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BOLIVIA
Social rebellion in the heights of capital
Martin Garat
8/2/2007
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Country’s poorest and most radical city gains political relevance.

In La Ceja, or “The Eyebrow,” a busy transit hub connecting El Alto and La Paz, the shouts of street vendors are drowned out by the loud motors of the hundreds of buses that pass through here. Informal merchants clog the streets selling a wide variety of products.

“Aymara and Quechua campesinos, miners, teachers and vendors live in El Alto. It’s a complex social composition,” said Absalón Gómez, a philosopher and academic coordinator of a school in the area. “La Paz can’t grow anymore, so El Alto is growing now.”

It all began in 1985, when then-President Víctor Paz Estenssoro (1985-89) decided to close state-owned mines, throwing thousands of mining families into the cities in search of work.

La Paz did not have the space to house this influx of migrants, so many settled in the satellite city of El Alto, located above La Paz, 4,000 meters above sea level. The city is known for its frigid nights and unforgiving midday sun.

Later came massive internal migration, from the indigenous communities of the Bolivian altiplano, and El Alto turned into a bridge between the countryside and the capital city, the motor of western Bolivia’s economy.

A booming population
Early this year, El Alto became the second-most populous city of Bolivia thanks to the incessant rural-urban migration. With almost 1 million inhabitants, only the eastern city of Santa Cruz has a larger population.

El Alto is extremely poor and is dominated by the informal economy. Vendors from El Alto bring their wares from Chile or from the Bolivian interior to sell them in the capital or in the massive July 16 Market, a weekly bazaar here. Leather artisanry and furniture is another important industry.

Gómez says an important social class in El Alto is the “cholo” bourgeoisie.
“They’re mestizo merchants with high incomes. Their aim isn’t collecting money, though,” he said. “They prefer to spend their money on parties to increase their prestige among neighbors and relatives. It’s the Andean vision as opposed juxtaposed to the capitalist one.”

El Alto is famed for having led a popular rebellion against ex-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (1993-97 and 2002-2003). During the so-called “Black October” of 2003 more than 60 El Alto residents were killed in clashes with the army, before the then-leader fled to the United States (LP, Oct. 8, 2003).

Miners backed by powerful unions brought Marxism to El Alto. “That influence mixed with the ‘great rebellion against the authorities,’ an Aymara concept that looks for solutions through protest. In El Alto, the people push specific demands with their demonstrations; they’re not trying to get to power,” Gómez said.

Because of its geographic position — El Alto is above La Paz, blocking the road out of the city — El Alto residents could easily isolate La Paz and block the road to neighboring Peru. Currently, El Alto is the greatest stronghold of leftist President Evo Morales, whom its residents call “one of ours.”

“His political party, the Movement to Socialism (MAS), uses symbols of the Andean culture. For El Alto residents, who have strong Andean roots, Morales means the recovery of their identity,” said Gómez.

At the moment, no one can predict the effect of El Alto’s rapid growth on national politics. Equally unpredictable is the future political mood of the city itself, according to Ismael Moreno, a political analyst and professor at the Public University of El Alto.

“For now, the city supports the government unconditionally. But the government hasn’t significantly improved their living conditions. Sooner or later, there’s going to be a reaction,” he said.

Leadership mistrusted
The Federación de Juntas Vecinales, a grouping of El Alto neighborhood committees, surged during the October 2003 protests and again in June 2005, when marches ended in the resignation of President Carlos Mesa (2003-2005). Today, El Alto residents do not trust as fully in the group’s leadership.

“The El Alto residents unite only when they have common interests,” said Gómez. “To mobilize under the [group’s] banner was a way to channel the demands of El Alto in critical times, such as during ‘Black October,’” he said, adding that the neighborhood grouping can only mobilize El Alto residents to express their demands, not when “they don’t feel the need to act.”

For student youth leader Benito Apaza, social organizations, spokespeople for the radical positions in El Alto, “are no longer an alternative for young people.”

“They’ve been sold to politics. We see how many leaders use their organizations and bases to get political power,” he said.

For Alteños, more than political ideologies, results are important. As a result, Bolivia’s most leftist city elected a right-wing mayor in 1999, José Luis Paredes. They reelected him in 2004 after “Black October.” Paredes — who is currently the governor of the La Paz department — simply followed through on his campaign promises.

El Alto will continue growing at a fast pace, becoming home to a larger Bolivian electorate, and its political importance will increase, but its political support may prove elusive.

“The great majority of El Alto residents live in poverty, even extreme poverty, and they’re not going to accept it anymore. They have the power needed to demand their rights,” Moreno said.


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