Violeta Ayala
Bolivia -
September 18, 2023

Facing the State from a Wheelchair

In 2016, disabled individuals initiated a series of protests, first in Cochabamba and then in other areas of Bolivia. They demanded a monthly basic income from the State. Faced with rejection, the protesters organized a caravan of wheelchairs to La Paz. The government responded with repression and discriminatory propaganda. However, the struggle did not stop, and although street protests dissolved, political actions led the leaders to the UN. “La Lucha,” a documentary by Quechua filmmaker Violeta Ayala, tells the story of this protest, the longest in the recent history of the Andean country.

By Marcela Vallejo

The first photo that Violeta Ayala took of the protest went viral in a few days: several people in wheelchairs were hanging from a raised bridge. The demonstration had started several days earlier in the Plaza 14 de Septiembre in Cochabamba, very close to Violeta’s house. The participants were people with various disabilities demanding a monthly income from the State.
Due to the impact of the image, several colleagues of the Quechua filmmaker contacted her to offer support for the protest. That is how Violeta began a relationship of friendship and support that led to the making of the documentary “La Lucha.” The feature film, which premiered a month ago at the Blackstar Festival in Philadelphia, chronicles the story of this demonstration that began with small vigils and protests in various cities, including a long march to La Paz and a series of mobilizations in the capital.
A few nights after they hung from the bridges, the protesters called Violeta. The police wanted to intervene in the gathering and send everyone back to their hometowns. To support the protest and serve as a kind of shield, she called her colleagues Daniel Fallshaw and Fernando Barbosa, who went that night to accompany her. After that, the protesters did not let them leave, and the team began to organize to document what was happening.
La Lucha” is a documentary feature film that, by portraying the mobilization of disabled people in Bolivia, speaks to a reality of impoverishment and discrimination that transcends borders. Fifty-seven days after the protest began in Cochabamba, which people from other departments joined, the protesters decided to march to La Paz. The images are striking: amid Bolivia’s impressive Andean landscapes, the highlands, and snow-capped mountains, people in wheelchairs are seen moving forward with the power of their arms.

Documentary “La Lucha”

“Before hitting the road, we engaged in all kinds of mobilizations,” says Marcelo Vasquez, one of the leaders in a roadside meeting. “Hanging, sixty days, comrades. And I hope that each of you who embarked on this journey, who have traveled this path, do so with integrity, and let’s reach our destination. The goal is not La Paz; the ultimate goal, what we want, is the 500 Bolivianos per month for all disabled people.”
That’s what they were asking for a monthly income, which equated to 70 dollars at that time. However, due to the lack of response or when sitting at dialogue tables where government representatives imposed negotiation terms, the protesters decided to reach the capital. The reception was violent, and for the first time in the country’s democratic history, Plaza Murillo, where the government headquarters is located, was completely closed off.
What they were demanding was not unreasonable. State subsidies for disabled individuals are not new in Latin America. Countries such as Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Barbados, Belize, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua provide incomes, subsidies, or pensions to people whose disabilities reduce their work capacity and/or who are in situations of poverty and extreme poverty. In some cases, if a person is employed, they cannot receive this subsidy.
These types of measures have been adopted, considering that disabled people live in situations of profound inequality. According to the World Bank, 15% of the world’s population, approximately one billion people, live with some form of disability. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are about 85 million disabled people.
The inequality experienced by disabled individuals manifests in various ways: significantly shorter life expectancy, a higher risk of developing diseases such as depression, asthma, diabetes, strokes, obesity, or oral health problems; spaces, transportation, and healthcare facilities tend to be inaccessible; and inequalities in terms of health and access to employment are directly related to prejudice, discrimination, and poverty. However, the response from Evo Morales’ government was rejection and discrimination.

Documentary “La Lucha”

The Plurinational State vs. Its Citizens

In addition to violence and repression and attempting to impose dialogue terms, parliament members claimed that the march was uncompromising, stating that they could not subsidize people who “do nothing productive for the country.” A eugenic position that evidently places human life on a scale based on its usefulness or productivity. In other words, someone who does not produce does not deserve to live in dignified conditions.

The statement that appears at the beginning of the documentary is outrageous. And it sets the tone reflected in all government representatives’ interventions throughout the documentary. During one of the meetings, Miguel Mamani, a young leader of the protest, confronted the Minister of the Presidency: “You talk about defamation, and you are the first ones to defame. Mr. Quintana, do you consider us productive? Do we contribute to national development, or are we a plague for the state?”

The documentary records events day by day, and on day 119, in July 2016, the protesters decided to disband the gathering. They felt they had reached a deadlock and had not achieved their goal. Thus, each person returned home. For example, Miguel, upon returning, realized something important during this mobilization: that he is important, that he serves a purpose, and that he is not a burden to his family.

Nevertheless, the count of days continues. On day 142, we see Rosemary Guarita preparing to travel. She will participate in a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to represent what happened during the protest. Rosemary asked the UN to keep her trip secret to prevent Evo Morales’ government from trying to prevent her from leaving the country.

Thanks to her intervention at the Convention, pressure from media outlets like The Guardian, where the first short film of this documentary production was presented, and all the struggle of disabled people in Bolivia, 2017 President Evo Morales signed the labor inclusion and financial aid law. The count of days ends when Rosemary and her fellow activists finally receive the 250 Bolivianos subsidy.
On that day, they manage to enter Plaza Murillo, and Rosemary shouts with an Abya Yala flag in her hand: “We are Bolivians, like any other citizen. It is our triumph; we have entered and now have the freedom to enter.” Her fellow march leaders, Marcelo Vasquez, Miguel Mamani, and Feliza Alí, go with her.
Violeta Ayala, the director of this documentary, identifies herself as neurodiverse and lives with a profound disability. The political context surrounding this protest is crucial for her because it personally and directly challenges her. But it is also important because she sees this protest as part of a political tradition in Bolivia. Marcelo Vasquez mentions that Evo would not have reached the presidency without marching. Violeta reaffirms this idea: “Bolivia is a country of protests. The people, the unions, and the communities have a long tradition of protests. Disabled people being on the roads was nothing out of the ordinary, but it has been one of the longest protests in recent history.”
“Struggles have happened, and they will continue to happen,” says Violeta, “it is important to fight for structural changes and changes in mentality. With this protest in Bolivia, not only has income been won, which was essential, many laws have been achieved, and many changes have occurred.”