The First 100 Days of Evo Morales: Image and Reality in Bolivia



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The First 100 Days of Evo Morales: Image and Reality in Bolivia



By Jeffery R. Webber [Jeffery R. Webber is an editor of New Socialist and a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Toronto. He is currently in La Paz.]
On December 18, 2005 the Movimiento al Socialismo (Movement Toward Socialism, MAS) party won an historic 54% of the popular vote in the Bolivian general elections. MAS leader Evo Morales, an indigenous man of mixed Aymara-Quechua descent who came of age politically as a peasant union leader in the anti-imperialist cocalero (coca grower) movement of the Chapare region, became President. MAS assumed the governance of Bolivia on January 22, 2006.
In South America’s poorest country, a country where 62% of the population self-identifies as indigenous, the election of an indigenous President and a Leftist party were greeted with jubilation. Morales owed his electoral victory to near-continuous Left-indigenous mass mobilization since the Water War in Cochabamba in 2000. The Gas Wars of September-October 2003 and May-June 2005, centered in El Alto and La Paz, marked the apogee of this revolutionary cycle.
After 15 years of neoliberal ascendancy (1985-2000) and Left-indigenous defeat, the last six years of Bolivian history have reversed the tide, witnessing the largest scale mobilizations since the 1952 National Revolution. The main right-wing parties – which ruled through elite pacts, extreme presidentialism, repeated “states of emergency” and military repression of labor militants, indigenous leaders, and social activists throughout the 1980s and 1990s – were brought to their knees over the last six years. Their defeat in the streets, and now in the electoral arena, spurred by popular mobilization, was solidified through in-fighting within the capitalist class, the implosion of their political parties, and their incapacity to fight-back against their eroding legitimacy, and the waning hegemony of neoliberal ideas throughout the country.
The state murder of at least 67 protesters in the Gas War of 2003 (primarily in the indigenous slum of El Alto on the edge of La Paz), orchestrated by then-President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (Goni), was the worst of the coercive efforts by the ruling class to reinstall the old order of class rule and apartheid-like racial oppression of the indigenous population.1 Goni was tossed out of office and country on October 17 of that year. When Goni’s presidential replacement, then-vice president Carlos Mesa Gisbert, failed to follow through with the popular demands of the “October Agenda” – nationalization of gas, constituent assembly, and a trial of responsibilities for Goni and other state criminals – he too was forced to resign in the wake of massive mobilizations in May-June 2005. Fearing revolutionary transformation, the ruling class moved elections forward from 2007 to December 2005, and the populace, having shifted back from direct action in the streets to electoral politics, voted for change.2
May 1, 2006 marked the close of the first 100 days of the MAS administration, and an analysis of the regime’s first months in power is in order. This is especially important given the preponderantly positive view on the broad international and local Bolivian Left of the Morales administration. The celebratory perspective within Bolivia on the part of Left intellectuals relies heavily on selective citations of radical discourse from the MAS administration, particularly the media pronouncements of Morales. Others, more concerned with the empirical evidence, admit the party has not gone far in its reforms but generally exaggerate the strength of the Bolivian capitalist class and the threat of indirect or direct imperialist intervention, while underestimating the strength of the popular social movements to push through radical change. In other words, MAS is doing what is possible given the context.
Internationally, the Left perspective on Bolivia suffers from a general ignorance of the country’s recent and longer history. Many first-world Leftists, living in countries where revolutionary transformation in the near future is unimaginable, see moderate reform in Bolivia as radical change.
The positive international and local analyses are also prone to uncritical interpretations of the political pageantry of the party, such as the Leftist-celebrity-studded festival of Morales’ inauguration, presidential speeches which emphasize the indigenous character of the party, appearances by the President at traditionally important indigenous sites such as Tiahuanaco, and the massive, theatrical mobilization of the military and military police on May 1, 2006, when Morales announced the nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbons (natural gas and oil) sector.
Accompanying the celebratory view, often, is a dismissive disdain for Left critics of the MAS, and a refusal to seriously engage their arguments. Undoubtedly, some critiques of the MAS coming from the Left are sectarian, and rooted in religious adherence to the sacred texts of their particular school, current, sect, or grouplet. Just as surely, however, there are a number of sound critiques – rooted in analyses of what the party has done rather than what is has said – that are being widely ignored.
