Behind Bolivia’s nationalization of Canadian mine

SEPTEMBER 5, 2012 – For the Financial Post, the actions of the Bolivian government in nationalizing a Canadian mine this summer, confirmed the country’s status as an “outlaw nation” (Grace, 2012). But for less biased observers, the reality was a little different. Responding to pressure from local indigenous communities the Bolivian government confirmed, August 2, that it would expropriate the operations of a Canadian-owned mining project. This represents in the short term, the success of local social movements in putting an end to violence created by the tactics of the corporation, and in the long term, one small step towards ending 500 years of foreign powers stripping the country of its natural resources.

South American Silver, headquartered in Vancouver, described the mining project in question – located in Mallku Khota – as “one of the world’s largest undeveloped silver, indium and gallium deposits” (Garces, 2012b). There are 46 indigenous communities in the area, and, these indigenous communities have “rights over their land which are guaranteed in the New Political Constitution of the State of Bolivia” (Garces, 2012b). South American Silver had succeeded in gaining acceptance of their project from 43 of these 46 communities.

But with three communities yet to sign on, there were a series of violent outbreaks. May 5, at 4 in the morning, 50 police officers broke into homes in Malku Khota. In response, “community leaders made the decision to detain two of the police officers”, later released on May 9 (Garces, 2012a). The police violence crystallized opposition to the mining project, and 19 different local ayllus “united to outline the project, inform their bases” and prepare for an upcoming meeting with the governor of the department (or province) of Potosí. (An ayllu is a form of local organization, traditional to the Quechua and Aymara people of the Andes). But tensions exploded again May 18 in a confrontation between those for and against the project, resulting in three wounded. Three days later, a leader of the anti-mining group, Tata Cancio Rojas, was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Again, anti-mining forces, in frustration, resorted to what the press called “kidnapping”. June 29, it was reported that two engineers, working for the Canadian firm – Fernando Fernández and Augstín Cárdenas – had been detained (Noticieros Televisa, 2012). Then July 7, a police “rescue” operation resulted in the death, from a bullet wound, of Jose Mamani, one of the anti-mining activists.

This violence, in the opinion of Bolivian President Evo Morales, was provoked by the transnational company itself. “[U]nfortunately the so-called transnational companies are like that, these companies pit brothers, in-laws, cousins, neighbours, brothers from the same ayllu against one another” (Agencia Boliviana de Información, 2012). This is no doubt true. But the government of Morales should not have let the situation go to the extremes that it did. These kinds of confrontations are inevitable when resting the hopes for development on the profit-driven logic of private capital.

However, quite unlike the “outlaw” portrayed by the Financial Post, Morales responded to this tragedy in a way inconceivable in Canada or the United States. First, he met with the leaders from the ayllus who were opposed to the mining project. Second, he “urged the Public Ministry to carry out a meticulous investigation” into the killing of Mamani. Third, and most significantly, he announced that “the mine will be nationalized via a Supreme Decree” (Agencia Boliviana de Información, 2012). The response of Morales shows the extent to which his government’s push for effective Bolivian sovereignty remains tightly bound up with the social movements which carried him into office in the first place.

That push for effective sovereignty is a very urgent one. Potosí will be unknown to many readers in North America and Europe. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this extremely poor corner of the Americas produced half of the world’s gold and silver (Kohl & Farthing, 2006, p. 38). This was an enormous portion of the initial “primary accumulation” of a then young capitalist system, laying the basis for the enormous expansion of production and wealth in the centuries which followed.

But none of that wealth stayed in the terribly poor deparment of Potosí. The gold and silver poured overseas, to line the pockets of the wealthy in Spain, Britain and the other colonial powers. Potosí, to this day, remains one of the poorest places in our hemisphere.

The Financial Post is acutely aware that Bolivia today is trying to redress this 500 year history of pillage by foreign powers. “Expropriation has a long history in Bolivia, going back to 1937 when the government grabbed Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil), but under Morales the country has become a world leader in this department. He nationalized Bolivia’s national gas industry in 2006, its biggest telecommunications company in 2008, its hydroelectric complex in 2010 and its leading power company in 2012” (Grace, 2012).

For these corporate writers, this makes Bolivia an “outlaw” nation. But the real outlaws are the foreign states and companies which have been stripping wealth from Bolivia for centuries.

