Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dispatches: El Alto, Bolivia

Reading Time: 6 minutesThe former settlement on a plateau above La Paz is becoming a city unto itself, due in no small part to onetime protest leader and now favorite son, President Evo Morales.
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Changes: Estanislao and Félix Mamani pose in front of Félix’s house in El Alto. Photo: Sara Shahriari

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Blazing sun, freezing nights, roads clogged with traffic, and a vast maze of adobe houses populated by nearly a million people. This is the Bolivian city of El Alto. Once an outlying neighborhood on the high plains above La Paz, El Alto has today surpassed its population.

Matching El Alto’s growing profile, the city is also about to host some major public projects. President Evo Morales has promised a multi-million dollar soccer stadium and—perhaps most important—the government is installing natural gas connections to tens of thousands of homes.

El Alto’s new look also underlines its newfound political influence. Just a decade ago, in October 2003, demonstrators filled the streets to protest the Bolivian government’s plans to export natural gas through Chile, turning the city into a battlefield. Those bloody days of conflict—known as the “gas war”—left more than 60 civilians dead in clashes with police and soldiers. The conflict set the stage for the rise of Morales, who in 2006 became Bolivia’s first Indigenous president.

Nevertheless, as Morales makes every sign of preparing for the 2014 presidential race and a possible third term in office, the residents of this Aymara-Indigenous stronghold still struggle with poverty, inadequate infrastructure and poor job security.

What has changed in El Alto since the gas war, and how did Morales win—and keep—the heart of this extraordinary city?

Gas Pains and Growing Pains

Estanislao Mamani, 33, stands on the dusty road in front of his small brick house in El Alto. Despite its location on the city fringes, Mamani’s home has a natural gas line laid to the kitchen, an increasingly common convenience throughout the city. But it’s not just gas connections, schools and soccer fields with artificial turf that matter to Morales supporters like Mamani.

“We have always been discriminated against because of our last names, because we are Indigenous,” he says. “You could not get into the university, or into other institutions. […] People who came from the countryside to La Paz were always looked down upon as peasants.”

“Now we are equal to each other,” he adds proudly.

The majority of El Alto’s population is still far from finding stable jobs with fair wages and health insurance. Most are like Mamani, who makes around $250 a month driving a taxi, working in construction and sewing clothes that his family of four sells for less than a dollar per garment for export. His neighborhood has been struggling for years to win municipal approval for a sewage system. Currently, he and his neighbors use the nearby Sek’e River as an open-pit bathroom. In other barrios, running water is still a luxury.

All the same, Morales’ rise to power epitomizes the triumph of the long struggle of Bolivia’s Indigenous communities to win political power and recognition. “I feel satisfi ed and proud of being a Bolivian because of Evo Morales,” Mamani says.

Ten years earlier, Mamani’s sentiments couldn’t have been more different. He was one of the nearly 60 protesters on October 14, 2003, who shoved a massive cargo train car off a 30-foot- high bridge and onto the highway connecting El Alto and La Paz—an important moment in the Gas War. The derailed car blocked highway access to El Alto for at least three days.

“There was tremendous rage against [then-President Sánchez de Lozada],” Mamani says, explaining why he risked his life to join the protest. “He didn’t feel for the people, and beyond that, he hurt the people by negotiating gas [sales] to the exterior, when we didn’t have gas here.”

The 2003 protests had deep roots. The painful irony of living in a resource-rich country that left its own impoverished citizens standing in line to buy yellow gas canisters had caused growing discontent with the neoliberal policies begun under President Víctor Paz Estenssoro in 1985. Between 2000 and 2003, unrest spread across the country. In Cochabamba, plans to privatize water services triggered an uprising. Elsewhere, rural residents set up roadblocks in reaction to a slew of local grievances, and the military crushed them.

El Alto was the center of popular mobilization against the Sánchez de Lozada government, in part due to the large numbers of laid-off miners— historically a powerful, organized block—who had settled there. The grievances eventually coalesced around a single goal: to force the government to cancel plans to export gas through Chile to the United States.

“It was about a whole lot more than natural gas, but natural gas was the trigger and what bound people together,” says Thomas Perreault, associate professor of geography at Syracuse University, noting that the role of Chile, which annexed Bolivia’s entire coast in the late 1800s, was a particular red flag to protesters.

Juan Patricio Quispe, 40, and his family paid a heavy price for their part in the protests. His brother Constantino was shot in the streets of El Alto, likely by the military, on October12, 2003, and died three days later at the age of 43.

“They shot him in the back,” says Quispe, who later became the leader of the Asociación de Familiares Caídos en Defensa del Gas (Association of Relatives of Victims Fallen in the Defense of Gas), a group of relatives seeking justice for their dead family members.

