Nationalization's Growing Pains
Most recently in the Chuquisaca department, about 4,000 Huanuni miners stormed the Constituent Court building located in the city of Sucre. The cooperative miners are dissatisfied with government decree 28901 that gives Bolivia’s state-owned mining corporation, COMIBOL, exclusive control of the Posokoni tin deposits in Huanuni.
Miners claim that the law is unconstitutional and attacked the building after judges refused to discuss the government’s nationalization plan with mining leaders. It is the first major situation for new Mining Minister Luis Alberto Echazú. Two police officers were wounded, but the protests mostly resulted in property damage. It illustrated the fragility of a truce between the Morales government and certain elements of the mining sector that ensued after violent clashes left 17 dead in October 2006.
The government sent hundreds of troops to the scene to retake control of a natural gas pipeline to Argentina run by Transredes - the Bolivian subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. The army removed dozens of protesters while hundreds of other protestors gathered 30 miles away outside the San Alberto natural gas field, run by Brazil's Petrobras. After a demonstrator was shot and killed, 47 police officers were held hostage in Yacuiba municipal offices for more than 20 hours before their release was negotiated.
The government blamed Tarija’s governor, Mario Cossío, for provoking the situation. Tarija is one of the four autonomist departments and Cossío - a member of the opposition Nationalist Revolutionary Movement - accused the government of exploiting the conflict to undermine his position.
It was almost a year ago that President Morales nationalized the hydrocarbon sector on May 1, 2006. Yet, the government's oil and gas contracts with foreign multinationals were still unresolved until April 19th of this year.
Previously marked by irregularities, lawmakers unanimously approved 44 new contracts that the government originally signed in October with multinational oil companies including Repsol, Petrobras, Total, BP, British Gas, and ExxonMobil. Finally Bolivia has majority control of its energy sector.
Social and labor movements have demonstrated that the art of citizen protest is alive and well in Bolivia. Natural resources and the right to benefit from their use are at the root of several citizen demonstrations, from regional autonomy to the most recent conflicts over tin and gas. The passionate protectionism that Bolivians feel for their resources can not be quelled easily - even with the popular election of an indigenous, labor leader.