Archive for South America

Bolivian great nationalizations

In the rush to build the next generation of hybrid or electric cars, a sobering fact confronts both automakers and governments seeking to lower their reliance on foreign oil: almost half of the world’s lithium, the mineral needed to power the vehicles, is found here in Bolivia — a country that may not be willing to surrender it so easily.
Japanese and European companies are busily trying to strike deals to tap the resource, but a nationalist sentiment about the lithium is building quickly in the government of President Evo Morales, an ardent critic of the United States who has already nationalized Bolivia’s oil and natural gas industries.

For now, the government talks of closely controlling the lithium and keeping foreigners at bay. Adding to the pressure, indigenous groups here in the remote salt desert where the mineral lies are pushing for a share in the eventual bounty.
“We know that Bolivia can become the Saudi Arabia of lithium,” said Francisco Quisbert, 64, the leader of Frutcas, a group of salt gatherers and quinoa farmers on the edge of Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat. “We are poor, but we are not stupid peasants. The lithium may be Bolivia’s, but it is also our property.”

The new Constitution that Mr. Morales managed to get handily passed by voters last month bolstered such claims. One provision could give Indians control over the natural resources in their territory, strengthening their ability to win concessions from the authorities and private companies, or even block mining projects.

None of this is dampening efforts by foreigners, including the Japanese conglomerates Mitsubishi and Sumitomo and a group led by a French industrialist, Vincent Bolloré. In recent months all three have sent representatives to La Paz, the capital, to meet with Mr. Morales’s government about gaining access to the lithium, a critical component for the batteries that power cars and other electronics.

“There are salt lakes in Chile and Argentina, and a promising lithium deposit in Tibet, but the prize is clearly in Bolivia,” Oji Baba, an executive in Mitsubishi’s Base Metals Unit, said in La Paz. “If we want to be a force in the next wave of automobiles and the batteries that power them, then we must be here.”

Mitsubishi is not alone in planning to produce cars using lithium-ion batteries. Ailing automakers in the United States are pinning their hopes on lithium. One of them is General Motors, which next year plans to roll out its Volt, a car using a lithium-ion battery along with a gas engine.Nissan, Ford and BMW, among other carmakers, have similar projects.

Demand for lithium, long used in small amounts in mood-stabilizing drugs and thermonuclear weapons, has climbed as makers of batteries for BlackBerrys and other electronic devices use the mineral. But the automotive industry holds the biggest untapped potential for lithium, analysts say. Since it weighs less than nickel, which is also used in batteries, it would allow electric cars to store more energy and be driven longer distances.

With governments, including the Obama administration, seeking to increase fuel efficiency and reduce their dependence on imported oil, private companies are focusing their attention on this desolate corner of the Andes, where Quechua-speaking Indians subsist on the remains of an ancient inland sea by bartering the salt they carry out on llama caravans.

The United States Geological Survey says 5.4 million tons of lithium could potentially be extracted in Bolivia, compared with 3 million in Chile, 1.1 million in China and just 410,000 in the United States. Independent geologists estimate that Bolivia might have even more lithium at Uyuni and its other salt deserts, though high altitudes and the quality of the reserves could make access to the mineral difficult.

While estimates vary widely, some geologists say electric-car manufacturers could draw on Bolivia’s lithium reserves for decades to come.

But amid such potential, foreigners seeking to tap Bolivia’s lithium reserves must navigate the policies of Mr. Morales, 49, who has clashed repeatedly with American, European and even South American investors.

Mr. Morales shocked neighboring Brazil, with whom he is on friendly terms, by nationalizing that country’s natural gas projects here in 2006 and seeking a sharp rise in prices. He carried out his latest nationalization before the vote on the Constitution, sending soldiers to occupy the operations of the British oil giant BP.

At the La Paz headquarters of Comibol, the state agency that oversees mining projects, Mr. Morales’s vision of combining socialism with advocacy for Bolivia’s Indians is prominently on display. Copies of Cambio, a new state-controlled daily newspaper, are available in the lobby, while posters of Che Guevara, the leftist icon killed in Bolivia in 1967, appear at the entrance to Comibol’s offices.

“The previous imperialist model of exploitation of our natural resources will never be repeated in Bolivia,” said Saúl Villegas, head of a division in Comibol that oversees lithium extraction. “Maybe there could be the possibility of foreigners accepted as minority partners, or better yet, as our clients.”


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Alternative world social forum in Brazil


Leftwing leaders and groups attending the World Social Forum in Brazil have dealt an ultimatum to political and corporate chiefs who met at the same time in the Swiss resort of Davos: fix this crisis — or else.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said at the event in Belem on Friday that it was urgent for the rich nations “to resolve this crisis so the poor countries can develop.”

