Bolivia: Evo nationalizes foreign gas company on eve of constitutional vote

On Jan. 23, the day after a massive La Paz rally in support of Bolivia’s new constitution that goes to a popular vote on the 25th, President Evo Morales signed a decree nationalizing Chaco Petrolera Ltd. Oil Company. The president said employees at the company would keep their jobs, but the board of directors would be replaced. The company is managed by Anglo-Argentine Panamerican Energy, and is a subsidiary of the UK’s BP. Morales flew to a natural gas field in central Bolivia to announce the nationalization, accompanied by soldiers who seized Chaco’s installations.

Morales officially nationalized Bolivia’s hydrocarbons in 2006, ordering the state company YPFB to buy up all shares in private oil and gas companies operating in Bolivia. The state already controlled 49% of Chaco, but negotiations had stalled in the transfering of the remainder to public hands. The government had already successfully negotiated the buy-out of Andina from Spain’s Repsol-YPF and Transredes from a consortium led by Shell Oil. Negotiations also failed in the attempted buy-out of the German-Peruvian CLHB, which operated pipelines and terminals, and this was likewise unilaterally taken over by the government last year.

After signing the decree nationalizing Chaco in Entre Rios, Morales said, “Little by little, we are taking back our companies, our natural resources.” He charged that “oil companies are not respecting Bolivian standards,” but that the government “will respect private investment as long as they respect Bolivian norms… We want partners, not bosses.” (Upside Down World, BBC News, La Nación, Argentina, Jan. 24)

Chávez brings home the asphalt; gringos in a huff
At a Jan. 20 rally for the new constitution in La Paz, Morales presided over a ceremony receiving a donation of 300 tons of asphalt from Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez to pave the city’s streets. As President Morales took the stage, covered in confetti and with a coca leaf wreath around his neck, the crowd cheered and waved signs emblazoned with slogans such as, “Thanks for the asphalt and the progress.” (UDW, Jan. 22)

But Kris Urs, the top US diplomat in Bolivia, pointedly walked out on a speech by Morales after the president said Washington is plotting against his government. Urs said the accusations are “unfounded,” “false” and “intolerable.” Urs, the highest-ranking US diplomat since Morales booted the ambassador last year, walked out Jan. 22 near the start of Morales’ four-hour address on the third anniversary of his taking office. In his speech, Morales repeated accusations that the US embassy conspired with his opposition to “foment the disintegration of the country.” (AP, Jan. 22)

Evangelicals: new constitution is blasphemy
A television ad against the new constitution that has aired across Bolivia opens with a photo of Morales dressed in the garb of a traditional shaman. Then an image of Jesus Christ arrives to knock the president off the screen, and a document labeled “New Constitution” appears amid flames. The kicker: “Choose God. Vote No.” The ad is funded by an evangelical church based in Santa Cruz, a stronghold of the opposition. At issue is the new constitution’s stated goal of “refounding” Bolivia as a socially-just state guided by indigenous beliefs—including elevating the Andean earth deity Pachamama to the same stature as Jehova. Bolivia’s current constitution allows for freedom of religion but specifies Roman Catholicism as the state religion. (WSJ, Jan. 23)

See our last post on Bolivia.

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