Special for La Jornada (México D.F.)
Translated CounterPunch by Forrest Hylton
El Alto, November 15.
“It looks like they’re blockading up ahead. There are tons of police, looks like they’ll gas ’em,” the driver of a mini-van said this morning on the highway that ascends from La Paz to the Aymara city of El Alto. At the beginning of an elongated curve of more than a kilometre, the neighbourhood residents of Alto Lima decided to blockade the point at which the hillside neighborhoods of La Paz become another city, thus provoking chaos on the roads beginning at 11 AM. Up above, on the principal arteries and crossroads of El Alto, beginning in the early morning hours, neighbourhoods residents set up nodal points of the blockade with stones and burning tires. Thus began the 24-hour general strike declared by the Federation of Neighbourhood Councils (Fejuve), which insisted on a response to the list of demands put forth to President Carlos Mesa’s government.
Abel Mamani, General Secretary of the Fejuve, explained the motives for applying pressure: “For almost two months we’ve waited for a reply to the list of demands, and for a year we’ve given Mesa an opportunitytoday we see they haven’t done anything. We’re not going to tolerate government treason.” Installed behind the banner of the Fejuve, in the Ceja, which lies on the western border of La Paz, Mamani described the list presented last September 27: “There are eighteen points, brother, that ask for the nationalization of hydrocarbons, the trial of Sánchez de Lozada and his ministers, the reversal of the privatization of state enterprises and other things, like the creation of employment in health and education, and a rejection of the FTAA (with the U.S., of course).”
One hundred meters away, an enormous bell set up in a kiosk sounded all morning long. And little by little, as the sun came up, various social movement leaders joined with the alteño neighbourhood leadership. Jaime Solares, leader of the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB), as well as Miguel Zuvieta, from the miners’ federation, were present. With a megaphone, asking for justice for the people of El Alto and a trial for ex-president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, Jaime Alanoca joined up at the head of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. Various members of the Association of the Injured in October also arrived. By mid-day, hundreds of merchants from Villa Dolores marched to show their solidarity with the strike.
In the street, the multitude unfurled its banners, which are diamond-shaped, with the colors of the Bolivian flag, and indicate which area of El Alto they are from and how long they have been organized. The same for neighbourhood residents of the 16 de Julio and the students from the Public University of El Alto (UPEA), who all shouted slogans. “In the end,” Mamani said, “the people are united, the way it’s got to be. The transnationals should leave El Alto and Viacha; they should leave Bolivia. Mesa has betrayed alteños and he’s betrayed October.”
The “Mafia of the Unemployed” Gives Mesa a Timetable
Around noon, Mesa attended an act at the Military School to commemorate yet another anniversary of the foundation of the armed forces. When the event ended, journalists asked Mesa about the strike. He said that a “mafia of the unemployed” was behind it. After 12:30 PM, the first “messengers” (chaskis) from the Fejuve began to arrive in the Ceja with reports. Except for a few small areas, the strike was total, making it the largest one since alteños went down to the city center to remove Sánchez de Lozada from power in October 2003. Flights had ceased to take off and land at the International Airport in El Alto, and passengers from the few that had landed had to walk various kilometres with their suitcases until encountering transportation to La Paz.
Thus the strike in El Alto added to the series of conflicts that have badgered the government from all sides as a result of controversy over natural gas and the use of natural resources in the country. Conceived as a counter-demonstration to the lockout carried out last Thursday, November 11, by the entrepreneurial association in Santa Cruz, this Monday’s mobilization was also directed against the Bolivian Congress, the political parties, and the US government.
At 3 PM, assemblies were held throughout the nine districts that make up El Alto in order to decide on a course of action. “We’ll decide if we continue for 48 hours or if we continue indefinitely. We have a meeting of neighbourhood presidents tonight,” Mamani explained to La Jornada. And in spite of the disdain Mesa had demonstrated for the strike a few hours earlier, he sent a commission at 5 PM with a written note proposing an open dialogue to be held in the Ministry of Labor in La Paz. “But the presidents (of the Fejuve) don’t accept the situation. They’ve said that this government is no longer credible and that all negotiations will be held in El Alto,” said the head of Fejuve after the night’s meeting. “We’re giving the government 48 hours to resolve the situation. Otherwise we’ll initiate a civic strike indefinitely.”
But you understand that many of your demands won’t be satisfied in that time-frame?
I’m aware of that, and in that sense we’ll orient people. Look, the thing is that the government knows how to satisfy us on certain themes while leaving the broadest ones for open negotiations. We also know that we’re touching on themes of national interest-the “trial of responsibilities,” and the issue of basic services.
You feel strong and supported, then?
Of course. Today, for example, peasants have struck in seven provinces in the lake district (Titicaca) and in Ingavi province, in the sector of Viacha. We know it’s easy to call for the unity of the Bolivian people, because we all live the same problems: hunger, misery, lack of services
Do you think the government could hold out against in indefinite strike?
(Laughing.) Definitely not, no way. And in El Alto we’re determined to take things to their ultimate consequences. They’ve sought this out. We’re not to blame for the situation.
Luis Gómez is a journalist and movement activist living in La Paz. He is author of ¡El Alto de Pie! Una insurrección aymara en Bolivia (La Paz, 2004), the second edition of which is forthcoming.
The article was originally published in Spanish at: