The city of El Alto became a focus for the two waves of struggle in 2003 and 2005. This city of indigenous workers sits on the high plain that rises up above the Bolivian capital, La Paz.
Raúl Zibechi has charted the city’s growth and the role its popular organisations have played. He described the city for Socialist Worker: “El Alto is 13,000 feet above sea level in the middle of a prairie, surrounded by high, snow capped mountains. It has a climate of extremes – a burning sun, but icy cold in the shadows.
“It is the poorest and the youngest city in the continent. More than half of its 800,000 inhabitants have arrived in the city in the last 15 years, and 50 years ago it had only 11,000 people.
“Almost half the population is less than 25 years old. The growth has been so fast that no basic infrastructure exists. The roads are mud paths. There is no drainage, so when it rains everything becomes a lake.”
El Alto’s rapid growth coincides with Bolivia’s turn to neo-liberalism, and with the collapse of the tin industry, which had previously been the source of much of the country’s wealth and its most militant trade unions.
“The city grew with the closure of the tin mines in 1985,” said Zibechi. “Entire communities came to live in the city because in the country they were dying of hunger.
“This was not only rural communities, but also miners. Thousands from the same mine came to the city.
“Those who came together settled in the same area in plastic tents and created a neighbourhood. Many of the neighbourhoods are made up of groups of families that knew each other previously. This gives them a great cohesion.”
Until recent years Latin America was seen by many as a continent of defeated movements – where the most savage forms of neo-liberalism had smashed powerful groups of workers and driven millions into poverty.
But the changes of the last two decades have also forced those at the bottom of society to organise in new ways, often blending old traditions of struggle with new ways of fighting.
That is particularly true in El Alto, which Zibechi calls “a self constructed city”. “Absolutely everything in El Alto was made by the people – nothing by the state. The roads, the huts, the schools, the sports fields and the churches are all initiatives of the population.”
The majority of inhabitants work in small businesses, usually with four or less workers. “Some are traders and run restaurants, others work in industry and construction and 10 percent are state employees. You could say that El Alto is a ‘sea of informal labour’.
“The Sunday market has 40,000 stalls. It’s incredible. They sell everything from socks to new and used cars – all in the street in canvas tents.”
This small scale industry has shaped distinctive forms of organisation in El Alto. “Classic trade unions hardly exist,” said Zibechi.
“There are two main forms of organisation. One is the neighbourhood assembly. There are 550 of these – one for each barrio. That makes about 1,500 people per assembly, but if you exclude children it’s about 1,000.
“The assemblies come together in the Federation of Neighbourhood Assemblies of El Alto (Fejuve). This is the most important organisation – the one that led the uprisings of 2003 and 2005. The other main form of organisation is the trade associations of market vendors, which are grouped together in the Workers’ Regional Centre.
“Participation in both the neighbourhood assemblies and the trade associations is obligatory. If you don’t affiliate to a trade association you can’t sell in the street. If you don’t attend assemblies and marches, you have to pay a fine.
“The organisations encompass the entire population. There isn’t a ‘delegate democracy’ but something different. I don’t know if it is that democratic, but it is very participatory. It is based on traditions from the miners’ organisations and the indigenous communities.
“The organisations are all territorial – they control an area, a barrio or a market. Here everything is territorial. For example, if you walk down the streets of El Alto you will see hanging puppets. They are a warning to thieves and they announce that someone was robbed here.
“When a thief comes, whistles sound and people surround him, throw stones and kill him. Some 900 thieves die this way in El Alto each year.
“The police don’t exist, or worse still they collaborate with the thieves. So people build their own forms of self-defence which are very troubling from a Western point of view – but that’s how things work here.”
Organisations based on popular mobilisation from below are strongest in El Alto, but similar bodies exist across Bolivia. And they have proved decisive in the struggles of the past few years.
“The bodies have been strengthened by the struggles, but they weaken when there are no popular mobilisations,” said Zibechi. “This is very curious. When there is an uprising, an insurrection, the state ceases to exist and the political parties are effectively expelled from the movement.
“But once the movement is in decline the bureaucracy reappears and takes control. In time these bureaucracies become worthless and so the people repeatedly surpass them. The history of popular struggle in recent decades is a history of permanent surpassing from below.”
At present the inhabitants are waiting to see what moves the government makes. But they have tasted their power in recent years:
“In October 2003 people used their territorial control by means of road blocks and control of the highways. They cut off the roads so that gas and food couldn’t get through to La Paz.”
This blockade effectively shut down the capital. For a while power lay in the street, and some of those in the movement seriously debated taking power. The struggles of May and June 2005 repeated this pattern.
This begs the question of whether the assemblies can form the basis for a different way of running Bolivian society.
Zibechi said, “I don’t know if they can remake Bolivia. This movement is better described as a kind of dispersion of state power, but I don’t know if it is capable of other things. Let’s say that they are movements that demonstrate a great capacity – but it is difficult to think of a way of coordinating between them.”
On the current situation, Zibechi added, “This is a moment of waiting – the initiative has passed from the street to the government. But, in the back of people’s minds is the idea that they must continue fighting to accelerate change.”
Translation by Ben Windsor