This article represents a modest attempt to discern the contradictions and tensions between the image and the reality of the MAS administration. It raises six points for discussion, touching briefly and inadequately on each. It’s motivated by the view that the last six years of Left-indigenous movements represented a revolutionary challenge to the Bolivian social order, and that revolutionary transformation, toward the end of racial oppression of indigenous nations and class exploitation, is necessary, and that the balance of social forces within the country remains potentially favorable for such change.
The social movements demanded a radical decolonization of the country, meaning the liberation from oppression of the indigenous nations within Bolivia, and the assertion of popular sovereignty against the imperialist intervention of the core capitalist states, transnational corporations, and international financial institutions. The movements demanded an end to neoliberal capitalism, the restoration of popular social control over the country’s natural resources, and the end to minority rule by transnational corporations and the local oligarchic capitalist class, principally rooted in the department of Santa Cruz. The first steps to be taken were as follows: (i) the institution of a Constituent Assembly with direct, unmediated participation by social movements, indigenous nations, and union federations in order to reconstitute the Bolivian state in the name, and through the participation, of the popular classes and indigenous majority; and (ii) the nationalization without compensation of the hydrocarbons sector of the economy. With all of this in mind, what is the MAS administration doing to advance and/or to hinder such change?
1. The Party: History, Class, Ideology
Where did MAS come from? What is the party’s class composition, and how has it changed over time? What is the party’s predominant ideology?
The party’s historic roots are in the Chapare, a coca-growing region of Cochabamba. After the crash of the international price of tin and the corresponding neoliberal privatization assault on the state mining industry in 1985, tens of thousands of miners were left without jobs, and many migrated to the Chapare to begin growing coca on small plots of land. Responding to the country’s comparative advantage, as neoliberal doctrine dictates, the coca leaf became a central source of foreign exchange, and a basic means of livelihood for small landholding peasants, as the demand for cocaine took off in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.
The US initiated its phony “war on drugs” in the late 1980s, which meant the militarization of the Chapare region and an assault on the coca growing peasants in the area. A resistance movement of cocaleros emerged out of a network of peasant unions. Drawing on the revolutionary Marxist traditions of re-located ex-miners, as well as on the longstanding indigenous patterns of resistance in the Cochabamba area, the cocaleros’ anti-imperialism and anti-neoliberalism represented the strongest force on the indigenous-Left during the mid-to late-1980s and throughout the1990s. Evo Morales emerged as the most important cocalero peasant union leader during this period. By the end of the 1990s the party increasingly tied the symbolic valorization of the coca leaf with the revindication of Bolivia’s majority indigenous identities, eventually incorporating the Aymara indigenous flag, the wiphala, into the party’s everyday symbolism, along with the demand for a Constituent Assembly to decolonize the country.
In 1996, in an effort to build a “political instrument” out of the cocalero social movement, the Instrumento Político Para la Soberanía de los Pueblos (Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples, IPSP) was formed. For technical reasons that would permit it participation in elections, the party later adopted the same name, Movimiento al Socialismo, as an old political party which had ceased to exist.
The party engaged in direct action through road blockades, peasant resistance to the armed enforcement of the “drug war” in the Chapare, and was essentially run through assembly style democracy in the peasant union networks of the cocaleros. Emphasis on electoral politics was secondary to direct action in the streets until roughly the 2002 elections, in which Morales came a close second to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in the presidential race.
At this point, with the taste of relative electoral success in its mouth, the party sought to de-radicalize its image in an effort to court the urban middle classes and win the presidential elections then scheduled for 2007. Key party figures such as ex-miner Filemón Escobar were central protagonists in this shift.
