Bolivian government under pressure cooker?
Bolivian President Evo Morales is facing converging crises on multiple fronts—from South American neighbors, from the Colossus of the North, and from internal opposition. Peru is seeking the extradition of Walter Chavez, a top adviser to Morales' successful 2005 campaign, on terrorism charges related to accusations that he extorted businessmen on behalf of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). Chavez, a Peruvian former journalist, has lived in Bolivia since 1992 and was granted political asylum there in 1998. (Reuters, Oct. 26)
The Bolivian government has accepted apologies from US ambassador Philip Goldberg for recent condescending remarks on Morales. After members of his delegation had problems entering the United States, Morales told the UN General Assembly last month that the UN headquarters should be moved elsewhere. Goldberg responded that he would not be surprised "if Bolivia would also want to change Disney(land's) headquarters too," triggering a diplomatic spat between the two countries. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca described Goldberg's remarks as "racist" and said he would not be a "valid interlocutor" for his government until he apologized. Goldberg later sent apologies to the Bolivian government through diplomatic channels. "The government accepts the ambassador's apologies. We will continue working in the two countries' relations," Choquehuanca said. (Xinhua, Oct. 26)
Last week, thousands of local residents occupied Bolivia's busiest airport in the restive eastern department of Santa Cruz, after army troops sent in by President Morales withdrew. Morales sent in troops after charging that local officials were illegally demanding landing fee payments. Responding to a call from Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas, some 7,000 protesters armed with clubs and waving flags rallied at Viru Viru airport Oct. 19. After tear gas failed to disperse the protesters, the 220 troops pulled back to avoid clashes. "This has been a victory for the people of this town, and it has been a defeat for the wicked," said Costas, a fierce opponent of President Morales. The soldiers left "with their tails between their legs," Costas gloated.
The crisis began when airport workers held up an American Airlines plane bound for Miami Oct. 16, demanding that landing fees be paid on the spot to local rather than national authorities. The local airport authority used to appoint its own directors, but three months ago the central government installed their own official to lead the agency. (BBC, Oct. 19)
In the background is a struggle over control of Bolivia's natural gas resources, which lie mostly in the lowland east and south of the country. Despite Morales' supposed nationalization of Bolivia's hydrocarbons, foreign firms still seek interests in the gas sector. The local press reports that the Spanish oil company Repsol YPF plans to announce in the next month the results of exploration work at what could be a major gas field in the south of the country. Since February 2006, Repsol has been exploring for hydrocarbons in Chuquisaca department, not far from the gas-rich Tarija region.
"In about a month we'll be able to confirm whether this is a massive [natural gas] field," the president of Repsol's Bolivian subsidiary, Luis Garcia, said. "We're all anxious, and we'd like to say today that this is a big field." After meeting with Repsol officials Oct. 24, Chuquisaca Gov. David Sanchez told reporters he had "great expectations" that drilling could lead eventually to the development of a field "bigger than Margarita." The Margarita field, also run by Repsol YPF, is one of Bolivia's largest, with nearly 11 trillion cubic feet of proven and probable reserves. Government officials recently announced that Repsol YPF has agreed to invest some $900 million in Bolivia by 2010. (Reuters, Oct. 25)
See our last post on Bolivia.