El Alto, a cliff-top city of a million people living 4,150m above sea level, showcases the complexities of modern Bolivia. Here, campesinos, salesmen and fortune tellers share a dusty sprawl of half-built brick towers, futuristic cable cars, gaudy pleasure palaces and ramshackle markets with self-taught artists, political radicals and technological experts. The resulting tensions have already toppled one government, are defying another, and will define the future of a country that was once a byword for poverty and isolation.
Stepping inside from the blinding sunshine of the traffic-clogged street, I don’t immediately register the treasures of the Salón de Eventos Príncipe Alexander. Chairs are upended on tables; polystyrene leaks from a door lintel. Then, after some fussing with a fusebox, Alejandro Chino Quispe flicks the function room into life.
“Forty chandeliers imported from China,” he boasts. “These things make it stand out from any other place in Bolivia.” The ponderous crystalline constructions, flashing scarlet, now turquoise, aren’t the only distinctive feature. “There are other big venues perhaps, but they don’t have the finishing on the columns, the bridal bedroom, the three-phase, high-ampere current, various bathrooms, the anti-slip ceramic floor of Spanish manufacture and imported marble,” Chino adds. The main reception area of the Príncipe Alexander is an Aladdin’s cave of Moorish, lime-green columns propping up a cavernous ceiling liberally flecked with LEDs among the squid-like chandeliers. An undulating, Asiatic mezzanine encircles the central dance floor, its walls decorated with Andean folkloric scenes. The overall effect is a sustained retinal bombardment. Then there are the shopping galleries below, the synthetic pitch for indoor football above and the Chino family’s living quarters on the fifth and six floors. “This venue, to be sincere, doesn’t have competition,” the 58-yearold entrepreneur concludes with a flash of the golden grill that ornaments his front teeth.
The residents of El Alto seem to agree. As many as 1,000 inhabitants of this mountaintop metropolis have been known to pack into the venue at a time for weddings, birthdays and work parties. The clients, Chino explains, are “generally people from the middle classes dedicated to commerce”. Much of their wealth comes from importing products such as cars, televisions, computers and clothing from China and Japan. “These people have money and they want to throw parties,” he continues. “El Alto is a young city. Anyone who invests in El Alto — be it a factory, a hotel, or a salon like this — will always win big because the population is growing. It’s a city of entrepreneurs.”
The Príncipe Alexander is perhaps the most striking iteration of a bold style of architecture that has come to reflect El Alto’s hybrid identity. For much of the 20th century, El Alto was a low clutch of squat, brick buildings. In the last 30 years, the brick towers have gone skywards. Both in El Alto and in La Paz in the basin below, architects began to experiment, breaking with the bricks-and-mortar minimalism and baroque formalism that had respectively characterised each city. First, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, came ornate, brightly coloured structures added to the top floors of buildings. Reminiscent of the offspring of a Transformer and a Tyrolean ski lodge, these served as living spaces for self-made businessmen. The ostentatious apartments, and the style that produced them, are often known as “cholets” — a portmanteau of “chalet” and “cholo”, a historically loaded name for the mestizo (mixed-race) population. Subsequently, over the past decade or so, the cholet has crept down from these top floors. Now, entire buildings in El Alto and further afield have become dazzling edifices of darkened glass, chrome and lurid acrylic panelling.
The transformation was spearheaded by the El Alto-based architect Freddy Mamani. Born in the village of Catavi, he moved to El Alto 13 years later and grew up around construction sites, working as a bricklayer and foreman’s assistant before studying civil engineering at the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés’ (UMSA) in La Paz. As an architect, Mamani has become the most in-demand interpreter of the “cholet” trend. He tends to use the term sparingly, however, favouring “la nueva arquitectura Andina” instead — “the New Andean Architecture”. Mamani built the Príncipe Alexander in this style between 2011 and 2014 after being commissioned by Chino, but the style is not confined to Bolivia. Wherever clusters of wealthy Bolivians go, especially those from the western, Andean half of the country, examples are springing up — in places such as Lima, Buenos Aires and São Paulo. As the nation’s burgeoning economy — powered by exports of its plentiful minerals and natural gas — enters a second decade of growth, and its wealthiest citizens settle abroad, it seems likely the New Andean Architecture will soon be seen in Washington D.C. and New York.