The new politics of MAS was reflected in the streets. In the Gas War of October 2003, the MAS supported the constitutional resolution to the state crisis, specifically the ascendancy to the presidency of Carlos Mesa. MAS subsequently supported Mesa’s neoliberal government into 2005, until Mesa kicked the party out of its informal ruling coalition. In the mass mobilizations of May-June 2005, or the Second Gas War, MAS publicly supported the position of an increase to 50% taxes for the transnational petroleum companies, rather than the demand for nationalization without compensation being forwarded by virtually all sections of the popular movements. With the resignation of Mesa on June 6, 2005, MAS again supported a constitutional exit to the crisis, falling behind the move to change the electoral date to December 2005, never a demand of the social movements which were instead calling for an immediate Constituent Assembly and nationalization of the hydrocarbons sector.
In the contemporary setting, the ideology of the MAS is best expressed by the party’s most important intellectual figure, vice president Álvaro García Linera, an ex-indígenista guerrilla of the short-lived Ejército Guerrillero Tupaj Katari (Tupaj Katari Guerrilla Army, EGTK), political prisoner for five years, mathematician, sociologist, prolific author, and Bolivia’s most prominent Leftist TV personality of the 2000s.
García Linera has famously denounced the idea of socialism in Bolivia as impossible for at least the next 50 to 100 years. Adopting the old Bolivian Communist Party (PCB) “stagist” line of the natural trajectory toward socialism, García Linera believes that Bolivia must first build an industrial capitalist base. He calls this, incorporating the symbols of indigenous liberation, “Andean-Amazonian Capitalism,” which essentially means capitalism with state intervention in support of the petite-bourgeoisie such that they will eventually become the powerful “national bourgeoisie” that develops successful capitalist development within Bolivia. That “national bourgeoisie” will be indigenous, or “Andean-Amazonian.” Only once this long intermediary phase has passed will the fulfillment of socialism be materially plausible.3
Last month, García Linera, in an attempt at defining the ideology of “Evismo,” stated the following: “In the case of Evismo, we are before a political revolution that has its impact in the economic realm but not in a strictly radical manner. Evo Morales has himself conceptualized the process that he is leading as a democratic cultural revolution, or a decolonizing democratic revolution, that modifies the structures of power, modifies the composition of the elite, of power and rights, and with this the institutions of the state. It has an effect on the economic structure because all expansion of rights means the distribution of wealth.”4
Bolivian sociologist and economist Lorgio Orellana Aillón has usefully characterized the type of revolution being discussed as “bourgeois democratic”: the elimination of racial discrimination, a more meaningful inclusion of petite-bourgeois rural and urban indigenous sectors through the expansion of the internal market, the development of a stronger capitalism through state intervention, and the provision of some depth to the liberal representative democratic model which until now has been but a mere illusion in the country. This is the stuff of a bourgeois democratic revolution.5
The shift in the party’s predominant ideology toward the Center-Left in 2002 was not the whim of a few important leaders nor the result of change in Morales himself; rather, the shift is indicative of the changing class composition of the party over time. The weight of the anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal cocalero peasantry has diminished, while an urban middle class intelligentsia plays an increasingly important role. Moreover, if we examine the class character of the current MAS cabinet, and the slightly broader peripheries surrounding that cabinet (such as vice-ministerial portfolios and so on), it is evident that the origins of many of these officials are of the popular classes (peasant sectors, mining, etc), while their current status is more in line with the relatively privileged, middle class sectors of the rural and urban economies.6 One rough indication of this is the fact that, on average, the ministers in the current MAS cabinet have declared net assets of over $50,000 American.7 In a country like Bolivia this places them solidly in the middle layers of the urban and rural economies, and in part accounts for the reformist ideology of the party.8
There is a great deal more to say on the party – especially with regard to its internal tensions, contradictions, and divisions – but let’s move now to one of the two major demands of the social movements, as well as a major electoral promise of the MAS administration: the Constituent Assembly.
2. Constituent Assembly
Undoubtedly the most severe blow delivered against the social movements of the last six years by the MAS is to be found in the content of the Law of Convocation of the Constituent Assembly of March 4, 2006, together with the Referendum Law for Departmental Autonomies. First, I need to introduce some historical context.
