State, social movements and unions in El Alto, Bolivia

Figures in balaclava in front of red banner with homemade rocket launcher

An excerpt from El Alto, Rebel City on organisation among market traders, the informally-employed and community organisations in the notably militant Bolivian city.

The State and the Unions

This chapter continues the story of the complex relationship with the state that is the context for Bolivian trade unions’ political agency and assesses the implications of this for how we understand democracy in Bolivia today. As the previous chapter showed, the street traders unions’ principal struggle with different state agencies is over who will control or have jurisdiction over commercial activity; the emphasis placed upon the differentiation between rural and urban spheres was important because of how the various parties to the conflict attempted to exploit what were in practice overlapping state jurisdictions and to assert their rights to be the state’s counterpart in particular areas. Other disputes, especially over municipal taxation, demonstrate the Federation’s desire to assert their right no regulate "their" sphere, according principally to the values described in chapter 6. Previous administrations in El Alto accepted that separation: Condepa appears to have given more leeway to street traders, granting many associations legal permits to sell and then largely leaving them alone. In that sense, the structure of regulation at the beginning of the twenty—first century has grown up largely in the (partial) absence of the state from that particular sphere, and it is an absence that the street traders seek to defend. They maintain the distinctiveness between the two spheres through the rhetoric of state predation and corruption, as we saw in chapter 6 when trade union leaders distinguished between corrupt politics and organic trade unionism, and through their analysis of the problems that occur when the boundaries between politics and sindicalismo become too porous. Yet in the previous chapter we saw how the trade unions inevitably encounter and negotiate with the state. Part of their ability to do so effectively relies upon the rhetorical separation between the two spheres, which is of particular salience in the contemporary political context and has become a common theme in the discourse not only of ordinary trade unionists but also of politicians and intellectuals. That assertion of difference rests especially on claims about how democratic the two spheres are. In recent years, as the social movements have increased in strength to the point where they became part of the government in December 2005, the political salience of these claims and dynamics is undeniable.

Models of Democracy

Nicolas Mendoza, an alteño student at the UPEA, argued in a research report that he prepared for a course in urban sociology that the mass democracy of community meetings was much more democratic than liberal representative democracy. He illustrated his argument with a description of two elections that occurred in his zone, one for the junta vecinal and one for the junta escolar. In the former, the election was by secret ballot, so different political parties put up slates and there were rumours of ballot-stuffing. For the junta escolar, he said, the people putting themselves forward for election to different posts came up to the front of the hall, and voting was done by standing behind them. He argued that this system was more transparent than the secret ballot because it was more transparent: no one from outside of the zone could vote because people would have expelled them from the meeting, and everyone could see who won. I was struck by his analysis because of the emphasis placed on secret ballots in my own political education and democratic practice.

Throughout this book, I have argued that collective organizations in El Alto both model and enact a type of democracy that looks very different from that assumed by liberal political science, where political agency is individualized. As David Nugent (forthcoming) has argued, democracy is "vernacularized" in different sociocultural and historical contexts. A political science informed by modernization theories flattens those differences into a simple line from less to more democratic, such that democracy can be brought to countries simply by importing liberal institutions. Bolivian intellectuals quite often counterpose the democracía asambleistica, or "Assembly-based democracy" (Gutierrez et al 2002; Garcia Linera et al. 2000, 2001) of the social movements to the unrepresentative democracy of the neoliberal political institutions of the state and political parties. However, in-depth analysis of assembly-based democracy is rare, and here I explore the ways street traders associations model democracy through two principal aspects: the relationship between the leaders and their base (the grass-roots members) and the importance of the general assembly. These particular elements are also key to "ayllu democracy," the direct democracy of the ayllus that is usually counterposed to Western systems of representative democracy. The latter is often equated with trade unions, the principal organizational rival to the ayllus in the altiplano countryside (Rivera Cusicanqui 1990; Albó 1977). In El Alto, the distinction is not so stark, and the direct democracy of the trade unions builds upon understandings of democracy derived from the experience of the ayllu, as well as other influences such as anarchosyndicalism and even civic republicanism. The creative combination of many different traditions is the source of what many see as a revitalization of Bolivian democracy associated with the contemporary power of popular politics.

Leaders and Bases

Along with the top-down aspects of leadership described in chapter 6, a dominant theme of the discourse of trade union and community leaders is the philosophy that leaders do not lead, they implement the decisions of their grass roots. As expressed by Mauricio Cori, the president of the FEJUVE in 200;, "Mauricio Cori fulfils the demands of his base." This version of democratic action builds directly upon the notion of leadership as service to the community that is inherent to ayllu democracy (Rivera Cusicanqui 1990; Ticona Alejo 2003). It is also evident in one of the most common analyses of the events of October 2003, that it was the people, el pueblo, which revolted. My informants often used the phrase el pueblo rebasó a los dirigentes, meaning that quite quickly there came a point where the leaders had to follow the will of their bases, since rebasar is the verb used to indicate when water overflows its container. I translate it here as "overrule." The following quotes illustrate this tendency:

We were no longer an executive, the people didn’t take any notice [of us]. The people rose up, until the point when seventy deaths accumulated, when therefore the alteño people and the peasants, we asked for—or the institutions, the people in general, the Bolivian people, asked for the resignation of Sanchez de Lozada. (Braulio Rocha, executive secretary, Federation of Street Traders)

We didn’t get rid of him ourselves, the leaders, it was the Bolivian people that threw him out, because they’re now tired—so, so, so many things that are happening, well, so the Bolivian people were no longer in a position to continue with him. ... We were—as leaders, we had to obey, because we obey orders also, [orders] from the people. ...
The Gas War is not a triumph, it’s not a triumph belonging to Mauricio Cori [president of the FEJUVE], it’s not a triumph of the COR, of Roberto de la Crux [a COR leader and member of Movimiento Indígena Pachakuti (MID; Indigenous Pachakuti Movement)], it’s the triumph of the Bolivian people, that’s to say of the people from here. They triumphed, not us [the leaders]. We simply obeyed orders. (Dona Roxana, member of Executive Committee, FEJUVE)

