Reversing Neoliberalism: An Interview With Bolivia's New Energy Minister

Evo Morales congratulates his new cabinet members (from right to left), Minister of Justice Casimira Rodriguez, Minister of Mining and Metal Walter Villaroel, and Minister of Hydrocarbons Andres Solis Rada, last week in La Paz. (Photo: Jaime Razuri / AFP-Getty Images)

Lawyer and journalist Andres Soliz Rada is one of the most well-known personalities on the Bolivian left. For over 30 years, since his involvement in the founding of the National Left current in Bolivia, he has been one of the strongest defenders of Bolivia's natural resources. Green Left Weekly's Federico Fuentes spoke to Soliz Rada just days before the election of Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, about what a Morales government would mean and the centrality of the issue of gas in Bolivia. Soliz Rada will now play a direct and strategic role as the newly appointed minister for hydrocarbons — a move that has many transnational corporations concerned.

Bolivia has been the site of resurgence of intense social struggle, predominantly by the country's indigenous majority, in defense of their natural resources and against the neoliberal policies imposed by consecutive governments. The issue of Bolivia's gas reserves — calculated at over a trillion cubic meters, the second largest in South America — has forced two presidents out of power and will be a key part of the success, or downfall, of the Morales government.

For Soliz Rada, "the issue of Bolivia's gas is deeply tied with the strategic importance of energy, principally gas and petroleum, at a global level. Having already been the most important issue of the past few years, it will be the key issue, at least for the first half of the 21st century." Soliz Rada believes that "the grand idea of the U.S. is to guarantee its global domination in the 21st century," and to do this it must "advance on a few issues that are a big worry for the U.S."

Resisting U.S. Domination

One concern is how to undermine the United Nations, which has acted as a "straight jacket" on the U.S. Washington's unilateral actions in Iraq have shown how the U.S. has made a partial advance on this front. The second has been the control over energy resources, also demonstrated by U.S. imperialism's actions in Iraq. "We can look at Iraq. They did not go there to overthrow a dictator. If instead of petroleum, Iraq's principal resource was chickens, the U.S. would not have invaded. But of course, it is not just the issue of Iraq — there is the Caspian Sea and Afghanistan, there is Nigeria in Africa and there is also Latin America.

"It just so happens that the principal provider from Latin America to the U.S. is Venezuela … which causes the U.S. a great problem. The U.S. has some support through its relations with Canada and Mexico, yet in South America, Bolivia holds … a regional importance. It cannot be compared to, for instance, the reserves in Indonesia, but the importance of Bolivia's gas for the region, for the transnational corporations that are operating in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, is very substantial."

The question of gas will present a key challenge for Bolivia's relations with the Argentine government of Nestor Kirchner and Brazil's Lula government. For many years, these countries have benefited from transnational corporations selling Bolivia's gas at heavily discounted prices. While the international price of gas was around $8-$10 per million British Thermal Unit, for example, Argentina was been receiving gas at $3.25 per million BTU. For Bolivians, this is a situation that must change in order to help lift the country out of poverty. This may cause conflict, particular with Kirchner, who on one hand plays tough with the I.M.F., but at the same time has "close ties to Repsol and other transnationals and has been involved in deals that have not benefited Bolivia," according to Soliz Rada.

The third issue is the undermining of Third World states to make U.S. domination easier. Soliz Rada believes that "in Bolivia there has been a long process, over the last 20 years, of the continuous weakening of the national state." He argues that this is "due to the lack of response by the state to the needs of the peoples, so many have attempted to resolve their problems in another manner."

Nationalizing the Gas

"If you are a citizen in Cordoba in Argentina and the Argentine state does not resolve your problems of food and housing, then the people of Cordoba will want to resolve their problems on their own," Soliz Rada explained. "So regionalism begins to appear, destabilizing the national state. That is what we are living through here in Bolivia. Because the problem is not resolved for Bolivians, people attempt to resolve it for Santa Cruz, for La Paz, for Tarija and that division is effective in creating the calls by different regions to have control over their natural resources. So we hear calls such as 'gas for Tarija,' 'gas for Santa Cruz' and 'why pay taxes if they misspend it in La Paz,' and it contributes to the weakening of the state.

"In Bolivia, there is the added problem of ethnicities, of the indigenous peoples. If I cannot resolve my problems as a Bolivian or a cruceno or a paceno, I want to resolve the problem as an Aymara, Quechua or Guarani. That is stoked by foreign interests, by the petroleum transnationals centered on the idea of weakening the national state. In Bolivia, the possibility of division has been building up — that a region goes to Brazil, that Tarija joins Argentina."

