Bolivia: The Lessons of Potosí

Recent massive protests in Potosí, a traditional bastion of support for Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government, have confronted President Evo Morales with perhaps the most significant challenge of his second term in office. Unlike past regional revolts led by conservative opposition forces in Santa Cruz, Potosí represents a new type of regional economic conflict led by coalitions of popular organizations demanding to be part of Bolivia’s “process of change.” These protests are taking place in the context of a new federalism that is raising expectations as well as demands for political accountability.

Emily Achtenberg

Recent massive protests in Potosí, a traditional bastion of support for Bolivia’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government, have confronted President Evo Morales with perhaps the most significant challenge of his second term in office. Unlike past regional revolts led by conservative opposition forces in Santa Cruz, Potosí represents a new type of regional economic conflict led by coalitions of popular organizations demanding to be part of Bolivia’s “process of change.” These protests are taking place in the context of a new federalism that is raising expectations as well as demands for political accountability.

From July 29 to August 16 this summer, the city of Potosí (population 160,000) and its surrounding region were paralyzed by civic strikes, road and rail blockades, and demonstrations shutting down virtually all commerce and transportation. Production ground to a halt, including the powerful mining sector which generates a third of Bolivia’s export revenues. Hundreds of foreign tourists were stranded. Shortages of food, fuel, and medicine reached crisis proportions.

Initiated by the Potosí Civic Committee, the protest grew to encompass a broad range of popular organizations including indigenous peasant associations, neighborhood councils, and mining cooperatives. An estimated 2,000 protesters, including Potosí’s MAS governor, several of its elected MAS federal representatives, and Potosí natives in five other departments, participated in hunger strikes. Mass mobilizations (mostly peaceful) included up to 100,000 protesters.

The protesters demanded increased government investment in the region for long-promised economic development projects, including an international airport, a cement factory, a metal processing plant, roads and infrastructure, and the preservation of Cerro Rico (the mountain where Potosí’s world-famous silver mines are located, now in danger of collapse due to centuries of over-exploitation). They also sought resolution of an inter-departmental boundary dispute with neighboring Oruro, following the discovery of significant limestone deposits — used for cement — in the contested area.

The government responded that many of the demands were already being addressed — for example, a recent law made the Potosí airport a national priority — and that others (such as the boundary dispute) reflected age-old conflicts that could not be resolved any time soon. It blamed Potosí’s popular independent mayor René Joaquino for instigating the protests. Joaquino ran against Morales in the last presidential election, and has been charged by the government with illegally purchasing used cars for the city during a prior mayoral term.

Five attempts at negotiation failed when the government refused to send representatives to Potosí unless the strike was lifted. For their part, the protesters insisted on meeting only with Morales. Morales accused neoliberal and rightwing opposition forces of conspiring to use the protests to “subvert the president . . . and (Bolivia’s) process of change.” Nevertheless, the government did not repress the protests.

On August 14, protest leaders and government ministers finally convened in Sucre, and a settlement was reached and endorsed by popular assembly within 48 hours. The protesters declared victory, lifted the blockades, and welcomed their negotiators back to Potosí with a massive celebration.

While the protesters gained important government promises in recognition of their demands, the situation is far from resolved. Next steps, for the most part, will depend on the work of multi-party commissions set up to address each issue. In addition to questions of financing and implementation, significant legal obstacles remain. The resolution of the boundary dispute, for example, will require new legislation, and the metal processing plant can’t open until the government completes arbitration to oust the existing transnational owner.

Since the settlement, the rhetoric and charges have continued to escalate on both sides. The government has dismissed the conflict as “fabricated,” and accused protest leaders of sacrificing the population of Potosí at great economic cost to their own department ($12 million in mining royalties plus foregone tourist revenues). The MAS deputies who joined the protests have been isolated by the party leadership and branded as “traitors.”