Trade union leaders tread a line line between leading their members and administering a structure that expresses group decisions, as Don Alberto’s advice to Doña Maria of the pescaderas in the previous chapter shows. Although the leaders’ explicit discourse is one of serving the bases, only doing what they say and faithfully reflecting their position, I have seen instances when the leaders have manipulated the decision of a mass meeting. One tactic that the Federation Executive Committee used was to place members of the committee in among the general audience instead of at the table at the front of the meeting where the executive secretary sits. Those in the audience would then shout out proposals or make speeches in favor of a certain position. At one meeting of the Federation, a general secretary of an affiliated association complained about this, but one of the Executive Committee members in the audience responded that he had every right to be there and to give his opinion, as he was also general secretary of his association. After the meetings, the printed resolutions that are produced for each one are written by one of the Executive Committee members, giving some leeway in the development of an official interpretation of the discussions. On occasion, resolutions are added or altered in some way or one particular side of the discussion is played down. In subsequent meetings, there is an opportunity to contest the minutes and resolutions, but this rarely happens.

Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that if leaders do not do a good job of persuading their bases that their demands are just and that they are reflecting their opinion reasonably faithfully, then the bases have ways of showing their displeasure. They will vote out leaders of whom they disapprove, for example, or whistle at them when they stand up to speak at a public meeting. Another tactic is to form breakaway associations or even federations. In 2003, parallel associations appeared throughout the city, where leaders allied to the MIR (according to the Federation Executive Committee members) had formed new associations, and in some instances instructed their members to begin paying taxes against the federation’s instructions. The power of any association comes from its power of convocatoria: at the time of greatest disunity within the Federation, the leaders that could convene the most people for civic parades and protest marches were seen as the strongest. Thus, if the bases disapprove of the leaders, they may also stop coming to meetings or demonstrations, thus undermining the leaders’ power of convocatoria.1

Furthermore, the bases tend to be inherently suspicious of their leaders, especially the higher up they are in the union structure, and this suspicion is expressed in the constant rumors of corruption and party political allegiance. Some scholars consider suspicion to be evidence of ordinary people’s disillusionment with their leaders, and therefore a force that undermines collective organization (e.g., Agadjanian 2002), but it may better be viewed as one of the ways that the politics of trade unionism is conducted. Suspicion and rumor are also often a form of preemptive control over the leaders, as in the case of the juntas vecinales, and may also keep those who are tempted to buscar sus apetitos personales (search for their personal appetites) somewhat more in check than might otherwise be the case.

Regardless of actual practice, at the core of the model of democracy proclaimed as ideal by the associations is the idea that the leaders enact the will of the bases, and that frequently, although by no means always, the bases have the means of disciplining leaders who do not do this adequately. Indeed, this was precisely how one treasurer of a junta escolar described Goni’s resignation in October 2003; she said that she knows, as a leader, that if she acts inappropriately, her bases would "give her a thrashing," and that was what had happened to him. Nonetheless, the constant presence of suspicion of the leaders belies the fiction of a community without internal conflict that is a much criticized aspect of communitarian political thought. The assumption behind much communitarianism is that if there is any contestation of the leaders’ ability to embody the will of that community, then the community disintegrates and becomes a conglomeration of individuals. In contrast, members of trade unions are perhaps modelling the kind of "agonistic" democracy proposed by Chantal Mouffe (1993), which does not assume that consensus within a community is always possible or even desirable.

One of the ways that scholars believe Andean communities guard against leaders gaining too much power is the rotative nature of the leadership system in the communities. A central feature of most Andean ethnographics, the cargo system or thaki in rural communities, is run such that leaders remain in position usually only for a year (Isbell 1978; Carter and Mamani P. 1989 [1982]; Abercrombie 1998; Rasnake 1988; Skar 1982). Leadership is an expensive obligation to the community, and this system ensures that the expense of being a leader is not too overwhelming for households. It is often also painted as a highly democratic feature of Andean authority structures (e.g., see Gutierrez et al. 2000; Ticona Alejo 2003; Rivera Cusicanqui 1990), even though, as Nancy Postero (2006] points out, short terms of office can sometimes tend toward short-termism and even corruption among leaders. Some trade unions function along similar lines, with leaders holding office for only one or two years, but there are also many leaders in the Federation who have been in position for years, some even for one or two decades. The practice of holding onto a leadership position for a long time is known as vitalicismo, (life-long-ism). Leaders who do this are very vulnerable to criticism and suspicion of their intentions, but it is also the case that the ordinary bases are often happy to keep a good leader in position. They recognize that it is a very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming job, and therefore re-elect a leader every two years with little complaint. Vitalicismo may be a feature of the "forma sindicato" (Garcia Linera 2001) that demonstrates its antidemocratic nature, even (implicitly) its anti-Aymara nature. Yet the cacique system is just as much a feature of Aymara history as the more democratic community thaki systems (Harris and Platt 2006; Thomson 2002). Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (1990; Rivera Cusicanqui and Equipo THOA 1992) also points out that hierarchy of some kind is inherent in the thaki systems of northern Potosi, as some authority positions are restricted to particular categories of community members, although there is some flexibility in how people can change category.

It is important therefore to recognize the centrality of hierarchy within the community of street traders and collective organizations in general. The frequent use of family metaphors to describe the bond between leaders and bases provides an entry point into understanding the nature of such hierarchies. Executive Committee members constantly referred to the familia gremial(family of organized street traders), and this phrase was a particular favorite of Don Braulio’s. He frequently explained problems with associations as family problems, saying that there are always problem children, or badly behaved children within any family. The Federation was in the parents’ position, where he was the father who loved his children but also disciplined them. He once explained parallelism (i.e., the establishment of a rival association) as "rebellious children looking for another father." Another Executive Committee member explained that the Federation leaders could not appeal directly to individual affiliates but had to go through the association; they could not go directly to the "grandchild," "because it’s your child that you have to defend, the directorio has to look after the base." An affiliate said to the Executive Committee member present at an assembly, "You have to back us up, we’re your children."

