La Paz, Bolivia: Death of a Protester

In the second week of February, the federation of street vendors (or Gremialistas, which literally means “guild members”) in Bolivia’s capital La Paz carried out a brief campaign against a street redesign project that would rework the busy intersection known as the Garita de Lima. In the course of this struggle, elderly vendor Teodora Velasco de Quispe died.

The Garita de Lima is a congested intersection in central La Paz (a photo search for the site yields an image titled “vehicular chaos”). It’s also a workplace: over 200 people sell food and goods from stalls on the sidewalks, streets, and central island, while the municipality counts 299 different transport routes, most of them served by vans or small buses, that pass through the intersection. Under two administrations led by a center-left political party, the La Paz municipality has combined  concrete, traffic engineers, architects, and savvy searching for funds to solve “problems” like the Garita de Lima. Their proposed redesign continues this strategy, remaking the current oval into a bridge between two plazas. The logic of the redesign is simple and clear: reduce travel delays and uncontrolled pedestrians crossing into the street while maximizing public space. To do this, they used the vertical dimension for crossovers while expanding open space horizontally.

Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia
Architectural rendering of renovated Garita de Lima, La Paz, Bolivia

The gremialistas are one of hundreds of sectoral organizations in La Paz. A trade unions for workers without an employer, they mobilize collectively in much the same way a union does, although they must use vigils, shop closures, blockades, and building takeovers where employees could use strikes and pickets. Solidarity and compulsory collective action are the backbone of their influence. The ghostly absence of their working-class presence—the tarps they string up, the blankets they sit on, their large pleated skirts, and gregariously space-taking bodies —from the architectural rendering shows the social distance that separates them from those who organized the project. Like many poor Bolivians, the gremialistas are accustomed to fighting for the marginal space on which they eke out their living. No wonder that they looked at this project with suspicion. As organizer Julia Manuela Hilarión said, “It is by fighitng that we have won our vending posts and now we are surprised that they are kicking us out of this place. [Luchando hemos conseguido nuestros puestos de venta y ahora nos dan esta sorpresa en la que nos están botando del lugar].”

On February 11, over a hundred vendors protested outside City Hall. They vowed, as per Bolivian tradition, to “go forward unto to the final consequences” in their protest, and put forward the maximum demands as their first bargaining position: no seller should be moved from her (or his) post. A conflict broke out with the local neighborhood association, who requested and backed the project; the local neighborhood association leader was injured. Vendors put up signs rejecting the project and sellers went on hunger strike at their posts. One of them was Teodora Velasco de Quispe. Early on the morning of February 13, she died of a heart attack.

Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)
Gremialistas carry a cardboard casket in memory of Teodora Velasco de Quispe. (Photo appeared in Cambio, February 14)

Fourteen associations of gremialistas from across La Paz marched on City Hall, carrying forward the struggle and memorializing Teodora Velasco (video). Forty of them began a sit-in demanding negotations with the municipality. Some city officials were unable to leave and pledged they wouldn’t hold talks under such pressure. Nonetheless, four days later they met with Mayor Luis Revilla himself. He pledged none of them would lose the ability to sell in the zone, and the city’s markets coordinator offered to explain the logistics involved. They also agreed to a new process of public comment (or “socialization”) of the project before it was implemented.

This is not the first such project to occasion temporary displacement of vendors in La Paz, or to cause them to fear for their livelihoods. Two downtown markets (the Central and Camacho markets) were built in the last decade, both bringing about conflicts and city-funded temporary housing for shops during construction. These experiences do not seem to have made the city sufficiently proactive or the vendors more patient or less strident in their initial demands. Even now, their opposition to the new Garita de Lima has not been dropped, although history suggests they will get along with the planners and reopen for business during and after construction.

Was Teodora Velasco de Quispe’s death necessary? Almost certainly not. The question of who is responsible for this loss is more complex. Her passing in the middle of the night is one of a significant number of deaths that accompany Bolivian protest without being caused by violent or consciously lethal actions, but which are nonetheless an inseparable part of protesters’ experience. Others have started vigils and marches their bodies were not prepared to survive, or been trapped on the wrong side of a blockade from the medical assistance they needed, or died of cold, exposure, or disease while their community was mobilizing. Such losses of human life stand alongside deaths that provoke outrage and generate cries for official investigations. They do, however, galvanize the commitment of those who lived and struggled beside them. Almost like martyrs, but different, the burden of their deaths is carried by their comrades who struggle on.

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