El Alto, Bolivia: A New World Out Of Differences

by Raúl Zibechi


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El Alto, Bolivia, at 13,300 feet above sea level, is in shambles viewed from the outside, if one cultivates someone else’s Western, colonial way of looking. Another perspective, though, reveals the history of an amazing place where social mobilization has called the powers that be into question and done it without centralized or unified organizations. Here are facts and insights for understanding the Aymaras’ capital city that reinvented the word insurrection.

Chaos in motion. A perplexing Babel. Street vendors and shopkeepers, merchants in their stores and sellers in their stalls, brokers and commission agents going on and on over persistent rumors, waves of movement on sidewalks and streets that are black and sticky with mud; blaring horns mix with Andean music -- traditional songs combining pututus and electric guitars -- fused with voices offering, selling, demanding, haggling; hundreds of pickup trucks preparing to be engulfed in the La Paz flow, and so many others plowing through the endless tide: this is El Alto’s La Ceja district, the commercial and political junction of the Aymara capital. An orgy of color and sound. At the point when an outsider’s senses adapt themselves to the 4,100-meter (13,300-foot) elevation and icy breeze from the snowy Cordillera Real, when the outsider gets used to the hustle and bustle and the crowd, the pandemonium begins to take on a certain form. It’s enough to let oneself be swept along by the scene, so the noise of the milling crowd turns into a murmur, and the cacophony into song. El Alto is chaos seen from outside -- that is, if one cultivates someone else’s Western, colonial way of looking.

The insurrection of October 2003, which brought down President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and hobbled the process of converting Bolivia to the neoliberal economic model, showcased the existence of an alternative society that has developed mainly among the Aymaras around Lake Titicaca and is championed in El Alto. That society relies on its own political and social institutions, its own economy and a culture clearly differentiated from the “official” mestizo and white society that is based in state institutions and the market economy. It is the objective of this brief work to show a few aspects of that “other” society.

Explosive Growth

El Alto has played an important role in Bolivians’ social struggles. In 1871 the Aymara militias of Tupac Katari and Bartolina Sisa established in this area -- sparsely populated grassland then -- a base from which they descended on La Paz, besieging it for months. In 1899 the Aymaras of El Alto formed a human wall during the federal war to prevent constitutional troops from entering. In 1952 it was the political stage that confirmed the victory of the national revolution. From the beginning of the 21st century, the city has been the Aymaras’ political center, the country’s fastest-growing city, and the most significant rebel city in Latin America.

El Alto has a geographical and strategic advantage over La Paz, the country’s political and administrative center. With an elevation higher than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, it dominates the hillsides and access to La Paz, which is situated at 3,600 meters (11,700 feet) in an immense hollow, a deep land depression in which the Spanish built Bolivia’s principal city. From a social perspective, it can be said that in this high Andean plateau the poor live above (in El Alto) and the rich live below (in La Paz). This geographic advantage of the Aymaras has played, and continues to play, an important role in Bolivia’s history.

In 1952 scarcely 11,000 people lived in El Alto, then a basically rural town. In 1960 it had 30,000 inhabitants, and by 1976 they had more than tripled in number to 95,000. By 1985, the year it attained municipal autonomy, emigration from the mining centers and rural Aymara and Quechua areas had driven the population to 307,000, and by 1992 it had grown to 405,000. According to the census, the population in 2001 had reached 650,000, and it is currently estimated at about 800,000, of which 81 percent see themselves as indigenous, in particular Aymaras. El Alto has nine districts, eight urban and one rural, and can be divided into three zones: The city’s Northern Zone is populated by migrants from the Altiplano, or high plateau, who are engaged predominantly in artesian manufacturing and commercial activities that are displayed in the enormous fair on the Avenida 16 de Julio, where some 40,000 sales booths are gathered; La Ceja dominates the Central Zone, where the principal public services, including water and electrical power, are located. The Southern Zone has some factories and is home to migrants from the southern region of the La Paz department. The international airport is in the middle of the city.

