William Neumann, New York Times
LA PAZ and EL ALTO, Bolivia — In these two cities, geography and rank stand in inverse relation. La Paz — the seat of government, old money and a lighter-skinned elite — sits in a valley. Above it on a high plateau is the frenetic city of El Alto: poorer, younger and generally darker-skinned. La Paz has always looked down on its upstart younger sibling above.
Now, that relationship is being challenged, and this urban Möbius strip, where down is up and up is down, is getting a new twist. A mass-transit aerial cable-car system, a cross between a ski gondola and an elevated train, is being installed to better connect them, chipping away at the physical barriers and possibly some of the psychological ones.
The first line in the system, stretching from an area near the center of La Paz to just beyond the lip of the plateau into El Alto, began carrying riders on May 31. Another line is expected to go into operation in September, and a third the next month — just in time for an election on Oct. 12, in which President Evo Morales is running for a third term.
Mr. Morales, who ordered the construction of the cable-car system, recently announced that he would build five more lines. It is part of a master plan that Cesar Dockweiler, the general coordinator of the project, said could eventually include up to 18 lines: stretching deep down the valley into La Paz’s Zona Sur, or Southern Zone, where the wealthiest live, and far across the plateau, home to some of El Alto’s poorest.
Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, recently launched its first communications satellite to much fanfare about the country’s progress. But many Bolivians have embraced the cable cars, closer to the ground, with more sustained enthusiasm as a modern and technological wonder.
The first line, known as the red line, carried two million passengers in its first 51 days of operation, which Mr. Dockweiler said was beyond the most optimistic projections. Some riders are commuters, but many have flocked to the line out of curiosity. It has become a sightseeing attraction for its novelty and for its sweeping views of La Paz and the surrounding mountains. The heaviest ridership is on Thursdays and Sundays, when a sprawling open-air market fills the streets of El Alto.
“It’s a wonder,” said Carlos Flores, 60, a printer, standing in a long line to board a cable car on a recent Sunday at La Paz’s Central Station (Estación Central in Spanish, or Taypi Uta in Aymara, the predominant indigenous language in El Alto). Referring to one of his country’s natural marvels, Mr. Flores said, “We say that Lake Titicaca is a wonder, and now we have another one.”
Much as the subway system changed New York in the early 20th century, the cable-car system has the potential to transform La Paz and El Alto, connecting distant neighborhoods to the city center, raising real estate values, slashing commute times and altering social relations.
“People in El Alto are more guarded and more timid,” said Leonidas Sánchez, 45, a school administrator from El Alto, riding down into La Paz one recent morning. “We are timid because we have a different skin color, and we live in different types of houses, and we do different kinds of work compared to the people of the Zona Sur. There has always been a relation of respect and even fear with those people.”
Mr. Sánchez said that if he sat next to lighter-skinned people from the La Paz elite in a cable car, he would feel obligated to give them more space. While the election of Mr. Morales, an indigenous former coca farmer from a poor background, in 2005 has gone a long way toward changing such attitudes, Mr. Sánchez said the cable cars could help break them down further.
“I think that relationship of superiority will change, because we will express ourselves, and they will get to know us, and we will get to know them,” he said.
In broad terms, La Paz is more Western and El Alto more indigenous. La Paz is more urban; El Alto is full of migrants from the countryside who retain their small-town ways. Spanish is spoken in La Paz; in El Alto, Aymara is heard at least as often. La Paz has its banks and a few fancy restaurants, while the center of El Alto’s economic life is the twice-a-week street market where the smell of fried pork hangs thickly in the air. La Paz’s rich live discreetly behind high walls; El Alto’s rich live in ostentatious, brightly colored homesbuilt over family stores.
“La Paz and El Alto have a different logic of life,” said Luis Cayujra, 40, a lawyer from La Paz, who was waiting in line, camera in hand, to board a cable car for a ride up the slope to El Alto.
“I have friends that have either never been to El Alto or are afraid to go,” Mr. Cayujra said. Now, he said, “Lots of young people will be able to explore the complex world of El Alto: the culture, the economy, the social forms, the architecture.”
Traveling from El Alto on a frigid winter morning, the cable cars move over rooftops beneath a brilliant blue sky, the massive snow peak of Illimani ahead.
At night, the orange and white lights of La Paz spread out beneath riders like stars filling the valley, undulating with its contours.
Benjamin Limachi, 28, a jewelry maker who lives in El Alto, said he liked to take his girlfriend for rides at night, when they could sit alone in a car and take in the romantic view.
“It’s very different to look from above and see how pretty La Paz is,” Mr. Limachi said. “It’s like flying in an airplane at low altitude.”
