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El Alto: Epicenter of the New Bolivian Resistance

Jim Straub
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    Recent changes in the patterns of plunder in Bolivia have made the organizations, format and strategies of the current resistance strikingly different from those of the past. In contrast to the past, when strikes and workplace occupations by unions of the industrial proletariat were the engine of the struggle, today it is gremios (unions) of informal market workers, indigenous organizations and other new social sectors that are fighting an old battle, on new turf. The slum-city of El Alto is a case study in this new Bolivian resistance.

With several rebellions against corporate theft of resources like natural gas and water, Bolivia has become an epicenter of the growing Latin American backlash against neoliberalism. When corrupt President 'Goni' Lozada sought to privatize Bolivia's natural gas resources, he was overthrown in a revolt that challenged the most basic tenets of global capitalism in South America. After the street fighting abated, the hated Bolivian political elite found that the only acceptable replacement was, simply, anybody but them. The respected historian and political outsider Carlos Mesa became president, and succeeded in calming a country on the brink of revolution with vague promises of reform while toeing as closely as ever the corporate party line.

Similar presidential pressure release valves have been used to defuse growing militancy and anger in countries like Mexico, Argentina and Brazil in recent years. And as with Argentina's Piqueteros and Brazil's Workers' Party, Bolivia's massive social movements have wound up fighting amongst themselves, while opportunistic movement-caudillos (such as popular coca leader Evo Morales) jockey to be the next in line to sell out and become the 'reform' president.

In this context of revolt and retreat, the status quo claimed victory recently when a referendum vote supported passing a new pro-corporate law allowing the export of the contested natural gas resources. Divided social movement groups pursued conflicting strategies towards the vote, with some calling for voters to abstain, some participating, and some issuing complicated appeals to do both - as a unified and well-financed election campaign by the elite won what they claim is a ballot box mandate for continued corporate plunder.

Resistance never lets up

They shouldn't congratulate themselves too soon. If the past 500 years of colonialism in Bolivia shows anything, it is that resistance in this part of the world never lets up. From indigenous uprisings against Spanish rule, to the 1952 revolution when armed miners and factory workers marched on La Paz and defeated the Bolivian army in three days of open war, Bolivians have never given an inch to the rich white gangsters.

However, recent changes in the patterns of plunder in Bolivia have made the organizations, format and strategies of the current resistance strikingly different from those of the past. In contrast to the past, when strikes and workplace occupations by unions of the industrial proletariat were the engine of the struggle, today it is gremios of informal market workers, indigenous organizations and other new social sectors that are fighting an old battle, on new turf.

El Alto In many ways, nothing better illustrates what neoliberalism has done to Bolivia than the city that set this whole battle off: El Alto. What began as a slum neighborhood around and above the capital city of La Paz, has in the past decade grown so rapidly that it is by now actually larger than the capital itself. El Alto's miles and miles of desperately poor shacks now constitute the largest city in Bolivia - in fact, El Alto is the fastest-growing city in the hemisphere. With its structural unemployment, incredible population growth, sprawling miles of substandard housing, and incredible social misery, El Alto may represent the near future of Latin American urban life - the era of the mega slum.

The mega slum is, of course, no natural phenomenon - El Alto is the IMF's Bolivian offspring. Ever since the structural adjustment programs the Fund forced on Bolivia's economy in the 80s, more and more Bolivians have become vulnerable to economic shock and displacement - especially the rural poor. As a result, a demographic revolution is bringing hundreds of thousands from isolated peasant communities to sprawling, miserable slums like El Alto. Of its 800,000 current residents, more than 90% are indigenous Aymara, recent migrants from the countryside.

IMF and World Bank

For Bolivia's elite, these structural changes could be said to have succeeded where the military failed for decades. Bolivia had, for much of this century, the most resilient mass movements in Latin America - communist-led union federations and massive campesino groups that the Bolivian army was more or less perpetually at war with. An exterminist military tradition that includes such luminaries of evil as Nazi Klaus Barbie, was simply never able to kill enough miners or teachers to liquidate Bolivia's social movements.

But the IMF and World Bank's economic 'reforms' wiped out entire sectors of the Bolivian economy - mining, manufacturing, and the public sector - that employed mass numbers of organized revolutionaries. This targeted, strategic downsizing of hundreds of thousands of social movement militants effectively silenced the Bolivian left for the better part of the 90s.

