Breaking News

El Alto Journal: A Colorful Bolivian Bastion, Floating Above It All

“We didn’t want it to be just another brick house,” said Karen Ovando, 26, a government customs lawyer, standing on the terrace of her parents’ bright yellow, orange and red penthouse, six stories above the street. “They’re all matchboxes here, all the same. We wanted to show something about ourselves, something about our family.”

But the Ovando home and others like it — popularly called chalets for their size and extravagance — also have a lot to say about the unbridled energy, aspirations and political contradictions of this churning, whirligig city and its place in a changing Bolivia.

Rising incongruously above much poorer dwellings, these urban, Andean versions of the suburban McMansion reflect the economic growth that Bolivia has been able to achieve in recent years — and how unevenly it is often distributed. But rather than stir widespread resentment in this bastion of rebellious politics, these open displays of wealth are often embraced by El Alto’s residents, an illustration of the city’s unusual mix of leftist uprisings and capitalist strivings.

“El Alto is simultaneously the most revolutionary city, perhaps in all of Latin America, at the same time as it’s the most neoliberal city, the most individualistic city in all of Latin America,” said Benjamin H. Kohl, an associate professor of urban studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

El Alto sits at about 13,150 feet on the barren altiplano. Directly below it, Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, spills down the slopes of a steep valley, with the towering snow-covered peaks of the Andes as backdrop.

La Paz has long had a clear geography of status. The wealthiest residents live at the bottom of the valley, and the poorer ones live higher up. On top of everything is El Alto, whose name means “the Heights.” For years a slum appendage of La Paz, it became an independent city in 1988.

El Alto’s location is also the source of its power. The airport is here, and the main highways connecting La Paz to the rest of the country pass through El Alto. In times of unrest, El Alto can lay siege to the capital. The model was set by Tupac Katari, an Aymara Indian leader who led a late-18th-century rebellion against the Spanish colonialists, using El Alto’s position to cut off La Paz.

Centuries later, in 2003, a similar strategy was used by the modern residents of El Alto, who rose up against a government proposal to export natural gas to the United States through a port in neighboring Chile, Bolivia’s traditional enemy. Scores of people died in the unrest, and President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was forced to flee the country.

El Alto residents then became a key source of support for the leftist president, Evo Morales, supporting him overwhelmingly when he was elected in 2005 and again in 2009. But even Mr. Morales found that he was not immune to the anger of El Alto. In 2010, when his government proposed changes to subsidies that would have led to a sharp rise in the price of gasoline, El Alto’s residents again blockaded the capital and forced Mr. Morales to back down.

Still, for all its rebellious spirit, El Alto is far from being a typical bastion of the left. It is a hive of commerce, small-scale manufacturing, international trade and contraband.

“Lots of people describe El Alto as a revolutionary city, but it’s the capital of capitalism,” said Mario Durán, an activist who works to improve Internet access.

Home to about 220,000 residents in 1985, the city swelled as poor farmers and out-of-work miners poured in from the countryside. It is now bigger than La Paz, with an estimated size of well over one million. The population is overwhelmingly Aymara, one of the country’s main indigenous groups, and the immigrants have brought with them a fierce work ethic and a laissez-faire zest for business.

Mónica Machicao Pacheco contributed reporting.

View the original article here

Related Post:

  • 0Blogger Comment
  • Facebook Comment