In Another Vein

September 25, 2007

The sunny plaza outside La Paz’s San Francisco Church is a favorite spot for friends to meet, a picturesque colonial landmark with vendors and shoe-shine boys near the bustle of the downtown commercial area. Plaza San Francisco is also a place that evokes powerful images and memories. The church and its forecourt have borne silent witness to scenes of bitter conflict, violence and euphoria which marked the long history of Bolivia’s labor movement.

Across the plaza flit shadows from the past--hunger strikers in front of the wide church door, marchers dispersed by tear gas and bullets, barricades defended with sticks and stones against the brute force of tanks. The shouts and cheers of members of the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), the nation’s central union organization, are echoes from a former time. Today one hears only the noise of traffic and the murmurs of people going about their daily business. If the plaza is muted now, it is not due to dictatorship as before, but to the economic policies of the democratic regime.

From its founding in the wake of the popular revolution of 1952, up to 1985, the COB wielded greater influence over national political life than any other Latin American trade union movement. “Before, the COB’s statements and actions moved everyone in Bolivia,” reminisces secretary general Oscar Iturri.[1] From 1952 to 1956, the COB governed alongside the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) party, maintaining veto power over all policy measures. The COB, and its founding leader Juan Lechín Oquendo, remained a dominant force in the nation’s politics even after the 1964 military coup that put a definitive end to the revolutionary period. According to sociologist Jorge Lazarte, “The revolution became an essential part of society’s hidden identity, and this identity was inextricably linked to the COB.”[2]

Today the COB is but a shadow of its former self, the intentional victim of the government’s New Economic Policy, a radical free-market shock treatment imposed after the crash of the tin market in 1985. Thousands of unionized workers in state enterprises were fired, and laws were modified to permit the same to occur in the private sector. The harsh NEP-induced recession further devastated the labor movement.

In the meantime, other movements emerged which are essentially different from traditional trade unions, presenting an additional challenge to the COB’s hallowed role at the fore of the opposition. To cope with the effects of the NEP, people strengthened neighborhood associations, civic committees and the like, primarily concerned not with political action, but with survival strategies. While unions continue to opt for open confrontation to influence or change government policies, these new movements prefer negotiations with authorities to seek basic services or improvements in their immediate environment.

This is not the first time the COB has had to adapt to political change. Over the past three decades, it has faced periods of radical social change, military dictatorship, and left-leaning reformist rule, continually seeking fresh strategies--and somehow finding them. When strikes and marches failed, workers and peasants used massive road blocks and occupations. In 1974 the peasant farmers of Tolata and Epizana resisted General Banzer’s move to freeze the prices of agricultural products by tying up the roads of the entire region. Under the same regime, in 1977, the workers at Siglo XX mining complex countered armed repression by occupying the interior of the mine itself.

The demise of Banzer’s eight-year dictatorship in 1978 came about through a now legendary hunger strike started by four mining women and their children, demanding the release of political prisoners and amnesty for exiled dissidents. The strike, which also pressed for the reinstatement of political and union rights and the withdrawal of troops from the mines, caught on like wildfire. Within a week, pickets had joined the protest all over the country, and after twelve days, 1,800 people were fasting. A powerful wave of national and international pressure forced Banzer to capitulate to most of the strikers’ demands.

The movement never limited its actions to salary or other immediate economic concerns. It embodied a vision of a just, egalitarian society and defended national interests in the face of corrupt regimes which looted the country’s resources. The COB’s strength came from its ability to unite not only organized labor, but also a myriad of popular groups with varying identities and demands. Even today the organization represents a wide range of economic sectors, ideological currents and political parties. COB leader Oscar Iturri maintains that 80% of the work force does not belong to any party. “The COB is tremendously important to the aspirations of the Bolivian people,” says Eddy Salamanca of the Potosí Journalists Union. “Without such unity, we would have no strength at all. I count on the COB to lead the struggle to protect the country and its human and natural resources.”[3]

Less than a decade ago, the COB seemed indestructible. However, its decline began even before the government’s 1985 offensive. In 1982, progressive leader Hernán Siles Zuazo triumphantly returned from exile to take up the presidency brutally denied him and his center-left UDP coalition during two years of corrupt military rule. The COB had been instrumental in leading the resistance to the dictatorship and reinstating a hard-won democracy. But the COB wasted no time making the fragile government a fresh target for protest and opposition.