© 2012 Paul Kellogg

Publishing history

This article has been published as Behind Bolivia’s nationalization of Canadian mine,” Climate & Capitalism, 5 September; “Bolivia: Who’s the real ‘outlaw’? Behind Bolivia’s nationalisation of a Canadian mine,” Links, 5 September; “Behind Bolivia’s nationalization of Canadian mine,” Bolivia Rising, September.


Agencia Boliviana de Información. 2012. “Bolivian Government, Indigenous Communities Resolve to Nationalize Canadian Mining Company.”

Garces, Celia. 2012a. “Mallku Khota: A Briefing on South American Silver’s Actions in Bolivia.” The Bullet.

———. 2012b. “Bolivia’s Mine Nationalization of South American Silver Corporation.”

Grace, Kevin Michael. 2012. “An Outlaw Nation — Bolivia Seizes South American Silver’s Malku Khota Project.” Financial Post.

Kohl, Benjamin H., and Linda C. Farthing. 2006. Impasse in Bolivia: Neoliberal Hegemony and Popular Resistance. New York: Zed Books.

Noticieros Televisa. 2012. “Indígenas Bolivianos Secuestran a Ingenieros De Minera Canadiense.” Noticieros Televisa.

Bolivia and the birth of a movement for Climate Justice

One of the most important but too often neglected events of 2010, was the little country of Bolivia putting itself at the head of the Climate Justice movement. This report, written May 8, 2010, showed how that action galvanized Climate Justice activism in Toronto. Longer version of report published at  (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • MAY 8, 2010 – Yesterday, a lively crowd of between 200 and 250 piled into the Steelworkers hall in downtown Toronto in an event that brought together Latin American solidarity, First Nations and environmental activists. Toronto Bolivia Solidarity had helped sponsor a group travel to Cochabamba, Bolivia, for the April people’s summit, called by Bolivian president Evo Morales, as a response to the failed Climate Change talks in Copenhagen in December of 2009. What was clear to all in Cochabamba – and in the Steelworkers hall on May 7 – was that we are witnessing the birth of a new movement, a movement led by the Global South, calling for climate justice.

More than 30,000 people from 100 countries had participated in the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Kimia Ghomeshi, Campaign Director for the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, reported how the event was infused with an anti-capitalist spirit. What is clear to the participants, she argued, was the fact that the devastation to the environment is deeply rooted in a world driven by the priorities of corporate profit.

The evening had earlier been opened by a powerful set by the Red Slam Collective ( and a video put together by Raul Burbano. Ben Powless, a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, accompanied his presentation with a slide show of images from the conference. The combination of the video and the slide show gave the audience a sense of what it meant to be at the extraordinary Cochabamba summit. Danny Beaton, 2010 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (NAAA) for Environment and Natural Resources, reminded us of the roots to past struggles. He told the audience that he had not been in the Steelworkers Hall for 20 years – but recognized some faces, because those 20 years ago he and they had been in the same hall to help organize solidarity with the Lubicon Lake Indian Nation, in their battle against energy corporation exploitation of their land. His words were important – indicating to people that our movement is a marathon, not a sprint.

The closing speaker was Robert Lovelace, a leader of Ardoch Algonquin First Nation. His moving speech culminated with an observation, that we will not win climate justice until we recognize that we are all indigenous. All of us, he argued, have been separated from the land by forces we don’t control. Recognizing our connection to the land is an indispensable first step in creating a movement to build a society based on climate justice.

Ten years ago, Cochabamba made world headlines for the first time. It was the centre of a desperate battle to prevent Bechtel corporation – under the watchful eye of the IMF and the World Bank – from privatizing water in that city. After bitter protests, and the tragic deaths of six protesters, suddenly in April 2000, the movement had won. Privatization was defeated, and the control of water in Cochabamba was handed over to a grassroots coalition. Cochabamba in 2000 was a spark that helped ignite the anti-corporate globalization movement of the early 21st century.

Now in 2010, Cochabamba is again a spark. The three strands of the movement at the conference and in the Steelworkers Hall were beginning a conversation. For those whose focus has been Latin American solidarity, the focus has been on the damage done by Global North imperialism to the countries in the Global South emerging from the shadow of colonialism. For those whose focus has been First Nations’ struggles in Canada, the focus has been on Canada’s own colonial legacy. For activists in the environmental movement, the focus has been on the threat posed to the environment by unconstrained corporate development. A remarkable feature of both the Cochabamba event, and the report back on May 7, was the extent to which all three streams are flowing together into a common river. The result is a Climate Justice / Global Justice movement, called into being by Latin America’s second poorest country, with its first Indigenous head of state – Evo Morales.

