Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Bolivian protesters seize gas pipeline

Around 2,000 protesters seized a pipeline in Bolivia yesterday morning threatening to cut off supplies to Argentina. Soldiers and police, who had been occupying the plant since Monday, fired tear gas and rubber bullets killing one and injuring twenty as they stormed the plant near the Southern city of Yacuiba. By the afternoon protesters had overwhelmed the soldiers defending the Royal Dutch Shell owned premises (other companies operating in the area include Spain's Repsol-YPF, Brazil's Petrobras and France's Total).

Pic from ReutersLast year the Morales government massively increased taxes on the foreign corporations profits from Bolivia's natural resources, a process he decided to call nationalisation although it did not involve taking the companies under public control. The protesters are disputing the allocation of gas revenues that goes to the local area. The plant seizure comes as the culmination of week long protes
ts including hunger strikes, road blocks and blockading the border crossing with Argentina and Paraguay.

Bolivia sells 5 million cubic metres of gas per day to Argentina, making these moves potentially very disruptive to the company and both Argentinian and Bolivian governments.

The protester who was killed during the protest was shot in the leg with a live round although local government officials have stated that soldiers were only authorised to use rubber bullets. According to Bolivian Indymedia the local state governor, Cossío, is a close associate with disgraced ex-President Goni who was in power during the infamous water and gas wars and it's clear from even mainstream press reports that there is a tension between the Morales government and the local right wing authorities - although the source of the tension seems to be more about the local authorities inability to "deal" with the protests than it is about any sympathy with their demands.

Minister Alfredo Rada criticised Cossío for refusing to negotiate with the protesters and allowing protests to escalate and Vice President Álvaro García Linera also made a scathing attack upon the local authorities. I'm not for one moment trying to cast aspersions upon these important people but distancing yourself from the actions of the army after you authorise their deployment may not necessarily be the most morally unquestionable position its positible to take.

From La RazonThese protests come in the middle of a very delicate period for the MAS (Movement for Socialism) government who was due to ratify new contracts signed with foreign energy companies today. The right wing opposition is refusing to ratify the new contracts which, according to Vice President Álvaro García Linera, is costing the country over half a million dollars a day in tax revenue from the multinationals. In addition to this President Morales is in Venezuela at an energy summit with other Latin American leaders such as Brazil's Lula and Chile's Bachelet which signals the beginnings of renewed cooperation between 12 Latin American nations in a new trade alliance (Unasur).

Venezuela Analysis says "The [formation of the] South American Organization of Gas Producers and Exporters (Oppegasur) was discussed between leaders from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, Surinam and Guyana. The project was put together in March between Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina as a sort of natural gas cartel similar to OPEC for petroleum. The purpose of the organization, being promoted by Venezuela's Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, would be regional cooperation in the gas sector, technology transfer and exchange for the development of the gas industry."

Clearly such a deal could be of great benefit to the people of Latin America, but only if it involves either the direct public control of natural resources or, if need be, heavily taxed private-public partnerships. Perhaps more on this another time. What's clear is that there are two gas reform projects taking place - one negotiated from above led by Evo Morales and one fought for from below led by the social movements.

These processes may both aim to redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest but they are not to be confused with one another. Morales cannot both support the unlawful occupation of gas plants and negotiate legal contracts with the multinationals that own them. It's for the movement to decide if they want to be given jam today or to take over the entire factory.

Update: Protesters take 47 cops hostage.

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