“Our affiliates followed the COB’s leadership, going on marches and protests against the UDP regime, whether or not they belonged to one of the governing parties,” points out Oscar Iturri. From the start, Siles was unable to marshall his coalition or implement coherent national policies. Swinging between the conflicting pressures of workers, private business and international creditors, the government provoked a wave of bitter opposition from all quarters.

Bolivia’s economy, already suffering after a series of military regimes, entered a downward spiral of hyperinflation accompanied by shortages of basic goods. Periodic wage adjustments only fed the process and could not keep pace with escalating prices. Acute insecurity and instability eventually forced the UDP to call for early elections.

The COB, meanwhile, was overwhelmed by the size and diversity of the protest movement. Marches, work stoppages and hunger strikes proliferated to such a degree that they lost their former impact. There were some 3,500 strikes in the course of the UDP’s three-year term in power. Labor’s time-honored policy of presenting global demands and preserving unity, which had been successful in opposing military dictatorship, was far less effective in a confusing political context marked by growing popular anxiety and desperation. The chaotic dispersion of the labor movement and the break-up of cross-sector alliances cost the COB dearly. Moreover, the workers’ organization put the last nails in the coffin of the same progressive regime it had sacrificed many lives to reinstate.

The UDP “experiment,” with its legacy of hyperinflation, alarming food shortages and the fragmentation of the Left, led to widespread disillusionment and a sharp swing to the right in the 1985 general elections. Voters seeking a firm hand to restore control and put the country back on its feet gave Víctor Paz Estenssoro, leader of the once-revolutionary MNR, a fourth term as president.

Strong political and economic measures were expected when the MNR took power. But the harshness of the NEP, introduced less than a month after the new government took power, shocked the country. Bolivian society was to undergo drastic and radical change. Besides overturning the state-oriented economic structure Paz himself had erected in the early years of the revolution, the NEP was designed to recover governmental authority in national affairs.

“Rather than a strictly economic program, the New Economic Policy is a political plan,” then Finance Minister Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada asserted baldly in 1985. “Its aim is to recover the basic principles of republican life without which we run a serious risk of national disintegration.” “The first political task,” he warned, “consists of restoring the state’s authority over society at large.”[4]

He was clearly referring to the political power of the COB. “There is no way in which official policy can be conciliated with the interests of the COB’s vast rank and file,” says Víctor López Arias, executive secretary of the organization. “The only path left open to us is to oppose the model and fight for its change or removal.”

Events moved very quickly in the fall of 1985. On September 1, miners struck to oppose the austerity measures, joined a few days later by factory, oil and transport workers across the country. A general strike was declared, and a week later COB leaders voted to extend the strike indefinitely. The government refused to budge and, when union leaders began a hunger strike on September 19, President Paz declared a state of siege. One hundred forty three strike leaders, including 70-year-old COB founder Juan Lechín, were imprisoned in Amazonian internment camps. Another 150 leaders went underground. On October 4, the government agreed to negotiations, and the general strike came to an end, though the state of siege remained in force until December 19.

During the state of siege, the government laid off thousands of workers in public administration and state mines, policies it termed “rationalization” and “relocation.” COMIBOL, the state mining corporation, was the hardest hit: Out of a total of 30,518 employees, only 7,275 kept their jobs, leaving 23,243 mining workers and their families in the street.[5] “Relocation” was really a euphemism for dismissal, since no attempts were made to find new jobs for the unemployed.

