Soliz Lopez de Perel is an activist in El Alto. She was recently awarded a prize given to women by the Federation of Neighbourhood Assemblies for their work
‘I was born in the mining province of Sud Chichas. I have always been part of the mining union.
In 1980 there was a coup and we suffered under a dictatorship. My husband was out of work and was later sent into exile, but I stayed in Bolivia. We fought against the dictatorship and in 1984 democracy was restored in Bolivia.
But the parties that came to power after 1985 brought in neo-liberalism. President Victor Paz Estenssoro declared that Bolivia was dying and enacted “law 21060”, which removed basic employment rights.
He also organised what is called the “relocation” of the miners. Some 37,000 were thrown out of work. We found that we had no work, no home, no access to healthcare or education.
The majority of us reached the outskirts of El Alto. There was nothing there – people had to live in tents.
During the October 2003 uprising I was part of the movement in my barrio [neighbourhood] – Santiago II. We came out in defence of Bolivia’s gas resources.
The government wanted to bring fuel through our barrio to deliver to La Paz. We didn’t have weapons of any kind. We only had sticks and stones to confront the troops. Tanks came into the barrio and planes flew over the roofs of the houses.
So the men dug trenches to fortify the neighbourhood and a section of the main road that passes through the barrio. We made bundles of tin tacks tied together, which we used to puncture the tyres of any vehicles that tried to enter the barrio.
We knew that other miners were marching on El Alto to support us, so the women organised themselves and appealed for food. They had to cook the food, care for the children, look after the area, and they monitored the TV and radio for information.
Many people were killed. But in spite of everything the people rose up.
In our area I was the vice president of the neighbourhood committee. We had to organise the whole barrio of 25,000 people. We organised street by street. Each of the 17 streets is one kilometre long.
Every single person had a task and every day we held an assembly to monitor progress. After the president fled the country the raids died down. Our first priority then was to bury our dead and comfort the families who had lost loved ones.
There was great rejoicing in the barrio at the president’s fall. Bolivian men are very macho so they drank and danced.
During the struggle El Alto and La Paz were paralysed for four weeks. The mobilisation of the people was not made by any leader, people mobilised themselves. A few leaders appeared as the battles were dying down.
The new president [Carlos Mesa, who was driven out by another uprising in June 2005] came on a visit to El Alto and promised to put on trial the people responsible for the killings – but he carried on with the same policies.
If Mesa had met our demands, he would still be president today. When [Evo Morales’s party] MAS began to organise, people began to see a little light. You can see for yourselves what the results are. The country is waiting. There are high levels of expectation.
The next steps that have to be taken must be strong – taking down the structures that have been in place for such a long time.’