El Alto: Where Leftism Meets Laissez Faire

Anarchy in the Andes


The New York Times has run a dispatch from El Alto, Bolivia, a former squatter settlement that is now a formally recognized city. The residents there are prone to leftist sympathies and radical anti-government action—and also, reporter William Neuman notes, to unfettered entrepreneurship:


for all its rebellious spirit, El Alto is far from being a typical bastion of the left. It is a hive of commerce, small-scale manufacturing, international trade and contraband.

"Lots of people describe El Alto as a revolutionary city, but it's the capital of capitalism," said Mario Durán, an activist who works to improve Internet access.

Home to about 220,000 residents in 1985, the city swelled as poor farmers and out-of-work miners poured in from the countryside. It is now bigger than La Paz, with an estimated size of well over one million. The population is overwhelmingly Aymara, one of the country's main indigenous groups, and the immigrants have brought with them a fierce work ethic and a laissez-faire zest for business.

The most prominent feature of El Alto is its vast open-air market, which fills mile upon mile of city streets every Sunday and Thursday. Here vendors by the thousands offer a huge array of goods: piles of used T-shirts and other clothing that arrive in bales from the United States; cars, new or used (and sometimes stolen); neatly arranged arms, legs and heads from broken Barbie dolls; electric guitars; mummified baby llamas; pickax handles; and myriad other items. Each week, millions of dollars pour through the market, which operates in an almost total vacuum of government intervention, taxes or regulations.

Residents describe El Alto as a nonstop city financed by immigrant dreams of a better life. Beyond the market, there are thousands of small businesses, including importers, manufacturers and garment shops that make knockoff brand-label clothing. The city seems to be in a constant state of construction, fueled by the commerce and, locals said, by money from Bolivia's drug trade. And there are language academies that give courses in Chinese for El Alto entrepreneurs.

One element of El Alto that Neuman doesn't cover, but which may help explain the mix of a militant protest culture with laissez faire, is the rich network of grassroots, community-controlled institutions that effectively govern El Alto: neighborhood assemblies, independent trade unions, parents' educational associations, the syndicates that own and organize the public markets. Such institutions shape the local economy, and they also allow the city's people to mobilize rapidly against government policies they oppose. As Raúl Zibechi wrote in 2005, El Alto's activism

has been carried out without the existence of centralized, unified structures. Perhaps the fact that the Aymara have never had a State has something to do with it. Nevertheless, the lack of existence of this type of centralized apparatus has not minimized the effectiveness of the movements. In fact, it could be argued that if unified, organized structures had existed, not as much social energy would have been unleashed. The key to this overwhelming grassroots mobilization is, without doubt, the basic self-organization that fills every pore of the society and has made superfluous many forms of representation.