Division in El Alto follows militant anti-coup protests

Following the forced resignation of Evo Morales last Sunday, El Alto has taken a unique path. The city of one million people maybe the most indigenous large city in the world: 76% Aymara and 9% Quechua in the lastest census. United in by the September and October 2003 protests, it ensured the downfall of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the last hardline Bolivian president to order deadly repression on a massive scale. Ever since, El Alto has a reputation for ethnic and working-class militancy. And yet this very militancy is often radically skeptical of political parties, prone to division, and adverse to being a pawn in others’ games.

And so, the city’s reaction to Morales’ overthrow has been complicated. Some angry crowds have circulated at night, targeting police installations, infrastructure, and other politically connected targets in self-proclaimed resistance to the coup. (An incendiary text by Ivan Apaza Calle, “They are not Evo supporters! They are Alteños, dammit!,” takes up this position.) As I’ve described on Twitter, these protest cut a wide swath of property destruction, especially on the first night of November 10. These attacks seemed destined to deepen divisions rather than unite Alteños in a common effort.

Other daytime protest events have mobilized “in defense of the wiphala,” but with more ambiguous views on President Morales himself. Judith Apaza wrote “So we can understand each other a bit…” from within this context.

A substantial but not overwhelmingly large cabildo of the mobilized, claiming to represent El Alto’s 14 districts and La Paz department’s 20 provinces met Saturday in El Alto. The gathering, which numbered in the low thousands, made a broad list of national and local demands, including the resignations of both Jeanine Añez and Soledad Chapetón.

The circulating crowds, property destruction and arson, have left other Alteños terrorized and there are many testimonial and interpersonal reports of neighborhoods dwelling in fear of overnight reprisals on them. For an example see, “El Alto overnight: Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail.” This weekend, this perspective emerged into a public current of dissension from the stance of hardline mobilization. Alteños are divided between a pro-MAS-IPSP Federation of Neighborhood Councils (FEJUVE) and an opposition FEJUVE contestaria that organizes separately. Some of these divisions have already proved very costly in human lives, notably in the 2016 protest and arson at El Alto’s city hall, which killed six people.

La Razón reported Saturday:

Since that day [November 9], mobilizations with blockades began and there were actions by groups engaging in vandalism who burned almost all of the police stations.

In opposition, the alternate FEJUVE, led by Néstor Yujra, instructed [its constituents] to raise the wiphala in their homes and asked the neighbors to take actions to safeguard their homes, making it clear that the sector does not support any political party.

The lootings divided many neighborhoods. Hence, in many sectors, it was decided not to march or blockade.

The first to demonstrate their rejection [of the “citywide” blockade] were the neighbors of Villa Esperanza, who resolved not to participate in marches or blockades. They were followed in this determination by the Pacajes-Caluyo zone, whose inhabitants decided to go out and un-block the roadways. A similar decision was undertaken by the October 12 neighborhood. The Túpac Katari neighborhood, who de-recognized their [pro-blockade] leadership and Huayna Potosí zone (Porvenir sector) who rejected “being used by MAS partisans.”

Another sector resisting the mobilization by the FEJUVE leadership is District 3. There, barricades have been put up and every night there are vigils to safeguard the Integral Police Station, which is the only one that has not been burned down.

http://www.la-razon.com/nacional/Divergencias-surgen-El_Alto-respecto-movilizaciones_0_3258874098.html

El Alteño newspaper ran the headline “El Alto closes week of protest divided” today. It also reports that neighbors pleading for peace marched with white flags on the city’s Avenida Cívica. Aside from these demobilization initatives, there are statements and manifestos like this feminist text rejecting the “fascism” of Jeanine Añez while refusing any partisan takeovers of grassroots organizations.

Each region and city in Bolivia seems to have a different dynamic at the moment. Just as the national situation is reaching its bleakest moment yet, this pivotal city is working out its own longstanding divisions. It remains to be seen whether and how Alteños can claim the political initiative, and participate in an effective struggle to keep the gains they have won and reverse the damage currently being done.