A recent sociological study defines El Alto as “a vibrant conglomerate hybrid of distinct communal, artesian, commercial and labor experiences that go on in the urban setting interwoven in an everyday fragmented way.” The great majority of its residents are poor to exceedingly poor people without access to potable water, electricity, professional health care or education, or housing. El Alto is a precarious city of crooked, dusty streets, of adobe and brick dwellings, whose people live in temperatures that range on average from 10 degrees below zero Celsius (14 degrees above zero Fahrenheit) to 20 degrees (68 degrees F.) when the sun is shining at noon. Sixty percent of the population is under 25 years old.

A Self-Built City

Explosive population growth -- at an average of 10 percent a year -- has meant that a good many Alteños have no access to basic services. In 1997 UNICEF estimated that only 34 percent of the city’s residents had access to all services, including paved streets, garbage collection, and public telephones. In 1992 only 20 percent of the residents had access to sewage systems, and 18 percent to garbage collection. In some districts those percentages were much lower -- in the case of sewage systems at 2 percent, and the process for building them could be delayed up to 10 years. Twenty percent lack potable water and electricity; eighty percent live in earthen dwellings.

Up to 75 percent of El Alto’s families have no type of professional medical care; acute respiratory diseases and diarrhea abound, and there is a high rate of infant mortality. Illiteracy rose in the early 1990s to 40 percent, and only 25 percent of young people were completing secondary school. In general, services have been put together by neighborhood councils, which work through the Federation of Neighborhood Councils (Fejuve). There are currently some 500 neighborhood councils, which have been charged with urban construction, either directly doing the work collectively or pressuring municipal authorities to get it done.

As for paying work, the chief characteristic is unemployment. Seventy percent of the working population work in family businesses (50%) or in quasi businesses (20%). This type of employment makes up 95 percent of work in shops and restaurants, 80 percent of the construction industry and 75 percent of manufacturing. Young people predominate in those sectors: more than half of the employees in manufacturing are between 20 and 35 years old. Women and girls overwhelmingly dominate employment in restaurants and shops.

The family is the dominant player in El Alto’s labor markets, being both the largest economic unit generating employment and the contributor of the largest number of wage earners. A new workplace and social culture is rising that is characterized by nomadism, instability, and different relations toward work. There is no separation between property and management of the economic unit and the productive process. Unpaid work done by family members predominates in the family work units; family members teach each other how to do the work, and keeping track of the time spent in making or doing things is the exclusive responsibility of whoever’s working, as long as the work is done on time.

The self-dependence exhibited in building the city themselves and employing themselves has generated a very particular relation to the environment: El Alto residents are aware of all they have done, which can be summed up in a highly felt sense of ownership and self-esteem.

Organizing for Survival and Resistance

Building their own city and generating their own employment would not have been possible without solid organization from the ground up, barrio by barrio, street by street, market by market. Neighborhood organizations have existed since 1957, although la Fejuve was created more recently in 1979. There also exist mothers’ clubs, youth and cultural associations, centers of immigrants from different provinces and regions, associations of relocated workers, associations of parents in charge of school administration, and the El Alto Regional Labor Central (COR).

In the 1970s labor federations of shopkeepers and artisans were created who, unlike factory workers, had a labor identity with strong popular territorial support. Similarly, there rose up organizations of professionals, artisans, and retailers, bakers and butchers, which in 1988 joined to create COR, which owners of bars and hostels as well as municipal employees also joined. In the great majority, these groupings are of small business people and self-employed workers, a social sector that in other countries customarily are not organized. From the beginning COR coordinated its activity with that of Fejuve, and the two became the most important organizations in the city. Together they played a determining role in the creation of the Public University of El Alto (UPEA) in 2001, and above all in the large mobilizations of September-October 2003 and of May-June 2005 that resulted in the fall of Presidents Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada and Carlos Mesa.

