Morales nationalises gas?

Submitted by Anon on 16 May, 2006 - 12:36

By David Broder

Bourgeois opinion was shocked on 1 May when new Bolivian president announced that he was going to nationalise the country’s gas resources. Troops were sent to occupy refineries and installations where the hydrocarbons are extracted as Evo Morales decreed, “The time has come, the awaited day, a historic day in which Bolivia retakes absolute control of our natural resources”.

This move surprised the multinationals — Petrobras, the Brazilian energy giant, and the Spanish government, both complained that Morales had earlier promised “negotiations” before he took any moves to nationalise hydrocarbonss. Morales had indeed said, “foreign companies have every right to recover investments and make profits, but profits should be balanced”. Petrobras has suspended its investments.

However while Morales’ move will hurt profits, it is by no means an expropriation of the multinationals. That has been the demand of the trade unions and social movements in their struggles against neoliberalism. The Bolivian government has not in fact seized control of the gas or infrastructure — the troops are there to force the hand of multinationals into signing up for new contracts within a 180-day deadline.

Morales has declared illegal the 1996 privatisation of the state gas company YPFB — at that time broken up into five capitalised companies and sold off to multinationals — since this was never ratified by Congress. Yet he now plans to force the multinationals to sell to the state part of their stake in these privatised units. For example, the Andina and Chaco companies are 51% controlled by BP, Repsol and Amoco — Morales is going to pay them so that the state controls another 3%, making the foreign companies minority owners. By doing this, he effectively legitimises their control of the 48% they’ll be keeping. This is not the expropriation without compensation that the workers’ movement had demanded.

Indeed, in many ways the law of nationalisation is simply implementing the “3058 law” of 2005, which demanded a 50% tax on gas production. Out of 56 gas fields in Bolivia, only at the two largest will this be increased to 82%. Despite expressing some concern at the tax hike, the multinationals can still make enough profits to stay, even if they happen to be minority controllers — the cost of hydrocarbon production in Bolivia is only one-sixth of the international price. And they have taken two pieces of good news from the government’s May Day decree — the state has both legitimised their property rights over the gas, and also made it less likely that they will ever be forced to leave Bolivia.

This is no answer to neoliberalism. Morales has not even enforced the bourgeois law that the multinationals have no formal legal control of the gas, never mind moved as far as challenging property rights.

His claim that he cannot alienate international opinion by breaking their laws, “I am a prisoner of neoliberal laws” rings hollow — there is a huge market for the hydrocarbons produced in Bolivia, and he does not need these companies to extract it for him. Indeed, if he really were wholly reliant on the multinationals’ support, he would not even have been able to raise tax as much as he did.

Morales’ whole strategy in government has been of small reforms and big demagogy. A small increase in the minimum wage and his “nationalisation” of gas were delivered with plenty of rhetoric, but in fact on both counts he has fallen far short of electoral promises.

His agenda is bourgeois-nationalist — he has said that “this country needs bosses” and expressed a will to put more power into the hands of home-grown business rather than foreigners — “it is true, in the past I was against the oligarchs, but I recognise that it was an error, because we need bosses”.

His programme is not dissimilar from that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has set up joint ventures between state oil firm PDVSA and international energy giants such as Total, BP and ExxonMobil — the tax on these multinationals last week increased from 17% to 33%, and from 34% to 50% for heavy crude extraction. Indeed, PDVSA will be helping to oversee the changes in Bolivia.

Leader of the Bolivian trade union federation Jaime Solares has attacked Morales for his “demagogy” in this “partial nationalisation”. Undoubtedly Morales’ reform will go some way towards appeasing the masses who have fought so hard against neoliberalism and privatisation over the last few years. The answer is to support the reforms as far as they go, but say that it is nowhere near enough, and indeed much less than a mobilised, militant working class like that of Bolivia could have achieved.

Morales has once again proved the limitations of a reformism by his failure - in fact, his refusal - to take on the bourgeois order of property relations. Expropriating the multinationals and taking control of the nation’s wealth is the task of the Bolivian trade unions and social movements – their leaders have promised to keep up the pressure.