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In nationalising his country’s gas industry, Evo Morales, Bolivia’s populist left-wing president, has joined Latin America’s other anti-capitalist leader, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, in opening a new episode in the century-long relationship between big energy firms and developing countries—a global historical drama whose lessons appear today to have been partly forgotten by both sides.

The drama has so far run to four episodes. In the first, which ran from the early to mid-20th century, “big oil” was triumphant: the western firms, in alliance with the western imperial powers, established control over much of the oil resources of the developing world,…

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