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.

Tactical experiments: New Jersey, Egypt, Thailand

Something that fascinates me is the continuing stream of innovative ways that people act collectively, and build power from the streets. To kick off a more “web-log”-ish side to this page, I want to share three stories worth following for their tactical innovation in New Jersey, Egypt, and Thailand. Rarely is a tactic really “new,” but innovation also comes when a tactic is brought into a new context, as well, suddenly empowering people who weren’t before. Also, while I’ve been vaguely following the protests in Thailand over the past couple years, I confess to not having any idea which side I would be on if I lived there, I’m just trying to learn vicariously from their experiences in the streets.

Social networking aids mass walkouts against statewide education budget cuts by New Jersey high school students: In New Jersey, a Civics Lesson in the Internet Age, New York Times

Sit-ins by labor activists in Egypt outside of Parliament.

Day after day, hundreds of workers from all over Egypt have staged demonstrations and sit-ins outside Parliament, turning sidewalks in the heart of the capital into makeshift camps and confounding government efforts to bring an end to the protests. Nearly every day since February, protesters have chanted demands outside Parliament during daylight and laid out bedrolls along the pavement at night. The government and its allies have been unable to silence the workers, who are angry about a range of issues, including low salaries.

These actions are vitally important because Egypt, the most populous country in the Middle East, has lived under an “Emergency” Law that suspends constitutional freedom since 1980 (and except for an eighteen month period, since 1967). Among the freedoms denied are freedom of the press, of speech, of assembly, and the rights to a public trial and to freedom from searches unauthorized by courts. The suppression of basic rights and democracy in Egypt (consistently one of the top three recipients of US military aid) has been one of the great silences of both American diplomacy and of US activists of all political persuasions who talk about the region. the AFL-CIO–funded Solidarity Center offers this report on how labor movements are getting active despite that silence.

Thai “Red Shirts”: Radio, Road Blockades, Mass Presence

Honking horns, singing folk songs and waving red flags, protesters converged on Abhisit’s house in an affluent Bangkok neighborhood where they splashed blood — a few spoonfuls donated by each — on the gates and fences amid pouring rain.

“We have washed Abhisit’s house with the blood of the common people to express our wish,” said Nattawut, as thousands of supporters rattled plastic clappers.

Protesters say the splashing of blood was a “symbolic sacrifice for democracy.” (Thai “red shirts” splatter blood at PM’s hom, Reuters, March 17)

A new red-shirt radio station went on air yesterday in the Rajprasong intersection protest-site area, in a move to counter the continued shutting down of red-shirt media by the government under emergency rule.

“They should allow us to criticise [the government], but instead they shut our ears and eyes,” Chinawat Haboonpak, a red-shirt leader told the crowd at the intersection yesterday morning. “We ask for just one television channel, but they have taken it away from us and shut our ears and eyes again.”  The new station – on FM 106.80 – broadcasts from a new tower installed near Lumpini Park and calls itself Rajprasong Community Radio. Its reception can be received all the way to Bang Na area, in eastern Bangkok. (Defiant red shirts put new radio station on air, The Nation [Bangkok], April 19)

A stubborn “red shirt” anti-government movement holding Bangkok hostage has its roots here in the country’s impoverished northeast, where Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is widely reviled. … The town that once supported a nearby air base where the U.S. military operated during the Vietnam war, and whose lively bars and hotels are a reminder of that time, has 400,000 registered members of the red shirt movement. …

Red shirts here and in at least six other provinces have blocked roads to stop convoys of armed troops and police from traveling to Bangkok, fearing an imminent crackdown on protesters occupying a Bangkok shopping district for 27 days.

In many of the provinces, the police and army are outnumbered and seem powerless — and apparently reluctant — to tackle them. (Protesters rule the roost in Thai “red shirt capital”, MSNBC, April 29)

Bailout Protest on Wall Street

Responding to an open call circulating in the city, some 300 protesters against the bailout plan gathered in New York’s financial district and marched to the New York Stock Exchange at Wall St. and Broad yesterday afternoon. The crowd was loud, diverse and fed up. Video coverage of the rally is part of today’s Democracy Now! The Indypendent has a live blog archive of the protest. Click on the picture below for more Indymedia photos.

Facing the New York Stock Exchange, protesters filled the intersection and the steps of Federal Hall
Facing the New York Stock Exchange, protesters filled the intersection and the steps of Federal Hall

Apparently, we weren’t the only people pissed off, either. TrueMajority.com is hosting a bulletin board for coordinating protests, with over 250 planned or carried out already, as covered her by CNN.

Being on the streets, there was a happy thrill to be back in force, in a protest taking over Wall Street for my first time since the J18 protest against the G8,* when a Reclaim the Streets protest flooded that intersection for nearly an hour. Of course, this time, our connection to most Americans was much more organic, as everyone from New York anarchists to Montana’s governor are raising big questions about this handover of government loans for junk securities.

What was strange, though, was to look so many Wall Street traders in the eyes. While many waded into the crowd to snap photos with their IPhones, others were visibly unnerved at the display of public opposition. And is the unfortunate nature of public protests we weren’t being the most articulate in our chants (see Tom Tomorrow from 1992 below), even if we were some times hillarious saying things like: “You break it, you bought it” and “You fucked up. Suck it up.” Above all, we needed to be loud and unequivocal in just the right physical space. Thankfully the media was the outlet for my desire to be articulate, and apparently for others desire if you listen to Democracy Now!

How we have to protest when the media and the two parties speak in unison
How we have to protest when the media and the two parties speak in unison

*Some of you may remember I worked on another more recent protest there, but I spent the morning working phones off-site.

GNN on Tibet struggle

The video collective Guerrilla News Network’s recent documentary on the Tibetan exile drive for independence asks some provocative questions, especially now that fighting back against the police has emerged as a tactic in recent days.

September 11th was a tragedy for the American people, but it was a boon for totalitarian regimes around the world. In the pursuit of its so-called “war on terror,” the United States has forged military alliances and inked trade deals with some of the world’s most repressive regimes. On September 13, 2001 China was quietly admitted to the World Trade Organization, and given Most Favored Nation status by U.S., despite the fact the country is one of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

With its economy booming, China has become desperate to exploit Tibet’s vast mineral and fuel reserves – and that has meant keeping a tight grip on any moves towards Tibetan autonomy. Arrests, torture and destruction of local culture continue despite the tireless work of Tibetan exiles and their high-profile western allies. In fact, the situation grows more dire by the day. Yet unlike an increasing number of indigenous liberation movements, Tibetans have not resorted to violence to achieve their goals.

In Faith in Exile, GNN asks, “Does the non-violent resistance of the Tibetan people provide a valuable lesson for a world in turmoil?”