Other cities, like Medellín, Colombia, and Caracas, Venezuela, have put in cable cars to reach some isolated hilltop neighborhoods. But nowhere else have cable cars been envisioned as the backbone of a mass-transit system, as in La Paz, said Torsten Bäuerlen, a manager at Doppelmayr, the Austrian company that is building the first three lines.
La Paz, the world’s highest capital at about 12,000 feet above sea level, is different from most other cities. It spills down the slopes of a steep valley, making a subway or other train system impractical, and buses are subject to the heavy traffic that often gridlocks both cities.
“For us, the solution has been to build, quite literally, a subway in the air,” said Mr. Dockweiler, the project coordinator.
A ride costs about 44 cents, as much as double the cost of the packed minibuses that clog the streets. But at least some commuters are willing to pay more to save time, and for the added comfort. The minibuses are reviled for being dirty and overcrowded, with drivers who often are rude, charge above the established fare and refuse to pick up older riders or people with children.
The $234 million price tag for the first three lines was paid virtually in cash, from the vast trove of hard currency that the country’s Central Bank has amassed during several years of impressive economic growth fueled largely by the sale of natural gas to neighboring Brazil and Argentina. That in itself is a sign of the changes going on here.
“Before, to invest and carry out this type of project, the Bolivian government had to turn to outside financing,” Mr. Dockweiler said. “When we opened the red line, people felt proud. And now Bolivians believe in themselves, believe in their ability to develop, in the country’s chances to become greater.”
The government sees the cable-car system as a way to draw La Paz and El Alto closer together, advertising it with slogans like “Uniting our lives” and “A meeting place.”
“The thread of the cable car will permit a dialogue between the two cultures, a connection,” said René Pereira, director of the school of social science at San Andrés University in La Paz. “And that is going to break down borders, and we will probably start to seriously reconsider the reality that is Bolivia.”
My previous post ‘The MAS hegemonic project and its tensions’ highlighted some of the fault lines in the MAS project. This post explores further the tensions between the conception of the MAS government as a government of the social movements, and the development of a strong state, with centralized state power as the driver of counter-hegemonic strategy.
‘Refounding the state’ is central to the MAS hegemonic project. The phraseology of ‘refounding’ expresses the conviction that the colonial, neoliberal state needs to be totally reshaped, not merely ‘modernised’. The MAS is committed to the exercise of state power, but in a way which reflects its self-description as the ‘political instrument’ of the social movements, thus accepting the electoral and representative components of democracy but subordinating these to grassroots participative and deliberative democratic processes. For the MAS, the new constitution, generated through a broad constituent assembly and validated by referendum, is the essential foundation for a refounded state in which political power lies in the hands of the indigenous and popular majority.
For critics, however, the management of the constituent assembly by the MAS was an initial important signal of the limits to change. For them, the demand by the social movements was for a revolutionary Constituent Assembly which would transform economy, state and society, through the ‘organic participation of the main social movement organisations in the formation and execution of the assembly....(whereas) ....’the assembly actually introduced by the MAS government has precluded all such revolutionary and participative elements’ and appeased the eastern bourgeoisie, allowing the right wing opposition to regroup’. In the event though, the hold of the right in the eastern provinces has become less secure, both as a result of in-migration of campesinos supporting the MAS from the Andean highlands, and also because the government has had some success in detaching the economic elite in the east from the separatist political elite. But while the threat from the right to MAS hegemony has thus been neutralised, the elimination of this threat, by removing a key reason for unity within the hegemonic bloc, has created a climate in which sectional interests have been freer to assert themselves.
Behind disputes about the ‘revolutionary’ epoch of 2002-2005 lie different understandings about the social/class composition of the popular movements which brought down the neoliberal regime, and the nature of the demands of these movements. For left critics of the MAS government, the rebellions of this period were a ‘combined liberation struggle in which mass movements of indigenous proletarians and peasants’ fought ‘an anti-capitalist and indigenous-liberationist liberation struggle’ For others however, the organisations of indigenous people ‘do not think of themselves as left wing, but as indigenous and pro-decolonisation’, a ‘plebeian culture’ rooted in an only partially industrialised society. A related issue is the nature of popular participation in the activism of the social movements in the 2002-5 period. There is some evidence that, in El Alto, at the core of activism, popular participation was a mixture of willing involvement and a degree of authoritarian coercion by the leadership of the social movements, questioning any assumption of a fully cohesive and revolutionary ‘base’ betrayed by the MAS party elite.
Since the ratification of the constitution, questions about the ‘refounded’ state and its role in the MAS project have multiplied. What is meant by a plurinational state? What is the relationship between the state and the social movements, between electoral and representative democracy, and between deepening democracy and strengthening the state? These are key questions in relation to the MAS’s hegemonic project and bloc.