The short-term origins of the demand for a Constituent Assembly – to remake the Bolivian state in a way that would undue internal colonialism, challenge liberal democratic forms of representation, and fundamentally transform the economic and social foundations of the country’s institutional framework – date back to the 1990 Indigenous March for Territory and Dignity, led by the indigenous peoples of the department of Beni, in the Northern Amazon.9 It was during this march that a demand to fundamentally restructure the state through a Constituent Assembly was first made. However, as Raúl Prada points out, the medium term origins of the demand for the decolonization of the state begin with the end of the Military-Peasant pact that characterized the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s, and the formation of an independent, indigenous-peasant movement known, known as the Katarista movement. This new peasant activity was situated in the altiplano or high plateau of the country, a predominantly Aymara region. Out of the various currents of Katarismo was born the revindication of indigenous pride and identity, the sparks of struggle for indigenous liberation, and the seeds of movement toward the decolonization of the Bolivian state.10
After the March for Territory and Dignity, the Coordinadora – the central social movement organization of the Water War in Cochabamba in 2000 – took up the demand of a Constituent Assembly. A former shoe-factory worker, and the most prominent leader of the Water War, Oscar Olivera, put it this way: “The Constituent Assembly thus should be understood as a great sovereign meeting of citizen representatives elected by their neighbourhood organizations, their urban or rural associations, their unions, their communes. These citizen representatives would bring with them ideas and projects concerning how to organize the political life of the country. They would seek to define the best way of organizing and managing the common good, the institutions of society, and the means that could unite the different individual interests in order to form a great collective and national interest. They would decide upon the modes of political representation, social control, and self-government that we should giver ourselves for the ensuing decades. And all of these agreed decisions would immediately be implemented…. Let us be clear: Neither the executive branch nor the legislative branch, not even the political parties, can convoke the Constituent Assembly. These institutions and their members all stand discredited for having plunged the country into disaster.”11
Following the Coordinadora, a whole host of popular social movement organizations took up the call for a Constituent Assembly, infusing the idea with indigenous content from the altiplano, as well as revolutionary socialist content from popular organizations in El Alto and the Bolivian Workers’ Central (COB) during the Gas Wars of 2003 and 2005.
Unfortunately, Olivera’s early warnings on the importance of the form of the Constituent Assembly resonate deeply in the present context: “What is the Constituent Assembly? Who calls it into being? How should it be organized? In the answers to these questions there can surface differences which will determine whether the Constituent Assembly results in ‘a supreme moment of democracy’ or in mere agreements among ‘experts’ who once again will exclude the citizenry from decision-making power.”12
The new laws on the Constituent Assembly and the departmental autonomies, passed in March of this year, are based in the idea of formulating a consensual “social pact” among the diverse actors within Bolivia, rather than the imposition of one political-social bloc over another. What this friendly liberal discourse means in practice, however, is that rather than the popular-indigenous majority (one massive social bloc) being able to liberate itself fully and fundamentally, economically and socially, from class exploitation and racial oppression, they need now negotiate a pact with the minority capitalist class and primarily lighter-skinned Bolivians (the tiny social bloc that has ruled over the country since colonial times).
The new assembly law does not allow for representation through union federations, indigenous organizations, and other neighborhood groups and communes, as envisioned by the social movements. Rather, candidates for the Constituent Assembly must be members of established political parties or established “citizen groups,” as in all other Bolivian elections, based on the liberal representative democratic model.
On July 2, 2006 there will be an election to determine the 255 constituents who will participate in the Constituent Assembly. 45 will be departmental representatives, from the nine departments in the country. 210 will be “circunscripciones uninominales.” Three constituents will be elected to the assembly in each of the 70 “circunscripciones uninominales.” The first two of these constituents will be taken from the political party or citizen group that wins the majority, while one will be taken from the party or group coming second, no matter how distant a second.13 Each departmental race for the assembly will be contesting five seats. The party or group that wins will be able to fill only two of the five spots. The other three will be divided between the next three highest vote-getting parties or groups.
The Constituent Assembly will then convene on August 6, 2006 in Sucre, for no less than six months and no more than one year. The new constitution will require the support of two thirds of the 255 elected constituents. After this, it will face a referendum within the general Bolivian population, requiring 51% approval to pass.
Even in the essentially impossible event that the MAS won a majority in every “circunscirciones uninominales y departmentales”, it would come out with only 158 of the constituent representatives in the assembly, well short of the 170 needed for a two thirds “imposition” over the minority social bloc.