Joaquino has been suspended as mayor, as required by a new MAS law targeting elected officials with pending legal charges. He is the fifth opposition mayor or governor to be suspended. Some protest leaders, furious at the continued attempts to discredit the mobilization, have announced that Morales will not be welcome at Potosí’s civic anniversary celebration in November.

It’s no accident that this conflict has occurred in a resource rich but socially impoverished region, where the legacy of colonial and transnational exploitation of local mineral wealth (principally silver and tin) remains deeply entrenched. During the protests, indigenous peasants shut down the electricity-generating plant that provides power to the giant San Cristóbal mine, whose Japanese conglomerate owner, Sumitomo, exports $1 billion annually while paying Potosí only $38 million in royalties. Sumitomo also extracts 640,000 liters of underground water per day free of charge, subject to an existing contract that the Morales government has not yet found a way to restructure.

Thanks to rising mineral prices, Potosí now has the highest economic growth rate in Bolivia; yet 60% of its population lives in extreme poverty. It also contains 50% of the world’s lithium reserves, an untapped resource which Morales has promised to industrialize for the benefit of Potosí and the Bolivian people, thus far without success. Close to 80% of Potosí’s voters supported Evo Morales in the last election, and are frustrated with the slow pace of change.

The new “federalism” promoted by MAS, now enshrined in the Constitution in the form of overlapping departmental, municipal, regional, and indigenous “autonomies,” has also raised expectations for local public works, services, and jobs — expectations that the government has encouraged, but has been unable to meet. Departmental autonomy is redefining long-contested boundaries and encouraging claims that may enhance jurisdictional resources.

The political defeat of conservative opposition forces in Bolivia, as evidenced by Morales’ 64% vote in December, the MAS party’s success in winning 2/3 control of the Plurinational Legislative Assembly, and the significant MAS gains in last April’s gubernatorial and departmental assembly contests, has also empowered Bolivia’s social sectors to assume a more critical stance toward the government. When Morales was under attack during his first presidential term, the social movements closed ranks in his defense.

But in 2010, the government has clashed with trade unions over wage increases, with rival peasant groups in Caranavi over the site of a citrus processing plant, and with lowland indigenous groups demanding increased political representation and measures to strengthen indigenous autonomies—all former bastions of MAS support. Morales’s current tendency to attribute every popular challenge to foreign or domestic opposition forces intent on destabilizing the government is helping to exacerbate this friction.

In the case of Potosí, the diversity of interests and motivations behind the sustained protest has been a topic of debate. As Bolivian analyst Carlos Alejandro Lara Ugarte notes, supporters of Mayor Joaquino, outraged at the MAS government’s charges against him which they perceive as politically motivated, may indeed have sparked the conflict as a tactic to delay his removal. But, he argues, popular organizations soon became the key protagonists in the struggle, replacing partisan demands with a regional economic agenda. Whether deliberate or misguided, the government’s continued misreading of the conflict as purely partisan led to an intransigent posture that further radicalized the protest.

In any case, unlike the conservative Santa Cruz protestors, whose demands for “autonomy” during Morales’s first term masked an agenda to retain control by local elites of land and natural resources, Potosí rebels--mobilized under the slogan “Potosí federal!”--want to be “active participants in the ‘good life’ (vivir bien) that Evo Morales promises.” After centuries of exploitation, notes political analyst Pablo Stefanoni, “today they would be satisfied with an airport and a few factories.” As Julio Quiñonez, president of Potosí’s cooperative miners’ federation, explains: “We support President Morales, but we can’t give up our regional claims, which are very important.”

Clearly, the popular redistributive benefits programs conceived in Morales’ first term (for the elderly, pregnant women, and schoolchildren) are no longer enough to satisfy the rising expectations of grassroots constituencies that now feel entitled to hold the government accountable. Whether the MAS government can find a way to accommodate the legitimate demands and expectations of social and regional sectors without the continued polarization that truly subversive forces are bound to exploit remains to be seen.


Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and a NACLA research associate.

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