LA PAZ —The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this week pulled out 102 missionaries from Bolivia and placed them in a more stable country, Peru. This is a signal that the country is no longer safe for Americans.
The Church’s actions result from a dangerous confrontational situation between the Marxists and proponents of free enterprise in that country.
Protesters stormed a small airport Friday and blocked major highways across eastern Bolivia in a standoff over central government reforms designed to empower Bolivia’s indigenous majority.
President Evo Morales’ attempts to change the constitution, redirect natural gas revenues to the poor and redistribute fallow land are meeting with staunch opposition from the country’s energy-rich eastern provinces.
An airport was closed in Cobija, on Bolivia’s northeastern border with Brazil, after opposition-allied protesters stormed the runways and seized a military aircraft, Army Col. Col. Velasco said.
Hundreds of vehicles blocked a highway connecting Bolivia’s administrative capital of La Paz with the prosperous eastern lowlands city of Santa Cruz.
In the southeastern Chaco region, Bolivian radio broadcaster Erbol reported fuel and food shortages in some communities cut off by protests. So far five people have been at least 16 killed and 30 injured in bloody riots over energy and phone control.
Highway blockades were ordered on Wednesday by the governors of five states that oppose holding a national referendum on a constitution written by allies of the president.
The opposition provinces are seeking greater autonomy from Morales’ leftist government. Critics contend that Morales’ proposed constitution does not represent all Bolivians and object to a section that allows presidential reelection.
Morales is seeking congressional approval for a Dec. 7 referendum on the constitution after electoral authorities blocked a presidential decree.
The move to government ownership of vital resources was prompted by an election in 2006 where Evo Morales was successful based on his anti-poverty and liberal energy platform where he promised to take these people–the most indigenous of all of South America–out of poverty on the shoulders of big energy which he said he would take over.
This platform reportedly resulted from cries from the poor for political change and was fed by the urgings of neighboring country Venezuela and its aggressive outspoken Marxist president Hugo Chavez who claims to be a friend of Bolivia.
For several years the United States has propped up this small land-bound country of 9.5 million people with foreign aid to help wean their farmers away from growing the Coca leaf from which drugs are produced.
President Evo Morales celebrated May Day by announcing the nationalization of Bolivia’s leading telecommunications company, Entel, and returning four foreign-owned natural gas companies to state control.
Morales said his government would take ”absolute control from this moment on” of the former state telephone company, in which Telecom Italia owns a 50 percent share.
Morales announced plans to “buy back” Entel last year, but negotiations with Telecom Italia have dragged out. Following Thursday’s decree, Bolivian police were dispatched to guard Entel offices in La Paz and the eastern city of Santa Cruz.
”Basic services — call them energy, water or communications — cannot be in the hands of private business. They’re public services,” Morales told a crowd outside the presidential palace during celebrations of international workers’ day in May.
Terms of the nationalization are not immediately clear, though Morales said the company’s employees would keep their jobs.
Morales also announced the return to state control of four former pieces of Bolivia’s state energy company YPFB, which was privatized during the 1990s. He had announced plans for that move when he declared the nationalization of Bolivia’s oil and gas sector on May Day 2006.
The president said he has signed an agreement to purchase a majority share in the gas production company Andina from Spanish company Repsol YPF.
Hydrocarbons Minister Carlos Villegas said the deal gives YPFB, long a bit player in its own country, an active role in Bolivia’s two largest gas fields, San Alberto and San Antonio.
Morales commended Repsol as the ‘’symbol of a business that negotiates” — while announcing the nationalization of three other foreign-owned energy companies that failed to work out a deal before his April 30 deadline.
Gas production company Chaco, controlled by British Petroleum; the pipeline company Transredes, controlled by the Houston-based Ashmore Energy International, and German-Peruvian owned distribution company CLBH will all have been turned over to state control.
Terms of the nationalizations were not available.
Bolivia privatized the struggling Entel in 1995, handing 50 percent of the company to Stet International in exchange for the Italian company’s promise to invest $608 million to modernize its services. Stet later merged with Telecom Italia.
Telecom Italia says it has spent more than that to build Bolivia’s largest cellphone and Internet networks while maintaining a commanding share of the now-deregulated telecommunications sector.
In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez ordered the expropriation of Venezuela’s largest steel maker after attempts by the government to acquire a majority stake in the company failed. Chávez said iderurgica del Orinoco, which was controlled by Luxembourg-based Ternium, will become “a socialist company.
Sidor, as the company is known, ”has now recuperated by the revolutionary government,” Chávebz said.
Since winning reelection in 2006 on promises to steer his country toward socialism, Chávez has made nationalizing major industries a top priority.
His government last year seized majority control of the country’s largest telecommunications and electricity companies, and of joint oil ventures run by some of the world’s largest oil companies.
Whether nationalization of industries will help the poor, we shall see. Brazil is Bolivia’s main customer for natural gas and have been promised rate hikes by the Morales government which it promises to give to its poor.