A closer look at the neighborhood groups shows that what we are looking at is a kind of communitarian organizing that in some way reproduces the traditional form of organization of the rural Aymaras and Quechuas. In El Alto the people have recreated the ancestral Andean community. The Aymaran sociologist Felix Patzi asks, “Why do people obey organizations when they don’t have to?” Patzi notes that the neighborhood groups and merchants’ guilds have established obligatory participation by their members in demonstrations, assemblies and actions that they organize. And they devised a system of monitoring each family’s attendance. It is not clear why the people comply. In effect, obligation is part of the communitary culture, but in the case of the rural communities it is due to the fact that the campesinos do not own the land but rather can only enjoy the use of it, and in the event that they don’t comply they lose access to their only means of survival.

According to Patzi, the three elements that permit one to speak of community in El Alto that show the validity of the communitarian structure, are ties to the market, to land, and to education. In his opinion, a community is characterized by the existence of collective property and private ownership. In the rural community the land plays that role, but in El Alto it is more complicated. In the market, “the selling booths are not private property, they’re managed by the union, the so-called guild, or you could say the owner is the community. People obey the union because without the ability to sell they cannot survive.” As for territory, “the decisions to obtain water, electricity, gas and other services are not individual ones. If you don’t comply with the group decisions you will not have sidewalks or water or electricity, because the cooperatives that have been created for their services are collective actions that have made up for the shortcomings of the state.”

Finally, the parents’ committees control their children’s access to education, so participation in their gatherings and actions are decisive to assure their children’s future. This combination of characteristics is what is termed “obligation,” but it’s not a matter of obligations imposed without consensus. The obligation is accepted by the people who feel that the urban community is a kind of natural extension of the rural community and a form of organization that ensures survival in a hostile environment.

Neighborhood groups hold monthly or weekly meetings where they discuss all a barrio’s problems. A member of each family or household must attend. The councils are territorial, and to be recognized by Fejuve must have at least 200 members. Patzi describes them as part of “a process of social self-organization of the urban zones to discuss and try to resolve the basic urban needs (potable water, electricity, sewers, health care, education, playgrounds, etc.) of the barrios’ residents.”

Pablo Mamani, an Aymara and director of sociology studies at UPEA, maintains that the neighborhood groups have in common with the rural communities of the Andean world “their structure, their logic, their territoriality, their system of organization.” While each family has its private dwelling, there are areas of common use such as plazas, football fields, and the school. Mamani adds that “to buy or sell a lot or dwelling, the family goes to the neighborhood council, which checks that there are no pending debts or other factor to prevent the sale.” In addition, he says, the neighborhood council “is the place to introduce the new family, which offers beer to be received and accepted.”

Although participation in the neighborhood council is voluntary, “whoever doesn’t attend receives a social sanction, through rumors that the neighbor doesn’t respect the neighborhood or the council.” To avoid this negative image, practically the whole neighborhood participates in the monthly assemblies. On those who don’t attend the marches, actions, meetings or assemblies are imposed fines that tend to be symbolic punishments. At times the neighborhood council intercedes in conflicts and fights between neighbors, and on serious occasions administers justice, with sanctions that tend to work to benefit the barrio. So the barrio bestows a character that goes much further than the traditional association and compares with that of agrarian communities. The neighborhood councils are the backbone of the social movement in El Alto and shed light on the movement’s power.

Methods of Urban Community Action

Neighborhood councils are a kind of horizontal organization of the “neighborhood community” that constitute true extensive networks at the barrio and district level acting without intermediaries, elements that have recently appeared at a higher level in Fejuve. At this level, the communal culture dissolves and gives way to the “other,” the mestizo-white, culture, points out the anthropologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui. This is characterized by clientelismo (the doling out of favors for votes) and colonialism, among other traits. But it is the experience at the bottom rung of the ladder, at the barrio level, Cusicanqui says, “which precisely and successfully came into play during the days of civil uprising in October of 2003.”

