Bolivia’s two worlds

May 11, 2014

A new conflict broke out in Bolivia at the end of March. Thousands of miners blocked highways in five departments of Bolivia to protest a pending new mining law. Three miners were killed by the national police, while the miners took dozens of police hostage. To grasp the meaning of these events, we need to look at what has been occurring in Bolivia since Evo Morales’ election as president at the end of 2005.

Two perspectives for the future are being fought out in Bolivia. We are not talking only about the revolutionary transformation in Bolivia, 2000 to the present, vs. the neoliberal private capitalism that continues to be a strong presence. This is a real, ongoing conflict. We are speaking of the conflict between a developmentalist, extractivist state-capitalism that calls itself socialism and a many-faceted Indigenous social movement taking place within the revolutionary transformation of Bolivia post-2000. This second, deeper struggle is the one which will help to determine whether the fight against capitalism–private and state–can be won.

There have been a number of manifestations of this second struggle since the rise of the Morales-Garcia Linera government, an administration that has opposed full self-determination of the vast Indigenous majority in Bolivia, and has not hesitated to strike deals and compromises with foreign and domestic neoliberal private capitalism in its determination to build a huge state presence in the economy and society as a whole. Thus:

  • Immediately on taking power, the MAS government of Morales decreed that the form for the constituent assembly–which had been actively demanded by the social movements since 2000–would be based on MAS Party representation rather than social movement representation.
  • The conflict over the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS), the lowland Amazonian region that the government is intent on developing despite the resistance of many Indigenous groups, continues. Vice President Garcia Linera put forth a developmentalist strategy for the region–part of his concept of Amazonian-Andean capitalism–under the wing of the government, as the ground for any possible far-off-future development of socialism. In the meantime, the desires of Indigenous groups in the TIPNIS are dismissed as linked to neoliberal capitalism, and a government attempt to create rival Indigenous groups in the region is underway.
  • In urban areas, the government’s attempt to dramatically increase gas prices through a high-handed arbitrary decree was met with massive opposition from El Alto’s Indigenous population and had to be rescinded. As with TIPNIS, this fight revealed starkly different views of how Bolivia’s future would be determined.



The mines were nationalized as a result of the 1952 Revolution, and the huge state corporation COMIBOL was created, with the militant, revolutionary mine workers’ union, the Union Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers, having a crucial voice.

However, in the 1980s under neoliberal rule, the mining industry and the miners and their powerful union were dealt devastating blows. In the last decades of the 20th century, the demand for minerals dropped and the mines were reprivatized. Many miners lost their jobs. Some moved to the city, particularly El Alto, and became militants in the struggle. Others sought to keep mining by forming small cooperatives, non-union, to extract ore and sell it privately.

With the election of the Morales government, some mines have been renationalized and become state-run with the presence of the mine workers’ union, others remain private. Miners are now sharply divided between unionized workers in the state mines and cooperatives of non-union miners.


Nevertheless, the question is not simply one of state vs. private mines, of union vs. non-union miners, though this is part of the question. The state–that is, the MAS government–is interested in developing the state mines as well as the private mines, but with state supervision. The new mining law was designed to give precedence to the state mines and prevent cooperatives from selling to private concerns. It sought to bar cooperatives from seeking private investment, restricting them to contracts with the Bolivian state.

The cooperative miners felt deeply threatened and launched their protest. Their massive demonstrations have made the government halt the imposition of the new law and rewrite it to allow private contracts for the cooperatives.

However, the rewritten law would give the government more power to be extractivist and developmentalist. It would allow mining operators to expand their exploitation of water resources to include not only the immediate mining area, but adjacent lands as well.

Indigenous groups, campesinos and environmentalists deeply question this kind of “progress,” which despoils the land. The focus of the government is not about miners, union or non-union, but about state control and development of resources. But where are the voices of the Bolivian social movements, as well as all the Bolivian miners? The two worlds of Bolivia continue in high tension.

–Eugene Walker

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