But he warned against worrying signs of protectionism, saying: “It’s not fair that, now that the rich countries are in crisis, they forget their talk about free trade.”

The presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay echoed his comments putting the blame for the worldwide turbulence on developed nations, particularly the United States.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also urged the forum’s 100,000 participants to “go on the offensive” to counter free trade pacts and other US-sponsored neoliberal economic initiatives in Latin America.

Unions needed no encouragement. They said capitalism was on the ropes and that government efforts around the world to revive it were misguided.

Mass lay-offs were likely to lead to street violence that could presage a fundamental shake-up of society, they said.

“It’s obvious the effects of this crisis will be large-scale social conflicts,” Martha Martinez, the Americas director for the World Federation of Unions, told trade unionists.

Many of the labor, environmental, religious, indigenous and charity groups represented at the World Social Forum felt emboldened by the shifts being felt around the globe.

The more optimistic said they expected a fairer world would emerge, one where wealth was more evenly distributed.

“I think the future of the planet is socialist,” said Sonia Latge, the political science director for Brazil’s Workers’ Central of Brazil.

Others, though, acknowledged that the changes were unpredictable — and brought their share of pain.

“There is a very important risk of a cut in public aid,” Jean-Louis Vielajus, the head of a French NGO umbrella organization called Coordination SUD, told AFP.


“There is a sense of injustice” that so many billions were being spent on shoring up the battered world financial system while so little was going to fight poverty, deforestation, hunger and sickness,” he added.

Candido Grzybowski, the organizer of the World Social Forum, said: “It’s not up to Davos to give alternatives, because it was them (political and economic policy-makers) who created this situation.”

Nevertheless, new US President Barack Obama, who is hastening another massive bail-out for his country, at the epicenter of the crisis, was seen as key to the direction of solutions.

“He still has to prove himself. But what he’s said in his speeches, his actions — up to now, it’s a very good sign,” Cassandre Blier of the World University Service of Canada, an international development organization, told AFP.

The World Social Forum was to wrap up Sunday after a final round of talks, shows and meetings among participants.

Despite its sprawling, semi-organized nature, participants lauded the opportunity it presented to coordinate strategies and build partnerships, especially in this time of upheaval.

“It’s positive that the forum exists and continues to exist,” said Taciana Gouveia, head of the Brazilian Association of NGOs (ABONG).

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Venezuelan president Chavez condemned an attack on a Caracas synagogue.


Armed men broke into a synagogue in Venezuela’s capital late on Friday night, destroying religious objects and spray-painting walls in an incident that sparked outrage and complaints by the Jewish community of growing anti-Semitism.

The socialist leader last month expelled the Israeli ambassador and cut diplomatic ties in protest over the military campaign in Gaza that killed nearly 1,300 people.

“We condemn the actions on the synagogue of Caracas,” Chavez said in a televised speech. “It must be asked … who benefits from these violent incidents. It is not the government, nor the people, nor the revolution.”

In an often cryptic response, he suggested opposition leaders plotted the attack to reduce his chances in a February 15 referendum on a constitutional amendment that would let him stay in office after his term ends in 2013.

The attackers, who sacked both the synagogue and the administrative centre of the Venezuelan Israelite Association, wrote racist slogans such as “Jews get out.”

Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro, in a ceremony on Saturday to welcome back Venezuelan diplomats expelled from Israel, promised to investigate the crimes and jail those responsible.

“This is an attack of anti-Semitic nature,” said Elias Farache, of the Venezuelan Israelite Association. “We feel uncomfortable, threatened and intimidated.”

The Argentine office of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, a Jewish human rights organisation, condemned the attack and warned of an anti-Semitic campaign in Venezuela that has heated up since the January attack on Gaza.

Chavez in 2005 sparked outrage in the Jewish community by stating that those who killed Jesus Christ had become the owners of the world’s riches. A Venezuelan Jewish organisation later came to Chavez’s defence, denying the statement was anti-Semitic.

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Bolivian president Morales claims victory in referendum and UN secretary applauds it.

UNITED NATIONS, Jan. 27 (Xinhua) — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hailed on Tuesday the “peaceful climate” in Bolivia’s referendum on a new Constitution.

    “He applauds the peaceful climate that prevailed during the voting as well as the high level of participation, and congratulates the people of Bolivia for this demonstration of civic responsibility,” said a statement issued by Ban’s press office.

    The secretary-general urged “all political leaders in Bolivia to work together henceforth to build a prosperous and inclusive future for their country.”

    The UN system will continue to assist the government and the people of Bolivia to face the challenges ahead, he added.

    Bolivians went to the polls on Sunday to vote on the constitution which would give more power to the country’s indigenous majority, promote reform on agricultural land and allow President Evo Morales to seek re-election for another term.

    Preliminary results showed that about 60 percent of voters voted for the new Constitution.


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