Archive for February, 2009

The mess

February 12, 2009


The owner and manager of a small company takes on a delicate mission: to personally deliver a ¨recognition¨ to those who facilitated his awarding of a juicy contract for $86.3 million to built an oil-and-gas separation plant in Santa Cruz. The prize is carefully stacked in a briefcase__$450,000. This was exactly ten percent of the amount his firm just days before had cashed as an advance for the oil plant. But as he reaches the house of his alleged destination, he is intercepted by motorcycle-riding hitmen.

Industrialist Jorge O´Connor struggled to keep hold of the briefcase with the money as he was fatally wounded. The briefcase vanishes. Hours later police agents, alerted of the assault and the assassination, arrested the gang (two men and a woman) in Cochabamba, 400 Kms. from La Paz. During interrogation they quickly confessed their crime. Coincidentally, in the house where the attack took place lives a brother-in-law of a national authority: the president of YPF Bolivianos, Santos Ramírez. The criminals said they had been contracted by Ramírez´s wife brothers.

Ramírez rose to Bolivia´s political zenith from his position of humble rural teacher and lawyer to the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) position Number Two, only after president Evo Morales.

This is what is the press has so far published about the episode, which has many Bolivians stuck to their radios, TV sets and dailies as details unravel knocking down the notion that President Morales´regime, because of his Aymara Indian base, would be immune to corruption. As some elements in the plot were still unknown by the public, the bloody episode showed a frivolous angle__ Ramirez, who has been Senate President and, for a very few days, interim President of the Republic (with the new constitution one doubts whether it is correct to call it Republic of Bolivia), disclosed on TV that he had decided to file for divorce of his wife, whom he had married just 40 days earlier and is pregnant with twins. ¨I have not married my wife´s brothers. I am filing for divorce,¨ he said. Opposition representative Carlos Klinsky called him ¨a coward¨, implying the former executive wanted to unload over his wife the burden of the whole affair because the money supposedly would have been delivered to a brother-in law. No word has been heard from militant feminists of the government party MAS.

So far it is still unknown the name of those who would have benefitted from the bribe. Only $80,000 have been found. But it seems clear that Cutler-Uniservice has no infrastructure to build the plant. As Ramirez spent the first evenings in a police cell, he still claimed innocence. At the beginning, President Morales refused to admit any guilt of his closest aide and blamed ¨opposition¨of a plot to tarnish Ramirez´s reputation. But in the end, before what appeared as overwhelming evidence, he had no choice but to fire him.

Ramirez´s allegations of innocence have not been able to clear up the dense atmosphere of suspicion hanging over Morales’ regime. Ramírez was a prime suspect in various other affairs, including selling for $1,000 a recommendation letter to obtain for a MAS party pal a job in the administration.

How come Ramírez reached his prominent position? He emerged as a political leader next to Morales (which makes plausible questioning how much Morales knew about Ramirez alleged wrongdoings). He was part of the very few MAS leaders who in early 2006 moved, along with Morales, to the Presidential Residence ¨in order to work more and better¨ and also better occupy the spacious mansion in a neighborhood of southern La Paz. Morales, who allegedly only finished primary school, had no administrative skills and looked after Ramirez for administrative support. Ramirez had no skills other than been a school teacher and only a limited-experience in his law career, but Morales gave him chart blanch to administer state-owned companies. From his powerful position, Ramirez got appointed Guillermo Aruquipa as head of YPFB, the state-owned company re-assembled in the wake of the takeover of oil fields from Brazilian Petrobras in May 2006. Opposition congressmen claimed that Aruquipa worked with Ramirez as just an administrative assistant.  His limitations surfaced pretty soon __gasoline, domestic gas and most fuels became scarce and long lines of patient customers were a daily occurence cross the country.  He was downgraded to Operational Manager of YPFB. TV news showed him carrying iron bottles of domestic gas at dawn hours in a personal physical effort to improve gas distribution in La Paz. TV news anchor Carlos Valverde said Aruquipa was ¨the world´ best paid gas bellboy¨.

These days Aruquipa is charged with negligence, because he was among the officials who led the Argentine company Cutler-Uniservice contract pass without completing most legal provisions. The plant was supposed to show the efforts by Morales to industrialize Bolivia´s natural gas making sure production would meet Bolivia´s domestic demand.

No bureaucrats are improvised, let alone executive bureaucrats. Otherwise sooner or later a society -and the improvisers- pay a high price.

P.S. Late in the afternoon a judge sent Ramirez to the San Pedro prison in La Paz.