Leaving Bolivia

Evo Morales

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.



Not by Bread Alone: Art and Water in Bolivia

Ivan Nogales, director of Teatro Trono telling us about the cultural truck they drove to Rio

Cochabamba  Our days in La Paz were never complete without a trip to or from El Alto, the city of a million on the top of the mountain, which made us acutely aware of the importance of this strategic location in the future of social movements and the very country.  Meeting with Ivan Nogales, the director and 23-year veteran of Teatro Trono, he made the same point by beginning our visit with a sweeping historical look at the rebellion in 1789 where the poor at the top of the hill were able to encircle for a while the rich at the bottom of the mountain, and nearly starve them out.  By analogy he felt that El Alto and his mutli-cultural centers headquartered in here with branches in a half-dozen other cities in Bolivia and one in Germany had created an artistic culture that was unique and powerful.

Ivan in many ways was arguing for a role for the artist in creating change by laying a foundation away from the rational mind, as he phrased it that could unite people and offer support to struggle in Bolivia, but also around South America.  He was encouraged by meetings of cultural workers in several countries that were coming together to collaborate.

He told a story of several years ago taking a bunch of his team in an art truck of sorts and he showed us the model.  They were headed for Rio on a trip of over 4000 kilometers with a truck that could not go over 70 kph or 50 mph or so.  At the same time he tried to share the powerful welcomes they received from the mayor of Rio who met them when they arrived and gave them a key to the city.  Clearly it had given Ivan hope for his operation.  At the same time when asked about sources of support, he indicated that most of it came from Denmark and Finland, aid money on 2-year grants, and that he was going to have to lay off 80% of his staff next year.  He said that was why he was down-scaling by trying to build a small compound in the countryside and hour and a half away.  The operation was unique in its own way, and Ivan was inspired, but there were hurdles in the way of his vision.

Arriving in Cochabamba, we realized how sui generis La Paz and El Alto were in some ways.  Cochabamba seemed more like other large Latin American cities.  Indigenous people were less ubiquitous.  There were trees.  We could breathe the air.

hot water solar shower on top of the Teatro building

Marcela Olivera, the Latin American coordinator of Red Vida (the Water Network) and a staff member for Food and Water Watch in Washington, DC, a long time ally of ACORN’s, gave us a briefing on the growth of the city, essentially having doubled to a million people over the last 25 years due to in-migration of miners and others from the countryside.  At the core of the city’s challenges has been the inability of the infrastructure to keep up with that growth, leaving one set of services in the northern, richer part of the city, and a very rough world lacking even basic services like water in the southern part of Cochabamba.   Marcela was candid about tensions in the city around some of the new governmental requirements, which might seem well meaning, but were alienating both traditional peoples and practices and middle class citizens with other concerns.  At the same time Evo Morales, the Bolivian President, had been one of those migrants into Cochabamba, leaving many with a feeling of pride at a native son, even as they were skeptical about some of the current directions of the government.

Marcela Olivera, Latin American coordinator of Red Vita for Food & Water Watch, flanked on one side by Alex MacDonald (ACORN Ottawa) and Dine' Butler (ULU Local 100) and on the other by Davin Cardenas (Gameliel, North Bay, Santa Rosa)

Inevitably the conversation drifted to the unique vibrancy that social movements have had in Bolivia at different times.  Marcela compared it to a year or two she lived in Washington, D.C., and her surprise that when an increase in the subway fares was announced she had gone underground gingerly, sure that there was bound to be a massive protest, “just like in her country,” and was still incredulous that there had been nothing of note.  She worried that social movements were atrophying now under the Morales administration, either co-opted or confused that their friend could have changed so much.

