Evo’s Highway in the Sky

From its perch on Bolivia’s arid altiplano highlands, the vast metropolis of El Alto gazes down on the country’s administrative capital La Paz, in a valley thousands of feet below. No longer a distant mirage, thanks to the lines of the new Teleferico aerial cable cars that snake up the slopes, writes Javier Lafuente in El Pais:

With great difficulty, taking tiny steps and leaning on her granddaughter, Doris succeeds in getting into one of the gondola pods at the Ajayuni station. She sits down on a bench and puts her hands on her black dress. She looks down and observes for a few minutes as they leave behind the immense expanse of the city of La Paz, slopes packed with small homes that dwindle as the car rises to El Alto, where she lives. At some point, she turns her head, looks at her granddaughter, and makes a face that is something like a smile. She speaks through the gleam in her eyes. Her granddaughter confirms the look: “Every time we get in, she is mesmerized.”

The gondola that connects El Alto with La Paz, inaugurated in May, is not only the world’s highest inter-city link, but also Bolivia’s first public transportation system. The project, built by the Australian company Doppelmayr and headed by the Spaniard Javier Telleria, has three lines — two that are already operating and a third that will start up in the coming days. It stretches out over 10,377 meters (6 ½ miles). In all, 9,000 people will be able to ride up and down every hour. The economic boom the country is experiencing has allowed Evo Morales’ administration to dump $235 million into this monumental project, eternally promised by local and national governments since the 1970s.

It is no coincidence that El Evo, as the president popularly known in Bolivia, has invested in improving conditions for the residents of El Alto, a city at 4,000 meters above sea level. El Alto was the scene of the 2003 riots that are known as the Gas War. That upheaval 11 years ago ended the government of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, caused more than 60 deaths, and brought the current administration to power three years later. Since then, in El Alto, which has a greater number of votes than the provinces of Pando, Beni and Tarija — together they add up to 604,727 to El Alto’s 848,500 –, the president has won with 75 percent of the ballots. It is his bastion. These days the wide avenues of the city on the altiplano, many of them still unpaved, are bathed in the blue of the ruling Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party. There are only vestiges of the electoral campaigns of other candidates, if anything an occasional poster for Samuel Doria Medina (Unidad Democratica), the main opposition in the polls, more than 40 points behind Morales.

Richard Chima, the secretary general for the Neighborhood Assemblies Federation (Fejuve), the most notable community organization, celebrates the monumental project. “Transportation had to be improved. It was chaos for El Alto and for La Paz. Mobility is one of the issues that worries us most. It’s a way of changing the system”. A large percentage of El Alto’s citizens work in La Paz. Up until now, the most economic method of travel between the two cities was in small buses, ancient vehicles with the capacity to hold a dozen people that, according to the route, cost just one Bolivian peso (14 U.S. cents). “Beyond the safety issues, we were tired of the traffic jams, of the road blocks on the few highways going into La Paz, of fellow citizens not being able to make it to work on time…”, Chima emphasizes.

The gondola is the latest push in the economic and social evolution of El Alto, a city that lives largely on commerce and has amassed thousands of migrant farmers from neighboring provinces. It currently has more people than La Paz. According to the 2012 census, 848,500 people live in (El Alto), to the 766,500 that are distributed in its southern neighbor, the capital (La Paz). Evo Morales’ rise to power, remembers journalist Mario Roque, the former director of (local newspaper) El Alteño, fostered a boost in public funds. “Different types of projects have been carried out, from putting down cobblestones to asphalting entire avenues. And industry has grown as well. Eleven years ago there were 120 factories, and today there are close to 350,” explains Roque, who is 57 years old. When he got to the city at 15, a pump truck delivered water in his neighborhood. For eight years now he has had basic services, besides cable television and Internet.

The one-story brick buildings start to become anecdotal and give way to gaudy, multi-storied structures with a psychedelic aura that fall into what many consider a new wave of Aymara architecture, the so-called cholets, a mix of chalet and cholo, as the mestizos are known here. Samuel Mendoza, a 50-year-old El Alto resident, recalls that not many years ago in centrally-located neighborhoods like Villa Adela, a plot of land that now can cost between 150,000 and 200,000 Bolivian pesos could be purchased for 500. However, there is still much to improve. There are avenues with a glaring lack of pavement and basic services do not reach 1o of the boroughs. “Evo listened, but 2003’s agenda is not completely done,” warns Chima. Mario Roque paints it in a different light: “El Alto is, in a certain way, the synthesis of the illusion in today’s Bolivia.”

While the economic bonanza continues with high prices on raw materials, Morales has announced he will expand the gondola with five more lines: 19 kilometers and 20 stations. In all, $450 million more so that the eyes of people like Doris will continue to shine.

Javier Lafuente Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard