President Evo Morales said his government can't afford to nationalize Bolivia's mining industry for now but restated his desire to eventually recover control of the nation's mineral wealth.
The announcement on Tuesday by Bolivia's first indigenous president represented a retreat from Morales' recent declarations that he would nationalize the industry, which ranks second behind natural gas as the country's top source of export income.
The change in plans did not dim Morales' oft-expressed faith that mineral wealth buried beneath Bolivian soil represents "the solution to the social and economic problems" of South America's poorest country.
"Bolivia is not poor," Morales said. "Bolivia has many riches, but they are poorly distributed. Now is the time to recover those riches and better distribute them in Bolivian society."
Over the weekend, the government succeeded in obtaining 11th-hour deals with foreign energy companies allowing them to continue operating in Bolivia under Morales' May 1 oil and gas nationalization.
On Tuesday the president said he'd work to revamp the mining industry just as soon as he hammers out final details of the energy contracts.
Morales hopes ultimately to see the state benefit more from mineral exports, which have increased dramatically this year. Bolivia shipped some US$485 million of mostly zinc, silver, gold, and tin during the first half of the year -- on pace to easily top last year's total mineral exports of US$536 million.
A crash in world tin prices during the 1980s prompted the Bolivian state mining company Comibol to lay off tens of thousands of workers. But more recently, rising demand, particularly from China, has helped to drive up Bolivian metals prices and encourage foreign investment.
Investment by international companies in Bolivia's mines more than tripled between 2003 and last year, jumping from about US$20 million to US$66 million, according to Bolivia's Mining Ministry.
Morales said the government plans to "totally consolidate" the hydrocarbons nationalization this year and has "a complete package waiting" for the mining industry.
"But we also recognize as a government we do not have the necessary economic resources to nationalize the mines," he said. "That does not mean the process has stopped."
Morales had proposed the mining industry nationalization after 16 people were killed in a clash early last month between rival bands of miners over the right to work the state-controlled tin mine in Huanuni, 290km south of La Paz.
But on Tuesday, Bolivian officials said the proposal had been downgraded to a plan aimed at generating new jobs and investment.
Bolivia's mining industry "needs to be reactivated, with the presence of the state, with the presence of the state-employed and independent miners, with new investments," presidential spokesman Alex Contreras said.