Tuesday, April 8, 2014

THE DOWNFALL OF THE WCL ( Part 29: Miners' Seminar in Bolivia)

Group Photo of the seminar participants. WFIW Secretary General Italo Rodomonti (ACV Trade Union of Chemical Workers), EFCM Boardmember Albert Hermans (ACV Trade Union of Chemical Workers), FLAT President Carlos 'Pancho' Gaitan and Coordinator CLAT Activities Luis Antezana.

My previous blog about the European Foundation of Christian Miners EFCM, ended with the conclusion that the announced mergers of WFIW and WCL have put an end to the carefully constructed and valuable network of the EFCM with miners all over the world. During a conversation with one of the former board members of the EFCM some time ago , I discovered that I had forgotten to write on an important seminar in Latin America financially made possible by the Foundation.

The seminar took place in July 2003 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and was organized by President Carlos 'Pancho' Gaitan of the Latin American Federation of Industrial and Construction Workers FLATIC (affiliated to the World Federation of Industrial Workers WFIW, the World Federation of Building and Wood Workers WFBWW and CLAT ) and Luis Antezana from CLAT Bolivia. 

During the seminar it appeared that the Bolivian miners had a kind of ideological conflict. The miners employed by a mining company had the opinion that cooperative miners as self-employed workers do not belong to the working class. They should be considered to be small capitalist entrepreneurs and as such they had different interests from those employed by a mining company.

To outsiders, a strange conflict if you had heard under what circumstances cooperative miners were working. In fact, they were desperate workers. As unemployed miners they had begun to exploit the remaining tin layers in the abandoned mines with their families. The working conditions were awful. They worked almost with their bare hands. It need not to be explained how dangerous it was. They said that there were made so many holes in some of the mountains, that on a bad day these mountains could collapse.

We also visited the estate of the Patino family, who became wealthy thanks to the tin mines which they owned.

The miners families lived also in very harsh conditions high in the mountains and on the plains. They told at the seminar that, when the government began to build schools in their villages, they opposed the compulsory education of their children . They told that they needed their children working in the mines to supplement the low income. In fact, their children had to earn their own bread. After a lot of talking and explaining we managed to bring the two groups together and work towards a common plan of action.

It appeared that among Bolivians mistrust against foreign companies is very large. They believe that foreign companies are just stealing Bolivian treasures as tin, gold, copper, and also the discovered gas. In the villages everywhere actions were held against selling Bolivian gas to foreign companies. At the same time Bolivia does not have sufficient knowledge or industry to make more money from the gas than through sales to foreign countries.

A rare photo of Juan Lechin Oquendo (1914-2001). Lechin was a labor-union leader and head of the Federation of Bolivian Mine Workers (FSTMB) from 1944 to 1987 and the Bolivian Workers' Union (COB) from 1952 to 1987. He also served as Vice President of Bolivia between 1960 and 1964Here he is visiting the solidarity association CLAT Netherlands in April 1981 during his exile because of the coup of General Meza in 1980. Next to him Cor Schouten, member of the executive committee of CLAT-Netherlands. 

But the curious thing is that while foreign companies are distrusted, which can be true, it is the Bolivian Patino family who has become fabulous rich from the mining of tin. At the beginning of the 80s of the last century, the nationalized mines of the state company COMIBOL, were largely closed because they would no longer be profitable. It was argumented that this was the result of underinvestment, by which the production would be out of date and therefore had become too low. Since the tin prices on the world market also had declined drastically, every year more money of the government was needed. It is said that since 1952, when the mines were nationalized, too little has been invested in the mines and who do not invest, sits at a certain moment with an outdated industry with all its consequences.

The Bolivian seminar participants doubted still, 20 years after the closure of most mines, that the closure of mines had been necessary. An objective and independent investigation by Bolivian experts or from abroad would not help, according to them. That would still be all manipulated by the government or its agents, supported by foreign companies. We could not help to get the idea that the Bolivian miners are trapped in their own circle of mistrust, due to lack of knowledge and reliable leaders.

During our visit to the headquarters of the once powerful miners' union in La Paz, we saw a poor and poorly maintained building where here and there miners and their families slept on the floor. How was it possible that a powerful trade union with thousands of members ultimately had nothing more than a largely neglected building? It was not the first time I had such an experience. During a visit to a flour mill in Lima, Peru, I found a similar situation. While the trade union existed for more than 25 years and was was not opposed much by the employer, they had only a poor and neglected building. When I asked how this was possible, one of the trade union leaders answered that having real estate was capitalist and anti-capitalist trade unions should not have real estate.

This photo was seen last week in the international press. The picture shows that the cooperative miners still have to fight for their survival, even against the progressive government of President Evo Morales.  You see miners' women between stones, laid there by miners to block traffic in and out of the city of La Paz. A new law prohibits miners who are members of a cooperative to sell the tin to private companies because the cooperatives enjoy certain tax benefits that the government does not permit for large private enterprises.

I'm not sure this is also the reason why the legacy of the Bolivian miners is so poor. Maybe it has to do much more with the lack of political stability. Bolivia is the Latin American country with the most coups since its independence. Some governments were miners benevolent while others worked against trade unions or prohibited the trade unions and imprisoned their leaders so they were forced to flee the country. For example during the coup of General Garcia Meza in 1980, trade union leaders fled the country and the building of the national trade union confederation COB was attacked by the army and destroyed.The result was that the trade unions did not have anymore leaders.

On the seminar it became clear that the situation of the miners in Bolivia but also in the other Latin American countries since many years has not gotten much better. The working conditions were barely evolved just like the national economy. The miners worked still in unsafe mines where conditions are a permanent threat to their health while wages were still much too low.

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