The challenge thrown down by Cochabamba is enormous. A people’s agreement was drafted – now being nicknamed the “Cochabamba Protocol.” It points the figure at capitalism and the Global North, and puts forward a plan to effectively deal with the threat to the environment posed by unregulated capitalism. Given the failure of the Global North leadership at Copenhagen, an important part of this protocol is the call for a Global Referendum so that the people of the world can have their say.

To become involved in this new Climate Justice movement, contact Toronto Bolivia Solidarity,

The documents from the conference have been made available on the site “Climate and Capitalism.”

The Cochabamba Protocol
Indigenous Peoples’ Declaration
Universal Declaration of the rights of Mother Earth

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg

Bolivian masses defeat the right

Mass mobilizations of indigenous peasants and workers, in conjunction with actions taken by the government of Evo Morales, have won a decisive victory against a right-wing plot to destabilize the country. The events are as significant for the movement in Latin America as the April 2002 defeat of a right-wing coup attempt against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. Frederico Fuentes has provided a gripping account of these events, summarized below.[1]

Morales’ won a decisive victory in an August 10 referendum – gaining 67.4 percent of the vote nationally. Even in the “half moon” area of Bolivia – the eastern departments of Pando, Beni, Santa Cruz and Tarija – where opposition to Morales has been intense, Morales did very well, winning in Pando, tying in Tarija and getting over 40% in Beni and Santa Cruz.

Frustrated at the polls, the right-wing turned to violence. Central to this violence was the role of US ambassador Philip Goldberg (since expelled from the country). He met with anti-Morales forces after their defeat in the referendum. That meeting resulted in “a plan to destabilize the east, stirring up violence to the point where either the military would be forced to react, causing deaths and Morales’ resignation, or creating the justification for some kind of United Nations intervention to ‘restore stability.’”

What happened was nearly catastrophic. Groups of armed thugs took over airports in the “half moon” area. Paramilitaries took the streets, openly saying that would only take orders from the anti-Morales prefectures (governors). Morales ordered troops to the area to restore order, but once in Pando “the top commander of the Armed Forces, Luis Trigo, known to have links with the Santa Cruz oligarchy … ordered troops to remain in their barracks and turned off his phone.”

In effect, Trigo was giving tacit permission to the right-wing and their paramilitaries to proceed with their destabilization campaign. He was in Pando, but he was folding his arms and refusing to act.

The right wing understood the signal very clearly. September 11, an unarmed group of peasants, traveling to a meeting of their union, were attacked by right-wing paramilitaries. The number killed is at least 20 – including women and children – and maybe be much higher. More than 60 are still missing.

But the day before, social movements had held an emergency meeting to respond to the crisis. They accelerated their plans in the wake of the massacre, setting out to encircle Santa Cruz, epicentre of right-wing organizing. Peasants cut off all access to the city.

The massacre had backfired. Ordinary soldiers were repulsed at the bloodshed. They were also inspired by the sight of thousands of peasants mobilized to surround the city. “Soldiers demanded to be allowed to go and defend their indigenous brothers. Under direct order from Morales, new troops were sent to Pando.” These troops confronted the paramilitaries in the airport and moved to restore order in the capital Cobija. This, in combination with the emergency summit of UNASUR (union of South American Nations) which fully backed Morales, left the right-wing isolated and in disarray.

There now exists in Bolivia a new force, “the National Coalition for Change (CONCALCAM), which unites more than 30 peasant, indigenous, worker and social organizations, together with the Bolivian Workers Central.” It is clear that such unity will be necessary in the months ahead. A “coup in slow motion” has been defeated. But mass mobilization and organization are a permanent necessity to counter a right-wing which has shown a clear commitment to using violence to defend its entrenched privileges.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Frederico Fuentes maintains the important blog, Bolivia rising. Quotes in this article are from Frederico Fuentes, “Bolivia: Right-wing push to stop change defeated,” Green Left Weekly, October 25, 2008,

Crisis in Bolivia

SEPTEMBER 15, 2008 – Thursday Sept. 11, at least 30 people – supporters of president Evo Morales – were killed in the northern department of Pando, victims of right-wing inspired violence. “We were unarmed” said one survivor of the 1,000-strong peasant march which was the target of the attack. “They stopped us some seven kilometers before Porvenir and afterwards they attacked us when we reached the bridge, where they ambushed us and began to shoot with automatic machine-guns.” The massacre was “executed by civilian groups who’d received weapons training by the government of Leopoldo Fernández.”[1]

Fernández is one of a group of provincial politicians opposed to the Morales’ government. They have been campaigning for “autonomy” in a thinly veiled campaign to push back the indigenous communities who support Morales, and to keep the landed estates, oil and especially natural gas in the hands of a rich elite.

