You are here

TUED interview with trade unionist Cristian Cuevas Responding to the announcement on the National Lithium Strategy

By Cuevas Zambrano and Staff - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, April 2023

Cristián Cuevas Zambrano is a trade union leader and activist of the Chilean left. He is currently director of the Federation of Mining Workers Fetramin and Spokesperson of the National Coordination Committee of Codelco's contractor workers. Previously he was one of the founders of the Confederation of Copper Workers CTC and was its first President for six years. In addition, he was a leader of the Executive Board of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores CUT Chile.

TUED: Some analysts have taken issue with the characterisation of a "nationalisation" of lithium with historical parallels to the nationalisation of copper. They say it is NOT a classic expropriation but a public-private partnership in which the state-owned company collaborates with the capital. Could you clarify this characterisation for us?

Cristian Cuevas (CC): Nationalisation is a concept that is commonly used to define a process of rescue or expropriation of productive activities in the hands of national or international private capital. This occurred with Law 17.450, promoted by President Salvador Allende, which expressly stated that "the state has absolute, exclusive, inalienable and imprescriptible control of all mines, meadows, metalliferous sands, salt flats, coal and hydrocarbon deposits and other fossil substances, with the exception of surface clays.

The spirit of Allende’s law was aimed at advancing our sovereignty and economic independence, which was completely disregarded during Pinochet's Civil-Military Dictatorship with the enactment of a Constitutional Organic Law that allowed mining concessions to private companies.

However, the Pinochet government issued a supreme decree decreeing lithium as a non-concessionary product given its strategic character in defence (base material that allows the creation of nuclear fusion). Therefore, the Boric administration’s announcements regarding the creation of the national lithium company are intended to allow the State to reclaim the sector and enter into the process of production and development of products made from this raw material.

TUED: In his announcement, Boric stated that the National Lithium Company will articulate public-private partnerships. What are the expected consequences of such a public-private partnership arrangement? What role should trade unions play in developing an alternative?

CC: President Gabriel Boric's announcement reflects the Government's inability to confront the national and foreign business sectors that seek to profit from this important mineral resource, the consequence of which is that the State will not capture for itself 100% of the value generated by lithium, handing the private sector a very good deal. Moreover, this government's surrender is reflected in the declarations of the Minister of Finance Mario Marcel, who only a couple of days ago pointed out as feasible the possibility that some salt flats could be fully exploited by the private sector.

The role that some trade unions have played through public statements, they have come out to reject this public-private partnership because it harms the interests of the State of Chile. However, the weakness of the Chilean trade union movement and the obsession with the CUT is a major constraint for the mobilisation of workers and society in defence of lithium and our common goods.

TUED: For trade unionists reading the announcement, what is the most important thing for them to understand? What would you say are the main conclusions?

CC: What trade union leaders and workers must understand is that we cannot mortgage the future of our country and the improvement of the living conditions of the population as a whole by handing over the exploitation of this non-renewable mineral resource to private companies, whose only interest is to capture income to increase their capital without looking at the general interest, which is a clear loss of economic sovereignty and political independence by being subjected to the interests of the economic groups or the ruling class.

TUED: What is the path to full public ownership and control of lithium in Chile, and how should public ownership address community and environmental challenges?

CC: The first thing is that any decision regarding a matter as important as this requires the participation and discussion of the population as a whole in order to make a decision, something that in this case has not happened because it has been decided at the level of the top and under strong pressure from the business elites. Secondly, the particular opinions of the affected communities have not been taken into account because the exploitation of lithium generates collateral damage that directly affects the communities, and there has been no transparent economic evaluation of the costs and benefits of private participation in lithium production.

TUED: What is the situation of the organisation of the lithium workers? What are the current demands of the lithium workers?

CC: The way forward is the establishment of a national lithium company that manages to control 100% of the mineral's activity, for which it must also rely on Codelco and ENAMI, which have more than 50 years of experience in mining. In response to the observation that the State does not have the necessary capital for investment, we must be categorical in pointing out that this is a fallacy. The State can perfectly well issue debt to obtain financing whose interest will always be significantly lower than handing over 49% of the profits to private capital; bearing in mind also that the State can resort to the sovereign funds it has invested abroad for financing.

As a state-owned company, it must be an example in developing sustainable production processes, which translates into rigorous observation and compliance with environmental regulations and with the active participation of the surrounding communities and workers.

TUED: In his announcement, Boric referred to the vision of investing in and developing a lithium processing, refining and manufacturing industry in Chile. What role should trade unions play in this vision?

CC: Trade unions should push for these announcements to become a reality because moving from production to the processing and industrialisation of new products will mean an increase in employment and the development of new technologies, which are always necessary to increase productivity.

TUED: Much has been written and said about the importance of regional coordination around lithium (along the lines of a lithium OPEC). What is the current state of regional cooperation/discussions around this plan? What role can the labour movement play in facilitating collaboration?

CC: The governments of Bolivia and Argentina have expressed their interest in coordinating the three countries in this region; however, the existing political culture in Chilean institutions is not aware of the importance of the proposed initiative, and coordination would undoubtedly make it possible to manage production quantities and mining supply, while ensuring the maintenance of adequate prices that would ultimately benefit the States.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.