El Alto overnight: “Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail”

Since the forced resignation of Evo Morales, angry crowds have circulated in El Alto at night, targeting police installations, infrastructure, and other politically connected targets in self-proclaimed resistance to the coup. The circulating crowds, property destruction and arson, have left other Alteños terrorized and there are many testimonial and interpersonal reports of neighborhoods dwelling in fear of overnight reprisals on them. Thus, just as some foreign media outlets have celebrated El Alto as a heroic center of resistance, many of the updates coming directly from the city speak of fear, uncertainty, and division. Neighbors debate how they will respond to calls to mobilize that also paralyze and sometimes damage the city they live in. They debate risks to their own lives, reprisals from those who insist on mobilization, and the presence or lack of a common purpose with political parties like the MAS. This unease came into public focus this weekend in El Alto, and is also present in the writings coming out of the county.

I offer a brief text here that gives the flavor of such late night conversations in an uncertain time. Anthropologist Amy Kennemore (@KennemoreAmy) has translated this text by Rodrigo Urquila Flores shared via El Alto-based Colectivo Curva. It first appeared here in Spanish.

Since one (o’clock), we are in the streets of the neighborhood, in vigil, because we didn’t want them to surprise us.

It’s been years since I attended a neighborhood meeting.  The one yesterday at night was carried out in emergency because of the panic that we lived the day before.

Yes, there were people disguised as police. Yes, when they spoke foreign accents were recognized, presumably Venezuelans. And they seemed to know the territory well.

A woman told us that around noon, when she was preparing lunch for her family, someone beat on the door of her house. It was a tall man, all dressed in black, with a black helmet on too, on a motorcycle. He had a foreign accent she told us, and only asked vague questions, pointing to the closest light pole: “Does this light pole work well?” Scared, she responded; “Yes, youngster,” and took refuge in her house. Several neighbors, in the meeting, called him out at the same time for not having advised, to catch him between everyone. The motorcycle went away and didn’t return.

Another neighbor shared that he had to pay someone fees of their debt in a bank. All of the branches nearby were closed and he had to go all the way to the center with his wife and baby. Paid. Later, he saw an agglomeration of protestors, the majority of whom were Alteños, by Camacho Avenue. He wanted to get close. A policeman told him he should not take children to the march, that it was better that he went to his house and he wasn’t able to go further. “Then, a choca[1] passed, similar to the president [Áñez] and she said to my woman, ‘What are you doing here shitty chola,[2]and I responded, ‘What happened to you lady, are you drunk or drugged?’ And the police saw but they didn’t do anything.” When he finished speaking, there was concern. And shared pain. Until someone said “But not all qharas (white people) are like that, you have to turn the other cheek too, certainly this choca was ignorant, don’t pay attention to them.”

What can we do to get closer to all Bolivians? How to educate ourselves, to put ourselves in the place of the other?

Those that since victory do not do so resoundingly, they understand that there are joys that can hurt the losers, they understand that there is not a total victory unless it is a victory for all. And that the apparent losers of today can be the victorious tomorrow, again. And thus, the eternal circle, Bolivia seems to be an animal that chases its tail always, of the national absurdity.

Burning barrel during a night scene in El Alto

[1] Colloquial term for person who has features associated with whiteness.  

[2]  In the Andean region, term referring traditional clothing worn by Aymara women.

“So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto”

Bolivian Judith Apaza (@judith_apaza) wrote this important thread “So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto.” The document was written in the context of the Alteño march into La Paz “in defense of the wiphala.” It first appeared on Twitter, starting with the tweet below. My translation follows…

So that we can understand one another a bit, from the point of view of El Alto. The people of El Alto and the provinces convened by the CSUTCB peasant confederation, are mobilizing today because they feel that the process of inclusion and respect for indigenous and native campesinos is currently in danger.

This is seen in part to be exacerbated by:

  • Acts of aggression upon a patriotic symbol, the Wiphala, which is a symbol of indigenous peoples.
  • Acts of discrimination and racism that were carried out during the so-called “defense of democracy”
  • Minimization of [our] protest on social media by means of mockery and disrespect

There are ways that we can help to solve this tense situation:

  • Support the prosecution, under the law, of those who broke the law and burned the wiphala
  • Be more tolerant of those who think differently. This respect will bring us to genuine democracy.

