bolivia's cauldron of rebellion

El Alto, Bolivia




* The Indians of Bolivia's El Alto lead a drive for social change that has toppled two presidents.


EL ALTO, Bolivia -- This Indian metropolis on the wind-swept plateau of the Bolivian Altiplano exports two things to the capital city in the rocky valley below: cheap labor and social revolution.


Most mornings, the streets in El Alto's downtown fill with men and boys in modern clothes and women in the bowler hats and wide, silk dresses of the Aymara people. They pass stubby brick office towers, Internet cafes and market stalls, and squeeze into minibuses for the short commute to La Paz.


Other days, at the edge of El Alto, in neighborhoods where children play around muddy pools of water and potato gardens grow between adobe brick homes, people gather to debate where they will build their barricades and bonfires. Within hours, they will have sealed off La Paz.


El Alto is the crucible of Bolivia's Indian uprising, a sometimes explosive, always simmering challenge to this Andean country's centuries-old social order. Last week, an Indian-led rebellion forced President Carlos Mesa to resign and prevented two of his would-be successors from taking office. Just 20 months earlier, Mesa's predecessor was ousted in similar fashion.


"We will triumph because the people of El Alto have willed it, because Bolivia has willed it," Abel Mamani, leader of the Federation of Neighborhood Assemblies of El Alto, told 400 activists at a meeting last week. "The people of El Alto began this mobilization, and they cannot lower their guard."


Mamani, a wiry 36-year-old son of Bolivia's mining region, is one of the most prominent members of a new generation of Aymara and Quechua leaders. They are at the forefront of a diverse social movement of anti-globalization activists pushing to change, among other things, how Bolivia's oil wealth is distributed.


On Sunday, new President Eduardo Rodriguez held his first public meeting, visiting El Alto and holding a tete-a-tete with Mamani. Rodriguez, leading the nation on an interim basis, was eager to restore a sense of order to a country shaken by weeks of protests. The barricades were lifted, including the one that had blocked off the fuel distribution plant that supplies La Paz.


No one can say, however, that the barricades will not return soon.


"We have not won what we were seeking," Roberto de la Cruz, one of the most vocal Aymara activists here, told reporters last week.


Besides the nationalization of the oil industry, Indian activists such as De la Cruz are demanding a constitutional convention that would "reestablish the Bolivian state" and grant more power to the Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous groups that make up the majority of Bolivia's nearly 9 million people.


In recent years El Alto has become a focal point of Bolivian politics, in large measure because the metropolis of 800,000 is where city and country meet and mix. El Alto's best-known activists are, like the charismatic De la Cruz, men and women with rural roots. They came of age in El Alto's schools, colleges and neighborhood assemblies.


Thanks to an accident of geography, the most important highways linking La Paz and the interior of Bolivia all pass though El Alto's impoverished, densely populated neighborhoods.


"This is the door to La Paz," said German Mamani Angulo, a resident of El Alto's District 8, on the southern fringe of the city. He stood by a stretch of asphalt leading to open plains of sable grasses. "When we close this door, nothing passes."


Traveling from La Paz to the cities of Oruro and Cochabamba several hours away, the highway passes through a neighborhood called the 23rd of March. Like many other El Alto communities, its streets are unpaved and there is no water or sewer service. With police scarce, an effigy at the entrance to the community warns off thieves with the threat of lynching.


"Our demands are for basic things," said Mamani Angulo, no relation to Abel Mamani. El Alto's residents would like the city to pick up the trash and build sidewalks, he says.


Just a few paces from the La Paz-Oruro-Cochabamba highway, one family gets its drinking water from a system of catchments. When it rains, the water pours off their home's tin roof into large barrels.


When it doesn't rain, the residents are dependent on a tanker truck that sells water.


"It's not having water that makes people here the angriest," Mamani Angulo said.


When El Alto's residents grow tired of being poor and thirsty, they can block the roads to make life miserable for the residents of La Paz.


In October 2003, when the protests against President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada's government reached their peak, trucks from the interior were backed up at the barricades in the 23rd of March neighborhood for weeks, unable to deliver their goods to the capital.


"The trucks would come from Cochabamba, and they would have to sell their produce right here" at the barricades, said Mamani, the community leader. "They were selling chicken for 4 bolivianos a kilo," or about 25 cents per pound. "They had live pigs and couldn't feed them, so they would sell them too." Little white piglets descended from the barricaded pigs are still being born in the 23rd of March area today, he added.


Several hundred miners from Oruro joined the local barricade too. Locals extended their hospitality by taking over a school to house them.


