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Bolivian Workers Central (COB)

Bolivian Workers Central (COB)

Established immediately following the Bolivian National Revolution in April 1952, the Bolivian Workers Central quickly came to include most of the country's trade unions. It was headed from the beginning by Juan Lechín, who was also executive secretary of the Mine Workers Federation (FSTMB).

In its first few months, the COB was controlled by the Trotskyist Partido Obrero Revolucionario (POR), because Lechín and other union leaders belonging to the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), which had come to power with the Revolution, were principally occupied as members of the new government. However, in October 1952, when the Trotskyists put the COB on record against major parts of the proposed government decree nationalizing the big mining companies, the MNR unionists moved immediately to remove the Trotskyists and to assure their own party's control of the COB.

During the first administration of President Victor Paz Estenssoro (1952–1956), the COB officially co-governed with the MNR, its leaders naming and holding the ministries of mines, labor and peasant affairs. However, that situation ended in 1957, when the COB leaders came into conflict with the price stabilization policies of President Hernán Siles.

The COB leadership finally broke with the revolutionary government of the MNR in 1964, when Juan Lechín was denied the party's presidential nomination. They supported the overthrow of President Paz Estenssoro in November 1964, but soon were in conflict with the new military regime. During much of the period 1965–1969, the COB was outlawed.

When General Alfredo Ovando seized power in mid-1969, he formed an alliance with the COB. When he was overthrown by a military coup the following year, the COB was successful in imposing General Juan José Torres as his successor. Under Torres the COB took the lead in establishing the Popular Assembly, which the Trotskyists and others looked upon as an embryonic "soviet," à la Russia in 1917. However, with the overthrow of General Torres by General Hugo Banzer in 1971, there began an eleven-year period of military rule in which the COB was clandestine much of the time.

With the inauguration late in 1982 of President Hernán Siles, with COB backing, the COB rebounded, reaching the height of its political influence. During the three years of Siles's second government, the COB successfully fought by demonstrations and general strikes any effort to impose an economic stabilization policy.

Siles finally called elections in 1985, one year early, and Paz Estenssoro returned to power. This time, however, he was determined not only to enforce a stabilization policy but to close down much of the unprofitable tin-mining sector and to privatize some other government-owned parts of the economy. When the COB sought to carry out a general strike against these policies, the Paz Estenssoro government broke the strike.

This showdown with Paz Estenssoro, and particularly the closing of a large part of the mining industry, greatly reduced the power of the Central Obrera Boliviana, the mine workers having been for forty years the backbone of the COB. It was no longer, along with the armed forces, one of the major power centers of the country's politics. One casualty of this change was Juan Lechín, who for the first time since 1952 ceased to be the president of the COB. In the early twenty-first century, the COB recovered some of its power and aligned with the many social movements protesting privatization. The confederation has pressed for state control of the country's natural gas reserves.

See alsoLabor Movements .


Robert J. Alexander, Organized Labor in Latin America (1965).

Guillermo Lora, A History of the Bolivian Labour Movement (1977).

Additional Bibliography

Alexander, Robert J. A History of Organized Labor in Bolivia. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005.

Baldivia Urdininea, José and Bruno Rojas. Obreros y gremiales en el proceso democrático. La Paz: Fundación Milenio, 1995.

Pimentel, José. Principios históricos del movimiento sindical. La Paz: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, ILDIS, 1994.

Vargas Arze, Amadeo. Historia política de la C.O.B. Cochabamba, Bolivia: A. Vargas Arze, 1996.

                                          Robert J. Alexander

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