“I went to the hospital to see him […where he was] covered with a green shirt. I always remember that, and seeing his intestines moving. By the main door and in the street, there were many, many injured people and dead bodies—the hospital was so full.”

With La Paz and El Alto in a state of chaos, President Sánchez de Lozada resigned and fl ed to the U.S. on October 17. He was replaced by Vice President Carlos Mesa, who, in one of his first acts as president, traveled to El Alto and promised justice for victims of the gas war. The plans for gas export via Chile were cancelled.

Yet Alteños’ other demands—later known as the “October Agenda,” which called for the nationalization of hydrocarbons, a constitutional assembly and an end to measures that since the mid-1980s had increased the number of informal Bolivian workers—were still unfulfilled two years later, when coca farmer, congressman and union leader Evo Morales began his presidential campaign. El Alto threw its support behind Morales, who won 77 percent of the city’s votes—the highest percentage of support in any major city in Bolivia—and propelled him to the presidency.

Just Don’t Take Them for Granted

We don’t want a beggar state,” Morales said at his 2006 inauguration. “I want that to end, and in order to do that, we are obliged to nationalize our natural resources.”

Since nationalizing Bolivia’s oil and gas reserves on May 1, 2006—his 100th day in office—Morales has managed to meet most of the demands of the October Agenda. He raised profits from Bolivia’s natural gas resources by renegotiating contracts to make the government the majority stakeholder, pushed forward a new constitution, attempted to improve labor conditions, and largely stayed out of the way of the trial of former military commanders, which in 2011 led to guilty verdicts for five former heads of the military and two of Sánchez de Lozada’s ministers for their involvement in the gas war killings. Sánchez de Lozada remains in the U.S. and so far, Bolivia’s attempts to extradite him have failed.

“There’s a symbolic component and a material component to gas nationalization,” says Perrault. “The material component is that the government gets more royalties from gas […] and it funds many of the bonos, the social programs, and there’s greater control over the gas reserves and the hydrocarbon policy.”

Perreault adds that, symbolically, gas nationalization speaks to Bolivia’s long struggle to control and reap the benefits of its own natural resources.

Today, the gas pipelines at the doors of El Alto homes—the Morales government installed more natural gas connections there than anywhere else—are tangible proof for Alteños that their struggle has produced results.

But the government is keenly aware that more needs to be done to keep the city on its side. The Morales administration has invested heavily in infrastructure across El Alto, and is building a cable car linking El Alto to La Paz to ease transport. The cable car system, in which the government plans to invest a quarter of a million dollars, is scheduled to begin operating in 2014—an election year.

“We should be proud of our dear city of El Alto,” Vice President Álvaro García Linera said during a speech in April. “We are going to make her into one of the most powerful and modern cities in all the country, because that is what the people of El Alto deserve.”

Alteños like Quispe agree there is more opportunity than a decade ago. “I see more paved roads, more schools, more activity,” he says.

Yet El Alto still wants to make sure its support is not taken for granted. When the government abruptly announced in December 2010 a cancellation of the nationwide subsidy that kept gas prices low—leading to an overnight 70 percent hike in prices—protests erupted once more.

Fanny Nina, 48, who was the first female president of the Federación de Juntas Vecinales de El Alto (Federation of El Alto Neighborhood Organizations— fejuve)—the city’s powerful, male-dominated neighborhood to the stomach.”

“[We said then that] people in El Alto love you, Mister President, but we have demands,” she remembers. “You said you were going to govern for the people.”

The demonstrations brought a quick cancellation of the subsidy changes within a week—and an apology from the president.Despite complaints that only members of Morales’ Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism—MAS) get plum projects approved, El Alto remains Morales’ strongest urban base. A June survey found that 53 percent of Alteños say they would vote for Evo Morales today—compared with 34 percent in La Paz and just 23 percent in the opposition stronghold Santa Cruz.

Nina says most Alteños remain loyal to Morales because they recognize their struggle in him. “He’s Bolivian and he has always identified with the people and their problems—how can we not value him and appreciate him?” she says.

But Nina is also quick to point out that the struggle is not over—especially for women. “Women die in their houses when they are giving birth because they have no access to health care, we have no centers for child care, stable jobs are still lacking, and there is an increasing sense of insecurity because of criminality,” she says.

And she notes that political cronyism—a longstanding issue in Bolivia— remains a problem throughout the country.

“If you are not in the group of power, then your projects do not advance.”

How to overcome these problems is still an open question and a challenge for locals like Nina, but the objectives are clear. “El Alto deserves progress and development,” she says “We deserve high levels of education, health and citizen security. We deserve all that in El Alto.”

Tags: Bolivia, Gas War, President Evo Morales
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