It is of course not unusual to describe political systems through the metaphor of the family (e.g., see Arendt 1998 [1958]), but understandings of family hierarchy are culturally specific. According to German Guaygua et al., authors of Ser joven en El Alto (2000), Aymara families are very authoritarian in terms of the expected relationship between parents, especially fathers, and children. Certainly, threatened corporal punishment in the form of the chicote, a small whip, is an important part of family life and the disciplining of young children. And according to official and NGO statistics, El Alto has a high incidence of domestic couple violence (Perez de Castaños 1999). Parents and older family members are also expected to be very involved in the life decisions made by their children; for example, they have a central role in approving who their children marry and in attempts to resolve marital difficulties for young couples (Lazar 2002a).

How authoritarian this actually is in practice is undoubtedly highly variable, and there has been little detailed ethnography on such matters. Some ethnographers would argue that parent—child relationships are not really authoritarian at all, and that the chicote is far more often threatened than used2. The interest that parents have in helping their children to live well is in my experience most often represented, as one might expect, in terms of love, duty, and concern. There is also considerable emphasis placed rhetorically on the sacrifice that parents, especially mothers, make for their children. When Don Juan was mediating the conflict between the mother and her daughter described in chapter 6, he constantly repeated that parents would do anything for their children. In one particular rhetorical flourish, he said that he could kill for his children, that we all struggle in life only for the sake of our children; they did not ask to be born and we must love them. The corollary is that children must respect their mother and father. Families are not generally perceived as democratic institutions, in El Alto as elsewhere (cf Dietz 1985), but discipline and authority are balanced by sacrifice and service.

Within the street traders unions, the emphasis on family pulls against the more egalitarian relationship of compañero/a drawn from leftist discourse, which is equally if not more common. Both are cultural resources that people draw on to understand and manage social relations, making claims for support from those higher up in the hierarchy, or alternatively giving advice to those less experienced. We might propose that different kinds of relationships dominate different levels of collectivity, certainly ideologically. The levels might be family, community or association, and federation, or even politics, where the family (parent-child) relationship is as described above, the community or association relationship is one between social equals, and the relationship between ordinary people and the federation leaders or politicians is characterized by that between the cacique/caudillo and his followers3. Such a delineation would certainly work on an ideological level, but the ethnographic material shows the picture to be rather messier; at different times and for different purposes, all three of these kinds of relationships come to the fore as people draw on their extensive cultural repertoires to advance their interests and desires most effectively. It would therefore be unwise to take at face value the claims that leaders purely serve their bases and that associations are entirely egalitarian; conversely, it would also be wrong to view the relationship between leaders and base as completely one-directional.

Assembly-Based Democracy

Along with rotative leadership, the most persistent theme in the claims made by activists and intellectuals for a more democratic popular sphere is the community meeting or trade union assembly. For example, Gutierrez et al. (2000: 170) describe the culmination of the Water War in Cochabamba in the meeting held in the main square as follows:

In a few hours, in what will become the most extraordinary pedagogy of democracia asambleistica, with the square replete with workers from the city and the country, and through telephone and megaphone communication, [the people] follow the course of the negotiations between their leaders and the governmental commission. The points of the agreement are approved or rejected by the same council that at the end of the day takes control over its decisions. ... Today, the gathered multitude deliberates directly; it proposes, rejects, modifies and approves. The leaders only transmit. Once more, the power of decision-making is reappropriated by the social structures, which, in their act of radical political insurgence, they removed the delegative habit of state power, to exercise [power] themselves.

An assembly features in almost every one of the indigenista film-maker Jorge Sanjines’s films as a practice that is crucial in defining the "other Bolivia" and that is inherently representative of the will of the community. In Los Hijos del Ultima Jardín (2003) the emphasis on government corruption is explicitly contrasted with the morality of the community assembly when a small community decides not to accept money stolen from a corrupt politician. The community assembly is a central part of many discussions of ayllu and community democracy (e.g., Klemola 1997; Ticona Alejo 2003; Albó 1977). Esteban Ticona argues that "the communal assembly ... is the maximum authority and the centre of the communal life of the ayllu. ... Through the level of participation and the sense of mutual respect, [the assemblies] constitute the principal stage for the practice of thaki or the democracy of the ayllu" (125).
In the case of the street traders associations and other trade unions, the general assembly of the bases is the highest authority of any association. For the Federation, the equivalent is the ampliado, the periodic meetings of the general secretaries of member associations. General assemblies of associations are held from once a month to once a year, but if the association does not have any problems, they are usually held every three to four months. Federation delegates attend general assemblies when an association has problems with internal conflicts or corruption issues. More mundanely, they also make reports to the bases about Federation decisions, activities, and negotiations and confrontations with the municipal authorities.

General assemblies and ampliados are about public speaking and the reaction of the crowd to what they hear. In the meeting, the aim is usually to reach some sort of consensus as people take turns to speak in favor of or against a particular argument. The meetings are held in locales (rooms hired out for parties), which are arranged with a desk and chairs at the front for the directorio of the association and the Federation delegates plus other visitors. The audience sits on chairs against the walls of the hall or stand at the back (in the case of the men) or sit on the floor (in the case of the women). Women bring awayus to sit on, along with food, drinks, and knitting or spinning to keep them occupied. Some of the men clutch exercise books or leather folders. Young children thread through the audience or sleep on their mother’s lap. The meetings open with a report from the secretary general and any delegate from the Federation who is present. They report on their activities and relevant political events in long and uninterrupted speeches. They may be questioned at the end, but most discussion occurs over specific agenda items, when people stand up in turn to give their opinion on the issue in question. They do this by making a speech that will quite often repeat the arguments made by others with whom they agree prior to making their own point, if they have one. Each speech can take between live and ten minutes, and people express themselves in a very formal manner, opening by greeting the authorities and all present respectfully, using formulae such as "Pido la palabra" (I request the word), and taking their time over their sentences.

Consensus is built through repetition, as the argument moves, speech by speech, to one predominant viewpoint and the leaders eventually make a decision that the majority of speakers have taken one position. They also assess the audience’s reaction to each speech—whether they have expressed shock, shouted their disagreement, clapped, or murmured their approval to their neighbor. On that basis they ask the general members to approve it; "¿Aprobado?" (Approved?). If the audience is silent or some shout out yes, then the motion or decision is approved. It is rare to hold a vote, but if one does happen, it is usually the case that no one will vote for the losing position and between a majority and everyone will vote for the winning one. The careful process of building consensus usually takes a very long time and is spread over several assemblies, giving people a chance to discuss the issues in between meetings, as Klemola (1997) found for the countryside. The creation of public opinion informally in this way is also one of the more important means by which women influence the process of decision making. However, that is not to say that the meetings themselves are a speedy ratification of decisions already taken. The general assembly is a more gradual process that airs viewpoints formally and provides moral guidance (in terms of the general view of the base) and material for the subsequent informal discussions and decisions to be taken by the protagonists of any dispute. As such, they can take a long time; the ampliado of 2 June 2003 took five hours, for example. This was by no means unusual; my most vivid memories of the assemblies I attended are of my physical discomfort as they continued seemingly interminably.

Speech is an important part of the process of direct democracy in the unions as in other collective organizations; the punishment for two women who had attempted to set up a parallel association with the municipality was that they could attend meetings but would have ni voz ni voto, neither voice nor vote. Speaking publicly is also an important aspect of proving and learning leadership ability; Don Rodolfo Mancilla described to me how he became one of the most important men on the Executive Committee by watching how leaders spoke in meetings and gradually learning how to "speak well" (hablar bien) himself Speaking well is also a category that I have heard used to assess politicians at a national level. Many male gremialistas (unionist street traders) have gained the ability to speak through their experience of union membership in their previous jobs, especially those who have been "relocalized" from the mines.4
Women often talk of themselves as lacking the knowledge necessary to speak publicly. This is sometimes connected implicitly to their ability to speak Spanish, the prime language of formal gatherings such as general assemblies. Isabella Lepri (2003) has argued that the Esse Ejja of lowland Pando avoid political meetings in part because they are uncomfortable speaking Spanish. However, in the case of the street traders, it is quite common in general assemblies and ampliados for women to give speeches in Aymara, which everyone understands. Sometimes, although less frequently, men also speak in Aymara, and discussions continue in Aymara until someone, usually one of the leaders or the Federation delegate, switches back to Spanish.

The importance of speech is one of the indications of the thick conception of participatory democracy that operates within the trade unions. In addition to sharing characteristics with ayllu democracy, it has much in common with civic republican traditions of democracy which ultimately derive from the model of Athenian democracy. In The Human Condition (1998 [1958]: 26), Hannah Arendt argued that in the public realm of the polis, the most intensely political activities of humans were praxis, or action, and lexis, or speech; "To be political, to live in a polis, meant that everything was decided through words and persuasion and not through force and violence," and to command rather than persuade was "pre-political," more characteristic of the household than of political life. For Arendt, human beings actualize themselves through participation in politics, which consists of discussion and deliberation. As Castoriadis (1992) points out, the education of the citizen as person so important to Athenian notions of citizenship was accomplished precisely through these processes. The processual sense in which unionists become better through their experience of speaking in public meetings indicates a similar philosophy. Moreover, in Athens, citizens had both a right and a "commitment" (or duty) to speak their minds on public affairs, which also has parallels with Bolivian practice (Castoriadis 1992). In Latin America, claims for more participatory forms of democracy are not especially new (cf. Nugent forthcoming on mid-twentieth century Peru), but they are undergoing a resurgence, being expressed in the demands of social movements from the late 1980s onward (Dagnino 1998) and through initiatives such as participatory budgeting in Brazil and Argentina. They build upon the deep political traditions of public meeting democracy that came from the Greeks to Latin America through the circulation of civic republic political thought among intellectuals influenced by the French and American revolutions, and earlier, through the translation of the citizenship practices of medieval Spanish and Italian cities during colonization (Herzong 2003). Of course, these European practices combined with indigenous traditions is what gives them their power and particular character as citizenship practices today, a point I return to later.

Mass action during meetings is a counterpoint to the speeches. At every meeting I attended, people began to shout "¡Hora!" (Time!) when it had gone on too long, or when the important matters had been discussed and they wanted to go home. The leaders usually heed this call once it is no longer a few isolated individuals, unless they have something very important that has not yet been discussed. Any business left over is either postponed until the next meeting or dealt with very quickly, because people usually have to stay to the end of meetings to collect the token that certifies their attendance. One good example of democracy by numbers in this sense happened in a meeting where it seemed to me that the prevailing opinion in terms of the spoken debate was that there should be an election for a new directorio. People criticised the general secretary's vitalicismo and there appeared to be a sizeable group who wanted to replace her. She defended her position, saying that she needed to stay in order to steer the association through a court case it was involved in with a rival association. The debate proceed until the point where a decision on whether or not to have an election that meeting was imminent, at which time large groups of affiliates simply stood up and left, thus giving a very clear and effective indication that they did not want an election, whatever the conclusions of the spoken discussions. At supper after the meeting, the general secretary said that it was only a few trouble makers who wanted her out, while the majority supported her, something borne out more by the physical dynamic of the meeting than by the spoken debate.

The balance between public speech-making and this physical dynamic is gendered. Women do speak formally less than men but play a greater role in the encouragement of mass action. They form the bulk of the members of an association and have a keen understanding of how that group acts politically in a physical sense. When someone says something with which they disagree, individual women may speak out publicly, but others will make comments to their neighbors, and it is possible to get a sense of their view from the tone of those conversations. They are also not afraid of shouting out “iHora!" if they want to leave. As always, it would be foolish to overplay the extent of gender equality in the street traders associations, as it is men who dominate the leadership and the formal spheres of decision making. Outside of such spaces, though, women play very important roles in the politics of the associations on a day-to-day level as well as during extraordinary events. Largely by being the ones selling the produce they know what is going on in the marketplace and are the ones involved in the daily conflicts among affiliates and between affiliates and the local government. They are also often thought to be more radical politically and less corrupt than most of the men, and they make those views known.