The kinds of mobilization and action at these lower levels cast light on what this social structure is really all about. They require a closer look the so-called microstructures of barrio-level mobilization, since is it is during this mobilization that strengths that are hidden or submerged in everyday life are put on display. It is generally agreed that during the rebellion the low-level organizations, or bases, contributed their leaders and their very memberships, to the point where several mid-level leader say, “We owed a lot to the bases.” It is a matter of a quiet pressure that comes from deep down and therefore cannot be contained when it is unleashed. Roxana Seijas, head of Fejuve, indicated something surprising with respect to the relation between the bases and the leaders: “Here we are at the top and they say we’re cream puffs.” Or rather, that they are superficial, like ornaments, but forced by the bases to work. (“We the cream puffs are the ones who have worked,” says Seijas.). Her testimony shows two key aspects of the communal culture: that to be leader is not a privilege but rather a service that is never recognized by the base, and that they can be replaced by others without hurting the organization’s functioning, causing neither trauma nor reorientation.

So the rebellion “lacked an organizer and leader and was executed directly from the streets and barrios.” The neighborhood councils “were not organized structures for mobilization but structures of territorial identity within which other kinds of loyalties, of organizing networks, of solidarities and initiatives were autonomously deployed well ahead of and in some cases outside of a neighborhood council’s own authority.” In many cases, the neighborhood council was only invoked in a symbolic way for marches and walks that were really the initiatives of flexible territorial social networks that were created as events unfolded and turned themselves into “structures for command, deliberation and executing decisions.”

Something like that can only happen if it already exists, in everyday life, through habitual self-organization. These networks formed as mobilization committees, as Committees in Defense of Gas, or, occasionally, formed namelessly and naturally as neighbors joined together to solve their daily problems and then, at some point, threw themselves into community self-defense.

The neighborhood council assemblies played a decisive role. On the basis of plenty of experience in them, barrio residents came together in informal but massive assemblies, converted into places of deliberation and meeting, of social legitimization and legalization of the mobilization, and into a scene of interchange of information. For their part, local radio stations amplified communication among the bases and lent it massive cohesion, particularly Erbol (Educácion Radiofónica de Bolivia), a network linked to the Catholic Church.

The ancestral system of shifts, having risen out of the rural communities, ensured sufficient vigils for blocking on streets and highways, feeding mobilizers, and maintaining the massive street actions. The system of rotating shifts is used for all collective actions, from demonstrations to roadblocks, and consists of rotation by districts and zones, communities and families; while some participate directly others rest and carry on a normal life. An example: in a zone where a hundred barrio residents participate in roadblocks, half do a shift from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., half do it from 3 to midnight, and from then until 6 a.m. is voluntary. That way, everyone participates and while some do roadblocks or demonstrate, others make food, work and prepare themselves to take part in a shift. In addition, the rotation allows that those hundred persons don’t participate every day but rather are relieved by other communities or zones or family groups. That way each person can participate directly in the streets every few days, or even weeks, allowing a social action to be maintained indefinitely, wearing down the machinery of repression and the state. In certain mobilizations, like the one in September 2000, half a million Aymara (out of a total of the million and a half living in Bolivia) took part in rotating shifts -- revealing that practically the whole population was involved in some way in this nonhierarchical form of the division of labor.

Deployment from Below: The Insurrections

In the 1990s, at the height of neoliberalism, significant changes took place in El Alto. To the strengthening of the social movements noted above must be added a notable change in the political scene. In the elections of 1989 a new party, Condepa (Conscience of the Country), got 65 percent of the votes, surprisingly displacing the traditional parties (MNR, MIR, ADN) to marginal positions. It must be recorded that this only happened in El Alto and in La Paz, thus accenting the differentiated behavior of the Aymaras, which remained steady in support of Condepa for nearly a decade.

Condepa was formed by the popular broadcaster and singer Carlos Palenque, whose media, Radio Metropolitana and Channel 4 (the People’s Radio-Television System, or RTP), were closed down by the MNR government in 1988. Palenque and Condepa were rejected by the elites and the middle class mestizos and whites as demagogic and sensationalist. However, Condepa was the voice of the Aymara poor of both cities, the people marginalized and disparaged by the elites. The party not only expressed but also vindicated reciprocity and Andean culture, generating citizen loyalties. Palenque denounced “the unjust prevailing order in the name of those excluded from the economic, social, political and cultural game.”

