Bolivia schmoozes Moscow on energy projects; scandal rocks state gas company

Bolivian President Evo Morales flew to Moscow Feb. 14 to discuss cooperation in energy and counter-narcotics efforts with the Russian leadership. The visit comes a week after Russia’s Gazprom and the Bolivia’s state hydrocarbons company YPFB signed a memorandum on drafting a plan for the joint development of the Bolivian gas industry up to 2030. Construction of hydropower stations in Bolivia by the Russian company Tekhnopromexport is said to be under consideration as well. Before his departure for Moscow, Morales also said that he would discuss with the purchase of Russian planes and helicopters for drug enforcement. (ITAR-TASS, Feb. 15)

The trip comes as YPFB is mired in a scandal surrounding the Jan. 27 murder of businessman Jorge O’Connor D’Arlach, an executive with the Bolivian-Argentine firm Catler Uniservice that had been awarded a contract to build a gas separation plant in the town of Rio Grande, Santa Cruz department. O’Connor was carrying $450,000 in cash when he was killed outside the home of YPFB president Santos RamĂ­rez’s in-laws. The opposition has speculated that that money was a bribe to be paid to RamĂ­rez as a reward for the $86 million contract signed last year. RamĂ­rez was ousted after the slaying and jailed Feb. 13 at the San Pedro Penitentiary in downtown La Paz. RamĂ­rez is a former congressman and a close friend and old ally of Morales from his party, the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS). Morales served as best man at RamĂ­rez’s wedding only a month ago, and prosecutors say members of the bride’s family are leading suspects in the scandal.

O’Connor had withdrawn the cash from a La Paz bank and was carrying it in two suitcases to an apartment where two of the YPFB president’s new relatives were waiting, according to police accounts. Police said five men jumped him, and he was shot while resisting. All five were arrested, along with O’Connor’s driver. One told police that O’Connor was taking the money to RamĂ­rez’s brothers-in-law. The six robbers apparently figured the theft would not be reported because the money was part of an illegal transaction.

Morales’ initial reaction was to accuse the media of slander. But four days later, Morales fired RamĂ­rez and nine other YPFB executives, ordered an investigation and promised that “whoever falls will fall.” On Feb. 12, RamĂ­rez’s replacement Carlos Villegas—the seventh YPFB president in 31 months—announced the firing of 74 employees. (LAHT, Feb. 14; AP, Feb. 13; AP, Jan. 31)

See our last post on Bolivia.

We depend on our readers. Please support our work: