Tuesday, May 16, 2006

BOLIVIA: The Story Behind Gas Nationalisation

LA PAZ, May 13 (IPS) - "If you agree, sign the decree!" Bolivian President Evo Morales told his ministers on the morning of May 1, as he got ready to announce the renationalisation of an industry that will move 200 billion dollars over the next two decades in South America's poorest country.

One of the architects of the measure to reassert state control over the country's natural gas reserves -- the second-largest in South America -- described the process to IPS in an interview. That day, Morales handed the decree to his cabinet, sitting around a huge carved wooden table in the meeting room in the government palace, as the first rays of sunlight filtered through the chilly morning of La Paz.

Signatures, applause and the national anthem. After the last verse ("Morir antes que esclavos vivir" - "Better to die than to live as slaves"), Morales smiled and said "The plane is waiting for us."

Only a few of his closest associates knew that the army would be called out to occupy Bolivia's oil fields, refineries and petrol stations, or that the president and his stunned ministers would ride that morning in a Hercules transport plane to the region of Caraparí, 1,200 km to the south.

When Morales reached the doors of the San Alberto gas plant, controlled until that day by Brazil's state-owned oil giant Petrobras, the smiling employees asked which part of the gas field or facilities he wanted to visit.

But the president had not come for a visit. He had come to seize control of the installations and the gas fields.