Those of us living in the United States understood exactly what she was talking about!

a mural in El Alto nearby the Teatro


The Strongest Community Organization, Bartolina Sisas, and the Union of Lowlands Indigenous People

Organizers' Forum Delegation with members of the strongest civic organization in Bolivia

La Paz   We were off to El Alto again for a meeting in the morning with the general secretary of FEJUVE, which is essentially is the largest civic association of united neighbors of El Alto.   Arguably FEJUVE was not only the strongest community organization anywhere in the province of La Paz, but also the country.  Frequently, the secretary would speak of the “glorious FEJUVE” and the fact that they “did not know the meaning of the word defeat, because they had never experienced it.”  This very charismatic leader was a force of nature, but also an unpaid volunteer leader only reimbursed for experiences whose whole life was building the organization.

The affiliates, the juntas had a dues (cuotas) system of 2 Bolivianas per month, but none of that supported the central apparatus.  FEJUVE was clear it was “apolitical” or nonpartisan, but was also clear that it would not hesitate to take money from the parties, but justified this on the grounds that they would promise nothing in return.  When I asked directly if they felt Evo Morales, the indigenous, forceful president, had delivered more to the rural areas than urban areas like their own, still fighting for water, lights, gas, road, and housing, he quickly agreed.  There were obviously plans afoot to up the pressure on the President.   More than any other group, FEJUVE was simply powerful and knew it because in a battle of social movements against the government, in El Alton, they literally controlled the high ground and the transportation choke-points.  In a country like Bolivia where  blocados are a very popular and powerful tactic, they were masters of its utilization and could ground airplanes, bus routes, and hold La Paz under siege when blockading transportation routes.  Right now there were 60 blockades ongoing around different issues in Bolivia.  Our fight tomorrow to Cochabamba was now packed because it was the only way out.  FEJUVE was teaching all of us the basics of the importance of tactical strength!

Next we met the most well known women’s organization in La Paz, which is popularly known as Bartolina Sisas, named after the martyred widow of  Tupac in a long ago revolution in her early 30’s.  The “technico” or staff member and the political leader we met with were very well spoken and forthright.  This is a national organization, CNMCIOB or the Conferacion Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas Inigenas Originarias de Bolivia.  They were overtly the political arm of the women’s movement and more.  They directly thanked Evo Morales for the building where they were housed not far from San Francisco Plaza.  The political leader had run a project for Morales’ party, MAS, to get more women involved.  Most of their support came from international state financed NGO’s especially in Norway.   This was an interesting organization but seemed to be the closes to an classic NGO type, international/state funded group that we had encountered on our visit.

leaders and staff of Bartolina Sisa

We had a very engaging final visit with CPILAP, Central de Pueblas Indigenous de la Paz, which was seen as the 80,000 member organization of the indigenous people of the low lands.  It had been their affiliate, the Tippi, that was currently the center of so many stories we heard repeatedly in La Paz.  The much vaunted new constitution required consultation with indigenous peoples before development projects.  For some reason Morales had simply blown them off (another source had said he just didn’t think the tribe was significant enough to bother with), so instead of consulting where he most probably would have found support, he had bulled forward, and now this was a national issue, because the Tippi did not want the road through the park or their territory.  A road around according to Juan Miguel Suarez, the coordinator with whom we were meeting, would only add a couple of hours though might cost more around the mountains, while others had told us it would add 10 to 12 hours of driving.  Everyone conceded a north-south road was needed, but now it was “all bets off” and felt to be only benefiting oil development for multi-nationals and cocoleros growing coca for export for illegal purposes.  Morales had at first promised he would pull the road off the drawing board, and then once again reversed field and in January 2012 said he would simply consult.  The sides were now at logger heads and the Tippis were gathering arrowheads and stringing their bows.  It looked less than promising.

office of CNMCIOB "Bartolina Sisa" women's organizer

We are learning more than we could imagine from some meetings, and learning some things we did not want to hear from other sessions, but nonetheless we are learning invaluable lessons from everyone with whom we have met in this amazing country, where social movements are very powerful, one way or another.


