The nationalization of Bolivia's petroleum industry took a long-awaited step forward late on Friday as French company Total SA was set to ink a new deal with the government.
Bolivian President Evo Morales joined officials from Total, one of the largest foreign operators in Bolivia, and from the US-based Vintage for a signing ceremony in the capital La Paz on the eve of an Oct. 28 deadline for international companies to negotiate new Bolivian contracts.
Under the terms of Morales' May 1 nationalization decree, foreign companies had six months to sign new deals ceding majority control of their Bolivian operations or leave the country.
Meanwhile, last-minute talks continued Friday night with Brazilian state energy giant Petrobras, Bolivia's largest natural gas producer, as well as the Spanish-Argentine firm Repsol YPF and British Gas.
Exact terms of the contracts signed Friday were not immediately available, but Juan Carlos Ortiz, president of state energy company Yacimientos Petroleros Fiscales Bolivianos, said they would bring Bolivia US$120 million in annual gas revenues.
Friday's signing ceremony took place in the same hall where 10 years ago former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada issued a series of decrees in a sweeping privatization of Bolivia's petroleum, telecommunications and electricity sectors, as well the national railroad and airline.
Sanchez de Lozada fled Bolivia during violent 2003 protests against his economic policies and now lives in US exile.
The signing took place in front immense portrait of Morales superimposed over a photo of gas refinery bearing the slogan "Nationalization: Not one step back."
In the upper balcony of the hall, Morales' supporters hung hand-painted banners featuring the face of the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevera.
Lawmakers from Morales' own Movement Toward Socialism party, or MAS, have proposed pushing back the deadline to allow negotiations to continue without pressure. Hours before Friday's ceremony, MAS senator Antonio Peredo said that while talks with Petrobras "have advanced sufficiently," the two sides might seek an agreement to give the talks a few more days, "if there is the disposition to do so."
Bolivia's conservative opposition, meanwhile, has pressed Morales to honor the deadline.