Peoples' movements and protests




Like a dance





by Jan Wiklund



In the early 2000s, the residents of El Alto managed to oust two consecutive Bolivian presidents. Unlike the so-called Arab Spring, the results were lasting and the political climate was much better. Sian Lazar explains why.

The core of her argument is that under the neoliberal programme, the state in Bolivia had relinquished most of its administrative services in society and told people that they had to care for their own interests. Which meant that people had to organise themselves. In El Alto this meant that
- each neighbourhood (of about 10,000 inhabitants) organised a neighbourhood association, or vecindad,
- families with children also organised parent councils around each school, and
- finally, not only wage earners but everyone with any kind of professional work, including itinerant street vendors, were organised in a trade union.

Most people belonged to all the three.

All these organisations were involved in daily negotiations with the authorities and companies and with each other. Since nothing worked, they had to, and for their members it was vital that they negotiated well. Which, as you know, requires the participation of the negotiator's principals.

Around the organisations, street parties were also organised with dancing in the traditional Bolivian way, i.e. a ritual community. You can see what such dancing looks like here. Bodies acting in the same rhythm have an amazing ability to create community and solidarity, which could then be utilised in both negotiations and political actions.

Finally, there was an ingrained suspicion of politicians, which also meant that there was a strong taboo for the organisations' representatives against getting too involved in party politics. Which is a productive approach - as Randy Shaw has noted, the only realistic approach to politicians is intimidation; politicians are first and foremost negotiators between interests, and if you don't keep them on a very tight rein, they will give in to your opponent instead.

Incidentally, the latter point still applies. El Alto helped the MAS to form a government, but the support is not unconditional: in 2021, an independent mayor was elected who better represented the city's citizens towards the state.

Thanks to the dense organisation, it was no match for defeating the government and also gaining the respect of the government that followed.

It remains to apply the lessons learnt in Sweden and otherwhere. The problems may be similar but there is no reason why the solutions need to be identical.



Published by Folkrörelsestudiegruppen: