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Piped gas

Crisis between Brazil and Bolivia has more geopolitical reasons than economic ones

Bolivia has not always been under the influence of polemical Venezuelans. Simon Bolivar, for example, in whose honor the country was baptized, wanted the new nation to be “an association of free and equal individuals, fraternal and united by one and the same project, one same contract”. In a letter, written shortly before he died, in 1830, the Liberator let off, less enthusiastic and more realistic. “This country, inevitably, is going to fall into the hands of the disorganized mass, to pass on, afterwards, to those of almost imperceptible tyrants, of all colors and races”. The “nation of equals”, today, has almost transformed itself in to the boutade said last century by a Spanish diplomat: “Bolivia is a geographical nonsense”. Wretched, unpopulated, having lost 53% of its territory in the first century of independent existence, without any way out to the sea, with almost 190 coups d’état in its biography, Bolivar’s dream is a patchwork quilt of over 36 indigenous nations at the top of the Andes, in total counterpoint to a white minority concentrated in the eastern region, in particular Santa Cruz, in a struggle against their “Bolivianization”.

The country has now drawn patriotic protests from Brazilians who do not forgive the daring of the poor neighbor that has “laid its hands” on Petrobras and on our gas. “To go straight to the point, I’m worried about the deterioration of democracy in the countries you mentioned”, American president George W. Bush said in a recent interview, referring to Venezuela and Bolivia. Oddly enough, the election of Evo Morales was a result of a democratic Bolivian desire to achieve a unified country at last. “Rather than aiming his batteries at Brazil or Chile, what he wanted to do was to try for a political unity in a state that is almost a fiction, divided by the ethnic question. He has never had any prominence in Bolivian society, and his party, the MAS, observing the proportions, was an ad hoc arrangement, like Fernando Collor’s PRN. Evo, though, was elected. Not for being a socialist, revolutionary, etc., but for being an Indian”, explains José Alexandre Hage, the author of the doctoral thesis “Bolivia, Brazil and natural gas”, from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). “Today, the 80% of Bolivia’s Indians can feel they are symbolized by a brother who was going to try to unite everybody to a common good, with distribution of income by means of the nationalization of hydrocarbons. Whether it is going to work is another story. But the political symbolism of the action is an undeniable success.”

According to Hage, Brazilian national prominence, both for the promotion of power and by the integrative route, has always generated mistrust amongst the immediate neighbors. “The complaint is that our foreign policy brings engraved in its soul the behavior of “hegemonism”, to the detriment of the bordering countries, and it has always been feared that Brazil would exercise a “Latin American division of labor”, in which it would export manufactured products and force the partners to concentrate on exporting agricultural and primary products.” And this mistrust is not new. “Fellow deputies: a powerful neighbor, perhaps trusting in its strength, wishes to ignore the law, but the Bolivian people must assume a heroic defense of its prerogatives.” The speech, which appears to have come out of the mouth of Morales yesterday, actually was made in 1958, by a Bolivian deputy against Brazil. Those who praise the Baron of Rio Branco for the firm way he dealt with the 1903 conflict with Bolivia forget to mention that this action was followed by decades of discomfort between the two nations. The Bolivians soon realized that their geopolitics involved the possession of its hydrocarbons, and they were pioneers in creating, in 1936, their own Petrobras, the YFPB. “The developmentalist project of Vargas needs an oil surplus to achieve the replacement of imports and industrialization. Hence the treaty on the shipment and use of Bolivian petroleum, in which the Brazilian dictator undertook to construct a railroad to carry the Bolivian petroleum away”, says Hage.

After the nationalist movement of 1952, in which a group of indigenous workers and peasants nationalized mines and carried out an agrarian reform, Brazil took the matter up again. In 1958, with the Roboré Agreements, the Brazilian government undertook to buy all of Bolivia’s petroleum, finding a use for its natural gas, as well as promising to transport it by a gas pipeline linking Santa Cruz to the Southeast of Brazil, and, for good measure, collaborating with the construction of advantageous infrastructure for the poor neighbor. So it is not just today that Brazil has been investing in Bolivia in order to maintain the political stability desirable for safeguarding our enterprises on Bolivian soil. But our diplomacy has changed, and it has changed a lot “I think that a certain ideological component may be present in the negotiations between the Lula government and Morales, but they are not points on the agenda for discussion. Brazil’s reaction to the nationalization follows a model developed almost 15 years ago by the Brazilian Foreign Office which preaches integration between the countries of Latin America as a way for Brazil’s secure position, as a way of barring the power of the FTAA”, in the researcher’s analysis.

According to Hage, Brazilian geopolitics have gone on from their previous “arrogance”, in which we saw ourselves as born leaders capable of being a counterpoint to the USA, such as used to be thought in the 1950s and 60s, to a vision of conciliation, more modern and “humble”. “As from the 1990s, our diplomacy takes up the strategy of softening the image of a subimperialist country and starting laying its chips the role as the conductor of an integration with the America’s, relinquishing prominence for its own sake”, Hage explains. Before this, thought was only given to cooperation between Brazil and Argentina, as if the other neighbors did not matter. Collor engaged himself in this, with the Treaty of Asunción, and, afterwards, with FHC, the Brazilian government went so far as to think that Mercosur was too little: the Andean community had to be attracted to the integrated bloc. The Brazil-Bolivia gas pipeline, or Gasbol, although cherished since the days of Geisel, is a concrete result of this new diplomatic policy of being nice to our “hermanos” [brothers]. Alongside this, there was the practical aspect.

In 1993, physicist Pinguelli Rosa and the group of the COP (Conference of the Parties) were already warning of the potential exhaustion of Brazilian energy reserves, foreseeing an electricity crisis. Without the conditions for building new power plants quickly (not to mention the high costs), the solution seemed to lie with the thermoelectric power plants, which would make the Bolivian gas even more attractive in economic terms than in diplomatic terms. According to Hage, with a smaller investment and a greater return, they were an invitation for the entry of foreign companies. Hence, he observes, the privatization of companies like Comgás. ‘so there is a certain opportunism of many politicians and old diplomats in attacking the reaction of the present-day government to the action of Bolivia. You may like the Lula government or not, but what happened was the grand finale of what had begun years ago, during the FHC government. You can’t blame the current government exclusively, merely lament having maintained the same model, founded on the fallacy that integration is the solution for the problems of a globalized world”, the professor warns.

What the Morales government shows, albeit on a modest scale, is a characteristic of the countries that have in their energy resources their greatest trump or vulnerability. Brazil can no longer face this problem with romanticism, clinging to the strategic plan of insertion via physical integration, which leads it to put up with the pique of its neighbors in the name of something greater, South American unity. As Afonso Arinos already used to say, “the act of being regionally integrated has, in principle, the implication that there is a clinging to and respect for the national affirmation of the countries, and not the contrary”. Integration is only for those that do not surrender.