The province of Pando did vote for “autonomy” in the recent referendum – but also, by a margin of 52.5% to 47.5%, voted approval of the Morales’ presidency.[2] Having failed to decisively defeat Morales at the polls, supporters of Fernández have turned to violence.

By Saturday, the Bolivian armed forces had pushed aside the separatist forces in Cobija, capital of Pando Department, and Fernández had fled apparently to Brazil. But the situation remains extremely tense.

September 14, US ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, was expelled from the country by Morales. Goldberg has long been suspected of aiding the separatist forces in the country[3] – given his previous role as envoy to the Balkans (he “came to Bolivia straight from Kosovo, which has fed speculation that the US has a secessionist agenda.”[4]). In solidarity, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez also expelled his country’s US ambassador, with the US expelling both its Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors.

September 15, Michelle Bachelet, president of Chile, convened an emergency meeting of UNASUL-UNASUR – the new confederation of South American nations – to see if a way could be found to defuse the situation. But at the heart of UNASUL-UNASUR is the emerging power of Brazil, whose president, Lula Inácio Lula da Silva “has faced some domestic political criticism for not immediately defending Bolivia’s territorial integrity more strongly.”[5] This shows again the contradictions of UNASUL-UNASUR. Like its more radical counterpart ALBA (the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), it aspires to unite the countries of Latin America. Unlike ALBA, it is doing this not on the basis of solidarity first but of trade first. It remains to be seen whether this trade-centred body can act as an “honest broker” in the Bolivian crisis.

Morales remains determined to press ahead with his December 7 referendum on a new constitution – a constitution that has at its core, increasing the power of the government to enforce redistribution of the land from the rich landowners to impoverished peasants. But while Morales is playing by the electoral rules, it is increasingly clear that the rich and their foreign backers have no such scruples, and will stoop to any means to destabilize the country.

Now more than ever, it is the responsibility of those in the Global North, to build solidarity with the processes of change in Bolivia, and to expose and condemn the actions of the right-wing and their business allies.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Crisis in Bolivia,” Bolivia Rising, 16 September.


[1] Luigino Bracci Roa, “Bolivia: the Massacre in Porvenir,” Tlaxcala – The Translator’s Network for Linguistic Diversity, Sept. 14, 2008,
[2] Corte Nacional Electoral, República de Bolivia, “Referendum Revocatorio 2008,”
[3] AFP, “Talks aim to end Bolivia unrest,” Sept. 15, 2008
[4] Conor Foley, “Will diplomacy work in Bolivia?”, Sept. 15, 2008
[5] Foley, “Will diplomacy work in Bolivia?”

Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction

JUNE 2, 2008 – To understand the recent “autonomy” referendums in Bolivia, don’t count the ballots – travel to the south-central city of Sucre. Saturday, May 24 a horrific scene of racism and violence played out that exposed the reactionary nature of the forces fighting for “autonomy.”

That day, Bolivian president Evo Morales was scheduled to appear in the town to announce the delivery of some new ambulances and some government funding for local projects.

“But in the early hours of Saturday morning, organized groups opposed to Morales began to surround the stadium where he was to appear a few hours later. Confronting the police and soldiers with sticks, stones and dynamite, they managed to occupy the stadium.”[1]

It was a racist occupation. Morales cancelled his visit, but the mob wasn’t satisfied. They surrounded several dozen Morales supporters – many of them Quechua Indians – robbed them, forced them to walk several kilometres, and then “to kneel, shirtless, and apologize for coming to Sucre.”[2]

Morales is an Aymara Indian, the first indigenous president in Bolivia’s history. Bolivia’s population is two-thirds indigenous, mainly Quechua and Aymara. The people of the western highlands, who are in the main indigenous, were the key to the surprise election victory of his party, Movement to Socialism (MAS), in 2004. The racist mob which attacked his supporters in Sucre, are part of a movement rooted in the European minority of Bolivia, resentful of Morales’ attempt to redistribute wealth in the country.

Central to that redistribution is a new constitution that will allow greater access to the land for the indigenous majority. This majority has been fighting for equality for centuries. It took a revolution in 1952 to abolish a system called “pongaje” that was a kind of feudalism, in which the indigenous people had few rights, and were virtually slaves to European landowners.