Among us all, we need to guarantee:

  • That respect for indigenous peoples and native peasants is promoted, as well as their participation in building Bolivia
  • That spaces of dialogue are generated to seek out joint solution that don’t respond to personal interests.
  • The violence that we are currently living through is condemnable from anyone’s point of view. Let’s collaborate to avoid passing on message of hate and differentiate between the struggle of indigenous peoples and the vandalism that some are taking advantage of in order to do crime and destroy.

Finally, it’s necessary that the society as a whole be aware that dialogue is the only solution to heal the social fracture that we are living through, and to guarantee that what has been built in these years, as the Bolivian people, will not be lost.

I want to signal that this thread, with some modifications, was the result of a collective conversation within El Alto, and that it is hoped that it can help mutual understanding of that which has been broken apart in recent days.

Judith Apaza
November 12, 2019

“Beyond Dichotomies”: One Bolivian voice on the present moment

I’ve translated the following essay by Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, a Bolivian living in Brazil, because it speaks directly to many of the questions that my friends following current events Bolivia are asking. I will be sharing multiple pieces here and linking to others. Not every thought aligns with my own, but I think it’s vita—now, more than ever—I that we hear from Bolivians who are wrestling with the future of their society. And that we slow down our desires to put the Bolivian situation into a pre-defined schema, at least until we understand it well and hear from those on the frontlines. This piece appeared on the Colectivo Curva Facebook page, which is filled with a vocal and diverse debate among grassroots Bolivian voices.

Beyond Dichotomies

“They have lost their best leader!” “Now the Right will come back!” “The poor indigenous!” These are some of the comments that I have received from my friends in Brazil after Evo’s resignation. For many here, Evo Morales represented a government that was of the left, progressive, anticapitalist, and above all: the principal defender of indigenous peoples and of the political vision of Vivir Bien [Living Well: in sufficiency, community, and harmony with nature]! The moment I utter my first criticism, they have already branded me as being a defender of the coup against the indigenous former president. “If the left goes down, the right comes back. Are you from the left or the right?,” a friend asks me on messenger. Once again arises the typical and simple dichotomy that seeks to put some on the “revolutionary” side and the rest among the reactionaries. As if things were that way, so simple, as if there was only a single question of taking on one ideological title. Well now, I understand that these readings respond to a Brazilian idiosyncrasy, my friends ask me questions and make their judgments in an exercise that is an analogy to what they have experienced with Temer and Bolsonaro, and I don’t judge them for it. But we are talking about Bolivia, a country that has a long tradition of indigenous struggles and where the left and right have always met the expectations of the white-mestizo sector, which is racist and discriminatory against its racialized others. That is why I tell my friends that, it shouldn’t be strange that there are Aymaras who are critical of the “left” government of Evo Morales and who are not because of that defenders of the right.

Are there reactionaries that want to claim hegemony of the current violent conjuncture for their own benefit? Evidently so. Aren’t Bolsonaro and Trump celebrating this context? I have no doubt. But, out of fear of that, should we have continued with Evo for fourth term? For that, did we have to keep watching as more white-mestizo become newly rich in the name of the indigenous government? For that, do we have to bear the instrumentalization of our history, of our culture for the benefit of a precious few?

“But think on the structural level, of the world system, of imperialism!,” my friend questions me, and it’s certain that we must think of the macro level. But the first to think of the consequences should have been the government! It was they who sacrificed the so-called “process of change” by not building new legitimate leaderships that could continue their government. A fourth term, besides being illegal was intolerable! Once I heard an Aymara grandfather say to me, “Evo says he’s indigenous, but he doesn’t carry out the practices of the community; the authorities must always rotate, for the health of all.” And now I ask myself, for all that they talk of being the government of Vivir Bien, To what degree would a fourth term bring us closer to Vivir Bien? Would my friends have asked the MASistas that question? Of course not! It wouldn’t even have mattered to them!

But now, Evo is no longer in the country and has left his people that he said he loved, in the midst of a fierce social convulsion. The wiphala, the historic flag of the Andean peoples, has been erroneously labeled as a synonym of the MAS. The people who supported it so much on social media now say nothing.

It seems that they are happy how the people carries on confronting one another after their manipulative tactics. The reactionaries who want to take advantage of the moment will not hesitate to burn the wiphala so as to strike fear in all those people who are racialized.