Assembly—based democracy as it is practiced in the street traders associations is complex. It defies both the romanticization of intellectuals and the disdain of those who are unaware of its subtleties and who therefore dismiss trade union members as masses manipulated by their leaders5. It is not always easy to interpret the mood of the meeting, because it rests on a delicate balance between what people stand up to say in a formal, public sense and the comments they make to their neighbors and in shouted but unattributable interjections as well as in their body language and physical movement. Long-standing trade union leaders are highly skilled at interpreting all these different signals. The assemblies are run on the basis that all who want to can and should speak, but it is well understood that this will not necessarily happen. Nonetheless, those who do not wish to commit themselves in a formal speech have ways of expressing their approval or disapproval during and outside of the meetings. They do so within a hierarchical framework, where some management of the mood of the meeting is undoubtedly possible and where there is room for interpretation by the leaders. However, the bases are by no means docile masses that follow their leaders largely unwittingly or simply because they are forced to do so, as some would like to believe.

Corporatism and Bolivian Politics

The complexities of internal trade union democracy are important because at the beginning of the twenty-first century social movements in Bolivia and elsewhere in Latin America appear to be stronger than they have been at any time since the end of the dictatorships. While earlier scholarly literature on new social movements debated how democratic social movements are (A. Escobar and Alvarez 1992), what is important in the current wave of literature and activism is the explicit claim that popular democracy is more democratic than institutional politics. For many, the vitality of social movements today raises the possibility of a reinvigoration of normative political life, which is seen as corrupt and decrepit. After the attacks on the popular classes represented by structural adjustment, collective organizations are gradually developing new and more effective forms of struggle against neoliberal hegemony, on a local and a global scale. Their ability to do so relies upon their creative combination of different collective traditions and histories, from indigenous forms of organization to the strong local trade unionist traditions. This of course does not happen in a uniform way across some kind of homogeneous sphere of civil society, but is a fraught process riven with factionalism, competition, and co-optation. It is not my intention to romanticize the alternative visions of democracy and the state proposed by different social movements, including the street traders, or to overstate their chances of success. Their struggle is tough, and possibly unrealistic, but there have been some small victories against seemingly unassailable foes such as large multinational utility companies and U.S.-backed governments. I would argue that such victories derive in large part from the combination of old traditions with new collective forms through innovation and communication and because of changes in the organization of labor. Thus we should perhaps no longer speak of the "return of the Indian," as was hailed in the early 1990s (Wearne 1996), but of the "return of plebeian Bolivia," the title of a recently published book (Garcia Linera et al. 2000). This section of the chapter assesses the nature of that particular return and the nature of the relationship between citizens and the state that has developed as a result.

Trade Unionism in Bolivia

In a paper given at the 2003 Bolivian Studies Congress, Juan Claudio Lechín (2003:14) argued that the Miners Federation (FSTMB) and the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB; Bolivian Workers Centre) are "states in miniature," or "an alternative state with people, mechanisms of representation and government, organised and unified leadership structure, and a territory superimposed over that of official structures." He points out that these structures have survived for over fifty years, a longevity that is quite remarkable once we recognise the volatility of the official "establishment" (he uses the English word) of the Bolivian state. His argument that the organisational forms of trade unions influence and are influenced by other contemporary organisational forms, such as juntas vecinales, is compelling. For example, the practice of public speech-making in turn is certainly common to most, if not all, collective gatherings at which I have been present, from junta vecinal assemblies to dance rehearsals and family events such as funerals. These ways of reaching agreement are common across rural and urban Bolivia 6.

Lechín (2003:15) also suggests that trade union organisational forms are a mixture of European and Latin American syndicalist traditions with the colonial cabildo as well as the allyu, despite the common assumption that Bolivian trade unions are strong because of the "natural and ancestral associative spirit of the indigenous, quechua and aymara." Without a doubt, indigenous community forms have been more thoroughly studied than the trade unions, which, depending on the part of Bolivia under study, were often seen as unwelcome Western imports, especially the peasant unions (Rivera Cusicanqui 1990, 2003 [1984]). A picture of El Alto would not be complete without a discussion of both influences, however, and the trade union form may even be the more powerful. As Lechín (2003:16) points out, even if the contemporary COB and FSTMB are a shadow of their former selves, "the emerging trade unions, those that now have the power of convocatoria and political power, as is the case for cocalero peasants and peasants in general, ... have revived the mechanisms and the organic structure of the historic Trade Union, as well as its methods of struggle."

Although in Latin America trade unions typically have been mechanisms for government control of the working classes through corporatism, the history of the trade unions in Bolivia has been less consistent in this than in other countries of the region, beginning in the 1920s, when anarchosyndicalism gained ground within several trade union organisations, especially those of the market women in Oruro and La Paz (Lehm and Rivera Cusicanqui 1988; Lora 1977). The Miners Federation, which was formed in 1944, helped organise the revolution of 1952 alongside the MNR party, and then set up the COB. At the beginning, the COB was led by members of the governing party (MNRistas), but it and the Miners Federation always had a strong Trotskyite faction, articulated most notably by the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Workers Revolutionary Party). Because of this, there was consistent opposition to the MNR leaders and the worker-ministers of the first government. State control over the trade unions of the COB was effective only for a few years; after the military coup of 1964, a majority of the COB unions moved into opposition to the government. During Banzer's dictatorship of 1971-1978, the government attempted to replace the COB with "workers' coordinators" but failed, and the COB, particularly the miners, once again led the opposition. Since the transition to democracy, all the main political parties have attempted to control the COB Executive Committee.