“Relocation was not just an economic measure,” points out economist Pablo Ramos, now rector of La Paz’s San Andrés University. “It followed the government’s decision to break up and defeat the labor movement. The interior minister stated explicitly that decentralizing state mines would necessarily cause mining unionism to fall off. For forty years, the miners had been the mainstay of the COB, so a drastic reduction in their number meant a severe weakening of the workers’ capacity to act and organize.[6]

The miners were not the only sector to suffer the impact of “relocation.” Other salaried workers in both state and private enterprises fell prey to what Bolivians call the “white massacre.” While thousands lost their jobs, those still working were suddenly deprived of the protection of a series of labor laws, hard-won conquests of the union movement over the previous three decades. “Free contract” was an element of the liberalization policies which gave employers liberty to hire and fire at will, enabling them to dispense with the most active unionists. “Since the Paz Estenssoro government took power in 1985, factory owners have taken advantage of the new policies to fire union leaders,” says Sabino Rodríguez, former leader of the COB’s Cochabamba branch. “I was a victim of these policies. I worked in a glass factory for ten years, and before that I was a miner for twenty. But even though I lost my job, I haven’t given up the union struggle.”

The COB responded to each new blow with traditional tactics. In April 1986, for example, the government fired some 70,000 teachers who refused to accept a $25 monthly wage. The COB shut down the country for 24 hours, and succeeded in getting them all rehired at substantially higher pay. In August, the closing of state-owned mines provoked another general strike. Paz Estenssoro once again resorted to force: a state of siege was declared, scores of labor and church leaders arrested, a curfew enforced and inter-city travel banned.

Although the government released most of the detainees after a few days, labor was unable to retake the offensive until the following April, when 5,000 workers and students staged a two-week hunger strike against the NEP. By then the closing of mines had gutted the COB’s strength, if not its spirit. At the July 1987 COB congress, Juan Lechín was blamed for the UDP’s fall, and he stepped down after 35 years on the executive board.

Weakened as labor was, another battle over teachers’ pay shook the country in November 1989, three months after social democrat Jaime Paz Zamora succeeded Paz Estenssoro as president--and pledged to uphold his economic policies. Tens of thousands struck, 3,000 went on a hunger strike, and once again a state of siege was declared, with hundreds arrested and 146 leaders interned in jungle camps. This provoked a 24-hour general strike which was only moderately successful. The state of siege was lifted in December.

Since then, strikes and protests have continued, but they rally ever-shrinking numbers. “We have to admit that we are in a period of crisis,” says Iturri. “Even the COB’s most fanatical supporters will tell you that the organization has lost its former power. People take note of how many marchers we can rally, or how much we can change government policy. Right now, we’re at an all-time low in our capacity to mobilize and take action.” Former Mining Housewives Committee leader Julia López agrees. “The union movement is in a dreadful state,” she says. “Our popular organizations are becoming completely subdued. While poverty is on the rise, the COB is in serious decline.”

Free contract and “relocation” brought significant changes to the composition of the COB’s rank and file. Unions representing blue-collar workers dropped in strength and number, and the proportion of middle-class affiliates, merchants and informal workers rose sharply. In 1987 forty labor federations and confederations were affiliated to the COB. Eight of these were classified as proletarian, two were said to represent peasant farmers, and the remaining thirty were termed middle-class: professionals, self-employed, cooperative members, students, intellectuals and others.

The COB’s strength came precisely from its capacity to represent both salaried and non-salaried workers of different social strata involved in a wide range of economic activities. Yet it always sought to have blue-collar workers in the leadership. At its fourth congress in 1970, the COB went so far as to set down principles of proportional representation, to ensure the predominance of productive wage-eamers--especially miners--in its organic structure and leadership. Specific criteria were drawn up to establish the relative weight of each sector. A union’s degree of “revolutionary and militant tradition,” “social awareness” and “solidarity with other sectors,” became far more important than its number of affiliates.[7]

In 1970, “proletarian” affiliates accounted for 59% of congress delegates, of whom a third were miners. Peasant farmers, the largest group numerically, had 13%, and the remaining middle-class sectors, including the self-employed, had 25.5%. An additional 2.5% was set aside for representatives of the COB’s departmental and regional branches.[8] In 1987, “proletarians” were cut to 56% and peasants rose to 16%, while others remained the same.

“The COB’s leadership is structured so that the executive secretary is a miner, the second position goes to a factory worker, the third to a member of the railroad workers’ union, and so on,” explains Filemón Escobar, ex-miner and the COB’s head of cultural affairs. Such qualitative criteria for classifying members and leaders has given rise to innumerable disputes. Miners and industrial workers have lost the political strength that one time justified their predominance, leading to increasing resentment, particularly among peasants.

