An “Agonized Siege Over a Roomful of Dynamite”: Histories of Violence Between Miners and the Bolivian State
by Elena McGrath, ILAS Stipendiary Fellow and PhD Candidate at University of Wisconsin-Madison
On August 26, 2016, Bolivian deputy minister of the interior Rodolfo Illanes was found beaten to death in Panduro, Bolivia, approximately 160 kilometres southeast of La Paz. The official had been taken hostage the day before by cooperative miners as he travelled to negotiate a settlement on behalf of the government of Evo Morales. As late as Thursday afternoon, the Bolivian press were reporting that Illanes was alive and well — he had told radio network ERBOL that he was safe in the custody of the miners. Just hours later, however, police exchanged fire with striking workers, killing four. A fifth died as a result of a botched dynamite explosion. Illanes did not survive the night, and his body — showing signs of blows to the head and ribs — was deposited by the side of the highway in the morning. The death of the minister made international headlines as the MAS moved to condemn the kidnapping and “cowardly” assassination. Evo Morales even told the media his government had survived a “coup” attempt. Less public has been the response to the deaths of four miners at the hands of Bolivian security forces.
These kinds of deaths in places like Bolivia are reported globally as routine signs of disorder, but they are not. The deaths of these miners highlight a change in the terms of the MAS coalition, currently under significant pressure to live up to its populist promises and articulate two very different forms of social justice: economic prosperity and social redistribution. Many observers have been wondering why cooperative miners, some of the staunchest allies of the MAS government since 2005, would attack a MAS official. Others have noted the relative privilege the miners enjoy within the current political moment, especially in contrast to activists in areas such as the Amazon, who have been clashing with MAS since 2011. Certainly, the government wants to dismiss the demands of the striking cooperativistas as excessive. And indeed, many of the demands of the striking cooperativistas seem designed to exclude others from protection: cooperatives are resisting, among other things, increased environmental regulation and the recognition of unions among the employees of cooperative members.
But this hostage crisis is far from unprecedented, as Bolivia has a long history of miners negotiating with the government in the language of violence. In 1942 and again in 1967, the Bolivian state sent the army to quell miner’s strikes, resulting in dozens of casualties. Workers sometimes tried to hold off the army with dynamite, as happened during the military coups of General Natusch Busch in 1979 and General García Meza in 1980. Bolivia’s more populist governments have tended to avoid full scale confrontations between the army and the miners, but even then negotiations have sometimes taken the form of violent clashes. The government of the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR, 1952-1964) was initially friendly to miners but as it shifted from a policy of labour conciliation to one of labour repression, there were several serious clashes, many of which took the form of hostage crises.
In December 1963, during a strike over salaries and layoffs, members of the Siglo XX miners’ union took several American engineers and Peace Corps volunteers hostage in order to protest abuses by the state. In this case, the intervention of minister (and union leader) Juan Lechín successfully secured the release of the prisoners. The miners had not intended to kill the men, and in fact they allowed a reporter and photographer from Life Magazine to interview them and document the impromptu games they played to stave off boredom and fear. However, activist Domitila Barrios de Chungara recalled that the union rank and file, terrified and angry after hearing reports that they would face an invasion by the army and peasant militias from Ucureña, had burst into the building housing the Americans and nearly killed them before the negotiations concluded. It was only the firm resolve of the women of the Miners’ Housewives Committee — who were guarding the hostages — that prevented these untimely and politically inexpedient killings. Had the military fired on miners, the situation may well have ended up more like last month’s conflict.
In both of the historical cases cited above, these protests occurred against a “friendly” MNR government. While the MNR had been moving to the right since the 1950s, even as late as 1963, the government claimed to represent the miners in a multi-class coalition. The miners went on strike and took hostages in order to demonstrate that this alliance had limits. The same Life reporter also spoke to a miner about why he was protesting against the government and was told only that “I am too poor to fear death.” In the modern-day case, minister Illanes himself originally reported to Radio Pio XII that his kidnapping was in part a protective measure given the level of popular anger towards him. Cooperative leaders hoped to keep negotiating lines open with the kidnapping, not to shut them down.
In the days after Illanes’ death, a recording emerged of a phone conversation allegedly involving Agustín Choque, vicepresident of the Federation of Cooperative Miners (FENCOMIN), and an unidentified government functionary. In the profanity-laden conversation, the government official calls Choque “brother,” but warns the leader that the kidnapping has taken the mining crisis to “another level,” and that Choque is “playing with his life.” Choque, for his part, confessed that he did not know exactly what had triggered the kidnapping but demanded that the official refrain from threatening him. Around the time when this conversation took place, FENCOMIN issued a furious statement condemning the deaths of several protesters, calling out the “dictatorial” response of the MAS government to the miners’ strike, and reminding the public that the police had killed miners two years before. Here is clear evidence that this kidnapping was part of a negotiation with the state that was spiralling out of control. When the miners took Illanes hostage, they wanted to ensure the safe treatment of their own strike representatives. But as clashes with police escalated, the leaders of FENCOMIN lost control over the situation.
