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Revolt On High

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

June 16, 2005|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

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.

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