Community Development, Afro-Bolivians, Unions of Campesino Workers, Federations of Highlands Indigenous, and the Union of Young Workers

Afro-Bolivian Organizers

La Paz  Organizers’ Forum international dialogues are always full of surprises.  We could tell Bolivia was going to be no different especially when miner’s strikes and mobilizations of various social movements were everywhere in the streets and in the news of La Paz.  Many of these were the same groups we had sought to meet with on our visit, so it made the schedule and contacts difficult to say the least, but once on the ground we have moved the kind of roll-with-the-punches dexterity that is the calling card of organizers around the world.

We were fortunate on Sunday night to get off to a great start with a frank and insightful briefing by Jean Friedman-Rudovsky, a fascinating young woman from Philadelphia who has made La Paz home and carved out a important niche as a journalist to the outside.  Thanks to Jean, we were unlikely to embarrass ourselves.

Alberto Mollinedo Zeballos, the director of the Desarrollo Economico Comunitario of Bolivia, an economic development training and support operation partnered with Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and a local university here, told us about initiatives they were supporting largely in the rural areas.  This was an embryonic effort, but at the least confirmed what we had been hearing everywhere that the most significant impact of Evo Morales presidency has been increasing support and the presence of the state in the rural areas.  Alberto told a story of being shouted down for not speaking the local language after inviting him there hours from home on a Sunday:  a humbling and telling experience he chalked up to strong social capital.

Alberto Mollinedo Zeballos

We learned about the Afro-Bolivian invisibility in Bolivia.  Starting as slaves 500 years ago, they didn’t work out in the mines because too many died, but ended up being moved to the coca plantations because the miners chewed so much of the stuff.  Now with a population of only 20 to 40,000, they were finding their way largely because of a provision in the newly enacted constitution that gave the more than 37 different indigenous groups rights that they had never had, including the ability to devise a special curriculum in their local schools which honored their traditions, culture, and history.  Racism was obviously deeply grained from hearing our new friends talk, but since they were not ignored or ostracized more than most other indigenous groups, they were cautious in pointing fingers.

We cooled our heels for quite a time as we waited to meet with the #2 person at the National Union of Campesino Workers, but once we met we felt lucky for the time we got.  This is the largest organization in Bolivia with 5 million members in all districts of the country.  Evo Morales’s cocoleros had been an affiliate and he had been a member.  His pictures were on all of the walls.  They saw their job as defending his policies in many areas, though were adamant that they received no government money in their organization.  They were being called to meetings about a mobilization of social movements around the complicated miners’ strike, so had little time for us, but as we departed we also left a line of people outside and in waiting rooms who had come from all over the country to sit for even less time for an audience and some help from the organization.  Worth us understanding more!

Campesino Union Leader

Similarly, we met with the organization of indigenous peoples from the highlands another long cab ride away.  There was disappointment in some of Evo’s recent actions in these offices particularly the way he had handled plans for a highway through national parkland that affected one group.  There were 2 million in this organization, which was also primarily rural.  They were hardly conservatives.  We had much to learn.

CONAMAQ (highlands) Leader

Our agenda of meetings ended back up the mountain in El Alto once again meeting at a chicken place with the organizer and one of the leaders of an interesting union of workers 17 years of age and younger.  The organization was new and small, but had cleverly taken advantage of the movement around a new constitution to insert its issue not banning child labor but making sure it was not exploited, which was a fine policy and political line.  Their small membership worked in market fares, shoe shining, domestic work, bus hawking, and other informal occupations.  Very interesting!  Reminded me of ACORN’s work in India organizing waste pickers about the same age.

Exhausted?  Yeah, me, too, but exhilarated at processing so much new information in this thin air.  I wondered if my legs were tingling from the altitude or all of exciting work we were hearing about in this unique country?

Youth Workers Leaders



Rough Justice in El Alto

the El Alto Barrios

La Paz    Not sure that we were doing the right thing since many of our Organizers’ Forum delegation were still shaky with the altitude transition, before 9 AM we embarked on a different kind of experience – a walking tour from El Alto down to La Paz with La Paz on Foot for four hours.  It actually worked out great, largely because we took cabs to the top and walked down, but hey, that’s not as easy as you think either when you are dropping a 1000 feet or more.