It’s important to say that Evo in his last days in the presidency called upon indigenous communities to protect his government (filled with non-indigenous people), and now that he is no longer in the country, left behind a people confronting one another, with pain and sadness in the streets.

But there is resistance, I see on the screen my Aymara brothers and sisters in the streets of El Alto, supporting demonstrations against the discourse of discrimination, and they shout: No more racism! Respect our symbols! El Alto on its feet, never on its knees! After the resignation of the president, the population did not stand back with its arms crossed. Evo is gone, but we won’t accept a Camacho either! “Evo is the hope of Latin America,” they say to me here. Was it just Evo? Was it the person? I think that this reading was wrong; it wasn’t that Evo, the caudillo, was the Latin American hope, but rather that he represented the beginning of that hope. A racialized person of the lower middle class, part of an indigenous nation with an insurrectionary tradition that arrived in power.

The hope of Latin America comes from those peoples who, like the Alteño people in this moment, have pushed beyond those simple dichotomies of left and wright and who go out into the streets to defend their rights, their family, their work, their symbols, their history, and their country.

Roger Adán Chambi Mayta, Brasil
12/11/2019

Culverting of the Choqueyapu River, under construction in 2008

La Paz’s water pollution crisis, as retold by comic book artists

The metropolis of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, is living on the edge of multiple water crises. Water suppliers struggle to keep pace with its rapid population growth. Its overall supply is dependent on glacial melt water, which may not survive the 21st century (as covered previously on this blog: “Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg”). And the cities’ principal river, the Choqueyapu, is a site of dramatic pollution.

This last issue is the subject of Choqueyapu: Un río enfermo que nos alimenta (Choqueyapu: A sick river that feeds us). Bolivian newspaper Página Siete has re-released one of its most important investigative pieces of 2017 in an online comic-book format.  The narrative follows a drop of glacial meltwater as it travels past industrial sites, through the city center, and out to the vegetable and fruit-growing fields that lie downstream of the city. There, farmer Eugenia Mamani explains how her downstream community has adapted: “In the early morning the clean water comes” (because polluting industries and the slaughterhouse aren’t operating). “We irrigate from 3am onwards; during the day it comes in dirty and we no longer use it. We have to make sacrifices [to make] our products.”

La Paz’s water pollution has many causes, from industrial waste to the riverside slaughterhouse to urban runoff to mining waste to inadequate water treatment. It all ends up flowing downstream. As the comic and other reporting shows, solutions like pollution inspectors, slaughterhouse modernization, and a new water treatment plant are all behind schedule. One of the few public works that affects the river, the culverting of its downtown segment in 2008 (see above photo), has only added to its problems by creating de-oxygenated segment right in the middle of its flow.

Like many environmental matters, this is a slow-motion crisis with no end in sight.

 

 

Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg

The Bolivian government has declared a “national emergency” as water shortages grip five of the country’s nine departments, and severe rationing has been imposed on La Paz–El Alto, the two-city metropolis that is the seat of government and center of highland life in the country. (Coverage: Guardian 1 | 2| photos; La Razón 1)

As La Razón reports:

It all began in an inopportune manner on November 7, when a rumor unsettled the residents of La Paz: water was getting scare. One day later, the Public Water and Sanitation Company (Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento; EPSAS) began to apply a rationing plan that would grow harsher and harsher until this Sunday regular 72 hour cutoff of water supply were set, with just three hours of running water for 94 neighborhoods in the city.

In many cases the schedule was not kept, provoking neighborhood complaints, and now long lines of residents in the affected neighborhoods await the few tanker trucks that are available in the city.

In the last few hours, the supply plan has spread to other neighboroods in La Paz and El Alto.

Todo comenzó intempestivamente el 7 de noviembre, cuando el rumor de que el agua escaseaba en La Paz inquietó a sus habitantes. Un día después, la Empresa Pública Social de Agua y Saneamiento (EPSAS) comenzó a aplicar un plan de racionamiento que se endureció progresivamente al punto de fijar este domingo cortes de servicio de 72 horas con solo tres para la dotación de agua en 94 barrios de la urbe.