“At the last national congress [in 1989],” says Escobar, “the peasant farmers questioned the preference for the proletariat and demanded secondplace, which was denied to them on the grounds that such a move would mean a radical change in the COB’s identity. Now that the informal sector is numerically the next largest, should it have greater representation?” Escobar believes miners should retain their edge. “If we took this step, we’d be accommodating to this economic model. By keeping a miner at the head of the organization, the COB is presenting a strong challenge to the NEP.”

Secretary General Oscar Iturri is not so sure. “I think we need to consider some adjustment in the COB’s organic structure. The case of peasant farmers deserves special attention, as does the situation of the self-employed. Many of those now in small businesses and commerce are workers who lost their jobs in mines or factories. Others are migrants from rural areas who are becoming proletarianized. I see serious problems within the sector of artisans and self-employed. The majority of those in small business and commerce have very limited political awareness. Since they are now ‘free’ and independent, without a clear worker-employer relationship, they tend to pursue personal interests.”

This type of questioning is the tip of the iceberg in the COB’s present structural crisis. Although the organization’s leaders ostensibly recognize the need to reevaluate proportional representation, it is proving extremely hard for them to let go of the “qualitative” criteria which held sway up until the last congress. In the meantime, other channels have emerged for popular organizations disillusioned with the incapacity of the COB and left-wing parties to find solutions to their most immediate problems.

Many have begun to rally around local and sectoral issues. Even the National Peasant Farmers’ Confederation (CSUTCB), which represents most of the Bolivian work force, has lost faith in organizing around global strategies. “We have to present sectoral demands,” insists CSUTCB leader Juan de la Cruz Villca. “Our work is more effective when workers fight for their own interests, rather than general ones.”

Mining women organized in Housewives Committees were among those who challenged the unions’ authority when faced with the catastrophic situation of their husbands’ sudden dismissal. “We were desperate, we had no food to put on the table,” reads the collective testimony of the Housewives Committee from the mining center SigloXX. “We were set to leave for La Paz, our bags were packed. But the union intervened and said we had to wait, that we should all go together. They made us come back in the pouring rain, they had us waiting a whole we had to call the Housewives to another meeting. It’s we women who have to worry about keeping our homes running. The men have no idea where the food comes from. They just demand a meal, without thinking what we’re going to have to do to produce it.”[9]

On their arrival in the suburban shantytowns, mining women rapidly adapted to their new circumstances, drawing on decades of organizing experience. Some renewed the tradition of communal soup kitchens, popular in the worst eras of repression and food shortages. Guillermina Espinoza left the Matilde mine with her five children when her husband lost his job after 18 years. Now they live in the zone of Río Seco, a shantytown on the outskirts of La Paz. “We’ve formed a group of five women to take turns cooking for all our families,” says Guillermina. “That way, the rest have time to go out and look for work. We’ve had some help: the Methodist Church donated a couple of stoves and the Oil Workers Union has given us food supplies. I wasn’t all that active in the Matilde Housewives Committee, but here there'’s no other way--we have to organize to get through this.”

David Colque is an activist in the nationwide Federation of Neighborhood Committees. “Now that the miners are no longer in the forefront of the struggle for social justice, we feel this role falls to us,” he says. In the sprawling shantytowns of El Alto, above La Paz, some 180 such committees of local residents work on health care, education, paving of roads, water, sewage and electricity. “People are desperately looking for some kind of alternative to the current situation,” explains Colque. “We need to develop new solutions and ideas to address the current reality. People are far more active in the committees now than before, especially with more and more peasants and ex-miners arriving in the poor neighborhoods.”

Filemón Escobar, cultural secretary to the COB and ex-mining leader, recognizes the importance of these local pressure groups. “Through the neighborhood committees, migrants from rural areas have brought to the cities the tradition of community organization around local issues,” he says. “I don’t feel they have displaced the COB politically--rather, they are our natural allies, and tend to support our actions and strengthen them.”

