It is fascinating to watch mainstream press coverage of Bolivian president Evo Morales and his plans to reclaim his country’s natural resources for Bolivians. None of the press regards this as a victory. Instead, nearly all coverage assumes the skeptical and fearful perspective of foreign investors, who consider themselves the rightful beneficiaries of Bolivia’s natural wealth. “Dammit!” goes the subtext. “Now we won’t be able to earn the same sorts of massive profits that we did before.”
Read The New York Times or The Economist, and the storyline is all about the difficulties that Bolivia will now face in attracting foreign investment and tech expertise, and Morales’ political showmanship (which is meant to be read as “self-serving expediency”). There’s also a lot of hand-wringing over Morales’ friendliness with Hugo Chavez in Venezeula and Fidel Castro in Cuba, and concern that even Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is too conciliatory.
Nowhere is there any recognition that perhaps justice will be better served by the people controlling their own resources. Nowhere is there an acknowledgment that the neoliberal system of the past 25 years failed miserably, and that now, perhaps, the poorest nation in Latin America may now have a realistic chance to develop itself and its people.
It helps to remember that Bolivia was one of the first countries, in the early 1980s, to sell off government-run companies and natural resources to foreign investors. Regulations were swept aside, environmental concerns given short shrift, and corruption flourished. Foreign investors may have prospered, but for the people of Bolivia, the neoliberal regime of privatization, deregulation and free trade has been a disaster.
Morales will surely face many difficulties in taking control over natural gas and mining production. The companies will need professional managers, access to new technology and capital, and safeguards against corruption. But unlike wholesale nationalizations of the 1950s, Morales is not confiscating corporate resources or kicking companies out. He is still open to private investment and profitmaking. He proposes a collaborative relationship, but one that gives the Bolivian government and people their fair share.
For example, Morales has ordered a government audit of natural gas production (that’s controversial?) and increased the state’s take from the two largest natural gas fields, from $460 million to $780 million. The government-run company, YPFB, will take a majority stake in the main gas and oil production companies in Bolivia. What’s wrong with the people’s representative, government, becoming a responsible steward of the people’s resources? That’s known as protecting the commons.
The president of YPFB, Jorge Alvarado, was recently quoted as saying, “Now is the moment to recuperate our sovereignty and dignity. We want to show that Bolivians can run our hydrocarbons industry.” The corporate press would have us believe that this aspiration is somehow despicable. Perhaps they fear that Americans, too, might begin to ask uncomfortable questions how their own national wealth is being plundered and mismanaged.