El Alto is an interesting city that 80 years ago essentially did not exist as little more than an airfield but now with almost 10% per year growth has surpassed a million people.  La Paz with a couple of million is below El Alton in the valleys built on what once were more than 30 rivers, originally where gold was found, a Sacramento of the Andes.

El Alto has an interesting tactical position vis a vis all of Bolivia and can cordon off La Paz.  We heard stories of various issues between the communities and that El Alto was able to win by blocking off all outside access to the country by bus or by air or highways.  When people hit the streets in El Alton the country knows about it.

We walked down long staircases and drainage tunnels which are huge public improvements.  ACORN Peru had fought for 5 years in San Juan Laragancho to win ones just like these.  El Alto had brought water, lights, and even gas to many of their barrio districts which was quite impressive.

stairs and drainage = a step up from Lima

So were the very stark notices of the rough justice that would await burglars who might be caught in these barrios.  From the hanging effigies it was clear there would be no waiting for the police!


Stealing Congress Seat by Seat in Texas

brick homes all the way to the top in La Paz

La Paz  We flew overnight via Miami to La Paz, Bolivia for the 10th consecutive International Dialogue with the Organizers’ Forum.  We came at a good time.  Forty-eight hours earlier, we would have been stuck in the small airport there as striking miners blocked all of the highways coming into the city in a dispute that seems to involve trying to prevent privatization of the mines.  In the pre-dawn, the city was serene and beautiful.  The airport at 13,000 feet drops you down to 11,000 odd feet in the city, still the highest capital of any country in the world.  We could see peaks emerging from the clouds and sweeping vistas of brick houses rising in browns and reds up the mountains around us.

We all hoped to get here early to acclimate a bit to the altitude, though we’ve already beaten a path to the pharmacy for reinforcements.  In between naps and cups of hot water with coca leaves floating in them, which is the recommended local cure, I would wake up to continue reading a sobering and somewhat shocking tale even in these jaded political times by Robert Draper in the current issue of The Atlantic called the “League of Dangerous Mapmakers.”  I was especially horrified to read a story probably well-known in Texas, but still amazing in its ham fisted transparent voter manipulation.

The U.S. Census every ten years counts the country.  Where there has been growth there, maybe new Congressional seats, especially in Texas and Florida, and where there have been losses in the Midwest and in Katrina-ravished Louisiana, there may also be losses of seats.  Legislatures are responsible for the redistricting, so where Republican control has increased, once again in states like Florida and Louisiana, fairness can be an issue.  The Voting Rights Act fortunately still places some obstacles for Republican legislatures if there is blatant racial discrimination to suppress the representation of African-Americans and Hispancis.

Draper pulls the curtains open in Texas though:

…Texas, which was granted a whopping four.  But on the other hand, most of each state’s new residents are African Americans and (especially) Hispanics.  In Texas, the population has swelled by 4.3 million over the past decade.  Of those new residents, 2.8 million are Hispanic and more than half a million are African Americans.  While those groups grew at a rate of 42 percent and 22 percent, respectively, the growth in white Texans was a merger 4.2 percent.  In other words: without the minority growth, Texas – now officially a majority-minority state – would not have received a single new district.  The possibility that a GOP map-drawer would use all those historically Democratic leaning transplants as a means of gaining Republican seats might strike a redistricting naïf as undemocratic.  And yet that’s exactly what the Texas redistricting bosses did last year.

It kind of took my breath away, which was the theme of the day for me.  The courts refused to allow in some of cases so they didn’t totally get away with it, but they mostly got away with it, and Draper makes it clear that if they hadn’t been some stubbornly stupid about the way they did it, they likely would have succeeded altogether as they did in North Carolina and elsewhere.

Hard ball politics is one thing, but when it is this undemocratic and meant to do little more than rob citizens of representation and voice, there’s no excuse.

murals along the municipal plaza in La Paz

street vendors in La Paz