The peasant unions supported the government for considerably longer than the miners, particularly because of the agrarian reform of 1953; then in 1964, General Barrientos signed the Peasant-Military Pact, winning the peasants to a pro-government position until the 1970s. However, oppositional tendencies began to take over the peasant unions from the late 1960s, as young Aymara nationalists, who became known as the Kataristas, gradually rose to prominence (see Rivera Cusicanqui 2003 [1984]; Hurtado 1986). By the late 1970s, after the repression that followed the massacre of the peasants of Tolata in 1974, the peasant unions were at the forefront of the opposition to the dictatorship alongside the COB. From 1979 onwards, the Kataristas ran the unified peasant confederation, the CSUTCB (Rivera Cusicanqui 2003 [1984]). Now different factions of the Kataristas vie with the MAS for control over the CSUTCB leadership committees. The majority of the street traders in El Alto are either ex-miners or ex-peasants, so, given this history, it is unsurprising that the Federation should currently style itself in opposition to the governing political parties, especially the populism of Condepa and the Unión Cívica Solidaridad (UCS; Civic Solidarity Union). Condepa dominated all aspects of the alteño political scene in the 1990s, including the Federation of Street Traders and the other civic institutions, such as the FEJUVE (Quisbert Quispe 2003).

Any oppositional position is always threatened by the possibility that some party or other has "bought" enough leaders to neutralise the upper echelons of the trade union movement, a frequent occurrence. However, the ability of the state to control the workers, street traders, and peasants through corporatist organization depends on the historical conjuncture. There are times when the unions are fragmented and weak and vulnerable to control, or at least to divide-and—rule strategies, from government. Occasionally, though, they manage to slip out of state control and unify in opposition. It is no coincidence that the October protests in El Alto happened at a time when the FEJUVE, COR, and Federation of Street Traders were all relatively strong: compare the existence of four rival federations of street traders in La Paz. Both the FEJUVE and the Federation of Street Traders have divided into competing factions throughout their histories; the Federation of Street Traders managed to unify itself most recently only in 2000. It is also the case that in 2003, the main political parties (especially the MIR) failed to co-opt leaders of most of the civic organizations in El Alto in the way that Condepa had managed during the 1990s. Those who had been bought were in any case overruled (rebasados) by the base. An example is the MIRista leader of the fourth main civic organization in El Alto, the Federacion de Padres de Familia de El Alto (Federation of School Parents of El Alto), who had to hide from the protestors for his own safety. One friend told me in January 2004 that he had heard that the political parties were trying to buy civic leaders in order to prevent a repeat of the events of the previous October. By April, some political activists suspected that the MAS was involved in this process, as Evo Morales and his advisors stressed the importance of the electoral route to power and focused their attention on the municipal elections of December 2004.

Thus, under normal circumstances collective organizations can certainly be the means by which Bolivian governments control their citizens. Yet political participation (or even perhaps the flow of power) can also be two-directional. There are structures in place which allow citizens to contest policies and laws they consider to be against their interests, as the previous chapter has shown. The normal balance of power between the two groups is greatly in favor of the political elites who usually govern; however, in the past few years, this has become slightly more fragile than usual, in Bolivia and throughout the region. Democratic governance in Bolivia has always included direct state negotiation with organized corporate groupings, known as the "social sectors." However, since at least 1997, successive Bolivian governments have failed to implement any coherent strategic plan of government. Instead of making policy, they became reactive, only able to respond to pressures from the International Monetary Fund on one side and increasing volumes of social mobilization on the other. Based on megacoalitions of sometimes up to five different political parties, they were weak in institutional terms, compounded by fact that the majority of the political parties represented the interests of Bolivian elites rather than ordinary people. The extent to which these sets of interests are opposed to each other cannot be understated; the cleavage within Bolivian society between the elite classes and the popular classes is undoubtedly deep. Although members of the (urban) popular classes often know how the wealthy live because they have been their maids or gardeners, they consume their media, and they sell to them, the wealthy have almost no knowledge about the conditions of life of most Bolivians. Encouraged by the IMF and Harvard-educated Bolivian economists, the political elites wanted to implement what they thought were the best (and correct) economic policies for their country, without realizing that such policies were utterly unacceptable to the majority population. They created a situation in which both of the forces pressurizing them, the IMF and the social movements, were demanding unrealistic economic policies: increased market liberalization from the former and much greater state control of the economy from the latter.

The Strength of the Multitude

Using Hardt and Negri’s (2000, 2005) terminology, we could say that governments of Bolivia find themselves between Empire and multitude, a position that may be increasingly common for democratically elected governments globally. The extent of Empire (as represented in Bolivia by the alliance of local political and economic elites with the IMF, the World Bank, and the U.S. Embassy) is well known. What has become notable at particular moments in the past few years is the relative strength of its counterpart: the multitude, or social sectors. Undoubtedly, some agnosticism about the usefulness of the term "multitude" is necessary; certainly in Hardt and Negri’s formulation the concept itself is loose enough that almost any popular oppositional movement that is not the organized industrial working classes or vanguardist political parties could count as part of the multitude. Nonetheless, some aspects of their analysis are useful in understanding the renewed political vigor the Bolivian popular classes in recent years, particularly as the concept has been taken up and concretized by a group of Bolivian intellectuals who publish under the insignia of the grupo comuna (e.g., see Garcia Linera et al 2000, 2001; Gutierrez et al. 2002).

Along with the continuity with older trade union and community traditions, it is also important to recognize the extent of the rupture with older forms of collective organization of labor. The trade union sphere has changed considerably in Bolivia as a result of the neoliberal economic policies of the mid-1980s, which irrevocably weakened the traditional power base of the COB, the miners. Some commentators (e.g., Sanabriza 1999) have seen this as an outright defeat for trade unionism, with the cocalero unions of the Chapare region as its only remnants. However, in recent years it has become clear that while one sector of the working classes was indeed defeated, the destruction was not as complete as feared by the most pessimistic. What has happened is that new kinds of trade union structures have emerged alongside the cocaleros, especially those of the peasants and informal sector workers in the cities. One thing these different sectors all have in common is a particular relationship to their means of livelihood. As I discussed in chapter 6, the new unions are one set of (work based) collectivities that have emerged with neoliberalism and the post-Fordist organization of labor (Hardt and Negri 2000; Garcia Linera 2001). They are based upon coalitions of smallholders, even micro-capitalists, who do not work for one boss in one place, where they can be easily targeted by the army (Sanabria 1999). Their household model of production allows for fluidity of associational life, but has also enabled them to form alliances and organizations based upon territorial location: the street where they sell, the village or region where they live and farm, and, with the addition of the vecino-based organizational structures in the cities, their zone. The previous chapter showed this to be a complex and fluid territorial affiliation, but the relationship between people and place that has been a continuous theme of this book makes it extremely strong nonetheless.

