AP Interview: Bolivia's vice president says hard work ahead on petroleum nationalization, new constitution

Associated Press, Nov 4

Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said Sunday that Bolivia's petroleum nationalization "still has a good way to go" as the state energy company works to assume control of South America's second-largest natural gas deposits.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Garcia said that the Oct. 28 contract signings with Brazilian state energy giant Petrobras, the Spanish-Argentine company Repsol YPF and others have given the government a much-needed boost after months of unfavorable headlines.

"We feel satisfied, but we still have a good ways to go," Garcia said. "We still must guarantee a strong presence of the Bolivian state throughout the chain of production, a real and practical control through personnel, experts, technology, know-how."

Bolivian state energy company Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos, or YPFB, was left emaciated by a mishandled 1996 privatization, and has long been only minor player in its own country's petroleum industry.

But according to the terms of President Evo Morales' May 1 nationalization decree, YPFB is to assume controlling interest in all international companies' Bolivian operations.

Bolivia still plans some form of nationalization for its mines, a move announced in October but postponed for lack of funds.

"Clearly, the state will have to take a very strong role" in the mining sector, Garcia said.

Nationalization talks in recent months have overshadowed an assembly convened by the government in August to draw up a new Bolivian Constitution.

To increase indigenous groups' power in government, Garcia suggested the new framework replace Bolivia's Senate — which currently includes an equal number of senators from Bolivia's nine states — with some form of popular assembly, perhaps selected from country's various indigenous groups and social movements.

Garcia said "part of the debate" over a new constitution concerns whether to make changes allowing Bolivian presidents to run for immediate re-election — which would open the way for Morales to run again in 2010.

For the last three months, the assembly has been crippled by lack of consensus. But the vice president remains sanguine about its chances of completing a new constitution before its August 2007 deadline, taking the seemingly endless squabbles between delegates in stride.

The constitutional assembly is "a grand stage to write a grand agreement between social sectors that have never agreed on anything in the entire history of the country," Garcia said. "That's why it's so important. It's not that they agreed on something once and then got bored of that agreement. They never agreed on anything — especially between the subjugated indigenous groups."

Enshrining into law the rights of those indigenous peoples is Garcia's central goal for the new framework. The Aymara, Quechua, Guarani, and Bolivia's other Indian groups should have equal access to education, jobs, and public services, he said, and government offices must be able to conduct business in both Spanish and the native language of their region.

The vice president hopes to one day see "an Aymara speaker from here in El Alto (a poor and largely indigenous La Paz suburb) be able to defend his or her thesis in Aymara."

Garcia also spoke of Bolivia's often trying relationship with the United States. While Morales has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration, even accusing the U.S. of plotting his assassination, Garcia has lately stressed a more amicable approach, even appearing in a joint press conference with new U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg.

On Sunday Garcia expressed his interest in working with the U.S., especially in trade and anti-narcotics efforts, while creating "a relationship based on the respect and the dignity of both peoples."

"Our relations have not always been that way," he said.

The stark contrasts between the bookish European-descended Garcia and the swaggering indigenous union leader Morales have made some here wonder about the two getting along.

For his part, Garcia, long involved with Bolivia's indigenous power movement, sees Morales' election as the fulfillment of "the great dream of the vice president since he was 19 years old, a grand youthful utopia coming true."

That dream now fulfilled, Garcia said he has no ambition to one day become president himself.

"The indigenous must govern this country for a good while," he said. "For their proper historical right, for equality, and for their democratic majority, it belongs to them."

Taken from International Herald Tribunal

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