trucks and buses are lined up at the various entrances to the department. As of Sunday, the Governor of Chuquisaca was mobilizing food and supplies to people stranded on the border.

Potosinos in protest are coordinated by the Civic Committee of Potosí, a coordinating committee of major institutions. Other key actors include the community of Coroma (part of which is in territory also claimed by a neighboring community in the department of Oruro), the Federation of Cooperative Miners, and since the massive march, major politicians including Governor Félix Gonzales (MAS). Gonzales and four Potosino members of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly (formerly, the National Congress) are at the head of the hunger strike.

Compared to the mobilization, the demands are quite modest:

  1. Delimitation of the inter-departmental border between Quillacas (Oruro) and Coromo (Potosí), which centers around control over limestone resources in the area
  2. Installation of a cement plant in the Coroma region, using those resources
  3. Reactivation of the metallurgy plant in Karachipampa, currently suspended due to a legal conflict among two companies
  4. Preservation of the Cerro Rico, the massive mining mountain just outside the city of Potosí, whose structural future is in jeopardy after five centuries of mining
  5. Construction of an international airport for Potosí as soon as possible
  6. Completion of delayed highway projects

The protests seemed to have expanded as rapidly as they did because in the first week the national government insisted, primarily through its Minister of Autonomy Carlos Romero, that they were a purely partisan effort in defense of Potosí Mayor René Joaquino (see ). This added to a sense of indignation at being ignored by a MAS government to which they have supplied an overwhelming vote for the past five years. Their sense of being slighted has rebounded into the chant (heard at a solidarity march of Potosinos here, as well) of “Potosí Federal,” a call for devolving power to the region. (This is clearly not a demand of the mobilization, however, and it’s unclear how such a demand would differ from the departmental autonomy approved by referendum in December, and soon to be delimited by a Statute of Autonomy.) Comcipo leader Celestino Condori emphasized a new sense of unity on the day of the march, “We’d like to demonstrate to the government that in Potosí, there is unity, among Moors and Christians; everyone is changing their polleras [traditional indigenous women’s dress] to put on the red and white which are the colors of the Potosino flag.” In action, this is taking the form of a wide variety of hunger strike pickets led by different organizations, and since the weekend, spreading to other cities in Bolivia.

Currently, the impasse blocking negotiations concerns where and how they might take place. As with movements across the continent (and using good strategic sense), the Potosí movement has demanded to negotiate at their place of strength, while the pressure of mobilization is on. On the other hand, the Morales government is insisting that discussion of border must occur in neutral territory and that no negotiations can take place without an intermediate truce that suspends mechanisms of pressure. On the question of territory, they are backed up by concerns that Oruro might mobilize as well if discussions began on non-neutral ground. Oruro’s civil society placed themselves in a “state of emergency,” preparing to mobilize last weekend.

In a broader sense, this mobilization is one of a growing number of signs that MAS allies (and members, such as the governor) are moving to pressure the national government over particular demands, making Evo Morales’ second administration a period of serious conflict, though of a very different kind than the years of confrontation with the right-wing of the media luna. It also is an early sign that the new autonomy in the western departments will come with genuine political independence on the part of regional leaders.

Incompetent English-language coverage: As a side note, this central political story in the last week here in Bolivia is being described to the English-speaking world by reporters who can only be described as myopically focused on the lives of wealthy foreign tourists and stunningly ignorant of local realities. Local realities such as the front page stories of every single national newspaper. Associated Press, I’m talking about you. Here, in its entirety is Saturday’s AP story on the Potosí situation:

Protest traps tourists in Bolivian highland city

(AP) – 1 day ago

LA PAZ, Bolivia — A protest by Bolivian miners has trapped more than 100 mostly European tourists in the southern Bolivia mining city of Potosi for more than a week.

The protesters piled rocks on the runway of the Potosi airport Friday to prevent a plane from landing to pick up some of the foreign tourists.

The miners have also blocked roads into the area for 10 days.

Also trapped are about 500 Bolivians, and local media say the blockade is beginning to cause food shortages in the city of 200,000 people.

The miners have a series of grievances with the government, including a demand to reactivate mines that officials ordered closed and to settle land disputes. (“Protest traps tourists in Bolivian highland city,” The Associated Press)

I’ve highlighted in red things that are basically wrong, or reflect the listening-to-other media’s-stories as reporting that seems to have gone into this story, filed from La Paz. As noted above, cooperative miners are one of many groups that have folded into the department-wide protest. There are substantial reports of Bolivians being stranded, but descriptions of around five hundred people refer to people on vehicles waiting to get in to the region. “The area” is actually the Department of Potosí, which has one “land dispute” on the table, its border with Oruro. The only mine under discussion in the demands is the Cerro Rico, whose structural instability could result in the closure of mining, under a review currently underway and encouraged by UNESCO, which maintains the mountain (as well as the city) on its World Heritage list. For details of the actual airport incident, which did involve miners, you can see this article in Spanish. For consolation on the ability of English reporters to competently discuss life in Bolivia, see this piece from Agence France Presse: Protesters seize Bolivia airfield, seal off Potosi.

Pablo Solón on Democracy Now: Potosí got a sliver of further US media coverage today with the mention of the protest made by Amy Goodman while interviewing Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations Pablo Solón. Amy’s question got to the heart of the protest: “The demonstrators are calling for more investment by the Bolivian government in the lithium-rich area.” And Solón basically dodged her question by talking about borders and not development commitment. It’s hard not to be sympathetic with him having to explain this issue alongside the other awesome work he’s doing, which the interview does a good job of describing.