Lima Cochabamba is a very pleasant city in many ways, but La Paz and El Alto are what’s happening as unique political, social, and cultural environments which are hard to duplicate in the rest of the world. The strategic and tactical power of El Alto over the country, because of its geographical stranglehold and emergence and sustained social movements are inspiring, no matter how fragile the future.
One of the hardest puzzles is the career and role of the Evo Morales as not only the first indigenous President of the country, but because of his role in the cocaleros and the water and gas wars, he is legitimately a creation of the social movements even as he was a shrewd politician that rode their wave to victory. Is he manipulating and co-opting the leadership and energy of the social movements as the left argues or is he a captive of them as the right contends?
Surprisingly, the organizations and leaders we visited with were almost universally critical of Evo, even when they were often shock troops for his party, MAS, and seen as uncritically supportive. There was not simply a feeling of disenchantment, but in the words of one former MAS member, “he is taking control of everything.” There was a feeling that he had delivered on his promises, but had weakened the social movements sufficiently that there was no contender likely to prevent Evo from another term, or more.
There was unanimous support for Evo as a political symbol, much in the same way that Obama as the first African-American President of the US occupies unassailable ground that warrants unambiguous respect, but it was increasingly begrudging. Even the FUEVE, thought to be the most powerful community organization in the country and certainly in El Alto, didn’t blink at the question that Evo had favored the rural areas of the country and not delivered to the cities. FUEVE is also reportedly Evo’s strongest defender.
This is a difficult political boundary line because of the 10+ million people in the country; the urban population has soared due to the economic problems and dislocations of recent years. Santa Cruz is the largest city with 1.5 million, El Alto is now likely larger than La Paz with probably a million inhabitants (the census is coming next year) with the La Paz (800,000+) and Cochabamba (650,000+) not far behind. Add the metropolitan areas, and it screams “get it done!”
The comments about Evo’s isolation also warn that there may be a time when social movements could once again be called on to protect the democracy, if Evo is tempted to reach beyond his grasp, regardless of his current base support.