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Captain Julio Jiménez saunters away from his idle troops – save a couple manning the gates – and, grinning, stretches out his hand in welcome. He does not seem too fazed by the responsibility of guarding one of Bolivia’s most productive gas fields following the sudden nationalisation of its natural gas resources on Monday.
“I see no danger here, we’re just fulfilling our orders: to provide security and guarantee that production continues as normal so there are no shortages in the countries we export gas to,” he says, surveying the surrounding Andean foothills that rise abruptly from the plains of the semi-arid Chaco region.
A year ago, San Alberto, a gas field in the far south that fuels much of São Paulo’s energy needs, was operated by Petrobras, the Brazilian state energy company, which paid a tax rate of 18 per cent. From this week, and until the company renegotiates its contract, the field will be taxed at a rate of 82 per cent. Little wonder, perhaps, that President Evo Morales announced the nationalisation at San Alberto, and that the gas field is being closely monitored by the military.
Mr Morales and his troops have the unbounded support of many poorer Bolivians. Shortly after the nationalisation decree, some of the president’s more fervent supporters gathered in the modest central square of Yacuiba, a dusty town near San Alberto on the border with Argentina, shortly to chant: “Death to the neo-liberal expropriators! Long live Evo!”
“Our time has come. We have had enough of our country being ransacked by imperialists,” one enthusiastic speaker raged. “What is in Bolivia belongs to the Bolivians. If the foreign companies don’t like the new rules they can get out.”
In the days since the decree, the government has been doing its best to sell its message domestically, with television spots rebroadcasting highlights from Mr Morales’ announcement that conclude with the message “Evo cumple” (Evo fulfils).
However, most residents of the relatively wealthy province of Tarija, which has more than half of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, are not quite so convinced by the nationalisation drive.
Not least the workers at the San Alberto plant, who ridicule the idea that the army needs to be there to prevent them from abandoning their posts, damaging production or sabotage. “We’re hardly going to do anything that would harm our own business,” says one employee. “It’s excessive. I mean, they have guns and bullets!”
Mr Morales is not popular in gas-rich Tarija. There is a suspicion that nationalisation is aimed at centralising the president’s control over natural resources ahead of a referendum in July that should result in greater autonomy for regional government.
“It’s all for show,” says Ramiro Gumiel, the mayor of the local district. He is dismissive of Capt Jiménez’s suggestions that locals who oppose nationalisation might try to seize the plant or do anything to further destabilise the situation.
“Gas is the economic life blood of the region. Let us pray that Mr Morales’ antics do not halt foreign investment,” he says.
Victor Hugo Aguilar, who lives in Yacuiba, worries that Mr Morales is increasingly becoming a “puppet” of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez – who is no magnet for foreign investors – and that this is harming Bolivia’s relations with other countries.
The closeness between the two leaders is more than symbolic. Mr Chávez arrived in La Paz on Wednesday night to accompany Mr Morales to Thursday’s regional energy summit in Puerto Iguazu, for which the two leaders prepared a joint position to defend Bolivia’s nationalisation plan. After meeting Mr Morales, Mr Chávez announced that YPFB and PDVSA, Bolivia and Venezuela’s state energy companies, will sign a “strategic alliance” on May 18 under which Venezuela will invest in exploration and technology.
If Mr Morales is minded to take on his neighbours, he should be aware that Bolivia’s disagreements with foreign countries have not always ended favourably. In its last open conflict, Bolivia’s army suffered a disastrous defeat to Paraguay in the Chaco War of the 1930s, fought over land that was mistakenly believed to be rich in oil. Ironically, Mr Morales chose the name “Heroes of the Chaco” for the announcement of the nationalisation of Bolivia’s natural gas.
Mr Aguilar neatly summarises Bolivia’s dilemma: “The nationalisation of our natural resources is partly good, but partly bad. It is good that Bolivia profits more from its resources, but at the same time we don’t want to scare companies away. The world can live without Bolivia, but Bolivia cannot live without the world.”