The constitution replaces the previous unitary state by a new plurinational state which institutes not only municipal, departmental and regional autonomies but also indigenous autonomy, so that ‘election of local authorities would be permitted on the basis of customary norms, and a communitarian justice within the “native indigenous peasant” juridical framework would be introduced’ The constitution thus recognises the cultures and traditions of the various indigenous ‘nations’ of Bolivia. This is a major step towards cementing the position of the indigenous population as the core of the hegemonic bloc.
However, not only are there questions about how geographical autonomies will mesh in practice with indigenous ones, but also about how ‘plurinational’ the constitution actually is. For some, neo-colonialism is still entrenched in the state, and the constitution does little more than include an element of indigenism within a more conventional state form. Genuine plurinationalism, he suggests, would involve ‘a complex unity of different peoples, nations, actors, logics and practices of social and economic life and organisation’. It would embody multiple versions of seeing the world, ‘a space-time of multiple manners of being, seeing and living in the world’. Further, what the new constitution actually establishes may actually be a more fully liberal state, with a veneer of multiculturalism, especially in relation to equality of opportunities. The close and enduring links between Bolivian state personnel and transnational capital lend substance to the argument that the Bolivian state remains essentially a capitalist state.
Entwined with the above issues are questions of the relationships between the state, the MAS government and the social movements, and between electoralist and direct or participatory democracy. It is widely argued by those to the left of the government that since 2005 there has been a ‘decline in the self-organisation and activity of the popular classes/indigenous in the wake of Morales’ victory. The MAS .....originated as a cocalero anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal indigenous peasant movement, structured on assembly-style rank and file democracy, extra-parliamentary activism (but has) since 2002 however prioritised electoral politics ...(and).....is increasingly influenced by urban mestizo middle class intelligentsia in upper leadership layers, (and) courts the urban middle class vote’. Similarly, ‘the Bolivian government has effectively ignored or denigrated the logic and form of communitarian-popular politics – the very force that brought Morales to power in the first place – while privileging traditional forms of representation and participation’. From this perspective, radical social and economic goals have been subordinated to the construction of a national-popular bloc, with indigenous centrality but under party control, in order to carry out reforms from above: the more or less explicit goal is to integrate some of the cadre and leadership of the movements into the party-state nexus. ‘Morales and the MAS have ruled over movements and have attempted to substitute for them and, when necessary, to confine their mobilisation within the tightest of officially sanctioned channels’.
These arguments are of course contested by the government and its supporters, but such ongoing tensions between the party and social movements highlight the difficult choices for the MAS between widening the hegemonic bloc and responding to its core base. One suggestion is that, rather than the concept of the MAS as the instrument of the social movements, we should think of a pact between them, a pact which is increasingly under strain as different social interests and organisations within the hegemonic bloc assert their own sectional/corporate interests. What is clear here is the commitment of the MAS government to a strong state. What is at issue is whether this implies an authoritarian, integral state rather than a state of the social movements.
The tensions are not only between the government and the social movements, but also between and within social movements and the indigenous population and its organisations. The rhetoric of vivir bien brings a danger of idealising a communal, egalitarian traditional indigenous society living in harmony with nature in contrast to modern, Western individualism and consumerism. This is particularly problematic in the context of the rapidly changing class composition of Bolivia, and the contradiction between rapid urbanisation processes and the formation of an Aymara bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the dominant position of rural/campesino interests and values in the government. Growing conflicts, exacerbated by the TIPNIS dispute, are apparent between campesinos from the highlands in the eastern lowlands, and the ‘original indigenous’ lowland tribes. These tensions also exhibit themselves over land reform, where many of the former are pressing for individual titles while the latter want communal ownership.
Such conflicts undermine the cohesiveness of the hegemonic bloc and indicate the real danger of passive revolution: the fragmentation of the hegemonic bloc, the disintegration of a radical hegemonic project, and confirmation of the views of those on both right and left that the MAS government provides a more sustainable context for capital than the foregoing neoliberal regimes, albeit an ‘Andean capitalism’ with a new indigenous bourgeoisie and middle class.
In this conjuncture, the question of the state is becoming central. Critiques of the growing ‘statism’ of the MAS call to mind Gramsci’s conception of an ‘integral state’ in which an increasingly coercive state dominates civil society. Such a statisation of civil society stands in opposition to the radical vision of the MAS as the ‘political instrument’ of the social movements, and its occupation of the state on behalf of the social movements – ‘integral civil society’ perhaps. The realisation of this vision will depend on an active dialectic between state and social movements. The period in which the social movements led the process of change has given way to one in which the leadership has passed to the MAS government. We must surely hope for a continuing alternation between these two ‘moments’.
Mike Geddes is an Associate in the School of Comparative American Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, UK
 This blog is derived from a longer article: Mike Geddes (2014): The old is dying but the new is struggling to be born:hegemonic contestation in Bolivia, Critical Policy Studies, DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2014.904645.
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