Bolivia’s eastern plains have seen the rise of a similar phenomenon. There, broad-based civic committees have long struggled on regional issues. During the dictatorial regime of Gen. Hugo Banzer (1971-1978), they took up the cause of political decentralization to promote greater regional autonomy, but came under the influence of political bosses linked to private business interests.

The committees have undergone a radical transformation in recent years, says regional planner Roberto Laserna. “By 1986, six of the nine civic committees had progressive leaders. After the drastic mine closures, the committees in Potosí and Oruro signed a ‘Pact for Survival’ which led to mass rallies and demonstrations against government policies. The committees have become an important mechanism for channeling protest against the NEP, leading civic work stoppages in various parts of the country to bring attention to regional needs and the defense of natural resources.”[10]

In eastern rural areas, other important changes have occurred. Amazonian indigenous groups and other lowland native peoples, traditionally members of the COB, have created new autonomous organizations which stress ethnic and territorial demands. Within the COB, their struggles had often been subordinated to the demands of the majority Aymara and Quechua peoples. Last year, members of Chiman, Siriono and Movima peoples and other ethnic groups held a march to demand cultural, territorial and ecological rights, winning great sympathy and support.

The upsurge of new social movements, which have limited interest in national politics, is forcing the COB to reevaluate its strategies. In addition, pressures from government policy and the rank and file itself are pushing the COB to become like trade unions in many countries, reducing its scope to the struggle for better wages and working conditions. Should it accept this restricted role, the COB may risk losing permanently its former stature as a major actor in Bolivian politics.

Filemón Escobar remains optimistic. “The NEP was designed to destroy the COB,” he says, “but those who thought the government could turn Bolivian society around have realized that this model is incapable of solving their problems. They will return to strengthen the COB, because it is the organization which has always defended them in the past.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Soñia Dávila is a Bolivian sociologist who lives in La Paz.

This article was translated by Susanna Rance. The author wishes to thank her for her assistance.


[1] The Central Obrera Boliviana was founded on April 17, 1952, eight days after the national revolution swept the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) to power.

[2] Jorge Lazarte, Movimiento Obrero y Procesos Políticos en Bolivia (La Paz:EDOBOL, 1989), pp. 185-186. The COB broke with the government over IMF stabilization measures in 1956, but COB founder Juan Lechín returned as the nation’s vice president in 1960. U.S. pressure drove the COB out of the MNR four years later, months before the coup. See Herbert S. Klein, Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). In 1970 the COB was invited by General Juan José Torres to join his government, a process cut short by another coup in 1971.

[3] Historian Christian Jetté makes the point that from 1956 on the COB took on the role traditionally played by opposition political parties, as none of the parties were able to counter the MNR’s dominance or to challenge military rule. See Christian Jetté, De la Toma del Cielo por Asalto a la Relocalización (La Paz: HISBOL, 1989), p. 70.

[4] Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, “La Nueva Política Económica,” in Foro Económico, No. 5 (Sept. 1985), p. 5.

[5] Data from the central office of COMIBOL, the state mining company.

[6] Pablo Ramos, “Consecuencias de la Política Económica sobre el Movimiento Popular,” in Análisis, No. 51, Año II. Unemployment and underemployment rose sharply between 1985 and 1986, but unemployment figures remain shadowy. The National Institute of Statistics has been criticized in the media for “shrinking” the numbers of jobless from over 20% to 10% of the labor force by redefining the working population. (Hoy, Sept. 19, 1986.) See Isabel Arauco, “La Relocalización,” in Temas Laborales, No. 5 (La Paz: EDOBOL, 1988), pp. 24-25.

[7] Document on the Fifth National Bolivian Workers’ Congress, 1979, Central Obrera Boliviana, p. 17.

[8] Ibid. p. 17.

[9] Centro de Promoción Minera (CEPROMIN), “Testimonio Colectivo de la Lucha de las Mujeres Mineras,” Cuaderno de Formación No. 8 (La Paz: CEPROMIN, September 1987), p. 17.

[10] Roberto Laserna, “Dilemas de laParticipación y Concertación Social en Bolivia,” in Democracia a la Deriva, compiled by René Mayorga (CLACSO/CERES, 1987), p. 384.

Tags: Bolivia, mining, COB, union, protests

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