What this means, in essence, is that by no stretch of the imagination can there be even meaningful structural reform to the Bolivian state, economy, and society through this Constituent Assembly, never mind the revolutionary transformation envisioned by popular social movements at various junctures over the last six years.
The extent to which the spirit of image and symbolism reigns over material reality within the MAS administration, however, was expressed vividly in March by vice president García Linera in an interview with Radio Fides. García Linera suggested that it was probable that the Constituent Assembly would change less than 20% of the existing constitution, and that it may end up changing nothing. In this sense, he said, the Constituent Assembly is more derivative than foundational. For him the most important thing is that the indigenous majority in Bolivia will have “participated,” not that they will have actually achieved anything.14
There is discussion among various socialist union federations and indigenous organizations of forming a “parallel” constituent assembly, but the chances of this coming to fruition in a meaningful and successful way are almost zero at this stage.
The law on referendums for departmental autonomy stems from Right wing sectors, primarily in Santa Cruz and Tarija, but also from Pando and Beni. They are calling for more departmental control over their own destinies, as against the centralist control of the federal state. This demand is perennially tied to notions of increasing democracy and efficiency, despite the fairly self-evidently bourgeois organizations that are leading the march. The history of regional discontent within the Bolivian state has a long and complex history. Many observers now agree, however, that this recent wave of demands for autonomy grew out of the loss of control of the central state that part of the Bolivian bourgeoisie, rooted in Santa Cruz and Tarija, held during the neoliberal era. In lieu of the capacity to control the central state, they’ve now retreated to demanding more power for the regional, departmental areas where their political influence remains strong. A particular fear from the perspective of the popular sectors is that if departmental autonomy is successful it will mean more departmental control – read Right wing dominance – over natural resources, in particular natural gas, which is primarily to be found in Tarija.
3. The Nationalization of Gas
Bolivia has the largest deposits of natural gas in South America after Venezuela. Petrobras (Brazil), Repsol (Spain), Total (France), and BG and BP of the UK are the major transnational corporations with interests in the natural gas sector in Bolivia. Petrobras and Repsol are by far the leading actors, controlling almost 70 percent of the gas reserves in Bolivia.
The demand to nationalize the hydrocarbons sector (oil and gas) was the most fundamental of popular aspirations in the last three years of mobilization. On May 1, 2006, Labor Day, Evo Morales announced the nationalization of gas, mobilizing the country’s military and military police forces to occupy all offices, refineries, and gas fields throughout Bolivia. Signs read, “Nacionalizado: Propiedad de los Bolivianos / Nationalized: Property of Bolivians.” The extent and significance of the reality of this nationalization – as juxtaposed to its image in both the eyes of celebrating radicals and satanizing transnational petroleum corporations and imperialist governments – is still very ambiguous, however.15 There is no space here to enter into all the technical and legal details and ambiguities, so I will try only to bring to light those that are most important.
It makes sense to begin with Supreme Decree 28701, or The Heroes of the Chaco Decree (named after the tens of thousands of overwhelmingly indigenous soldiers who died in the 1930s Chaco War between Paraguay and Bolivia), which declares the nationalization of gas and details the components of the measure in nine articles.16 The preamble to the decree points out the important fact that, according to the fifth section of article 59 of Bolivia’s Constitution, contracts concerning the exploitation of the country’s national wealth must be authorized and approved by the legislative body of government.17 The hydrocarbons sector was privatized by President Sánchez de Lozada in 1996. Between 1997 and 2005, under the conditions of the Capitalization Law, 72 contracts of 20 petroleum companies were entered into illegally because they were never approved by the legislature, but rather by the President alone. The preamble points this out as if to say to the petroleum companies operating in Bolivia that any negotiations that the Bolivian government embarks on with them from this day forward concerning their current contracts are a favor from the government to the companies because the contracts have no legal standing.18
Article one of the decree includes some powerful wording: “The state reclaims the property, possession and total and absolute control of these resources.” Article two states that, as of May 1, 2006, all petroleum companies that are currently active in the production of gas or petroleum within the national territory are obliged to hand over to the property of YPFB – the representative of the Bolivian state – the entire production of hydrocarbons. Article three gives all petroleum companies currently operating in Bolivia 180 days to sign new contracts with the Bolivian state, to be approved by the legislature as required by the constitution. If the companies do not sign new contracts they will be required to cease operations within Bolivia.