Individuals and household units are affiliated with one or more associations or organizations; the associations themselves come together in networks, federations, and alliances at city, regional, and national levels. They are a true multitude of “plural singularities" (Hardt and Negri 2005: 99) that coalesces at particular moments, such as April 2000 in Cochabamba, the peasant blockades in the altiplano of April and September 2000, February and October 2003 in El Alto and La Paz, and January-March 2005 in El Alto. Outside of those moments, the social movements often fall prey to severe factionalism and infighting between rival figures —remember Xavier Albo’s (1977) analysis of Aymara solidarity and factionalism. It is a weakness that is commonly mentioned (e.g., see Crabtree 2005) and is certainly a problem when the elites are generally so coherent, in terms at least of`their ability to sustain agreement on what constitutes the best economic and political system for Bolivia, even if they are split among themselves on more specific questions of policy. We should probably expect factionalism and division among the popular classes and counterhegemonic forces, since the development of fully coherent alternative economic and political visions could not happen in a short space of time and may indeed never happen (since that may be the point, diversity of visions being perhaps more progressive and fairer). The demands for the social movements to present entirely coherent and well—thought-out economic and political programs are probably misplaced, since action will always move faster than theory. What we can say at this stage is that the social movements do come together increasingly frequently and are beginning to build a more coherent ideology out of the particularity of the different sectoral demands along two connected lines of principle: first the issue of the protection of the means of social reproduction (Garcia Linera 2001), and second, a particular vision of the state and their relationship to it.

As Alvaro Garcia Linera (2001) has argued, some of the key demands of the various protests of the first years of the twenty—first century have been articulated around questions of control over resources, in particular water and natural gas. In Cochabamba, localized control over water provision was much more advanced than in El Alto, but in both cities protesters objected to its privatization, especially given the foreign ownership of the utility companies involved; the main shareholders in Aguas del Tunari of Cochabamba were Bechtel, a U.S. and German multinational, and Abengoa SA, a Spanish company, while that of Aguas del Illimani in El Alto was Suez, which is French. The question of foreign control over the revenue from the export of natural gas was key to the standoff between governments and the social movements between October 2003 and May 2006. For Garcia Linera (who became vice president in December 2005), such questions, namely "that of the management of water, access to land and the price of basic services," are principally about the material means of sustaining social reproduction (43). However, we should be wary of reducing this to a simple equation of protest as a response to poverty. In the inevitable simplifications that accompany the international flow of information, the contemporary political developments in El Alto and Bolivia have been understood through narratives of desperation and economic crisis, or the image of a noble and naturalized indigenous concern for Bolivian sovereignty over natural resources. But it would be a mistake to view the mobilisations as simply a politics of desperation. Although it would be foolish to try to maintain that people are not responding to a situation of increasingly acute hardship in the midst of a sever economic crisis, the protests are also a politics of surplus and creativity, point recognised by Hardt and Negri (2005:212) for the multitude: "Deprivation ... may breed anger, indignation, and antagonism, but revolt arises only on the basis of wealth, that is, a surplus of intelligence, experience, knowledges and desire." The protesters have positive proposals, for example in their assertion of a sense of Bolivian sovereignty over natural resources (Albro 2005). Gutierrez et al. (2000:176) maintain that the Coordinadora's proposals for the local control over water in Cochabamba have "demolished the fallacy of the duality between privatization and state ownership which had guided contemporary political proposals." They argue that such proposals can have arisen only through the operation of genuinely democratic decision-making processes, and in their view represent a clear alternative proposal for the "recomposition of political life" (181).

This may be somewhat optimistic, and the extent to which proposals are thought through in the case of water in Cochabamba is certainly not generalizable across the whole spectrum of oppositional movements. However, coherent visions of the state and of democracy are emerging in the theory and the practice of the social sectors and popular classes. As David Nugent (forthcoming:16) argues, the absence (or dysfunction) of the state can create as much of a "state-effect" as its presence, as in the case of mid-twentieth-century Chachapoyas in Peru, where local elites' success in consolidating regional power and holding the nation-state at bay "created the illusion (and illusion it was) that a liberated nation-state existed in a different spatial domain. ... It was possible for the popular classes to conceive of the liberated nation-state not only as a 'thing' that could arrive from afar, but also as a thing whose arrival was being thwarted by the elite." In a similar vein, much talk about corruption in Bolivia today tells the story of elite politicians and businessmen who are betraying a higher ideal of what the state should be, even though people are unlikely to talk about the abstract concept of "the state." They are more likely to use abstract terms such as "our dear Bolivia" (nuestra querida Bolivia) or "the Bolivian people" (el pueblo boliviano), alongside concrete terms referring to politicians in general, the president, the mayor, or the government. With neoliberalism, the Bolivian state has absented itself from some areas, such as the provision of public utilities, while strengthening itself in others, especially the military (Gill 2000; Sanabria 1999).