There is a material difference in the conditions of the workers these days. The striking miners in this case are not salaried employees, but members of cooperatives. In 1985, the democratically elected government shut down state mines all across Bolivia under the auspices of IMF-backed austerity. Closed alongside these mines were the welfare structures and policies that had aimed to guarantee some kind of economic security and physical safety for the dangerous work of the mines. In the neoliberal climate of the 1980s, cooperatives seemed to offer a new kind of mining economy that could be encouraged without state investment, providing a solution to the crisis in employment and spiralling poverty without involving the state in provision of costly social security and workplace protections. Most importantly, in the political moment of the 1980s, cooperatives were seen as a way to replace the powerful worker’s unions. In cooperatives, members take on the entirety of the risk, but they also reap all of the profits of any ores they can sell to state banks at preferential prices. In practice, there is a vast difference between poor cooperatives, where members scrape by with very little equipment, protection, or remuneration and wealthy cooperatives whose members own chains of hotels, bus fleets, and who employ paid workers to enter the mines on their behalf.
The MAS government has attempted to strike a balance between social redistribution and national capital by encouraging groups like the cooperative miners with preferential treatment, but as with the MNR in 1964, the limits of this political coalition are showing. Morales responded to the latest conflict by reforming the mining code yet again, restricting some privileges and especially by outlawing the use of dynamite at protest — a measure designed to tar the miners’ very methods of protest as inherently violent. The similarity in both cases is that as the political coalition unravelled, the state miners of the 1960s and likewise the cooperative miners of the 2010s are being accused of greed, entitlement, and unrealistic expectations of political favour. For the miners, this fight is about levelling the playing field: no matter how privileged, miners risk their lives on a daily basis in order to earn their living. The threat of death is a feature of their daily lives. The Morales government achieved power at least in part by promoting the idea that the government should not be killing its poor. When his government stopped talking about the miners as though their lives were as worthy as those of the police, Morales put the very foundations of his government at risk.
 “Illanes Dice Que Su Liberación Está Condicionada a Que Se Instale El Diálogo,” La Razón, August 25, 2016, Digital edition, sec. Seguridad Nacional, http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/seguridad_nacional/Cooperativistas-dialogo-Illanes-protesta_0_2552144832.html.
 Reuters, “Bolivian Deputy Interior Minister Beaten to Death by Miners,” The Guardian, August 25, 2016, World edition, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/26/bolivian-deputy-interior-minister-beaten-to-death-by-miners-say-reports.
 “Evo Denunció Un Intento de ‘Golpe de Estado,’” La Nación, August 28, 2016, El Mundo edition, http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1932312-evo-denuncio-un-intento-de-golpe-de-estado.
 “Bolivia: Por Qué Los Mineros ‘Consentidos’ de Evo Morales Llegaron Al Extremo de Matar a Uno de Sus Viceministros,” BBC Mundo, August 26, 2016, sec. América Latina, http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-37199462.
 Manuel Filomeno, “Una a Una, Las Demandas de Los Cooperativistas Mineros,” Diario Pagina Siete, August 27, 2016, http://www.paginasiete.bo/economia/2016/8/27/una-demandas-cooperativistas-mineros-107770.html.
 Soria Galvarro T et al., 1967: San Juan a sangre y fuego (La Paz: Punto de Encuentro, 2008).
 “BOLIVIA’S ‘POPULAR FRONT’ GOVERNMENT; From Tin Mines to Coca Fields,” Guardian Weekly, February 20, 1983; “Around the World: Bolivian Miners Say Strike Continues Despite Siege,” New York Times, July 28, 1980, Late City Final Edition edition, sec. A.
 Miguel Acoca, “Hostages of a Mob of Miners: The Exclusive Story of Four Americans and 10 Days of Terror in Bolivia,” Life, January 3, 1964. Magazine coverage is available in full at: https://books.google.com/books?id=TlQEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=life%20magazine%20hostages%201964&pg=PA62#v=onepage&q&f=false
 Domitila Barrios de Chungara, Let Me Speak! Testimony Of Domitila, A Woman of the Bolivian Mines, ed. Moema Viezzer, First Edition (Monthly Review Press, 1978), 88. The hostages did not appreciate the favor. The Life reporter who visited the hostages during this time called them “an unsmiling bunch of Lady Macbeths,” Acoca, “Hostages of a Mob of Miners: The Exclusive Story of Four Americans and 10 Days of Terror in Bolivia,” 66.
 The first mining cooperatives date back to the 1930s, nevertheless, state support for this group dates to 1958. Hernan Siles Zuazo, “Ley General de Sociedades Cooperativas,” DL Nº 5035, 13 de Septiembre de 1958; Evo Morales updated this law in 2013, in an attempt to cast cooperative mining as a part of the revolutionary democratic process of 21st century Bolivia. [BO-L-N356] Bolivia: Ley general de cooperativas, 11 de abril de 2013
 Jocelyn Michard, Cooperativistas Mineras En Bolivia: Formas de Organización, Producción, Y Comercialización (Cochabamba, Bolivia: Centro de Documentación e Información, 2008).
 jame.E681459d, “‘Paquetazo legal’ revierte concesiones de cooperativas asociadas a privados,” Text, Erbol Digital, (September 1, 2016), http://www.erbol.com.bo/noticia/economia/01092016/paquetazo_legal_revierte_concesiones_de_cooperativas_asociadas_privados.
 “Quintana Se Estrella Contra Página Siete Y Lo Tilda de ‘polilla Sin Sangre’ – Diario Pagina Siete,” Diario Pagina Siete, September 6, 2016, http://www.paginasiete.bo/nacional/2016/9/6/quintana-estrella-contra-pagina-siete-tilda-polilla-sangre-108879.html.