Adventurism in the Andes

With bluster and bravado, Bolivia's new populist president this week announced the nationalization of his country's natural gas production. Evo Morales's dispatch of soldiers to guard gas fields is the world's showiest sign of greater state control of energy, but not the only disturbing one.

Several countries with rich oil and gas deposits are riding a wave of nationalism and higher energy prices to exert greater government control over these natural resources, cutting the stake of private investors.

Russia is one major example, but in South America the trend is particularly hot, with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez exporting his Robin Hood approach to hydrocarbons to Ecuador, Bolivia, and possibly Peru.

How soon these governments forget.

Especially at a time of high prices, wringing as much money as possible from drillers can surely tempt politicians (witness the debate in Congress about a windfall-profits tax on oil companies). In Bolivia, where poverty grips over 60 percent of the population, it's no wonder that Mr. Morales - the first indigenous leader of this Andean country - sees salvation for his people in natural gas, the second largest reserves in Latin America.

But modern history is dotted with governments which at first jumped at the prospect of oil and gas wealth, only to later land on their keisters.

The Dutch learned the hard way in the 1970s, when their gas-and-oil windfall boosted their currency so high it hurt exports, which hurt manufacturing, which resulted in joblessness. Inflation also roared.

Oil and gas wealth is unreliable and can stave off political and economic reform (the Middle East). And it can cause violent clashes between the corrupt few who keep the gains for themselves and the poor who produce it (Nigeria).

Venezuelan President Chávez may momentarily succeed in redistributing oil wealth. He's greatly upped the state's take on revenues produced by foreign oil and gas companies and is putting some of it into clinics and schools. But he's falling into the trap that caught, for instance, Mexico.

Analysts warn that Chávez is not plowing enough back into exploration and production - a requirement that private industry seems to appreciate more than government, which faces pressures to divert money to the state. Indeed, under Chávez production has dropped by 60 percent, and Venezuela has reportedly just signed a deal to buy Russian oil.

The Chávez model may beguile Morales, but he lacks the leverage - in supplies and markets - to force foreign hands the way a petroleum heavy like Venezuela can. Landlocked, Bolivia has no easy way to get its gas to world markets and now exports only to Brazil and Argentina. Though Brazil depends heavily on Bolivian gas, it recently discovered large offshore reserves. Disgusted with Bolivia's extortion, Brazil may try to wean itself from its neighbor.

The presidents of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Venezuela are expected to meet Thursday. Perhaps Morales, mindful of his limited leverage, will turn out to be more bark than bite. That would certainly bode better for Bolivia's poor, who will be in an even worse position if their new leader scares gas investors away.

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