At 4000 metres above sea level and sprawling above the capital La Paz, the inhabitants of the fastest growing city in Latin America â€” El Alto â€” have consistently shown their readiness to fight for their rights, kicking out two presidents in the last two years.
The message from El Alto for the winner of Bolivia's upcoming national elections is clear. â€œWhoever [becomes president] will have to attend to the demands of the people of El Alto. That is our position in concreteâ€, Abel Mamani, president of the Federation of Neighborhood Councils of El Alto (FEJUVE), told Green Left Weekly.
It is perhaps no coincidence that El Alto has become the site of one of the most powerful and radicalised social forces in Latin America. Since 1952, El Alto's population has grown from 11,000 to 95,000 in 1976, 307,000 in 1985 and 650,000 in 2001. Today, it is estimated that the population is more than 800,000, with 81% identifying as indigenous, predominately Aymara. The average age of this young city is 22 and 60% of the population are under 30 years of age.
The mixture people who have migrated to El Alto have added to the city becoming a radical melting pot. Many Aymara and Quechua Indians forced off their lands by the crisis in traditional small-scale farming have taken to calling El Alto home. Coming from rural areas with strong traditions of local self-organisation â€” such as the Aymara from the Omasuyos region, where local villagers expelled police, local judges and mayors in 2000 and established their own authorities â€” they have brought these traditions with them, including burning down the mayor's office in El Alto.
Others are former miners, the historic backbone of Bolivia's militant working class, who as a result of the privatisation of Bolivia's mines in 1985 were left without a livelihood. Many of Bolivia's unemployed have also migrated to El Alto in order to join the ranks of the rapidly growing informal sector.
As Raul Zibechi points out in his October 14 article â€œSurvival and existence in El Altoâ€, posted on Counterpunch, â€œthis explosive growth â€” an average of nearly 10% annually â€” has left a large portion of the inhabitants of El Alto without access to basic services. In 1997, UNICEF estimated that only 34% of El Alto residents had access to all services, including paved or cobbled streets, trash pick-up, and telephone service. In 1992, only 20% of the inhabitants had access to sewage and 18% to trash pick-up. But in some districts, those percentages are declining; in the case of sewage by 2%, while the steps necessary to obtain it can take up to 10 years. Twenty percent do not have potable water or electricity, and 80% live on dirt roads.â€
In El Alto today, 45% of the population lives in poverty, with a further 20% in extreme poverty. This situation has forced the people of El Alto to begin to build, from the ground up, their own city. â€œServices have been constructed by the inhabitants themselves, who formed neighborhood councils that then formed [FEJUVE]â€, Zibechi added.
Today there are nearly 600 neighbourhood councils, which in essence act as what Aymara sociologist Pablo Mamani has described as â€œmicro governmentsâ€. The community looks to these committees to fix its problems, whether by organising the community itself to carry out the necessary public works, or mobilising people to ensure that government authorities act on their demands.
The mobilisations of October 2003 marked an important development in the politics of El Alto. Firstly, it brought the altenos, organised through FEJUVE and the Regional Workers Central (COR) of El Alto, to the forefront of Bolivia's social movements, with its decisive role in the ousting of former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Perhaps more importantly, it marked for the first time a shift in the demands of the people of El Alto beyond local issues to taking up national issues, namely the recuperation of gas, and forcing the issue of who should control this huge source of wealth â€” the transnationals or the people â€” into the national discussion.
They repeated this feat in May-June of this year, this time forcing Carlos Mesa to resign. The social movements were united around the demand of the nationalisation of gas. These mobilisations also resulted in the calling of early elections.
Faced with the upcoming elections, El Alto's organisations have taken differing positions. Leaders of both the COR and FEJUVE initially flirted with the idea of standing candidates under the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) banner, as well as discussing the possibility of joining the centre-left electoral front proposed by a number of the current mayors of Bolivia's major cities.
MAS is seen by most as the left-wing alternative in these elections, whose victory would mean the first indigenous president in the majority indigenous nation. The MAS presidential candidate Evo Morales, Aymara leader of the coca growers' federation from the Chapare region, is currently leading the election race, running on a platform of a break with the last 20 years of neoliberal rule, nationalisation of gas and a constituent assembly to involve the indigenous majority in rewriting the constitution.
While the proposed electoral front did not eventuate, discussions between MAS and FEJUVE reached a point where it seemed that Abel Mamani could be the MAS candidate for La Paz governor. However due to FEJUVE's demands for more positions than were on offer on the MAS ticket, and the fight put up by MAS members to ensure that they got the positions they felt they deserved for their years of militancy in the organisation, negotiations broke down.
Other members at the middle level of leadership in COR and FEJUVE raised the idea of the creation of El Alto's own political instrument, however these discussions were unable to develop into the construction of a new political force.
