Shawn Blore
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Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

Shawn Blore
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706

The Globe and Mail, Tuesday June 14, June 14, 2005, Page A17


By Shawn Blore | The Globe and Mail

EL ALTO, BOLIVIA– - With a fragile truce declared in the protests after the inauguration of new President Eduardo Rodriguez, life in the poor Bolivian city of El Alto has begun an uneasy return to normality.

In the Plaza of Christ, near the commercial district, a crowd assembled on Sunday to witness one of the first weddings in weeks. Bride and groom emerged from the church covered in confetti, then set off at the head of the traditional procession around the square.

It was just a few hundred metres away, in the offices of Bolivian radio station San Gabriel, that Mr. Rodriguez performed his first public act by holding a meeting with the leaders of the El Alto protest movement. That the President chose to meet with the protest leaders before even choosing a cabinet is telling -- that he drove up to El Alto from the capital even more so.

In the latest round of protests to rock Bolivia, this city of 750,000 has established itself as a power to be reckoned with. Located on the fringes of La Paz, on the cold high Altiplano, El Alto is inhabited by the poor and by the indigenous Aymara and Quechua Indians, who make up a majority of Bolivia's population.

The city has been the wellspring and stronghold of the protests that brought down former Bolivian president Carlos Mesa, then forced the two men next in the line of succession to renounce the presidency, paving the way for the chief justice of the supreme court, Mr. Rodriguez, to take up the office as interim President. Though poor and cold and windswept, El Alto is also strategically located. The road to the La Paz airport runs through El Alto, as does one of only two highways linking the capital with the rest of the country.

During three straight weeks of protest, blockades set up in El Alto cut off supplies of food and gasoline to the capital. But the protests took their toll on residents as well.

On a street corner near a small park, where children were playing on the swings, Maria Quispimilan sat in a ruffled skirt and brown bowler hat by an empty canister of cooking gas. Hers was one of about 200, one behind the other, in a long line of canisters that snaked down the street and around a corner. It's been two weeks since she had cooking gas in her home.

"It's so difficult," Ms. Quispimilan said. "The stove doesn't work without gas. There's no heat, no gas to cook. I'm tired of all this. There's no meat, no potatoes. There aren't even any vegetables."

Leaders of the protest movement have been talking of resuming the rallies and blockades in order to force the government to accede to their demands for the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas sector.

"The leaders want to negotiate with the government," said Celia Cordoba, another of the women lined up for gas canisters.

"But they don't need to cut the people off. Anyone who knows wars knows you don't cut off food to the people, you don't cut off gas. Nowhere in the world do you see this, except here in El Alto."

Edgar Patana, director of COR, the regional labour union of EL Alto, emerged from his meeting with the President to say Mr. Rodriguez had refused their demands for the nationalization of Bolivia's oil and gas and had offered nothing but the promise of new elections.

Mr. Patana called for renewed protests, starting this morning with a mass rally in front of the congress building in La Paz.

Others in the El Alto leadership seemed to be having second thoughts on a new round of protests. At the meeting, Mr. Rodriguez offered to continue discussions with the protest movements in a series of round-table discussions.

Mr. Patana, however, was not willing to consider the possibility that El Alto's residents had had enough. "The population of El Alto is very brave in their movements and they are never too tired to march the streets," he said.

Elsewhere in El Alto, Ms. Quispimilan still hadn't managed to trade her empty metal cylinder of gas for a new, full one. She faced yet more evenings with no heat. She didn't plan to make it to this morning's protest, or any other protest, any time soon.

Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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