Although Condepa fell into the same game of corruption and clientelismo that it denounced, and could not recover from the death of its leader in 1997, suffering a crisis of leadership that brought its political death in the 2002 elections, it played an outstanding role in the growth of self-esteem of the popular Aymara sectors. Condepa arose when the poor Aymara of the two cities were in the middle of a self-affirmation process that could not have been carried out through the established parties -- of the right or of the left; they used an outsider who was seen as part of their cultural world. “The solid constitution of the cultural identity of the populace of El Alto has been expressed in collective voting,” says a study on the topic, which reveals that in that city the vote “adheres to forms of collective behavior imbued with cultural significance.”

Condepa’s crisis is parallel to the growth of MAS (Movement to Socialism) and of MIP (Pachakutik Indigenous Movement), which had very good votes in El Alto and are the parties most tied to the new social actors. By 2003 the Alteño social movement, which had started a rise since the “water war” in Cochabamba in April 2000 and the rural Aymara mobilizations of September of the same year, had turned into the country’s principal political force. On March 5, 2001, Fejuve staged a strike that was felt primarily in the outlying neighborhoods with occupations of streets and avenues. An observer commented, “One looked on as women held up traffic while sitting in the middle of the avenues chewing coca and conversing in Aymara or in Castilian. [The main arteries] had been turned into … group assemblies where even boys and girls took part.”

The tendency to organize by zones and blocks is growing, and on the big days of mobilization there is a chance for “inter-neighborhood unification with indigenous characteristics,” Mamani says. The critical year 2003 begins with aggressive actions. While on February 12 and 13 there is an armed confrontation between protesters and soldiers who repress them, in which 11 policemen and 4 soldiers die, in El Alto a crowd attacks city hall and Coca-Cola‘s facilities, sacking and setting them afire. It is the second time that the El Alto city hall is torched by the crowd, on this occasion enraged by the MIR’s bad management. In those protests the central offices of the principal political parties (MIR, MNR, AND) are set fire as well as government offices, and 33 persons are killed in La Paz and El Alto.

On September 1 of that year, while in the rural zones the campesinos mobilize against the sale of gas piped through Chile, in El Alto the mobilization begins against “Forms Maya and Paya” (the words for one and two in Aymara), which would result in property tax increases. On the 15th and 16th of the month the city is paralyzed as the people gather before city hall, block streets in every neighborhood and the principal roads in and out of the city. On the 16th the city government backs down, annulling the tax increases, signifying a resounding victory for the social mobilization. But on the 20th there is a massacre at Warista (a school historic for the Aymara, located in Omasuyos, near Lake Titcaca), where four indigenous and one soldier die.

In a climate of repudiation and collective indignation, a 24-hour strike occurs on October 2 in El Alto while on Radio San Gabriel the Aymara leadership, headed by Felipe Quispe of the campesino center CSUTCB, stages a hunger strike. The city turns into a platform for Bolivia’s urban and rural indigenous. On October 8 an indefinite strike is declared in El Alto against the sale of gas, called by Fejuve, COR and UPEA. In the massive strike residents block streets and major arteries, sometimes digging deep ditches to prevent the passage of trucks and army tanks. Before it is over 67 die and more than 400 are wounded; 50 people are killed on October 15 and 16, the two most violent days.

The city is militarized and the repression is brutal, but the Alteño population achieves the resignation of President Sánchez de Lozada. And the sale of gas is stopped. What will happen in a country where the people have lost their fear of tanks, violent repression and massacre? Everything indicates that Bolivia’s future has been transferred from the whites and mestizos to the Aymaras, Quechuas, indigenous of all ethnicities and the rural and urban poor.

