BOLIVIA: Morales overcomes gas crisis

Federico Fuentes

After facing his toughest challenge since his January 22 inauguration, President Evo Morales has seemingly come out the victor in a debate over the viability of the nationalisation of Bolivia’s gas, but not without some bruising. Morales came to power after years of social unrest, at the centre of which was the question of Bolivian sovereignty over the country’s hydrocarbon resources.

Bolivia’s gas was nationalised on May 1, when the government ordered the military to take over the gasfields with the stated aim of giving the state control over the entire productive chain, from extraction to export.

The recent crisis grew out of a media and opposition campaign against the lack of progress in the nationalisation plan. The government itself admitted that the state-owned YPFB company did not have the necessary resources to regain full control of the productive chain. It then allowed the opposition a free kick when it stumbled when responding to a scandal involving a questionable contract signed by Jorge Alvarado, YPFB’s president.

Aiming to score a decisive goal against the government, the opposition-controlled senate censured hydrocarbons minister Andres Soliz Rada on August 23. A censure motion requires the minister to submit his or her resignation, although the head of state has the final say on whether to accept it.

Soliz Rada, who is not a member of Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) and was one of the most vocal critics of the previous “soft nationalism” position of MAS, has become the government’s most popular minister. This is due to his identification with the more hardline nationalisation stance the government has taken, something that over 80% of Bolivians agree with.

In his resignation letter, Soliz Rada wrote that behind the censure “can be found the forces that want Bolivia to return to its condition of a semi-colony for the centres of global power, allied with the oligarchies that exploited our peoples for 500 years”.

Shortly after the censure, revealing the opposition’s real objective, it was revealed that the Constitutional Tribunal had accepted a submission presented by the deputies of three different right-wing opposition parties to rule on the constitutionality of the nationalisation decree.

Morales’s counteroffensive was quick, firing back in a speech the day of the censure, “The nationalisation will not be stopped”.

Declaring those who passed the censure motion as “the rubbish of the neoliberal model”, Morales rejected the resignation. “The oligarchs want to disorganise our team, they want to declare politically dead one of the best ministers, but comrade Soliz is not alone, the people are with him”, added Morales.

The three opposition parties — PODEMOS, National Unity, and the National Revolutionary Movement — were forced to quickly distance themselves from the three deputies and state that they were not opposed to nationalisation but the manner in which the government was handling the issue.

On August 26, demonstrating determination to move ahead with his national project, Morales declared the nationalisation of forests and natural reserves previously in private hands.

The next day he reminded the people that Bolivia has never planned to throw out foreign companies or expropriate their assets “but they can’t act like bosses or owners, they need to be partners”. It was a response to complaints by Spanish corporation Repsol, which has one of the largest stakes in Bolivia’s gas. Repsol claimed “systematic persecution” was hurting its investments.

On August 25, Repsol’s offices were raided for the second time this year, and one of its executives was arrested over an alleged illegal contract that had resulted in large losses for the government.

Morales also set September 1 as the deadline for gas companies to pay their increased taxes or else be forced out of Bolivia.

In what some described as a concession to the right and the elites from the gas-rich eastern state of Santa Cruz, Morales replaced Alvarado with Juan Carlos Ortiz, a former Petrobras executive, as YPFB’s president. Petrobras is the other major stakeholder in Bolivian gas, and the government has been in heated negotiations with it in order to raise the price for gas exported to Brazil.

Alvarado was not the only one to go. The superintendent of hydrocarbons, who was the first to expose the dubious contract, was replaced by Santiago Berrios, and Guillermo Aruquipa, who is close to Morales and Soliz Rada, was made vice-minister for hydrocarbons.

The crisis has revealed some of the problems Morales faces, but also shows that a powerful movement was let out of the bag by Morales’s gas nationalisation, which not only returned to Bolivians their gas, but also their sense of dignity and self-esteem as part of a movement for change and a new Bolivia.

As Soliz Rada pointed out in July while swearing in the YPFB directorate, completing the gas nationalisation implies “[pushing] forward structural changes that need to be approved by the Constituent Assembly [which began on August 6], which include democratising the ownership of land and cutting back the profits of the big mining and banking business owners tied to transnational power who continue to suck wealth out of the country”.

From Green Left Weekly, September 6, 2006.

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