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BOLIVIA
“The gas war”
José Antonio Aruquipa
10/9/2003
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Bolivians oppose export of natural gas and demand its industrialization.

It started with a peaceful march of thousands in major Bolivian cities on Sept. 19. Since then, the gas war has pushed Bolivia one of Latin America’s poorest countries, into a violent confrontation between marginalized classes and the right-wing government that hopes to sell natural gas to the United States.

On Aug. 7, 2001, then president Jorge Quiroga (LP Jul. 30, 2001) announced on taking office that the discovery of "almost 50 trillion cubic feet" of natural gas in wells of Margarita, Tarija in southern Bolivia would convert Bolivia into a leader of clean energy.

"The gas is and will be our best ambassador, our foreign minister and our best representative in the 21st century," Quiroga said.

A year later – three days before the inauguration of current president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (LP, Aug. 12, 2002) – a team of ministers of Quiroga’s government presented the "Project to Export Natural Gas to the California Market," detailing a multi-million-dollar project, "the only one in the world that requires the intervention of four countries," that involved drilling 16 wells up to 5,000 meters deep.

On the supply side, Bolivia and "another country on the Pacific coast" would be involved and on the demand side Mexico and the United States, the document said.

An investment of US$480 million was expected in drilling alone, according to the report. Total foreign investment expected for Bolivia from the project would be US$1.7 billion.

The report also said that the other South American country on the Pacific coast could be Peru or Chile. Although the analysis presented by the ministers indicated that there was a difference of US$760 million in favor of the Chilean option, Quiroga, who was about to leave office, left the decision pending. In spite of recommendations to choose the port "as soon as possible," Sánchez de Lozada – who was elected with just 22 percent of the vote and was allied with his diehard rival former president Jaime Paz Zamora (1988-1993) – decided to wait until a deal between the seller and buyer of the gas was reached.

This decision was the root cause of dozens of marches and protests that daily threaten not only to frustrate the gas project but to further destabilize Bolivia’s democracy, this year experiencing its worst crisis in its 21-year history.

Eight out of 10 Bolivians oppose the choice of a Chilean port, according to recent polls. The reasons are political and historical and date back to the War of the Pacific in 1879, when Bolivia lost its access to the sea. Bolivians see this problem as the main reason for the country’s poverty and lack of economic progress. Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been cut off since 1978.

Although the population at first protested against the choice of a Chilean port, the protests are now calling for the "recovery of the gas" and Sanchez de Lozada’s resignation.

"Neither Chile nor Peru, industrialize the gas," shouted protesters in El Alto sector as they joined demonstrators in La Paz.

The protesters demand that the gas be industrialized for use in the internal market only then export it.

Nevertheless, in line with Pacific LNG, the consortium that won the option to develop the gas, Vice Minister of Energy Mario Requena ratified in a press conference that the only option was to export the gas via a Chilean port.

"The people (from Pacific LNG) are going to say: ‘Hey it’s not my problem that you had a war 120 years ago, that’s not my problem. Tell me who is going to pay the difference (in the investment required to build the pipeline through Peru? Where’s the check? I have to make this investment now.’"

Although Sanchez de Lozada questioned Requena’s statement, the government’s position only aggravated the discontent of Bolivians who hold protests daily to reject the gas export project.

The government began a campaign of so-called "socialization" and "consultation" on Sept. 15 regarding the sale of gas. Mines and Energy Minister Jorge Berindoague later clarified that the government would not necessarily take public opinion into account.

"We’re going to give all the information. When the government decides from which port (the gas) is going to be shipped, the population can say ‘I agree with this or I don’t agree’. This is the government’s position."

Meanwhile, in the west of the country and in Cochabamba, city that three years ago saw a "water war" against the privatization of the water company (LP, March 20,2000), a movement was emerging to block the gas project.

Evo Morales, leader of the main opposition party Socialist Movement (MAS), along with Oscar Rivera, leader of the Coordinating Body for the Water of Cochabamba and leftist intellectuals joined in the National Coordinating Body for Defense and Recovery of Gas (CNDRG) called the protest march for Sept. 19

If the government insists on exporting gas via Chile "it would be awful and treason against Bolivians," Morales said.

On Sept. 20, in what the government called "a humanitarian operation" to rescue tourists isolated in the mountain town of Sorata due to the blockage of roads, security forces shot at campesinos who prevented entry to the town. Residents responded by firing back. Seven people died and several more were wounded.

Sanchez de Lozada told foreign journalists on Sept. 30 that the government still had not elected the port, which has aggravated the anti-gas protests. Latest clashes between protestors and the police on Oct. 9 left at least two dead and several injured.


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Eight out of 10 Bolivians oppose the choice of a Chilean port for the export of gas.
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