En muchos casos, el cronograma no se cumplió lo que provocó la queja de los vecinos, que ahora hacen largas colas en los barrios afectados a la espera de los pocos camiones cisterna que hay disponibles en la urbe.

En las últimas horas el plan de suministro también se ajustó en otros barrios de La Paz y de la ciudad de El Alto.

The crisis combines a periodic drought, which last hit Bolivia this hard 25 years ago, and the worsening effects of climate change. The 1980s drought set off the explosive urbanization from the Altiplano into La Paz’s twin city El Alto and spurred migration to the Chapare, soon to become a coca growing center and the home base of current president Evo Morales.

Climate change is the slower, but more inexorable threat. As a World Bank report, Turn down the heat: Confronting the new climate normal, observed:

Major population centers, such as Bogota and Quito, rely on páramo water as a significant supply source. The melting of the Andean glaciers, increasingly unpredictable seasonal rainfall patterns, and the overuse of underground reserves are affecting the urban centers of the highlands (e.g., La Paz, El Alto, and Cusco), which rely to some extent on glacial melt for dry season water supplies and are already facing dire shortages. The arid coastal plain of Peru faces similar challenges. Water shortage has become a huge risk and a source of tension in Lima, which is dependent on water from the Andes. (v. 2, p. 92–94)

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-9-48-44-amThe high altitude of the Andes Mountains has allowed significant glaciers to exist for thousands of years, even in the warm Holocene epoch when human civilization flourished. As we enter the Anthropocene, however, industrial changes to the atmosphere are likely to clear nearly all permanent ice cover from the tropics of South America. Glaciers are now declining at 3%/year throughout the region (see graph, right from p. 57 of the World Bank report).

Even optimistic scenarios for climate action leave little hope for tropical Andean glaciers. Between 66  and 94% of the ice mass from Venezuela to Bolivia is expected to be gone by 2100, provided that global warming is limited to 2C. A 4C warming would complete eliminate tropical glaciers, and leave just half of the Patagonia ice in Argentina and Chile by 2100 (p. 58–59).In the coming decades, glacial meltwater may temporarily offset some water crises, if supplies are managed effectively and kept clean.

Climate scientists have recently offered stark warnings to the Bolivian government on the threat of climate change to generate flash floods and to imperil water supplies.

The Bolivian government seems to have been caught off guard by the current crisis, however. Research documenting new mining concessions on the ice of La Paz’s iconic Mount Illimani has touched off public alarm and official denials. (Additionally, the venerable Cochabamba-based research group CEDIB has suffered online harassment in the wake of its revelations).

In the long run, however, the Altiplano capital’s vital resources are in question. As climate scientist Simon Cook asks, “Most glaciers will be gone or much diminished by the end of the century – so where will the water come from in the dry season?” Bolivia’s recent and long-term history has been marked by massive internal migration among its regions. The last of these has quadrupled the size of La Paz–El Alto metropolis. It remains to be seen whether the twenty-first century climate migrations that are likely in the region will come in the form of sudden tragic crises or a collectively managed transition to sustainable living. This month has offered cautionary rather than hopeful signs.

Photo above: The dried-up reservoir of the Ajuan Khota dam near La Paz. By David Mercado-Reuters.

Bolivia in Price Crisis (part I)

Eighteen months ago, when I was applying for funds to conduct research in Bolivia, one of the criticisms I had to respond to was this: How do you know that mass protest events will be going on while you’re there? In the end, I resorted to putting a table of recent events of large-scale space-claiming protests in my two focus cities in my proposal to make this point: there has not been a 12-month period without such protests since last century.

And here we are again.

On the day after Christmas, the Vice President (then acting president since Bolivian law requires that the office must always be filled by someone physically in the country) announced that the Bolivian government would remove all subsidies on fuel: primarily gasoline and diesel, and let the prices float to international levels. Fuel prices went up 70-80% overnight. This was not the first time that such a drastic move has happened in Bolivia, but it was the first time that the popular movement-linked MAS government had taken the step. In fact, the MAS had led major protests against exactly the same move less than a decade ago.

The politics of subsidies in general and the gasolinazo in particular are fascinating, and fully getting the arguments requires putting aside everything that Westerners are taught about prices, markets, and subsidies, but that’s a whole other post (several pages of which are in my notebook waiting to be typed into an article).