“I worked while studying to support myself at college and later at university,” Mamani tells me over the phone. “I worked as a craftsman for a few years after I graduated, too. It was then that I began to innovate in the architecture that I was making.” He is taking the call from the southern mining city of Potosí, where he is building a hotel and a separate salón de fiesta with the same characteristics as the Príncipe Alexander. “We have projects not only all over the country but also abroad,” he explains. “I’m working on a project for an exhibition later this year in Paris.” But despite this growing international profile, Mamani has shunned the idea of becoming an office-bound architect. Constantly on the move, he prefers to supervise his various projects in person. This approach reflects his vocational training, but it also speaks of the resourceful, highly mobile and entrepreneurial character of contemporary Bolivian society.
Bolivia’s economy has grown the fastest out of all South American countries in the last 10 years. For the past few decades, migrants from across the 11 million-strong landlocked Andean-Amazonian nation have poured into El Alto — and into the adjacent and de facto capital, La Paz — in search of a slice of the combined metropolitan area’s huge market for services, or in order to multiply riches made elsewhere, often in mining, small business and the black market. This trend makes El Alto probably the youngest and fastest-growing city in Bolivia — more than 60 per cent of its inhabitants are aged 28 or under, according to census data. With one million residents already, El Alto welcomes around 10,000 additional residents every year, if not more. Above all, migrants come from the indigenous peoples of the Bolivian highlands, with many hailing from agricultural and fishing communities along the shores of Lake Titicaca and the hardscrabble-mining towns around Oruro and Potosí.
Since president Evo Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) government came to power in 2006, the flow of people into El Alto from other parts of the country has turned into a torrent.
Morales showered the impoverished indigenous majority with social spending paid for by the buoyant prices of Bolivia’s oil and natural-gas exports. Between 2000 and 2016, the nation’s GDP expanded by an annual average of 4.3 per cent, without a single year of stagnation or recession.
In the 20 years prior to Morales’s succession, by contrast, the Bolivian economy grew by a meagre average of 1.9 per cent annually, and was hit by a collapse in tin prices, political volatility and hyperinflation. In the 1980s, it shrank for five consecutive years.
Some of the recent growth has come from agriculture, which contributes 14 per cent of GDP and around 10 per cent of exports, especially from the agro-industrial soybean cultivation concentrated in the eastern half of the country. But despite the self-proclaimed environmentalism of MAS, and Bolivia’s adherence to the Paris Climate Accord, the Morales administration has doubled down on a model that sees most growth coming from hydrocarbons (nearly 20 per cent of its GDP and 29 per cent of its exports), mining (13 per cent and 28 per cent, respectively), and services, which make up a huge 53 per cent of the economy, reflecting the country’s millions of small businesses and self-employed workers.
The wealth generated by these industries has funded a massive expansion of social service across the country — notably literacy, health and housebuilding programmes — but also infrastructural developments. Along with the arrival of the internet and smartphones, such initiatives have linked isolated rural areas with the rest of the region, internally fragmenting small communities at the moment of externally connecting them. Wealthier, more mobile citizens have been drawn to places like El Alto amid a general move away from self-sufficient agriculture as the primary means of subsistence. These newly wealthy middle classes have since transformed what was, only 50 years ago, little more than a clutch of huts, fields and an airstrip. “There’s a lot to do in El Alto,” says Mamani. “A lot of innovations, a lot of opportunities; it’s a very young city with a lot of basic needs. I remember how the city used to be very, very small and now it’s growing in a huge way.” Chino concurs: “It’s going to grow a lot more. This venue is the front line: this will be the centre of El Alto.”
Join the throngs of students, housekeepers, restaurant workers and street sellers queuing up outside a cable-car station, part of a network founded in 2014 to link the wealthier centre of La Paz with the residential urban sprawl surrounding it. Take the red line and exhale as the car sags over the drop below. The air is marginally thicker and easier to breathe with every metre you descend, and the view is breathtaking. A sea of corrugated rooftops and miniature terraces is visible through the glass, the snow of Huayna Potosí glints in the sun off to the left, and the tricorne peaks of Illimani are shrouded in fog ahead.
Down in La Paz, in the modernist warren of the UMSA architecture school, I meet architecture dean Gastón Gallardo. “In this country, we’ve been living through a very important process since 1952. It’s not just Evo,” he says. Gallardo traces Bolivia’s recent changes back to the revolution, in which armed miners overthrew the army and conservative government, pushing the left-wing administration of Víctor Paz Estenssoro to nationalise the three largest tin-mining companies, break up large agricultural estates and establish universal suffrage (citizens had previously been required to own property and be literate in order to vote). “The 1952 revolution didn’t build a new country, but it took power from the white landowners and a bourgeois, productive sector that owned the mines, and gave power to a new sector of the urban bourgeoisie,” says Gallardo.
This middle class, which often self-identifies as “cholo” or “colla” (although both terms have also been used in official and derogatory contexts), was and is largely mestizo, predominantly drawn from the Aymara (traditionally clustered around Lake Titicaca), Quechua (southern-central Bolivia, around Oruro) and myriad other indigenous groups. Aymara, in particular, is the heritage of roughly 10 per cent of Bolivians and the large majority of the cholo residents of El Alto. One facet of cholo culture is readily visible: the traditional dress worn by women, especially but not exclusively the middleaged and elderly. Consisting of a wide, heavy skirt, several layers of petticoats, a technicolour shawl known as the “awayo” and bowler hats, with each element varying in colour and design according to the region, the costume popularly marks its wearers out as “cholitas”. It was once socially stigmatised by Europeanised élites, but indigenous women are increasingly reclaiming their heritage and entering a range of professional contexts in which they wear the traditional dress with pride.
Bolstered by increasing spending power and social capital in the wake of the 1952 revolution, the cholo middle classes have created both supply and demand for the ballooning black market. Using local knowledge, kinship groups, and cross-border connections with those of the same ethnic group in Peru, Argentina and Chile, cholo entrepreneurs have been able to circumvent a largely ineffectual governmental apparatus to buy, sell and barter without hindrance or tax. “In most countries, the black market is an abstract concept, a kind of phantasm,” says Gallardo. “In Bolivia, the black market had a physical presence; places where you knew to go to buy contraband products from Chile and Peru.” El Alto, poised on the highway towards Peru to the northwest and Chile to the southwest, became the fulcrum of this trade.
By the 1970s, the cultivation of the ancestral plant coca for cocaine manufacture was beginning in earnest. A collapse in the Bolivian economy in the early 1980s and a steep rise in the price of cocaine in the US, saw farmers turn to the lightweight, durable coca plant, which produced four crops a year and was a vital source of US dollars amid hyperinflation. Coca production expanded from 1.63m kg in 1977 to at least 45m kg 10 years later, according to government estimates. While the number of coca farmers rocketed from fewer than 8,000 to in excess of 40,000, the production and trafficking of the final product employed thousands more cholo entrepreneurs as smugglers, manufacturers, security guards, accountants and kingpins. Although there is no suggestion that the future president was involved in the production of cocaine, Morales himself was a coca-leaf grower and trade unionist; he remains a champion of legal coca-leaf production and consumption, having ended previous government efforts to eradicate the crop and having expelled, in 2008, the US Drug Enforcement Administration that oversaw them. “How much of this growth of a new middle class was due to narco-trafficking?” ponders Gallardo. “No-one can really say, but evidently there’s something behind it.”
By the late 1980s, the cholo middle class had expanded rapidly, spreading from the traditional rural heartlands to new urban centres. El Alto emerged as their financial, economic and soon-to-be cultural centre. By the 1980s, “there was hardly a formal economy left,” says Gallardo. “Eighty per cent of the Bolivian economy is the black market and it’s in the hands of this group.” But the upwardly mobile cholos of La Paz and El Alto were not content with flexing their newfound economic muscles. They also wanted to express their cultural weight.
One way of doing this, Gallardo explains, was in the adaptation and relocation of dances and fiestas. These had traditionally been confined to individual neighbourhoods on the outskirts of La Paz; local affairs largely ignored by the broader population and the metropolitan élites. “From the 1970s, the fiesta begins to invade the city,” explains Gallardo. “They expand and become urban, and the collas [cholos] begin to express their economic power through marches, costumes and jewellery.” It is here that entrepreneurs such as Chino come into the picture. Having worked from the age of eight in a tailor’s shop and opened his own workshop at the age of 23, Chino realised that the biggest business was marching down the street in front of him. “Around 60 fraternities dance in the Fiesta del Gran Poder, each of which has 400 people,” he explains. The fraternities are social and professional collectives that take part in festivals throughout the year, including the Fiesta del Gran Poder, which features carnival-style marches involving 30,000 dancers, dancing and heavy drinking, and a syncretic mix of indigenous and Catholic belief systems. “So I started to dance in the carnival, with the motive of marketing, right? I dance, I sign contracts, I pass out cards and fabrics — that’s where I found the most clients.”
Well-off dancers, however, were no longer content with stamping in the street or in draughty municipal halls. Here, too, Chino was ready to meet the demand, commissioning Mamani to build the monolithic Príncipe Alexander. “Architecture is simply an expression of this social group that wants an expression other than dance and fiesta,” says Gallardo. “Building is the physical demonstration of their economic power.” Some see the cholets — and other social, political and cultural manifestations of this new Bolivia — as a harmonious blend of the old and new; the indigenous, communal and rural with the modern, individualistic and urban.
But one might argue that there are parallels with how Morales’s political programme seeks to reconcile contemporary technologies and statecraft with the indigenous heritage in the creation of a modern, internationally engaged Plurinational State of Bolivia (the name the country officially goes by since Morales’s wholesale constitutional reform, passed in 2009). “Today is a historic day,” Morales, garbed in a golden tunic and bearing a sceptre, told onlookers at his third inauguration in 2015 amid the ruins of the ancient city of Tiwanaku. “We hereby reaffirm our identity and our democratic and cultural revolution. We are living in the time of Pachakuti,” he added, referring to an indigenous Andean concept associated with equilibrium and justice. Ruling out a “romantic return to the past”, he nevertheless insisted that Bolivia’s new indigenous state would “govern while respecting our Pachamama [Mother Earth] and awakening communal energy”.
Meanwhile, successive MAS administrations have courted ever-greater investment and development of the oil and natural-gas industries, pushed ahead with lithium extraction (and its exorbitant water usage), and broken a promise not to build a highway through the Tipnis indigenous reserve. By a similar token, Mamani claims that his work restores and re-emphasises Bolivia’s unique Andean character after centuries of neglect. “For me, it’s very important to bring forward our culture and roots, showing and re-vindicating our identity through architecture,” he says.
Yet it would be a mistake to consider Mamani’s work — and the sweeping changes overseen by Morales — as simple resuscitations of ancient history. Rather, both borrow, reimagine and repurpose elements of the past. The result is often something that is just as much new and discordant as it is age-old and familiar. Gallardo questions whether Mamani’s practice corresponds directly with traditional design and identity. “Freddy Mamani has become the standard-bearer for this kind of work,” says Gallardo. “He claims to have rescued the ancestral. But if you look at the work, you don’t see anything of that.” The colours are new, Gallardo suggests: not the earthen hues of traditional Andean weaving and awayos, but violent, psychedelic acrylics.
And Gallardo, in common with much of the academic architectural community in Bolivia, believes that the New Andean Architecture has “very little architectural worth” in terms of its formal or aesthetic properties. Gallardo would personally prefer to live in a house by Italy’s Renzo Piano or Bolivia’s Carlos Villagómez — architects, he suggests, “with Western training who do rescue the regional, the local, the material”. There are elements of classist gatekeeping, some have argued, in this reluctance to admit the work of Mamani and others into the canon. “I’ll be honest,” says Mamani. “On the part of society, I’ve been very much accepted because, up until now, it hasn’t been reflected by architects. Perhaps that’s what annoys the academics and the architects who mainly bring back a copy of what they’ve learned abroad and apply it here.”
In an officially plurinational society, Mamani acknowledges that not everyone will appreciate his work. But he feels that much of the criticism, based on a specific conception of architecture as a pure matter of aesthetics, ignores the essential issue. “From my personal point of view, and as someone who shares a background with my clients, we’re making an architecture that has a new kind of functionality. [It’s not designed] according to their concepts.”
Despite his quibbles about colour schemes and aesthetic worth, Gallardo is also an exponent of the symbolic and cultural role played by the New Andean Architecture. He views it as an expression of a subversive tradition of the grotesque in modern Bolivian arts, which has sought to overturn the baroque formalism imposed by Spanish colonisation, and the later predominance of European artistic fashions. The architecture practiced by Mamani and others, he concedes, is part of a “decolonisation of the symbolic order”. It resists the passive role of a mere receptor of aesthetic categories imposed by those trained in the Western tradition “and assumes the active process of social construction. We’re seeing modifications that don’t have to do with the ancestral, but rather with the new construction of identity.”
This new, urban, cholo identity manifests itself in other artistic and social contexts, and the physical and social environment of El Alto has begun to shape its residents. Weaving through the money changers, street entertainers and backpackers of central La Paz, I meet Eber Miranda, sitting beneath the baroque mestizo portico of the San Francisco Basilica, the city’s oldest church. He wears a baseball cap and carries a satchel with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s image on it. But, he explains, “that’s just a style thing. We’re not really into communism these days. People are more about getting on and making money.”
We’re joined by Santino Davero, similarly dressed in street clothes and a camouflage bandana, and wade out into the traffic. Miranda and Davero, along with Tawit Lipan, are the founding members of Nación Rap, an El Alto-based hip-hop collective that combines old-school rap with lyrics in Aymara, Quechua, Spanish and English. “We want to appeal to people’s social consciences and fight for the rights of the poorest,” says Davero.
But as Miranda’s stance on Guevara suggests, this is as much an individualistic or consumerist fight as it is a collective one: seizing the freedom to pick your own clothes, choose your own values, listen to the music you like, and disobey both traditional authorities and unpopular politicians. “We want to show that hip-hop can be a tool of personal, spiritual liberation,” says Davero.
Davero, Miranda and I wind our way up towards La Ceja, the abrupt cliff-edge where La Paz ends and El Alto begins. Near the lip of La Ceja is a reminder of El Alto’s spirit of resistance: a plaque commemorating the dozens of civilians killed and hundreds wounded during the Guerra del Gas, of 2003, the majority of them residents of El Alto. The right-wing government of then-president Gonzalo ‘Goni’ Sánchez de Lozada planned to export newly found reserves of natural gas from southern Bolivia to Mexico and the US via Chile. Many were incensed by the decision to build a pipeline benefitting Chile. The former country annexed all of Bolivia’s coastline and much of its mineral resources in the late-19th century. Some citizens still resent their wealthier neighbours as a result and Bolivia is suing Chile at the International Court of Justice to regain part of its former shoreline.
But perhaps just as many were enraged by the arrogant attitude of the Goni administration. Defending his controversial decision on national TV, Goni intoned: “I am the state.” The new urban classes disagreed. They decried the government’s insistence that private companies should handle the gas exports with minimal public profit, demanding that the price of fuel should come down for regular Bolivians — and even that the country’s oil and gas should be nationalised (as the Morales government would later do).
The result was several weeks of strikes, protests and nationwide sit-ins, with El Alto proving the epicentre of the resistance. In the face of mass deployments of police and soldiers, some protesters took up stones, sticks and homemade firework launchers. In October 2003, security forces gunned down dozens of protesters. A five-year-old boy was shot by police stationed on the footbridge crossing the highway at La Ceja. The protests became overwhelming, and Goni resigned and fled to the US, where he finally faced a human rights trial in US civil court in March 2018.
For the members of Nación Rap, the conflict was a foundational experience — a moment when El Alto defied the Bolivian state and discovered its own strength. We stop just before the footbridge and Nación Rap’s final member Lipan, with long, black hair and a basketball jersey, squeezes into the back of the car. A short while later, we’re deposited in the middle of the Feria 16 de Julio, a hectic urban market. Piles of used car parts and clothing at one end give way to small tarpaulin enclosures where cholitas in bowler hats and shawls crouch over plates of fried chicken and noodles. Other stalls sell flash drives with pirated DVDs and MP3 tracks. Knots of men in leather jackets congregate around hucksters flogging plant-based Viagra pills.
Nación Rap’s influences are similarly diverse. Part Andean, part Hollywood, part East Coast, they call to mind the hybrid styles evident in the New Andean Architecture. They also reflect the political and social concerns of the Alteños. “We have a mix of inspirations,” says Miranda. “I really like Cypress Hill and Biggie Smalls. Will Smith also has some great music.” Closer to home, the group is inspired by the figure of Túpac Katari, an 18th-century rebel who besieged La Paz with a huge indigenous army camped around El Alto and nearly starved the colonial Spanish government into submission. Both Túpac Katari and a contemporary rebel, Túpac Amaru of Peru, were defeated, tortured and executed, but Katari in particular inspired a form of radical Aymara environmentalism, Katarismo, which emerged in the latter half of the 20th century as a series of guerrilla groups; today, it is a political movement.The legacies of Katari and of the more recent Gas War have fused to create El Alto’s common epithet — “ciudad rebelde”, or “rebel city”.