Article four states, “Durante el período de transición / During the period of transition [my emphasis],” gas field’s whose average certified production of natural gas in 2005 was more than 100 million cubic feet daily will be subject to the following tax regime on the value of gas produced: 82% for the state and 18% for the company. This measure will hit the two largest gasfields, San Alberto and San Antonio, currently owned and operated by Petrobras (Brazil), Repsol YPF (Spain), and, to a lesser degree, Total (France). The smaller camps will continue with the current tax regime of 50% to the company, 50% to the state. Article four further states that the Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy will determine, on a case by case basis, through a process of audits, the investments made by each company, how much they have recouped, the costs of operations, and the rates of profitability in each field. These audits are to serve as guidelines for the new contracts between YPFB and each company over the next 180 days.19
Article five declares that the state will take control and direction of production, transport, refinancing, storage, distribution, marketing, and industrialization of hydrocarbons in the country. According to the article, the Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy will be responsible for regulating these activities until new rules are established by law. Article six dictates that the state will transfer the shares of Bolivian citizens that form part of the Fondo de Capitalización Colectiva (Collective Capitalization Fund, FCC), in the capitalized petroleum companies, Chaco SA, Andina SA, and Transredes SA, to YPFB . Previously, in these cases, “foreign companies had 51% with 49% split between private pension funds and the government, which used the dividends to pay a pension to older Bolivians.”20 The same article also guarantees the ongoing payment of pensions.21
Article seven, in softer language than other articles, declares that the state will reclaim full participation in the entire production chain in the hydrocarbons sector. It will nationalize the necessary shares to control 51% of Chaco SA, Andina SA, Transredes SA, Petrobras Bolivia Refinación SA and Compañía Logística de Hidrocarburos de Bolivia SA. Articles eight and nine, finally, are rather empty, declaring that in the next sixty days YPFB will be restructured into a transparent and efficient state company under social control.
While there is no doubt that some of the general wording of the decree is very radical in today’s global ideological context, and seem to suggest something approaching a real nationalization of the hydrocarbons industry, the wording that actually operationalizes concrete measures is substantially less radical. Moreover, the theatrical presentation of the nationalization decree by Morales and García Linera has played up the radical generalities, misled the public on the interpretation of fundamental measures included in the decree, left ambiguities hanging, and generally avoided most specificities of actual concrete state action.
It is important to remember that Constituent Assembly elections are fast approaching (July 3), and that by the end of April polls showed support for Morales had slipped from a high of 80% to 62%.22
On the day of the nationalization García Linera made a tremendous deal out of the fact that out of the two largest gas fields – which account for over 70% of production of hydrocarbons in the country – the state will now receive 82% of the value of gas produced through a variety of taxes, while the foreign gas companies will take only 18%. He compared this to the neoliberal era of hated ex-presidents Hugo Banzer, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (Goni), and Jorge (Tuto) Quiroga, under whom the tax regime was precisely the reverse: 18% for the state, and 82% for the companies. Under hydrocarbons Law 3058, passed a year ago under Mesa (and still in effect), the tax regime was changed to 50/50.23 From the balcony of the presidential palace on May Day García Linera told the crowds of MAS supporters that this would generate an additional $320 million American for the Bolivian state, Bolivian children, and Bolivian employment in the next year.24 At a later date, adviser to the president of YPFB, Manuel Morales Olievera, stated, “On 1 of May the [existing] contracts died, and now there are new game rules.”25
What was not emphasized was that the 82-18 arrangement is a transitory measure. It is meant as a bargaining chip to force the gas companies operating in these large gas fields to enter into new contracts as soon as possible, contracts that are not at all guaranteed to continue under said tax regime. After the many misleading original statements by the government, official sources over time, in the face of probing questions from the media, have opened up somewhat on the reality of the situation. Far from having “nationalized” hydrocarbons, the decree opens a process of negotiation. MAS deputy Javier Zavaleta, for example, said recently, “the decree will give us an advantage to negotiate.”26
