Can Bolivia's Revolution Pay Dividends?

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It's been six months since Bolivian soldiers marched onto foreign owned gas fields and planted themselves under signs reading "NATIONALIZED: PROPERTY OF THE BOLIVIAN PEOPLE." At the time, newly elected Bolivian President Evo Morales' May 1 announcement to nationalize his country's vast natural gas reserves by October 28 seemed like a bold gambit that could either enrich his impoverished nation — or easily backfire. He gave the foreign firms 180 days to agree to new contracts giving Bolivia 50% or more of the profits — up from the 18% agreed upon in 1997 — or else be forced to leave.

So far, at least, Morales' brinksmanship seems to be bearing fruit. Though the deadline went down to the wire, this past weekend Morales triumphantly declared to his countrymen, "Mission Accomplished." The ten new signed contracts that sat in front of him will bring in a total of somewhere between $2 to $4 billion in revenue to the state annually, rather than the $250 million the country has received each year since the system was privatized. "Bolivia needs the foreign companies to survive," Hydrocarbons Minister Carlos Villegas told TIME in an interview. "But we want business partners, not bosses."

In reality, the Bolivians are now the bosses. But as Pablo Poveda, a researcher with the Center for Studies of Labor and Agricultural Development, says, "contract agreements are only the beginning." Technical challenges lie ahead. "We got to turn a ministry that before only served to sign papers into a body that can design energy policy," explains Villegas. "We've got to turn a state company used only to rubber-stamped contracts into the main operator of a huge industry."

Even more complicated and challenging will be ensuring that the stacks of signed documents translate into lasting and measurable change for those who propelled nationalization to the policy floor — the poor and impoverished majority of Bolivians, like those who live next to the Rio Grande gas plant.

Processing over 50 million cubic feet of gas per day, the Repsol Rio Grande in Bolivia's eastern state of Santa Cruz sends gas to Bolivia and Brazil. Before the Spanish firm took over in 1997, the state-run facility barely functioned properly because of a lack of resources. Since then, says plant operations supervisor Joaquim Mendez, "things run efficiently — virtually accident free, productive and on schedule."

Those living around the plant were promised that privatization would benefit them as well. But the barefoot children in torn clothing walking along the dirt road past wooden board and banana-leaf shacks are evidence that the poor's lives remained virtually unchanged.

Adding to the problem, there was no assurance that Bolivians would have access to their own gas and oil after privatization. Thanks to a lack of infrastructure and a more attractive export market, frequent gas shortages have plagued the country. It was those conditions that helped oust two Presidents and propel Morales to his current position, where he has become a strong ally of outspoken Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

The negotiations with the foreign firms were not always smooth. Morales' first hydrocarbons minister resigned; the president of the state energy company was removed in the midst of corruption allegations; official talks didn't begin until September; and Petrobras, the Brazilian energy giant, threatened to walk away from the table at the last minute. "The companies were always going to comply with their 20-year contracts," says Yussef Akly, spokesperson for Hydrocarbons Chamber, an association of over 100 gas and oil companies operating in Bolivia. "But it's the question of investment. Bolivia's move generated conditions that could have had a severe impact on a company's decision to increase its stake here." In the end, however, the agreements do include major investment plans — more than $2 billion over the coming years — alleviating fears that the foreign companies would punish Bolivia by refusing to invest and only sustaining the bare minimum of operations here.

The timing of the successful negotiations are crucial for the nine-month-old Morales government. In the past eight weeks, 23 people have died in mining and coca farming conflicts, blockades and strikes have grown frequent, and a military coup threat was exposed, while the constitutional assembly has remained stalled because of procedural disagreements.

And there is no guarantee that Morales will be treated like a conquering hero for very long. "Recuperation" originally meant kicking out the foreign companies, in the view of residents of El Alto, the highland impoverished city neighboring La Paz and the center of the "Gas Wars," the 2003 and 2005 protests calling for nationalization that forced out two presidents. Since Morales' plan seems more practical, they offer their support — but only if there is something to show for it, and soon.

"My brother's death can't be in vain," says Juan Patricio Quispe Mamani, whose brother was killed by the military October 2003. Quispe is president of the Association of Families of the Fallen in Defense of the Gas, an organization formed in honor of the 67 killed in 2003 and who demand the extradition of ex-President Gonzalo "Goni" Sanchez de Lozada from the U.S. — where he has lived since he resigned three years ago — so that he stand trial in Bolivia.

"Nationalization has got to be a means to an end," explains Quispe. "We need jobs to be able to put food on our plates, we need gas for Bolivians, and we need justice by bringing Goni to court. If we can get all this, then the government's 'nationalization' will have meant something." If not, then the people of Bolivia will have to endure the bitter sting of yet another broken promise.