Yet Bolivia's gas, Soliz Rada said, can help resolve this issue, "because finally there is an idea" — the nationalization of Bolivia's gas — "that can unite the dispersed social sectors." The national mobilizations in May and June of 2005 not only threw out a president, but also were the first truly united mobilizations of the social movements, from the east to the west, behind the demand for nationalization. "Rather than demanding on behalf of Aymaras, Quechuas, Guaranis or for the people of Oruro or Chimore, they are now in agreement that the gas has to be recuperated for Bolivia. It is a banner that unites Bolivians."

Bolivia's gas "also has an extraordinary importance in external politics, because Bolivia could participate in [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chavez's idea of forming a consortium of state petroleum companies in South America — with Petrobras [from Brazil], Enarsa [from Argentina], YPBF from Bolivia and PDVSA [from Venezuela]" — which Chavez has named Petrosur.

"The state companies, united, could confront the grand consortiums such as Repsol from Spain, Amoco from the United States and British Petroleum. It could become a strong force of defense [against these corporations], and importantly we could begin to elaborate a development plan of big projects, of big dimensions for South America as a whole.

"The division of our peoples is a permanent form of domination. This idea of division has been overturned by Chavez. Just as internally the issue of gas can be a point of unity for Bolivians, there is now a point of unity for Latin America … which could generate serious concerns for the U.S., because you are generating a resistance of the national states." According to Soliz Rada, this resistance will be strengthened through Petrosur, as the issue of energy "will not be brokered by the U.S., but rather negotiated among the South American states."

Together, South America has around 15 percent of the world's energy resources, making Petrosur a potentially powerful player in global politics. "It is a project that will be very difficult, but I am convinced that we must go in that direction," added Soliz Rada.

The first steps were taken the day after Morales' inauguration. PDVSA opened an office in La Paz on Jan. 23. That same day, an agreement was signed by Chavez and Morales for cooperation between PDVSA and YPBF to develop projects for infrastructure, processing and refining of gas and petroleum.

Need for a National Vision

Speaking shortly before the elections, when polls indicated Morales was only narrowly ahead of the right-wing opposition, Soliz Rada explained that part of the problem was that "Evo does not exactly represent a national vision. Rather, Morales represents an indigenous vision of the Quechuas, Aymaras, those that for 500 years have had their rights postponed and now want them. A large part of the country believes that Evo will be a representative of the ethnic sectors, but from the point of view of Bolivia as a whole, there is a lack of a national project. That is why I have great respect for Hugo Chavez, because Chavez, coming from the oppressed sectors and marginalized regions, represents a national project for Venezuela. There is no talk of division of Venezuela, but rather it is a project of defense, in front of the transnational corporations."

Soliz Rada feared at the time that although Morales could win the presidency, he may face a senate controlled by the right and a majority of Bolivia's prefects (governors) controlled by forces unwilling to work with the national government. However, Morales' huge victory margin — although not giving him a majority in the senate, and winning only three of the nine governors — led Soliz Rada to write in an article published on Bolpress on Jan. 6, that "the miracle has occurred. Evo obtained 54% of the votes, which has given him the legitimacy necessary to reverse the neoliberal policies that took this country to the edge of disintegration."

Soliz Rada told Green Left Weekly that no matter the size of the victory of Morales' Movement Toward Socialism (M.A.S.), "there will be a grand opposition from sectors of the oligarchy in Santa Cruz." Although the massive victory has put the right on the defense, it will no doubt continue its plans for destabilization. In this context, Soliz Rada said that one of the dangers for M.A.S. would be the "radicalized social movements" created by years of marginalization and abandonment by the state. "I am worried about these sectors. M.A.S. will try to put a brake on the opposition from the right, but we could be in a situation where radicalized groups appear, demanding that in 100 days the petroleum transnationals be expelled, or in 30 days salaries be increased. Unfortunately, these groups do not have the maturity to realize that their attitudes could help the right-wing groups. I have the hope that the radicalized groups understand this risk. They have the right to put forward their aspirations and program, but doing so in a gradual manner, so that they do not destabilize the country, so that they don't aid the overthrow of a M.A.S. government."

"There are many political groups with their different ideas," Soliz Rada said, "but there is only one thing concretely at a national level, which is M.A.S. So it appears that the solution lies with M.A.S. becoming sufficiently large enough, broad and strong enough, so that it can become similar to the Venezuelan Bolivarian movement."

Soliz Rada concluded: "If M.A.S. converts itself into a Bolivarian movement, it will, along with this country, have a future. If this movement divides, is destroyed, we will regress back to the old neoliberal governments and probably the destruction of the country."

Published in Green Left Weekly Feb. 1, 2006.