Oct 28

VIDEO: Evo speaks in El Alto – the city of the revolution

by in Bolivia

The city of El Alto, Boivia looks over the sprawling valley of La Paz and controls the ingress and egress of goods and transportation into the country's largest city and the seat of Bolivia's government | photo by brandon c janes iv

The city of El Alto, Bolivia looks over the sprawling valley of La Paz and controls the ingress and egress of goods and transportation into the country’s largest city and the seat of Bolivia’s government | photo by brandon c janes iv

Oct. 17 I nearly missed Bolivian President Evo Morales’ speech commemorating the 10th anniversary of Black October – the most violent episode in the country’s recent history.

In the month of October 2003 government troops – under the administration of President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada – killed an estimated 80 people and injured nearly 500 in an attempt to break a weeks-long road block around the city of La Paz.

Ten years later, I was stuck behind a road block around Potosí.

Arriving by taxi in the red-brick slums of El Alto – the site of the infamous road block – I nudged my way in front of thousands of miners and indigenous farmers filling the wide Avenue 6 de Marzo just in time to see Morales proclaim Oct. 17, “the National Day of Dignity.”

The protests in 2003 began over a government plan to export Bolivian natural gas to the U.S. through Chile but quickly escalated into a demands for Lozada’s resignation and his punishment for the violence of his administration.

Oct. 17 was the day Lozada – known here as “the gringo president” – fled the country on a commercial flight to the U.S, ending the conflict. Today he resides legally in the U.S., where he has been protected from extradition by the U.S. government.

Morales ran unsuccessfully against Lozada in the 2001 presidential election and organized many of the 2003 protests. Black October was the turning point in the politician’s career and his socialist revolutionary movement.

“We will not let foreigners plan our patriotic agenda,” Morales said, during his El Alto speech. “Our agenda will never overlook our children, our grandparents and all of the Bolivian people.”

The bastion of freedom

Below the drab skyline of unpainted dusty high-rises, a heat wave passed through the streets of El Alto that Thursday.

Although the day was one of commiseration for the lives lost in the conflict, the atmosphere was festive. Nearly everyone had an ice cream.

Morales’ supporters and political groups from across the country were represented at the ceremony, as were the families of those who died during Black October.

“We are not celebrating, we are remembering those who fell,” said Johnny M. Huanca Espejo, a La Paz-based indigenous rights activist. “We want to recognize and give them their priorities and their feelings.”

Bolivians often say that El Alto is the most powerful city in the country – more powerful even than Sucre, the judiciary capital, and La Paz, which houses Bolivia’s Congress and the Palacio Quemado – the Bolivian White House.

Perched at 4,050 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level, Bolivia’s largest international airport is in El Alto.  The city also guards the ingress and egress to La Paz.

Descending nearly 600 meteres (2,000 feet) from El Alto to La Paz, one thin stretch of highway – with its easily barricaded checkpoints – gives El Alto its grip on Bolivia’s future.

Aymara women in traditional pleated skirts, shawls and english-style bowler caps sit on the street in El Alto, Bolivia after hearing President Evo Morales speak on 17 October 2013, the tenth anniversary of the Gas War | photo by brandon c janes iv

Aymara women in traditional pleated skirts, shawls and english-style bowler caps sit on the street in El Alto, Bolivia after hearing President Evo Morales speak on 17 October 2013, the tenth anniversary of the Gas War | photo by brandon c janes iv

 

Bolivia’s future

In just 30 years, the population if El Alto has swelled from 220,000 to more than 1 million residents – now larger than La Paz. The majority of the immigrants are Aymara – the indigenous culture most populous in Bolivia’s north.

The growth is due in part to El Alto’s exclusive role in the Bolivian economy.

In a May 2013 article, New York Times journalist William Newman described the city as an “almost total vacuum of government intervention” – an island of capitalist, free enterprise opportunity of which the poor indigenous, who make up nearly 80 percent of this otherwise socialist country, are keen to take advantage.

El Alto is also one of the few cities in Bolivia that was not built by the Spanish; It has no central plaza almost no Spanish colonial buildings – a source of pride for a population still recovering from centuries of exploitation.

“It is the first indigenous city since the colonial period,”  the article said.

“Gringo of bad luck”

After the ceremony, the Avenue 6 de Marzo quickly transformed into an open air market, where – along with other low-priced goods – merchants sold wanted posters of Lozada with detailed accounts of the events of Black October printed on the back (I bought one).

Just because El Alto is a haven for capitalism, doesn’t mean its inhabitants are friendly to the U.S.

Central to Morales’ Day of National Dignity speech was harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric, which elicited many cheers from the crowds in El Alto.

I interviewed one man who lived through Black October in El Alto and said he remembered the violence well.

“In those days the government we had was always North American – from up there,” he said. “They murdered people across all of Bolivia,.. and we still have those memories today. We are bitter. And that is why we want Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to come back here and stand up to his crimes.”

The success of El Alto has affirmed for many Alteños that placing one of their own in power (Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president) was the change this country needed.

“Now, with this government, we have many wonders,” the Alteño said. “We ourselves know how to govern best,… not with some gringo of bad luck.”

Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma is greeted by crowds of supporters in El Alto after a ceremony proclaiming October, 17 the "National Day of Dignity," 10 years after an estimated 80 protesters in El Alto were killed by the Bolivian military and police | photo by brandon c janes iv

Bolivian President Juan Evo Morales Ayma is greeted by crowds of supporters in El Alto after a ceremony proclaiming October, 17 the “National Day of Dignity,” 10 years after an estimated 80 protesters in El Alto were killed by the Bolivian military and police | photo by brandon c janes iv

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