Bolivia: it is urgent to cancel million-dollar debts with the Huanuni miners

On Wednesday, September 9, an important assembly of mine workers was held in Huanuni mine, a city and municipality located in the department of Oruro, in Bolivia. The mine has about 3,200 workers, who are owed three months’ wages, given that that same day, Wednesday, they were paid one of the 4 months that they were owed.

This critical situation strongly affects the city, which practically depends on the mine´s activity and its income. With a population of around 25 thousand inhabitants, almost 4,000 meters above sea level, settled on the slopes of Posokoni hill, rich in tin.

Of course, it seriously affects the working families of miners who do not have the bare minimum, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Together with the silicosis that affects the health of each worker, it exposes them more strongly to the consequences of COVID-19, where public health care does not have a strong development and investment on the part of governments. Not now nor in the previous years of Evo and the MAS (Moment Towards Socialism)’s government.

The Huanuni mine is state-owned, like the Colquiri mine, and they sell their tin production to another state-owned company, the Metallurgical Company of Vinto. One of the largest foundry companies in the world, in an income-generating industry for the region and the nation.

Long history of debts, particularly with the MAS

These companies are part of the Bolivian Mining Corporation (Comibol). In addition to guaranteeing thousands of jobs, they are a source of recruitment of workers and professionals who develop their experience in metallurgy. In Vinto, a company nationalized in 2007 and also located in Oruro, in addition to tin smelting, research activities are carried out to improve metal production, which is key to productive and social development.

Unfortunately, along the lines of Áñez’s government, which reproduces the same political tricks that the MAS had, so as to condition the workers and the people of Huanuni, the Vinto company has not been paying for the deliveries of the “concentrates” that the mine delivers. Which has led to a great debt. At the assembly, an extensive and exhausting report was given, full of figures and data, related non-stop by the head of the Superintendency of Business.

Comrades from the ISL, the International Socialist League in Bolivia, participated in this assembly. For this reason, we can inform that, taking into account the wages owed in May, June and July, what the company owes workers is US $ 9,289,237, which means 64,653,090 Bolivians. It was also reported that the AFP has not been paid since January, being an employer obligation to pay it. The National Health Fund has not been canceled since January, either.

At the same time, the Superintendency of Business claims to have received as income from Vinto 2 million dollars, which is 13.5 million Bolivians. Meanwhile, it has short-term accounts payable for 54,815,820 dollars and 381,518,110 bolivianos.

In the assembly there was an intense debate, and there also were several critical interventions. These had to do with the company but also with the lack of management from the leaders of: Union of Mining Workers of Huanuni (SMTMH), the COD (Central Obrera Departamental) of Oruro and even the COB, the Central Obrera Boliviana (which is headed by Juan Carlos Huarachi, who comes from Huanuni, but does not lift a finger for his workers).

Workersalso questioned that, when selling to the private company instead of to Vinto, there is a difference of $ 309 per ton. And if you add transportation costs and so on, the difference comes to $ 518 per ton. With which, in the 600 tons, well over 300 thousand dollars are being lost. For this reason, the demand was to renegotiate with Vinto and demand that that the entire debt to be paid.

More so since it is a problem that is not new to Huanuni or to other miners – such as in Colquiri. Rather, it has being happening for years, particularly under the entire long government of Evo and the MAS, as these claims and conflicts go back and repeat in 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and so on. This led precisely to the fact that on June 30, workers from the Huanuni Mine took over the Vinto facilities, together with workers from Colquiri. It was a protest to demand the payment owed for tin concentrates by Metallurgy Vinto, which owed Huanuni some US $ 39 million and Colquiri another US $ 43 million.

A common request: Calm the rank-and file…

The Bolivian Mining Corporation said they mediated the conflict and involved the Minister of Mining, but the situation was not solved, it is recurrent and critical. At that time, and as is the tradition of the state, business and union bureaucracies in Bolivia, the Ministry of Mining “asked the union leaderships to calm their rank-and-file,” as the official report recognizes [1]. They did that, instead of providing solutions – as appropriate – to those who are today in the national Mining Ministry, to bring real calm to the exploited working class bases and families.

Can the minister and COMIBOL officials live four months without being paid …? Outrageous. They play with workers’ need. And they appeal to “punishment” or financial drowning, as the MAS used to do in its years of government, to condition whether Huanuni aligns himself with the government of the day or not. Having participated in the blockades against the Áñez government and demanding answers is part of this.

