Interview with Bolivian Miners’ Leader

Roberto Chavez, the general secretary of the FSTMB (Bolivian Miners’ Union), spoke to Alan Woods about the conditions of the miners and their role in the class struggle in Bolivia. Their view is that the Morales government is not going far enough. They want serious, radical change.

Alan Woods speaks to Roberto Chavez, general secretary of the FSTMB

Roberto Chavez, the general secretary of the FSTMB (Bolivian Miners’ Union), spoke to Alan Woods about the conditions of the miners and their role in the class struggle in Bolivia. Their view is that the Morales government is not going far enough. They want serious, radical change.

AW: What is the political situation now in Bolivia?

Roberto Chavez
Roberto Chavez

R.CH: The right wing wishes to destabilise the government, but so far it has failed. Although Evo Morales won the elections, the right wing has some strength in the Senate and is using its position to sabotage the sessions and disrupt legislation.

They manoeuvred against the new agrarian law. But the comrade peasants organized a march in every part of the country. The big landowners treat the peasants like slaves. They want to halt the agrarian law but on the other hand, they lack a mass social base and have no power to mobilize.

The oligarchy is trying to mobilize against the government. They are bitterly opposed to the new law on oil and gas. One big capitalist, Samuel Doria Medina, the head of a cement business, went on hunger strike ‘in defence of private property'.

So far it has had little effect. The right wing - that is to say, the Santa Cruz oligarchy - has spent millions of dollars to try to mobilize but has failed to get results. The people have seen all this as a threat. They understand that behind all the talk about ‘defending democracy' are the interests of the oligarchy. The people are mobilizing to fight this.

AW: What is the position of the Evo Morales government?

R.CH: Evo Morales calls his government a "people's government", but this government is not really a government of the workers. It has an inconsistent position and there are serious contradictions in the government itself. Evo definitely made a mistake when he formed an alliance with people who were linked to the bourgeoisie in the past. This includes small businessmen who call their businesses "co-operatives".

Take the Vice President, Alvaro Garcia Linera, for example. He is an ex-guerrilla but is now a Social Democrat. He is next to Evo, but he maintains contact with the right wing. He is a clever man and well read, but he is not on the same line as Evo on such questions as oil and gas. In reality he is working against Evo.

Evo Morales got the support of the peasants and the indigenous people: Some people were saying that the Bolivian Miners are no longer the vanguard of the proletariat. But that is not true. The miners remain the vanguard of the proletariat and we are more determined than ever to defend the interests of all the people. What the people really want is what they voted for in October 2003 - a workers' government.

However, we must take into account the mass of poor peasants and other oppressed layers of the population who were totally neglected by the oligarchy.

AW: What is the relation between the Miners' Union and the government?

Alan Woods talks to Bolivian minersR.CH: As you know, the FSTMB stands for a class policy, as reflected in our congress documents. We cannot enter into coalition with parties that do not accept these positions. Therefore, when Evo Morales entered the government, we proposed that he carry out the programme of 2003. We want change and we have fought for change. But, following the demands of our own rank and file, we did not join the government. They invited us to join, and even offered us the ministry of mines. We said ‘No, but we are prepared to discuss concrete measures for the mining industry.

Evo Morales came to visit us. He said: "I have great respect for the FSTMB. The miners are the vanguard of the proletariat." We said: "If you want our support, then you must carry out the programme of 2003. You must nationalize the country's wealth. That is the only policy that corresponds to the interests of the working class and also the middle class. If you carry out such a policy, we will participate in the process."

AW: What do you think of the law on gas and oil?

R.CH: This law is not exactly what we want. Evo said: "Little by little we will carry out real nationalization." But the policy of the government is not clear. We have state owned mines, but also private mines and co-operative mines. Evo Morales gave the ministry of mines to a representative of the latter - Walter Villarreal. This was a negative development. We told him: "You should put in somebody who really knows the mining industry, not a technocrat."

AW: What are the conditions of the Bolivian miners like and what is the government doing to improve them?

R.CH: The conditions of the Bolivian miners are incredibly bad. The work is hard and dangerous, with serious risks to health. It is enough to point out that the average life expectancy of a miner is between 40 and 45. Many start work as young as 15. After 30 years down the mines, their health has been undermined.

Evo Morales is doing some good things. At least he is trying to reverse the law on pensions. In the past a miner could retire at 50, and a woman at 45, which is entirely justified by the harsh conditions of work in the mines. Now, after paying into a pension fund all their lives, the miners get nothing.

They passed a law fixing the age of retirement at 70! That means that most miners die before they can claim a pension. When a miner dies before reaching the pension age, they tell his widow: "You must wait until your husband would have reached pensionable age before we pay you anything." I hope that the government will abolish this injustice and introduce a new law on pensions.

AW: What is the union's attitude to nationalisation?

R.CH: We consider nationalisation as a conquest of the working class, which must be defended. Losada privatized mines, though he often did this through the back door, through private contractors. Private mining is disguised as co-operatives...

AW: The media have carried reports about violent clashes between miners in Huanuni. How do you explain these clashes and what is behind them?

R.CH: The root cause of this was the fact that Evo handed over the ministry of mining to a representative of the co-operatives. This minister was the real intellectual author of the events in Huanuni, with the backing of the leaders of the co-operatives nationally.

Huanuni is an important mining area. In the 1980s they carried out a policy of privatisation that led to the establishment of private mines and co-operatives there. This was a negative development.

The conditions of the miners in general are hard, but at least the wage workers work under regulated conditions, under the labour laws. But the workers in the co-ops are theoretically ‘autonomous' (i.e., self-employed). There is no kind of control or regulations. These miners are told: ‘Just get in there and get out what you can. There are no health or security regulations. In the state-owned mines the average wage is several times higher than that of the miners in the co-operatives, who also have no pension rights.

The owners of these mines want to take over state owned mines by violent means. They organized an armed assault on the mines. It was a serious attack, with dynamite and other weapons. There was a bloody battle. The miners in the state-owned mines defended themselves and a number of miners were killed in these actions and many were wounded. But we succeeded in defeating them.

After the battle the wounded were cared for and now most of the injured miners are back at work. We looked after the families of the miners who had been killed. Was it worth it? The death of our comrades was a tragedy. But it was worth the sacrifice to defend the interests of the miners and to uphold nationalisation. Moreover we succeeded in winning over most of the workers who had previously been working in the co-ops. We offered to incorporate them into the state-owned mines with better wages and conditions.


AW: What was the outcome of the battle of Huanuni?

R.CH: Evo Morales said: "This is a tragedy." We told him: "Yes, and you are partly to blame." We offered the government a political solution to the problem of Huanuni. We said that no more concessions be given out to co-operatives, and that all future mining concessions should be given to state-owned mining companies. This was eventually agreed and so now most of the comrades are no longer working in co-operatives.

AW: What are the future perspectives for Bolivia?

R.CH: The elections really did not solve anything. Evo Morales does not have a majority in the congress and the situation in the senate is even worse. The oligarchy and the right wing will fight to defend their interests. We must fight against the right wing. The masses will play a decisive role in this process. We will fight the right wing and at the same time we will exert pressure on congress to force through structural changes.

A fundamental change is needed. There is no reason why a country so rich in resources should be poor, and in the future Bolivia will not be a poor country any more. But in order to realize our goals it is necessary to fight, and the fight is not over. Comrades! The fight must continue! With the support of our comrades in other countries, I am sure we will succeed!