A Future Full of Surprises

Out of October 2003 comes May-June 2005. It is the fifth Aymara uprising so far in the 21st century. The first large one occurred on April 9, 2000; its epicenter was in Achacachi, in Omasuyus province. The second was in September and October of the same year in the plateau and valley north of the La Paz department. Seven provinces in this Aymara region were mobilized. The third uprising was in June and July of 2001, also centered in the large altiplano region and lasting about two months. The fourth was centered in El Alto, in October 2003. Finally, the fifth Aymara uprising took place in May and June of this year, again centered in El Alto. The central demands are nationalization of hydrocarbons, a constituent assembly, and fierce opposition to autonomous departmental control (promoted by the elites in Santa Cruz). “Here again the neighborhood councils and labor organizations express themselves as true neighborhood governments. Decisions are made collectively and publicly through neighborhood assemblies. Little by little this revolt radiated out, first within the barrios, then again to the other departments and provinces of the country,” Mamani maintains. This time the de facto center was Senkata, a storage center for gasoline and liquefied natural gas. There, hundreds of men and women took turns night and day over 18 days, not letting leave, as the people say, “not one drop of gas” for the city of La Paz and other places.

One of the most notable and at the same time hopeful, facts is that all this social activity occurred without central or unified frameworks. Perhaps the fact that among the Aymaras there has never existed a state has some bearing. In any case, the nonexistence of any kind of centralized apparatus has not taken away from the effectiveness of the movements. Rather, it may be said that if unified organizational structures had existed, so much social energy would not have been unleashed. The key to this overwhelming social mobilization is, without doubt, in the self-organization of the base that embraced all pores of society, which has made superfluous any kind of representation. Moreover, for the first time the nucleus of the indigenous movement is situated in a large city where solid urban communities have emerged. This portends deep and long-term changes in the Bolivian social movement. Perhaps they will be able to spread to other concerns in other parts of the continent.

Raúl Zibechi is a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha in Montevideo, Uruguay, a teacher and researcher on social movements in the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and a consultant to several social groups. He is a monthly collaborator in the IRC Programa de las Américas, where this article originally appeared in Spanish. The article is reprinted and translated here with permission from the author. Translation by Mark Miller.
García Linera, Alvaro (coord.) (2004) Sociología de los movimientos sociales, Diakonía/Oxfam, La Paz.

Gómez, Luis (2004) El Alto de pie, Comuna, La Paz.

Guaygua, Germán y otros (2000) Ser joven en El Alto, Pieb, La Paz.

Mamani, Pablo (2004) Los microgobiernos barriales en el levantamiento de El Alto, inédito.

___________ (2004) El rugir de las multitudes, Aruwiyiri, La Paz.

Quisbert, Máximo (2003) FEJUVE El Alto 1990-1998, THOA, Cuadernos de Investigación No. 1.

Quispe, Marco (2004) De pueblo vacío a pueblo grande, Plural, La Paz.

Rojas, Bruno y Guaygua, Germán (2003) El empleo en tiempos de crisis, Avances de Investigación No. 24, La Paz, Cedla.

Rosell, Pablo (1999) Diagnóstico socioeconómico de El Alto. Distritos 5 y 6, Cedla, La Paz.

Rosell, Pablo y otros (2000) Ser productor en El Alto, Cedla, La Paz.

Rosell, Pablo y Rojas, Bruno (2002) Destino incierto. Esperanzas y realidades laborales de la juventud alteña, Cedla, La Paz.

Sites on Bolivia
Bolpress: www.bolpress.com

Econoticias: www.econoticiasbolivia.com

El Juguete Rabioso: www.redvoltaire.net/eljugueterabioso.html

Indymedia Bolivia: http//:indymedia.bolivia.org

Pulso: www.pulsobolivia.com

Some Abbreviations
MNR: National Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Nacionalista Revolucionario)

MIR: Movement of the Revolutionary Left (Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria)

ADN: National Democratic Action (Acción Democrática Nacionalista)

MAS: Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo)

MIP: Pachakutik Indigenous Movement (Movimiento Indígena Pachakutik)

COB: Bolivian Workers Center (Central Obrera Boliviana)

COR: Workers Regional Center in El Alto (Central Obrera regional)

FEJUVE: Federation of Neighborhood Councils (Federación de Juntas Vecinales)

CSUTCB: Sole Union Confederation of Rural Workers of Bolivia (Confederación Sindical Unica de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia)

UPEA: Public University of El Alto (Universidad Pública de El Alto)


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