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Cablegate: El Alto: Young, Poor, and a Political Force

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DE RUEHLP #0696/01 0721944
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 131944Z MAR 07
FM AMEMBASSY LA PAZ
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2813
INFO RUEHAC/AMEMBASSY ASUNCION 6628
RUEHBO/AMEMBASSY BOGOTA 3948
RUEHBR/AMEMBASSY BRASILIA 7836
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RUMIAAA/USCINCSO MIAMI FL
RUEHUB/USINT HAVANA 0211
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC
RHMFIUU/HQ USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL

UNCLAS LA PAZ 000696

SIPDIS

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL ECON BL
SUBJECT: EL ALTO: YOUNG, POOR, AND A POLITICAL FORCE

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Summary
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1. (SBU) El Alto, Bolivia's fastest growing and second
largest city, celebrated its 22nd anniversary March 6. The
average Alteno, as residents of El Alto are called, is young,
poor, indigenous, and a recent migrant to the city. To many
observers, El Alto appears to be the most capitalist city in
Bolivia; over 40 percent of residents are self-employed.
Paradoxically, despite their capitalist exterior, Altenos
form a significant part of President Evo Morales' base; he
enjoys an 80 percent approval rating in El Alto. However,
positive approval ratings do not guarantee that Altenos will
remain tranquil. El Alto's strategic location next to
Bolivia's capital means that its protests can cripple La Paz.
Altenos, encouraged by local radical organizations, forced
President Carlos Mesa to resign in June 2005 despite a
greater than 50 percent approval rating. President Morales
recognizes that he cannot take the city for granted, so he
visits El Alto frequently and is quick to offer government
handouts, such as the USD $50 million package he unveiled
March 3. Morales and El Alto appear to have entered into an
unspoken contract; Morales must periodically deliver much
needed services and in exchange Altenos promise their
support. This cable is the first in a series that will
highlight the challenges facing El Alto as well as its
importance to Bolivian politics. End Summary.

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El Alto Demographics 101
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2. (U) El Alto, Bolivia's fastest growing city (with its
population exploding by 30 percent since 2000), celebrated
its 22nd anniversary March 6. El Alto has surpassed its
neighbor, the capital La Paz, as Bolivia's second largest
city with over 860,000 inhabitants. Altenos are primarily
indigenous. Over 75 percent consider themselves Aymara; five
to seven percent self-identify as Quechua. Over 60 percent
of residents are under 25; the average age is 22. Many older
Altenos are ex-miners who moved to El Alto after the GOB
closed state-run mines in the 1980,s.

3. (SBU) Per the 2001 census, over 70 percent of Altenos are
poor. More than 50 percent suffer from inadequate access to
potable water, sewage, electricity, and health services. The
city currently only has three hospitals. A police presence
is also seriously lacking. Poloff recently visited the
city's only detective squad, which consists of less than 30
investigators and solves only very rarely any crimes. Not
surprisingly, Altenos often resort to vigilantism to resolve
differences. The city's tremendous growth, tiny tax base,
bureaucratic inefficiency, and corruption contribute to the
dearth of services. Coupled with the municipal government's
inability to cope with the city's runaway growth, previous
GOBs traditionally neglected El Alto. Altenos, rightly or
wrongly, view racism as the principal cause of this neglect.

---------------------
El Alto Economics 101
---------------------

4. (SBU) To the outsider, El Alto appears to be the most
capitalist city in Bolivia. Over 40 percent of Altenos are
self-employed. Many work informally as small merchants, and
indeed free market competition in El Alto is so severe that
it undercuts faith in capitalism. The constant influx of
people and foreign products to El Alto results in fierce
price competition. Price deflation is a common complaint
amongst older vendors, who state they work longer hours for
less money because of the ever-increasing supply of sellers.

5. (U) Strategically located next to the capital, El Alto is
home to La Paz's airport and is the transit point for all but
one of the major highway's linking La Paz to the rest of
Bolivia. While officially divided into nine districts, the
city consists of 550 plus neighborhoods, each with its own
neighborhood association. Most neighborhoods have sprung up
without municipal government approval, so a neighborhood
association's primary role is to pressure the municipality to
provide access to services. Association leadership is
generally leftist and radical, and leaders function as
old-style "ward bosses." Membership in neighborhood
associations is obligatory, as is following the leadership's
orders. Since the municipal government lacks authority in
many areas, the FEJUVE (Federation of Neighborhood
Associations) exerts significant control over citizens.

--------------------------------------------- -------------
El Alto in National Politics: A Focal Point for Resistance
--------------------------------------------- -------------

6. (SBU) Paradoxically and despite the fiercely capitalist
tone of economic life, Altenos form a significant part of Evo
Morales' base. He enjoys 80 percent (or higher) approval
ratings in El Alto. (Note: Some argue that Morales' 80
percent support is not a coincidence given the city is 80
percent indigenous and that Morales has locked up the
indigenous vote. End Note). Many of El Alto's self-employed
used to work for state-run companies that were privatized in
the 1980s and 1990s; Morales' nationalization policy is
popular because workers remember the steady wages and
benefits of state-run companies, and contrast this "golden
age" with the fierce competition and declining living
standards of El Alto's free market system.

7. (SBU) El Alto is often the focal point for resistance to
the GOB. Positive approval ratings in El Alto do not ensure
a president's ability to maintain order there. El Alto's
strategic location means that well-organized demonstrations
can completely cut off the capital. Leftist organizations
like the FEJUVE and the El Alto chapter of the Central Obrera
Boliviana (COB) frequently urge their followers to protest
against and encircle the GOB. Altenos were protagonists in
the 2003 and 2005 protests that toppled presidents Gonzalo
Sanchez de Lozada and his successor Carlos Mesa. President
Mesa resigned in June 2005 despite a higher than 50 percent
approval rating.

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Comment
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8. (SBU) Having himself led Altenos to protest and oust
previous governments, Morales does not take the city for
granted. Morales and El Alto appear to have entered into an
unspoken contract; Morales must periodically deliver
services, like his March 3 plan to invest close to USD $50
million in El Alto. (USD $25 million is slated for home gas
hook-ups; USD $10 million for sewage improvements; and an
additional USD $5 million for expanded access to potable
water). In return, Altenos give Morales their support.

9. (SBU) A recent poll identified El Alto as the "least happy
city in the southern cone." Given the political pressure El
Alto can wield, we can expect to Morales to continue to look
after its interests. As El Alto's municipal council
president stated March 3, "El Alto has been, and will be the
vanguard, the support and the base of all the changes you are
leading, and we will respond if necessary to defend these
changes . . ." With that in mind, Morales has also proposed
reducing the voting age to 16. Given the city's young
population, this could translate into tens of thousands of
additional Altenos voting for Morales and his MAS party in
future elections. End Comment.
GOLDBERG

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