Less than four months ago, rowdy protesters were thronging the streets of this slum city, blockading food and gasoline supplies for the capital and forcing President Carlos Mesa to resign.
The spark for the uprising was capitalism, namely Mesa's free-market policies. Yet it's capitalism, with American government help, that may come to El Alto's rescue.
Down many of this city's dirt roads, nestled between rows of bleak cinder-block homes, are state-of-the-art factories producing a broad range of goods, including textiles, furniture, beer and metal and plastic products. El Alto has big ambitions: to change from Bolivia's capital of protest into its capital of industry.
The immediate cause of the protest in June was the demand for nationalization of the natural gas industry, which was perceived as doing nothing for the poor. But Jose Luis Paredes, the former mayor of El Alto, blames a long-term lack of investment in the city.
Paredes, who is leading the campaign to attract new business, calls it a chicken-and-egg syndrome. "There are no investments because of the social movements, and there are social movements because there's no employment and no export industry," he said.
Bolivia is South America's poorest country and El Alto, perched on an Andean mountain plain overlooking La Paz, the capital, is one of the continent's fastest- growing cities. Its population of 800,000 swells by 30,000 a year, mostly from daily busloads of poor Indian migrants fleeing the poverty of the highlands.
As Bolivia's economy has sagged, El Alto has become the epicenter of the movimientos sociales, or social movements -- Indian-led urban and rural protests. With Mesa gone and elections scheduled for Dec. 4, the protesters have calmed down -- at least for now.
The demonstrators were demanding more power to the proletariat and a halt to the free-market reforms that many blame for compounding poverty in the country of 8.8 million.
But while the protests were shaking the nation, El Alto was already looking for solutions. Last December it got the Bolivian Congress to legislate a 10-year tax holiday and exemption from tariffs on imported machinery for any company moving into the city.
The U.S. Agency for International Development is providing technical help to businesses to boost their exports, along with financing for a national media campaign that promotes El Alto's proximity to Pacific ports as a strategic advantage over the industrial hub of Santa Cruz, in Bolivia's distant tropical lowlands.
The city says more than 100 businesses have inquired about moving here since the law was passed, and Paredes said he was optimistic that El Alto's promotional campaign would generate 13,000 new jobs to dent the city's 41 percent unemployment rate. City officials also plan to create a Web site in English and possibly Chinese.
Even before the law changed, El Alto had 5,000 businesses, some of which are now using the tax breaks to finance expansion.
Soalpro, a bakery that has operated in El Alto for 18 years, is building a new soy milk production plant.
"I believe it's worth it to stay here because we're giving hope to the country," said Gonzalo Rocha, Soalpro's finance chief. "We want to spread the hope. We're a small country with a lot of problems, but we're betting on it."
Abel Mamani, a protest leader, welcomes the effort to attract new business but says El Alto needs drastic improvement in its quality of life.
"Of course the blockades do damage," he said. "We're conscious of that. But how can you think about development, industrialization, in a city that isn't providing basic services?" According to Mamani, more than 100,000 people in El Alto lack access to clean water and electricity.
The answer is jobs, said Jesus Botero, manager of a textile plant that produces socks and pantyhose.
"People here have a strong work ethic," he said. "Everyone talks about social conflicts, but the only way to resolve them is to generate work."