During that time period of great economic change, many Bolivians lost their jobs or were forced to migrate as they grew poorer. In the countryside, when the IMF dismantled agricultural price supports, huge numbers of peasants were forced to flee deprivation to the growing slum-cities like El Alto. Denied a livelihood in sectors like mining or public service, unemployed Bolivians gravitated to the few industries where there was any economic opportunity, the informal sector - which basically means the massive black market and street-level retail that dominates Latin America now - and coca growing.

Social movements recompose

However, in an inspiring proof of the lasting nature of political consciousness, in the late 90s Bolivia's social movements began to recompose themselves in these new economic sectors. Whereas once armed miners and factory workers brought down governments, this past year it was indigenous associations of informal market workers and militant coca growers who forced corrupt President Sanchez Lozada to resign and flee the country.

In addition to being the showcase of IMF-caused poverty and displacement, El Alto has become an epicenter of the growing political radicalism in Bolivia. Large, displaced slum populations, who depend on the informal market for income, often lack independent political organizations worldwide. But in Bolivia, a rich tradition of campesino resistance has migrated to the slum along with the campesinos. As a result, both of the past two nationwide uprisings in Bolivia were started and led by the organizations of El Alto, ranging from it's radical municipal government to indigenous Aymara councils to gremios of informal market vendors.


Considering the lack of political power most slum populations worldwide have, the big question seems to be: how has the poorest slum in Bolivia become so central to the nation's political course?

The answer is surprisingly simple. Only five highways that leave La Paz go anywhere. All five, incidentally, depart from the city by way of El Alto, in a transport bottleneck easily choked off by large crowds and blockades. Any disruption of transportation on these capital highways causes intolerable paralysis for the entire country's economy. With hundreds of thousands of well-organized poor people, El Alto is obviously capable of pulling this road-blockade card at any time. When this tactic was used during the gas uprising, the military was only able to remove crowds from the highways through a televised bloodbath that helped spark the nationwide uprising that overthrew Lozada. With this powerful tactic in their toolbox, many Bolivian politicians now admit that the people of El Alto have a de-facto 'veto' over political decisions.

This power is especially important, since El Alto's people are not just the poorest people in the country - they are also the most radical. Recent opinion polls have indicated that El Alto's population is markedly more opposed to continuing neoliberalism than the rest of the country. Those same polls have revealed that the angry Altenos are also willing to participate in further uprisings in order to change the economic order. As conservative Bolivian political blogger Miguel Centellas writes, "These pieces of data are significant. What it means is that El Alto, which can strategically dominate the capital of La Paz by simply closing the 4-5 highways out of the city, is not only the most opposed to [neoliberalism]… but won't respect the outcome of a referendum supporting [continuing neoliberalism]."

This fact horrifies elites and conservatives like Centellas. Latin American political structures are usually carefully tailored to deny any measure of power to such populations. But here, due to a radical and well-organized peoples' strategic targeting of a vulnerable point in their country's profit system, the mega slum has become if not a political kingmaker, then a constant potential regicide. The poorest and most radicalized social sector of Bolivia - what a Marxist would call the 'vanguard' of Bolivia's working class - has become the most important political actor in the country.

'Vanguards' of the working class

However, in another respect this political scenario departs from old-left orthodoxy. Traditionally, 'vanguards' of the working class were unionized industrial workers. Certainly Bolivia's past falls into this formulaic analysis, when socialist-led unions of miners and factory workers led the country's mass movements. But El Alto's population is overwhelmingly un-, under-, or self-employed. These are the 'informal' masses of the emerging third world mega slum - street sellers, service-sector employees, and sub-subsistence entrepreneurs - people without regular work, union representation, or even the proverbial Boss to struggle against.

The people of El Alto, by and large, do not have a particular corporate employer that their organizations can target and fight for better wages or social benefits. For many, the only material gains they could win would involve confronting the entire neoliberal model. Hence, working-class resistance in Bolivia today is no longer led by labor stoppages or workplace occupations (although these do still play a part) - struggles at the 'point of production.' Rather, the downsized people of El Alto have identified what may be the only weak link in their country's profit system left open to their collective action: the country's transportation network. Unemployed people cannot go on strike, but they can certainly blockade a highway.

Road blockades

The use of the road blockade in Bolivia is not new. In the 1781 Tupaj Katari indigenous uprising, outgunned peasants surrounded La Paz and cut off all paths into and out of the city, seeking to simply starve out their rulers.

But disruption of the transportation of goods has become more and more prominent in Bolivian politics in recent years, reaching a climax during the February uprising in 2003. At that time road blockades were undertaken not only by the poor of El Alto, but by social movements in almost every department of the country - from cocaleros halting Chapare's transportation network to landless peasants cutting the bridge at Chane (the only route into the profitable Santa Cruz region). All transport (of people or of capital) was brought to a grinding halt.

When viewed in a global context, this new Bolivian resistance makes sense. In many places organized labor has lost both strength and radicalism because the ever-increasing mobility of production has allowed factories to flee to places where unions have a difficult time getting a foothold. The impoverished multitude in Latin America's near future will no longer be mostly peasants or industrial laborers but rather informal workers living in chronic insecurity in slums like El Alto. Already the Inter-American Development Bank estimates that 57 percent of Latin America's workforce is in the informal market, with 80% of all new jobs being created there.

The lesson of El Alto may be that for increasing sectors of the world population, political power may be found less through organization and action at the point of production, and more through disruption of capital's mobility at the point of transportation. As Latin America has emerged in recent years as the epicenter of a growing global movement against neoliberalism, repeatedly we see road blockades and other disruptions of transportation used by those who don't have corporate employers dependent on their labor (the unemployed, the landless, street sellers, etc.). From the periodic province-wide general strikes that paralyzed all transportation in Ecuador, to Argentina's unemployed Piqueteros conducting road blockades on a daily basis to press for their demands, increasingly resistance to neoliberalism is being undertaken by downsized or economically excluded populations at the point of capital's mobility.

Capital's response

If the weak-link in the profit system available to social movements is at the point of transportation, then El Alto can also give us a warning of what capital's response to attempts to attack its mobility will be: more mobility. While popular organizations in Bolivia are proving their ability to physically control the transportation of goods, corporations have retained the ability to control capital's mobility at a larger, structural level, and to use that control to economically punish radicalism.

While Bolivia has tilted sharply to the left over the past couple years, this radicalization has not been evenly spread across the country. Rather, a process of regional political balkanization has divided the country between the poor, radical and populous western regions, and the relatively better off, more moderate, less populous eastern areas of Santa Cruz and Tarija (referred to as the medialuna because their combined shape resembles a half-moon). As a result, politics in the country are squaring off as a contest between the angry poor of the west, led by the people of El Alto, and the business elites of the medialuna. In this game of national brinksmanship, the medialuna is essentially trying to secede economically from the rest of the country.

Indigenous autonomy

The opportunity for this economic secession and balkanization by eastern Bolivia's elites, ironically, comes from the left. Bolivia's growing indigenous organizations have made the demand for multiple forms of governmental authority and autonomy central to the current struggle. For them, the right for indigenous communities - who have long had their own independent forms of self-governance disrespected - to administer public resources and have official standing is paramount.

But as this fight for pluri-ethnic governance has won a promise from Bolivia's politicians for a new national assembly that will incorporate these new structures in the near future, medialuna business elites have hijacked the debate and included their demands for more regional economic independence in them. If this were to happen it could make the coming new national assembly a pyrrhic victory for the popular social movements, as agribusiness and natural gas interests in the medialuna desire nothing more than economic 'autonomy' from the clamors of radical poor Indians in the west for a share of the wealth or a say in how it is made.

Since the February uprisings, the few factories left in El Alto and La Paz have at least been exploring the option of relocating to Santa Cruz, and some have already done so. Capital's strategy is clear - faced with threats to it's mobility by poor people's organizations in the east, it is using its control of the larger structure of economic mobility to move jobs and money out of the area to the less-radical departments in the west, thereby punishing El Alto's population by increasing poverty and unemployment there.

This capital drain out of the west, and the gradual economic secession being undertaken by those eastern departments, poses a grave challenge to Bolivia's popular movements. How can the threat to capital's mobility that they wield at the material level (road blockades) be translated to the larger, structural level? If they are to succeed, social movements in Bolivia, and everywhere, must be able to answer this question and find a way to stop or hamper the free movement of capital worldwide.


Jim Straub is an anarchist and apprentice organizer with a hospital workers union in Ohio – where road blockades against globalization might be a few years’ worth of hard organizing work away.