In any case, the social movements that brought the MAS to power, including Evo Morales’ coca grower base, did not hesitate to mobilize against the gasolinazo. (And the transport sector quickly moved to double fares.) Despite some pressure on their leadership, the Neighborhood Councils, Factor Workers, labor confederation, and others mobilized mass protests. The scene in El Alto in particular, especially on December 29 and 30, brought back collective memories of the mobilizations that toppled presidents in 2003 and 2005, even though the numbers were not yet as great. Evo and Álvaro reversed course, and returned fuel prices to their former levels.

However, the price hike genie was out of the bottle. While some in the government promised the gasolinazo was over, others have made it clear that the prices will be raised in smaller doses over the coming year. Several weekends in January and February, there has been panic buying in La Paz over rumors of an imminent price hike.

More pressingly, this year’s extremely late rainy season (normally beginning around November 1, it didn’t really kick in until the New Year) and other factors have led to a national sugar shortage, grain price hikes, and a squeeze on the milk producing industry. The national government’s response was first to use its agricultural production support company, Emapa, to supply sugar directly at low prices to the cities, in an attempt to push the price down. However, Emapa itself abruptly raised prices in late January, and the government has been embarrassed by former ministers and senators illegally wholesaling government sugar out of their homes. Finally this month, the transport sector has moved to increase urban transit fares in a half dozen cities, and began charging the new fares without official approval.

The economic situation has brought multiple sectors into the streets, although without unified demands. Buyers and sellers of the same product are both mobilizing. Ideologies conflict as well: some are demanding the enforcement of the free-market principals of Supreme Decree 21060, while more are calling for it to be revoked. Shopkeepers demand that Emapa be abolished, while neighborhood councils in Oruro demand that it distribute basic goods directly to neighborhood suppliers. And in Cochabamba, drivers demanding higher fares and factory workers and neighborhood council marchers who oppose them have each attacked the property of the other side.

On February 18, the national worker confederation known as the COB (Bolivian Worker’s Central) carried out a 24-hour strike. And when Bolivians strike, they march. That included a 10,000+ worker march down the main highway from El Alto to La Paz. The COB is demanding either wages or wage increases in line with a study it performed on the cost of basic goods in the country. However, this analysis showed that the baseline cost of living is 8,300 Bolivianos per month for a family, about $1200. This is above and beyond the typical Bolivian’s earnings, leading the government to disqualify the study as anything more than a pipe dream for workers.

A second march on the 18th, led by the more radical teachers’ unions of La Paz department brought an harsher indictment of the Evo Morales-led government. Placards, chants and speakers labelled the government “incapable” and committed to neoliberal policies like the gasolinazo. Once again the slogans of seven years ago rang in streets, and a working-class crowd was calling for the indigenous peasant union leader who is president to resign and make way for “a government born of struggle in the streets.” Such a government, radical unionists claim, could guarantee larger wage increases for workers by expropriating transnational corporations in extractive industries and redistributing their wealth to enlarge workers’ salaries.

Health care workers and teachers rally in La Paz, February 18: Signs read "Death to the incapable government" and "The people ask for bread; the people are hungry"

It is not so much that this rhetoric is new as that it has migrated from the pamphlets of the radicals at sides of the march to the main stage. Like a stopped clock that is right twice a day, those who are always skeptical that the government has sold out the public, and turned against the grassroots are now in sync with at least a large portion of the popular mood. And they can speak to broadly shared concerns about the cost of living, the subcontracting of work, and the lack of sufficient investment in the industries that provide employment and public revenues to Bolivia.

Five years of MAS rule, and two years since its decisive victory over right-wing resistance to the project of a new, plurinational constitution have allowed a lot of tensions, mistrusts, and frustrations to accumulate within the party’s diverse grassroots base.  Movements that always knew how to mobilize on their own have frequently been in the streets in the past years. Unfortunately, the first response of the MAS government has often been to accuse those who mobilize of being aligned with, misled by, or even “infiltrated” by the right-wing opposition. If anything, it now seems that independent protest and even independent opposition has been made more likely by these accusations.