Bolivian President Suspends Gas Export Project

Bolivia's President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada issued a supreme decree Sunday suspending the export of natural gas faced with blockades of fuel depots and a public transport strike in capital city La Paz in protest at such exports.

Gas exports would be through the Pacific LNG project, and the suspension delays the choice of a port for the liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal until "public consultations" are completed. "The government is playing its last card," independent analyst Alvaro Rios told BNamericas, adding that if the move does not come off, it could be the end of Sanchez de Lozada's presidency.

The main problem is over the differing interpretations of what a "public consultation" means: the government has already started a series of 400 seminars designed to inform the public and receive feedback about the gas export project, something that opposition leaders say is too little too late. Opposition leaders are calling for the government to hold a public referendum on the gas issue, but the government says such a formal consultation is illegal under the country's constitution. "Teachers, bus drivers, miners, and all social sectors have different demands and the only thing uniting them right now is gas," Rios said. "People have nothing to lose," he said, adding, "The political system has lost its credibility."

Transport in Bolivia's capital city La Paz was still paralyzed Monday despite the arrival on Sunday of tankers, escorted by soldiers and tanks, carrying 320,000 liters of gasoline from the Senkata plant in the nearby city of El Alto, local newspapers reported.

Local residents and miners in La Paz barricaded the Senkata plant Friday, protesting against the gas export plans. They stopped tankers from leaving and threatened to destroy any that did manage to get out, local papers reported. At least 15 of 58 service stations in La Paz ran out of gasoline and diesel on Sunday, and LPG and jet fuel supplies were also running low, local newspapers quoted the president of the distributors association (Asosur), German Loza, as saying. However, the government responded by sending in the army to escort tankers to La Paz on Sunday afternoon with a cargo of about 320,000 liters, hydrocarbons ministry spokesperson Gelgar Olmos told BNamericas.

Problems have been compounded by a 24-hour public transport strike in La Paz Monday. "Now there is fuel, but the problem is that no one is buying any because of the transport union strike," Olmos said. There is no immediate end in sight to La Paz's fuel supply problems. Local distributor Compania Logistica de Hidrocarburos de Bolivia (CLHB) has shut down the Senkata plant, and the city only has enough fuel to last until the middle of the week, Olmos said. Classes were suspended Monday in El Alto because of violence there, and the labor department ordered all public and private sector companies in La Paz and El Alto to send workers home at midday on Monday.

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