Linder Surco, head of the education and cultural department of the COR, told GLW that â€œunfortunately, these elections offer no exit to the problems that we face such as poverty. They will not resolve the problems that the country is living through such as the problem of the hydrocarbons. At this point in time we do not support and will not support an election like that which is being put forward for December.â€
The COR has raised the possibility of actions in the lead-up to the elections and an active boycott on December 18. This issue will be discussed at a conference co-organised by the COR, the Bolivian Workers Central (COB) and the Trade Union Federation of Bolivian Miners (FSTMB) in El Alto on December 8-10.
FEJUVE has taken a different approach. Abel Mamani explained: â€œThe elections have to happen. I don't think it is prudent to boycott the elections because in the end, through these elections we will achieve something much more important than the elections, which is the Consistent Assembly. That is what we are interested in.
â€œThrough the Constituent Assembly we will be able to achieve changes in this country, changes in issues such as the administration of the hydrocarbons, the government's management of basic services and many more things. That is why for me the elections are important.â€
Asked what a possible MAS government could mean, Mamani was clear. â€œSomething that is not good is the false expectations that have been created. I, at least personally, am not convinced that things will change much, at least immediately. That is why I believe we have the obligation to say the truth to the people.
â€œThere is the expectation that has been created that if MAS is in government they would change things. I don't believe they will.â€
There is no doubt that these expectations exist, and it seems that many altenos will reject the more radical discourse of the social movement leaders and actively participate in the elections in favour of a Morales victory. Such a decision by the altenos is not something new. The COR, along with FEJUVE at that time, also took a position of boycotting the referendum on the question of gas in July 2004. However, according to Julio Mamani, Aymara journalist and director of the Altena Press Agency (APA), the people of El Alto â€œrejectedâ€ this position, instead choosing â€œto show that they were willing to not just demonstrate their opposition on the streets, but also in the ballot boxesâ€. There was mass participation by altenos in the referendum, something MAS had called for.
According to Julio Mamani, â€œIf you ask the ordinary alteno who they will vote for they will tell you immediately, Evo.â€ This sentiment is hard to miss as you walk down the streets talking to the locals. In the 2002 election, Morales scored the highest vote for president in the city of El Alto, which polls indicate he is set to repeat.
However, as an indication of both the mixed nature of the politics of this city and some of the distrust in MAS, it is very likely that the right-wing candidate for governor of La Paz and current mayor of El Alto, Jose Luis Paredes, will win the vote for this position in El Alto. Two factors can help explain this contradiction. Firstly, despite the fact that he is standing for the right-wing PODEMOS ticket, many in El Alto feel that Paredes, in his two terms as mayor, has made some changes in the conditions of altenos for the better. Both Julio Mamani and Pablo Mamani agree this was why the majority of altenos overwhelming voted him back into the position of mayor last December.
It also reflects a rejection of the candidates put forward by MAS at the local level. Although Morales is seen by most as â€œone of themâ€, many of the candidates running for parliamentary positions are not seen by altenos as real leaders of their community. Many have been hand-picked by the MAS leadership, with no consultation with the community. There is also distrust in the politicians with which Morales has surrounded himself, and a feeling that they have worked to separate Morales from his traditional base. There is no doubt that in El Alto, the people will overwhelmingly vote for Morales, perhaps in some cases with reservations, but in many cases this will be combined with voting for opposition parties for the other positions.
There is also no doubt that these expectations will have to be fulfilled by a Morales government, something he will find hard to do solely through parliament. The latest polls show that the right-wing will control the senate and at least six of the nine governors up for election for the first time. Surco, who is one of the organisers of the COR-COB-FSTMB conference, explained that the aim of the meeting was to sign a unity pact that would end the truce in mobilisations since the end of the May-June uprising.
â€œBeginning December and January this truce will be lifted and we intended to once again begin to mobilise in favour of the nationalisation of the hydrocarbons, no matter which government comes in, be they from the left or right.â€
Between December 3-5, El Alto was also the site for the First National Congress in Defence of Water, Basic Services and Life, which FEJUVE and the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life from Cochabamba, headed by Oscar Olivera, were the main forces in organising. Just as the people of El Alto in January forced out the French multinational Suez, which had bought out the city's water supply following the privatisation of Bolivia's water in the late 1990s, the Coalition in Defence of Water and Life led the heroic struggle in 2000 that forced the government to break its contract with the US corporation Bechtel. Bechtel had bought out the water supply and begun charging the people of Cochabamba for rain water they collected.
Mamani, one of the spokespeople for the newly formed National Coalition in Defence of Water, Basic Services and Life, explained that â€œthese demands [around basic services] are not restricted to the city of El Alto, they are demands that are being raised in the interior of the country, in every corner of the country, because to live we need these basic necessities â€¦ This is why we are working â€¦ with the view of organising to unite forces, because our demands are the same.â€
Planning to mobilise behind these demands, no matter who wins on December 18, Mamani warned: â€œWe are convinced that whoever wins will have to prioritise, and act on, what the population is proposing.â€ With this city's recent history of booting out presidents, whoever wins the elections would be unwise to ignore the demands of the altenos.
From Green Left Weekly, December 7, 2005.