This is the necessary background to the “autonomy” referendums taking place in Bolivia. May 4, the voters in Santa Cruz were said to have voted “with a majority of no less than 85 per cent” to have greater autonomy. June 1, the departments of Beni and Pando also voted for autonomy, “with a majority of nearly half a million.”[3]

But these claims are quite dubious. First, these referendums do not have legal status, and Morales’ instructions to his supporters were to refuse to participate. The “high rate of abstention in various provinces in Santa Cruz such as Camiri (42%), Puerto Suárez (31%), Montero (62%), Portachuelo (19%), San Ignacio de Velasco (17.8%), Charagua (40%) and Saipina (60%), indicate an overall abstention rate of between 40-45%, according to the Bolivian Information Agency.”[4] And as British-based Latin American expert Mike Gonzalez has pointed out, those who did vote, often did so out of fear, voting “under the watchful eye of the thugs of the UJC – the neo-fascist youth organization of Santa Cruz.”[5]

The referendums all are couched in demands for “autonomy.” These demands are accepted uncritically in most of the western media. More balanced coverage is available from Al Jazeera.

“Statutes passed in Santa Cruz and on the ballot in Beni and Pando would protect huge cattle ranches and soya plantations from expropriation under Morales’ ambitious land reform. Santa Cruz also voted to withhold a bigger share of its natural gas reserves, which Morales needs to finance his reforms, although the state has yet to enforce the rule.”[6]

The threat of withholding the natural gas reserves is now a central issue. The next referendum will take place June 21 in natural gas rich Tarija – centre of most of Bolivia’s gas reserves.

It is critically important that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela has rejected the results of these “autonomy” referendums. That country’s representative to the Organization of American States (OAS), Jorge Valero, said he was certain that a majority of Bolivians rejected the results in Santa Cruz, “despite the media terrorism which aimed to persuade them of the suicidal policy of dividing their country.”[7]

The support of Venezuela will be crucial in the coming months. These referendums are not just a cover for the European elite in Bolivia – they are seen by US imperialism as a vehicle for undermining the new sovereignty movements that are challenging its hegemony everywhere in Latin America.

Respected analyst Eva Golinger has convincingly documented that two agencies notorious for undermining popular movements in Latin America – USAID and the so-called “National Endowment for Democracy” – are deeply involved in supporting the “autonomy” movement.

“In Bolivia,” she wrote last year, USAID “is openly supporting the autonomy of certain regions, such as Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando and Tarija, and therefore promoting separatism and the destabilization of the country and the government of Evo Morales. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), another one of Washington’s financial organs, which promotes subversion and intervention in more than 70 countries across the world, including Venezuela, is also funding groups in regions such as Santa Cruz, which fight for separatism.”[8]

We all have a stake in the desperate struggle underway in this, the poorest country in South America. It was in Bolivia in 1999, that the poor rose up and delivered a central blow against neoliberalism, when a mass movement in Cochabamba stopped the privatization of water. If the forces of neoliberalism and imperialism succeed in reversing this movement, all the people of the Americas will suffer, not just the poor and the oppressed in Bolivia.

What you can do
• In Toronto, June 11, 7pm, Toronto Bolivia Solidarity will be holding a meeting at OISE (St. George and Bloor) to discuss the attack on democracy in Bolivia. For more information,
• For more information, see and

© 2008 Paul Kellogg

Publishing History

This article was published as Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction,” GreenLeft Weekly, 8 June; “Bolivia: Referendums of Reaction”, Bolivia Rising, 3 June.

[1] Franz Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated,” Inter Press Service News Agency, May 27, 2008,
[2] Chávez, “Bolivia: Local Indigenous Leaders Beaten and Publicly Humiliated
[3] Cees Zoon, “Bolivia: mutiny in the provinces,” Radio Netherlands Worldwide, June 2, 2008
[4] Kiraz Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote,” May 5, 2008,
[5] Mike Gonzalez, “Fight for Bolivia’s future lies behind referendum,” Socialist Worker (U.K.), May 10, 2008,
[6] “Bolivian states vote for autonomy,” All Jazeera English, June 2, 2008,
[7] Janicke, “Venezuela Rejects Bolivian Province’s Autonomy Vote
[8] Eva Golinger, “USAID in Bolivia and Venezuela: The Silent Subversion,” September 12, 2007,