In this context, the Central Bank of Bolivia issued a report that places mining as one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic, with a 33.4% contraction in activity in the first months of the year between zinc, silver, lead and tin, which recorded a 19.1% drop in production (Page 7, 8/21). It also marks the fall of construction, transportation and storage, the manufacturing industry, the oil and natural gas trade, in a disastrous balance between the right-wing government of Jeanine Áñez and its corrupt, anti-worker and pro-privatization ministers.

So resounding is the failure that the Central Bank itself must acknowledge that “after almost 20 years, economic activity fell by 5.6% in the accumulated to April 2020”. From Huanuni it was reported long ago that the production of minerals was decreasing, but not because of COVID infections, but because of the lack of supplies and materials.

The explanation given by the BCB is that the decrease would be attributed to lower prices and lower external demand, particularly from China. Tin being one of the affected minerals, along with zinc, which would have occurred due to a lower production of the Asian automotive and construction industries, according to the Central.

In reality, this sounds more like justification than the actual cause in the fall. But even if it were, the Bolivian State should guarantee a livelihood for its workers and not allow a 4-month debt to accumulate in wages, in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed more than 25 dead workers in Huanuni and there are an also important number of deaths between Colquiri and Vinto. These are workers with basic diseases such as lung disease and that, criminally, the Health Fund is not taking their forecasts or treating them in a timely manner or they must wait more than a week for tests.

Unfortunately, the only determination of the massive assembly, after the exhausting reports, was that an audit be carried out on the former managers who passed through the company due to economic mismanagement. The proposals of a Committee of Bases to overcome the stillness of the leadership of the Mining Union, a motion that even had the support of the assembly in one sector of the mine, was not considered. As well as the need to move to direct actions, engage in political negotiation and ensure that the national State takes over the salary debt and the payment to suppliers so that there is no lack of inputs to maintain production.

Fight for “Áñez Must Go” and for health, education and work to be guaranteed

This occurs in a country that has been crossed by strong working-class (worker no funciona como adjetivo, working-class o workers´ sí), peasant, neighborhood and indigenous struggles that take the streets, carry out strikes, blockades and protests to demand health, education, work and for Áñez and her government to step down. Far from the vision of a fascist government, based on repression, the government is still in power because the COB leaders have abandoned the people´s struggle to oust them, and because of the so-called Pact of Unity. As well as the agreement hatched behind the people´s backs in Parliament, where the MAS has two-thirds of the votes in both chambers, endorsed and has agreed with the Áñez government from the beginning and, beyond the speeches, votes for everything, in a co-government with Áñez and his ministers.

The national elections, scheduled to be held in less than 40 days, will not resolve these demands to ensure a single, public and free health system in the hands of the State in the face of the pandemic or the payment of the Huanuni miners. That is why it is urgent to demand that a COB Assembly be convened, with the COD, the Federations and Confederations to vote that the fight be resumed so that the Añez government leaves. And elect new leaders of struggle and democracy, throwing out the bureaucrats of the COB and the other entities. To fight for the solutions demanded by the Huanuni miners and the whole of the working class and the people.

New leaders that respond to the bases are needed, with political independence from the MAS and the right wing, to fight for workers’ and popular demands. The ISL in Bolivia sees no way out in the strenuous attempt to divert the entire persistent mobilization process to the electoral dead end. In an election without any expression of the demands of the mobilized people, among the different applicants who consider continuing to manage, in one way or another, exploitative capitalism, austerity, plundering and indebtedness in Bolivia.

We call on the workers, the left and the people to fight for these points. To demand the reactivation and payment of all debts to the Huanuni miners, to promote a workers’ and popular emergency plan that guarantees healthcare, jobs and education, to achieve the coherent left unity that is necessary to fight for what the working class and the people have fought for for years, with mobilizations, blockades, rebellions and revolutions, a socialism with democracy of its workers, peasant, indigenous and popular organizations.

From Bolivia, ISL correspondents

[1] La Paz, June 30, 2020 (COMIBOL / MMM). Ministry of Mining and Comibol outline solutions to the problem of the three affiliated entities: Huanuni, Colquiri and Vinto