Many conservative analysts and business players – whatever the initial berserk posturing in front of the media by industry representatives at the first news of the nationalization – seem to recognize this aspect of the decree. According to The Economist, “One industry source calls the ceremony a ‘pantomime’ to calm the radicals among Mr. Morales’s supporters, and forecasts that the government will offer the companies a 50/50 revenue split.”27 Conservative political scientist Fernando Mayorga Urgate, director of the Centro de Estudios Superiores Universitarios (Center for Higher University Studies, CESU) in Cochabamba, told the Argentinian newspaper La Nación, “the discursive rhetoric of Morales is radical, but his decisions are not.” René Mayora, another conservative political scientist based in the Centro Boliviano de Estudios Multidisciplinarios (Bolivian Center for Multidisciplinary Studies, CEBEM) in La Paz, stated, “Morales launched the decree to strengthen his position in the negotiations.”28
There are, it seems – having reviewed two weeks worth of analyses since the decree was passed – really only two limited areas in which it is clear that some form of “nationalization” will take place. First, the gas refineries of Gualberto Villarroel in Cochabamba, and Guillermo Elder Bell in Santa Cruz, owned and operated by Petrobras since 1999, will be brought under state control. The state will buy 51% of shares at market value. This is part of what is being referred to in Article seven. Having 51% control of refineries and storage facilities is what the government appears to be referring to when they say that YPFB will have total control of production of gas in Bolivia. Second, the decree dictates, in article six, the increase to 51% of the state’s controlling shares in the “capitalized” gas companies of Chaco SA, Andina SA, and Transredes SA. Bolivian citizens already own up to 49% of shares in these companies, regulated through the Collective Capitalization Fund (FCC), so in accordance with the decree the state will transfer shares from the FCC to YPFB and likely (it is not entirely clear) buy the necessary shares – from three percent to 17 percent depending on the capitalized company – to raise the state presence to 51%. It is important to note that together these companies control only 9.7% of the reserves of natural gas in Bolivia, and 9.8% of the less-important reserves of oil.29
In addition to the transitory 82-18 relationship, and the limited specifics on what actually will be “nationalized” – if not expropriated without compensation as the social movements demanded –, there are tensions and contradictions between some aspects of the decree and the hydrocarbons Law 3058 which remains in place. For example, decree 28701 indicates that YPFB will determine volumes and prices of gas, but this would require a modification of Law 3058, which would in turn require parliamentary debate.30 It has also been pointed out that the second section of Article 5 in the decree, which asserts that the Minister of Hydrocarbons and Energy will begin regulating activities mentioned in the article, contradicts the existing hydrocarbons law which assigns this task to the Superintendent of Hydrocarbons. In the words of one neoliberal journalist, “A decree cannot change a law,” and so no one really knows the consequences of certain aspects of this decree which run counter to the existing law.31
Economists from the La Paz-based Centro de Estudios para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario (CEDLA), draw the following conclusions: “… the state will not become the principal agent in the sector. The transnational corporations will continue fundamentally defining the rhythm and direction of the Bolivian hydrocarbons chain…. the deposits, the infrastructure, the equipment, etc., will continue under their control.”32
This is not to suggest the struggle for the nationalization of hydrocarbons is over, and that the popular sectors have lost entirely. It is, however, to point out the mystification perpetrated by the MAS administration with regard to certain respects of their nationalization decree, and the severe limitations that “nationalization” will run up against in its current form. However, the immediate hysterical reaction by far right business groups and political organizations, both locally and in the imperial countries that host the largest transnational gas corporations, are spawning a renewed polarization within Bolivian society which may once again radicalize the popular sectors into not simply defending the seriously flawed decree and nationalization process to date, but towards pushing the process at least moderately toward actual nationalization, or closer to the real demands of the last six years of massive mobilization. It is also important to note that whatever the limitations of the decree in Bolivia, the political idea of nationalizations natural resources and placing them under social control is once again on the agenda of many social movements throughout Latin America, something unimaginable only ten years ago.
Much more serious consideration of this question is required, but we will shift now to an examination of a series of other issues concerning the first 100 days of the MAS administration.
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