Walking past the rows of yatiris, we come to a small, hidden patch of grass, home to a pair of fibreglass statues of Katari and his wife, Bartolina Sisa, pointing severely out over the city. “I sometimes like to come here for the solitude,” says Lipan. “It’s quiet, and best of all, there’s no phone signal, so you don’t get anyone WhatsApping you.” I try to follow the trans-continental, trans-generational loop in my head: Túpac Amaru inspired Túpac Katari; they both inspired the name of Tupac Shakur, whose West Coast style in turn inspires Nación Rap, who sometimes come to sit beneath a statue of Túpac Katari.
Despite their re-vindication of elements of their Aymara heritage, Nación Rap speak to a sense of identity rather different from the jingoistic indigenism of Morales’s administration. Their lyrics also reflect the growing frustration of Alteños who find public services and politicians’ competence lagging behind the aspirations, size and status of their city. Such differences are becoming more pronounced as corruption scandals abound and Morales attempts to run for a fourth term in 2019: the constitutional court recently scrapped term limits, meaning that he could stay in power until 2025 and beyond. In ‘Pueblo’, Davero raps in front of a pro-Morales tag on a wall: “People are suffering, it’s not a game / like with big governments with grand projects / made up of thieving politicians with no balls / I’ve got no income, you ignored me a million times / now you come to ask for my vote / talking about shit.” Poverty rates in El Alto remain high: 36 per cent of the population are defined as poor under the terms of the 2012 government census, which links poverty to a lack of basic services such as drinking water and sewerage, even though the figure is down from 67 per cent in 2001.
The police have a minimal presence in the city and are deeply distrusted. “No-one reports crimes to the police,” says Miranda. “They’d just take the criminal to the station, ask for a bribe and let him go.” Instead, locals are known to take justice into their own hands. Mannequins made of stuffed pillowcases dangle by their necks from street corners as a message: this is what happens to thieves. Other (suspected) robbers have been burned alive in recent years. To cross the city today is a laborious process. This is due not just to potholed dirt roads and the absence of traffic lights, but also to the need to constantly double back and weave around protests — often taking place to demand the expansion of running water or other services into new neighbourhoods.
Yet for all these everyday local priorities — water, sewerage and safety — the identity of El Alto is increasingly international and outward-looking. While most homes remain offline — only 5.1 per cent of households had internet access on their computers, according to a 2012 census — more than 84 per cent of residents have radios, 81 per cent have televisions, and 78 per cent have landlines or mobile phones, the data packages on which are used to download media from around the planet. While the number of Alteños living abroad is unknown, residents such as Chino speak proudly of relatives in places like Brazil, Peru and Japan.
The cholo identity, moreover, doesn’t map neatly onto the narrowly defined version of Bolivian values and geography that the MAS government, however pluralistic in theory, espouses. Roger Chambi, 28, is a leading member of the radical Katarismo-inspired Aymara discussion group Colectivo Curva, which meets regularly in El Alto and hosts its own radio show. For him, the attempt to sue Chile to get it to return part of Bolivia’s coastal territory doesn’t accord with his understanding of his identity. “The government uses the maritime demand against Chile as a political tool,” says Chambi,“but for us Kataristas and many other Aymara, we still feel part of the broader Aymara people who are also found in northern Chile. So we don’t feel the [historical] loss of access to the sea, which was only a loss for the post-colonial Bolivian state.”
At the far southwestern edge of El Alto is Amachuna, a desolate, lunar landscape of crumbling clay. This is home to a new site which is knitting the disparate shards of Bolivian identity together. From the Amachuna satellite station, the Bolivian Space Agency (ABE) controls the country’s first satellite, orbiting at 36,000km and beaming television, radio, telephone and internet connectivity to households nationwide. Launched in 2013 from China, and built and financed by a $300m loan from the People’s Republic, the satellite bore the name Túpac Katari I, chosen by Morales. “People have lived in this part of the world for 10,000 years, and they had astronomic knowledge,” says ABE director Iván Zambrana, citing the precise solar orientations of Tiwanaku, a pre-Columbian archaeological site in the west of the country. “So we believe that we’ve never been too far from space.”
The station is a James Bond set on a weekend. A minimalist replica of the Gate of the Sun from Tiwanaku frames the crest of Mount Illimani, which is strikingly close. A handful of radar dishes take aim over the Cordillera Real mountain chain to the north. A pair of stray dogs skip around the compound, while cholitas pull up weeds by hand. ABE’s press director, Williams Balladares, invites me for quinoa stew in the cafeteria. Over the blare of monitors screening telenovelas and the chatter of employees, Balladares explains how Bolivia’s satellite has more than doubled the number of TV channels available — from 10 to 25 — and multiplied the choice of radio frequencies several times over. The service is also cheaper than hiring bandwidth from foreign satellites. “It helps with economic sovereignty and it saves cash,” he chuckles.
We enter the station itself, passing miniature, gilded models of the satellites Bolivia hopes, one day, to build itself. Posters of Morales and Túpac Katari are emblazoned with the rebel’s supposed last words: “I will return as millions.” We drop by the television reception room, the satellite imaging room and the control room, surprising a technician taking a nap in a spare office, before climbing to the roof where we stand buffeted by wind and saturated by ultraviolet radiation. The zinc roofs of El Alto glint off to the left. From this spot, with the support of a second satellite (set to be named Bartolina Sisa after Túpac Katari’s wife and co-rebel) and a nationwide programme to build 15,000 antennae in rural villages, ABE hopes by 2025 to comply with a new tenet of the 2006 constitution: giving all Bolivians access to the internet as a human right.
The project is already proving transformational, says Zambrana. “It’s a huge change in peoples’ quality of life — in their general knowledge, in their wealth, improving access to commerce and information[…] People are taking up smartphones in a massive way and a huge quantity of young people now have social-media accounts.” The transformation is not all positive. “Some fear that this technology is going to accelerate the loss of their native languages, because if a language isn’t on smartphones, it won’t be used. Many will be lost in a few decades,” he admits. But the extension of internet access to the most remote areas is only one of several “modernising” trends, he adds, such as the expansion of credit and the paved-road network. In addition, paradoxically, the leaps forward in domestic-internet technology at El Alto might help to make life in those distant rural villages more viable and attractive, and even stem the flow of urbanisation. “At best, these changes might prompt fewer people to move towards the cities.”
El Alto is a key component of growing opposition to Morales’s rule. In 2015, it elected by a wide margin a young female opposition politician, Soledad Chapetón — known locally as “la Sole” — to be its mayor, overturning a decade of staunch support for Morales. Chapetón won the vote by promising to crack down on stickyfingered public officials: her predecessor, from MAS, is now in prison for corruption. In 2016, she was lucky not to be in her office when an arson attack by a pro-government mob killed six of her staff. Some now talk of Chapetón as a potential successor to Morales; the only politician of any real profile with appeal to the young, indigenous and mestizo classes that increasingly dominate the country.
The issue is becoming urgent. Despite narrowly losing a referendum to scrap term limits in 2016 — in which Alteños swelled the ranks of those voting “no” — Morales is pressing ahead. But his path to perpetual power is complicated by the well-off urban young his own policies have helped to create. “There is a generational question,” admits Valeria Guzmán, 27, Bolivia’s youngest congresswoman and a leading light within MAS. “Kids today who are leaving school at 16 and 17 have practically lived all of their lives with Evo as president. They don’t know the country that existed before.”
She is speaking in the gallery of the ornate national assembly building in La Paz. Below, on the chamber floor, her fellow legislators — more than half of whom are women, and nearly a fifth of whom wear ponchos, jaguar-skin caps and other garments that mark them out as indigenous — debate judicial reforms. There’s a kind of “collective amnesia”, she continues. “People don’t want to talk about what happened 15 years ago, when a president of this country who spoke like a gringo preferred to give orders to shoot Bolivians rather than resolve the structural problems.”
In other words, it is Guzmán’s argument that contemporary Bolivians aren’t sufficiently grateful for what Morales and his party have done — not grateful enough, at least, to let him stay in power forever. But it should come as little surprise that the young, pushy, consumer-citizens of El Alto are keen to move on to the next big thing: in politics as in architecture, the arts and technology.
“El Alto will keep growing,” says Mamani, “But with a more modern vision. People in El Alto migrated from the country to the city not a long time ago,” he explains. Local architects “have since travelled abroad; they’ve learned and they have a better idea of modern materials. But the main objective is not to forget our roots and our identity.” As the city continues to grow in size, wealth and self-confidence, the odds are that El Alto will yield its first president in the next decade or so. More than 200 years after Túpac Katari menaced the genteel baroque spires of the valley below, his cholo descendants will stream down the hillsides to hold victory rallies in the Plaza San Francisco, in constant online communication thanks to a pair of locally controlled Bolivian satellites bearing his and Bartolina’s names.