In the face of this, alteños often articulate specific visions of a strong developmentalist state. The two most oft-articulated complaints about contemporary Bolivian governments are that they are corrupt and that they do not provide jobs for ordinary Bolivian people. For Don Eugenio of the Federation of Street Traders, the entrance of businesspeople into government has corrupted his ideal of a state that is able to give people jobs:

It’s politicking, so that the ordinary people are just the servants, part of the ladder for those people up there [i.e., politicians]. Because the supply of jobs has dried up. It’s because really they’re more businessmen than politicians--for example, CORDEPAZ [the Department of La Paz Development Corporation] had more people, and then also [people] used to work for the National Roads Service, YDFB [the state petrol company], the ENFE—the railways—all of them no longer exist. Now really the people, the base, now they work for people from above, no longer for themselves. Now there is no place where someone can be a public functionary. (My emphasis)

Working for the state is, in his view, working "for themselves" (por ellos mismos), instead of working to the profit of the "people from above" (gentes de arriba), the owners of private companies. This kind of vision of the state may be quite specific to El Alto, or to urban Bolivians more generally, as in other parts of Bolivia people may feel the state to be remote and want to keep it at bay (Lepri 2003; Goudsmit 2006). Many alteños, particularly those who are politically active in collective organizations, have previously had jobs provided by the state; the alcaldía is the biggest single employer in the city, for example, and many street traders were public functionaries during the 1990s. Others worked for public companies that were privatized in recent decades, such as the mines and the national roads service. It is unsurprising therefore that they wish to return to a situation in which they had a more secure job provided by the state that in some cases even came with benefits such as pensions. Inherent to Don Eugenio’s vision is a claim for economic fairness, which should be protected by the state (cf. Nugent forthcoming). Such a view is also expressed in the demand from the altiplano peasants for the government to provide them with tractors and other kinds of development projects. These claims are somewhat paradoxical, because on the one hand people want more state in the form of tractors or jobs, but on the other, one of the main problems that spark off protests is too much state, for example when the state intervenes in previously community-based modes of water provisioning by attempting to sell them to other parties. The other example of too much state is, of course, state repression of demonstrators, actively and also preemptively through laws such as the Law of Citizen Security, which criminalized blockades and the repeal of which was one of the key demands of demonstrators in October 2003.

Thus the call is for a particular kind of state, one that more clearly represents the interests of the people as defined by the people and is therefore more genuinely democratic. The problem with this is a political one: given current international economic orthodoxy and Bolivia’s relative poverty in terms of natural resources (it has oil but is no Venezuela), this may just be unrealistic. But there is a vision nonetheless. When imagining such a state, trade unionists and workers use historical referents, in particular the nationalization of Gulf Oil in 1969. The contemporary period shares some interesting parallels with 1969-1971, both being times of notable leftist agitation. With the Asamblea Popular in 1971 and the Asamblea Constituyente today, both periods evidence demands for a democracy that is deeper than that of the official political system—as Hardt and Negri (2005) put it, for the rule of everyone by everyone. These visions of democracy both derive from and deepen existing practices of mediated and collective citizenship in Bolivia.

Luis Tapia (2002) argues that during the 1980s and 1990s, the defeat of the popular, trade unionist, and leftist forces meant that the elite-based political party system took over institutionalized politics at that time, expelling the workers to the no lugares or "nonplaces" of politics. With the elections of 2002, the successes of the MAS and the MIP saw the return of the workers and the reentry of the class struggle into parliament, and the elections of 2005 consolidated that process. For Tapia, the proliferation of the nonplaces of politics during the 1980s and 1990s meant "the renovation of the capacity for political life in the heart of the popular classes; [a capacity] for organization and collective action. The non-places have revealed the banality of the places of politics, as well as their anti-national character" (72). He remains agnostic about whether the flow between the nonplaces and the places of politics may ultimately lead to the renovation or democratization of official politics. Nonetheless, the creativity of the popular movements in the nonplaces of politics is not confined to the vision of the state they articulate from that position. The development of alternative democracies is probably most evident and effective in the actual practice of the organizations themselves, which returns me to the ethnographic material at the heart of this chapter. As Tapia argues, it is organization that distinguishes the multitude from the crowd, and as Hardt and Negri (2005) point out, multiplicity that distinguishes the multitude from "the people," which they conceive of as unitary. The nested affiliation of an alliance of associations, each one with local forms of accountability, is one of the sources of the social movements’ strength in Bolivia and is crucial to the contemporary reinvigoration of citizenship and democracy. Another is the assembly-based democracy proclaimed by grupo comuna intellectuals. Yet another is the strength of corporate feeling encouraged through practices that work to create collective selves, the subject of chapter 6.

As older debates about new social movements highlighted, such practices are not always very democratic in the sense of being nonhierarchical (A. Escobar and Alvarez 1992). Certainly, the trade unions and other collectivities organize themselves in ways that seem authoritarian and undemocratic if we define democracy as essentially about preserving individual freedoms. But if we view democracy as the will of the people, the corporatist side of Bolivian politics makes sense as one of its most important democratic (albeit not necessarily egalitarian) traditions. My point is not to measure trade union democracy against state democracy, but to argue that their dynamics are different, and that one is not necessarily more functional than the other. The sociologist Silvia Rivera described to me the euphoria after Goni’s resignation as a "euphoria of democracy." October 2003 saw the operation of a kind of direct democracy that asserted the common will against a government that was not only intractable and distant, but also murderous. In April 2000 and January-March 2005 multinational corporations that seemed impregnable, such as Bechtel and Suez, were forced to take a loss on their investment in Bolivia and withdraw without compensation. Those victories would not have been possible without the mundane experiences of collective democracy that are part of alteños’ day-to-day lives.

  • 1. See Cross (1998) for a similar argument in the case of Mexico City.
  • 2. Andrew Canessa and Olivia Harris, personal communications, September 2004.
  • 3. I am grateful to Into Goudsmit for making this point.
  • 4. The male leaders that I knew came from a wide range of jobs, not just mining. Many had been traders all their lives, and others had been public employees or truck drivers or worked in a factory.
  • 5. I make no claims for my abilities to understand fully the subtleties of the meetings, which would need years of participant observation to grasp.
  • 6. I am grateful to the anthropologists Isabella Lepri and Into Goudsmit for making this point. See also Klemola (1997).

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Apr 17 2013 20:40


  • We were no longer an executive, the people didn’t take any notice [of us]. The people rose up, until the point when seventy deaths accumulated, when therefore the alteño people and the peasants, ... asked for the resignation of Sanchez de Lozada.

    Braulio Rocha, executive secretary, Federation of Street Traders

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