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Bolivians vote for future of energy exports

Having won a national referendum to export the nation’s vast natural gas reserves, Bolivia's president now must figure out how to use revenues to benefit the nation's impoverished majority.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Having won a national referendum to export the nation’s vast natural gas reserves, Bolivia's president now must figure out how to best exploit and share those resources without a repeat of violence last year that left nearly 60 people dead.

President Carlos Mesa told reporters that voters said “yes” to all five questions on Sunday’s natural gas ballot, including the one about exportation and another backing greater state control of reserves.

“Bolivia has shown the world today that it is not a country — as many had suggested — in risk of falling apart,” Mesa said Sunday night. “The most important message is that peace has overcome violence.”

Exit polls by Unitel and ATB television stations said that between 56 percent and 63 percent said “yes” to the key question asking if gas should be exported, and that voters also backed the other questions. The polls have margins of error of 2.3 and 3.0 percentage points, respectively. Initial official results were not expected until late Tuesday.

Last president lost job
The gas issue is highly sensitive in Bolivia, where tension between the poor Indian majority and the ruling elite has produced simmering social tensions.

The deadly October uprising in and around La Paz was sparked by then-President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada’s plan to export gas to Mexico and California. Opponents of exporting the gas say the financial benefits would not reach the poor, while proponents say the money is needed to help South America’s poorest country develop.

The unrest led to Sanchez de Lozada’s ouster. Mesa stepped up from the vice presidency to finish Sanchez de Lozada’s term through 2007 and immediately offered the referendum.

Mesa, whose approval ratings are around 70 percent, had campaigned heavily for Bolivians to chose polls over protests. Many saw the success of referendum as a vote of confidence for Mesa.

Although radical highland Indian leaders who helped lead the October revolts threatened to sabotage Sunday’s vote, police only reported minor violence in two highland spots between La Paz and Lake Titicaca.

Disturbances included a dynamite blast and some 100 protesters running off international elections observers. No injuries were reported.

Mesa also said that voter turnout, a way of measuring the depth of his support, was “well over 50 percent.”

Congress must act next
It would likely take weeks or months before it became clear how Congress would transform the referendum responses into laws reflecting the public will.

On Monday, “the long process of seeking consensus will continue in a nation that obsesses tremendously over its differences and where antagonism trumps things that could bring us together,” economist Juan Carlos Iturri said.

Valued at more than $70 billion, the gas fields in this landlocked country are the second largest on the continent behind those in Venezuela.

Lured by privatization of the industry, some 20 foreign companies have invested $3.5 billion in exploration, discovering 55 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Some Bolivians remained wary of the referendum and pledges that exporting gas will increase incomes and social spending in a nation where two-thirds of Bolivia’s 8.7 million people live in poverty.

“There have been so many promises, and the government always does what it wants,” said Patricia Mamani, a 28-year-old street vendor in La Paz.

Breakaway threat
The gas reserves have pitted the wants of poor Indians in the western Andean plains against those of the business elite in the eastern and southern lowlands, where the gas is located.

The business leaders are set on exportation and have threatened to break away from the republic, while radical indigenous leaders want the entire gas industry nationalized — an option Mesa left off the ballot.

In addition to the exportation question, the ballot asked if the government should recover ownership of all hydrocarbon reserves and re-establish the state-run oil company to work with multinational petroleum companies.

It also asked if Bolivia should use the gas to negotiate access to the pacific coast lost during Bolivia’s 1879-84 war with Chile and if a hydrocarbons law signed by Sanchez de Lozada that attracted foreign investment, should be repealed.