The activism of El Alto often obeys traditions born in the Indian villages of the high plains and the fading mining towns of the Andes, where men of coffee-colored skin once coaxed a fortune in tin from the mountains.


Migration from both areas transformed the once-sleepy suburb of La Paz into Bolivia's third-largest city. Residents typically toil as vendors, construction workers or low-wage service employees in the capital, and many frequently return to rural areas.


"There are many people who go back and forth from the city to the countryside, for harvest and planting," said Wilson Soria, a former priest and current member of the City Council. Among these residents, rural habits and beliefs are strong.


"Whenever there's a natural disaster, people feel it's for a reason, that some moral failing of theirs has caused it," Soria said. Perhaps they've been drinking too much, or failed to go to church. They pray to the Apostle James, who is believed to offer protection against lightning strikes. Every July 25, El Alto's southern neighborhoods fill with people celebrating a festival in the apostle's honor.


And every week, 560 local neighborhood assemblies meet to discuss the work that needs to be done in their communities. The assemblies are the urban equivalent of traditional Aymara and Quechua communes. All decisions are made by voice vote. The opinions of elders carry additional weight.


In these meetings, "the logic of the agrarian community is brought to the urban world," said Alvaro Garcia Linera, a political scientist who has studied Indian activism.


"They say, 'We have to fix the streets because the water has washed everything away,' " Garcia Linera observed. " 'We have to build a soccer field for the young people.' It's all done with communal work, communal sharing and communal meetings."


El Alto's schools and cafes, and its urban community centers, are where a new ideology of indigenous pride has flourished, thanks in large measure to Aymara writers such as Fausto Reinaga, whose 1970 book "The Indian Revolution" has become to this generation of activists what "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" was to a generation of African Americans.


"I am an Indian. An Indian who thinks, who has ideas," Reinaga wrote. "Once I was alone, now I will be millions.... I will tear to shreds the infamous wall of 'organized silence' that the Bolivia of Indian submission has built around me."


Reinaga, who died in 1994, prophesied that his work would bring a violent revolution to Bolivia. The country would "cry out in pain and bleed thanks to my words," he wrote.


One of those who read Reinaga as a young man was De la Cruz. Last week, he was on Bolivian TV, referring to the community's residents as "our troops."


"When you read 'La Revolucion India,' the impact it has on you is very strong," De la Cruz said in an interview. "You have to put its arguments into practice if you want to liberate your race."


De la Cruz was born in the rural Omasuyos district of La Paz province, an area that is now a hotbed of rural militancy. He came to the capital as a teenage orphan, later joined the army and briefly attended a local college.


In 2003, De la Cruz was arrested and jailed for several months on charges that he had directed a crowd of activists who set fire to El Alto's City Hall. Now he has an office in the same building: He was elected to the City Council this year.


Mayor Jose Luis Paredes, who was targeted in the attack because of a plan to raise taxes, has since moved his office to another building.


"I think it's harder to be mayor of El Alto than it is to be president of the republic," Paredes said.


He listed some problems: One in six El Alto residents doesn't possess a birth certificate. More than a third of the homes are unregistered. And every week seems to bring a new neighborhood protest -- against one family's eviction, perhaps, or in favor of a new school.


A citywide protest this year in El Alto forced the government to take over the French-owned local water utility, Aguas de Illimani, after residents accused the company of failing to keep its promise to expand service.


"Now I'm going to have to learn how to manage a water company," Paredes said wryly.


But the latest protests have focused less on local concerns and more on macroeconomics.


Throughout the 1990s, Bolivia's government had embraced privatization as a way to attract badly needed foreign investment. But in recent years, as the Bolivian economy struggled to produce new jobs, those foreign contracts became a target for criticism by a growing movement of rural, Indian and union leaders.


Many El Alto residents have come to blame "neoliberal" economics -- the free-market capitalism championed by the United States and others -- and transnational corporations for the poverty that prompted them to abandon their homes and migrate to service jobs in the city.


Mamani, one of nine children of a mining family from the Oruro region, moved to El Alto with his parents as a teenager 20 years ago.


"I didn't even have a suitcase," he recalled. He wanted to be a dentist, but gave up his studies to work odd jobs.


The family lived near City Hall, and Mamani joined the local neighborhood council, helping to lead the local fight to get water and electricity.


"We started to get the streets paved," he said. "Then we got water hookups."


Other El Alto residents noticed his gifts as a public speaker and organizer. Now he is president of one of the most powerful civic groups in Bolivia.


On Saturday, Mamani took a call in his office, at his desk next to a bust of Argentine Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.


It was the new president of Bolivia, asking for a meeting.