Mon, Jul 19, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Bolivians go to the polls for key gas referendum

NATIONAL RESOURCE There were five questions on the ballot, including whether to export the gas reserves

AP , LA PAZ, BOLIVIA

Bolivian President Carlos Mesa gestures during a meeting with the press on Saturday in La Paz. Mesa said that he was sure that more than half of the citizens elegible to vote would cast ballots in yesterday's referendum.

PHOTO: EPA

Bolivians headed to the polls yesterday for a referendum that the president hopes will give the impoverished South American nation guidance on what to do with its immense natural gas reserves.

Despite protests by some 200 highland Indians, who burned tires and strewed rocks along main roads outside of the capital on Friday and Saturday, there was a general calm nationwide on the eve of the referendum as stores and transit operated normally.

President Carlos Mesa shrugged off the protests in El Alto, a city of 800,000 on the high plains above the capital, as "minuscule radical groups," during a news conference on Saturday.

He also rejected suggestions that he step down if the referendum, mandatory for Bolivia's 4.4 million registered voters, fails to heal social wounds.

The referendum comes nine months after a popular revolt ousted former president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada for planning to export liquefied natural gas to Mexico and California.

Bolivia's constitution lifted Mesa from the vice presidency to serve out the remainder of Sanchez de Lozada's term through 2007. Mesa immediately offered the

referendum.

Valued at more than US$70 billion, the gas fields in this landlocked country are South America's richest after those in Venezuela.

The gas ought to be an economic watershed for Bolivia, one of the poorest nations on the continent, with one of the continent's highest proportions of Indians -- some 55 percent of the nation's 8.7 million people.

Lured by privatization of the industry, some 20 foreign companies have invested US$3.5 billion in exploration, discovering some 1.56 trillion meters3 of gas. That's enough by some estimates to cover Bolivia's needs for a thousand years and raise incomes in a nation where two-thirds of the population make less than US$2 a day.

But the reserves have split the nation, with Andean Indians in the western highlands at odds with business leaders of European descent in the eastern and southern lowlands. In the east and southeast, home to the gas reserves, business leaders are set on exportation and have threatened to secede from the less developed highlands.

Indigenous and labor leaders in the west want the entire gas industry nationalized -- an option Mesa left off the ballot.

"We totally reject this crooked referendum," said 60-year-old Luis Sanchez, standing in a brown felt fedora, sweater and slacks in El Alto on Saturday.

The ballot asks Bolivians five questions, among them whether the gas should be exported. It also asks whether Bolivia should use the gas reserves to negotiate for access to the Pacific coast lost during its 1879 to 1884 war with Chile.

Political analysts say the real test for Mesa will come in about six months. By then the Congress will have had time to start drafting legislation based on the outcome of yesterday's vote.

"One of the problems is that Bolivia is already exporting gas to Brazil and Argentina," said Fernando Molina, editor of weekly political newspaper Pulso.

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