To read the article on the Huffington Post, click here.
As a result of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s decision to allow six U.S. military bases on his country’s soil the propaganda war has heated up in the Andean region. In neighboring Venezuela, Hugo Chávez says Colombia is seeking to destabilize the border and has hinted that war could be imminent.
When Uribe and Chávez slug it out rhetorically the two constantly employ historical references, in particular to the Great Liberator Simón Bolívar. A leader of the independence struggle against Spain, Bolívar was a member of the Caracas aristocracy and liberated Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador from imperial rule in the early nineteenth century.
Why is this Bolivarian rhetoric still so common and integral to politics in the Andean region? To answer that question I wrote a piece for the Washington, D.C-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs in March, 2008. I was prompted to write the piece in response to the political crisis stemming from a Colombian military raid on a FARC guerrilla encampment within Ecuadoran territory. For years the Colombian government has been at war with the leftist FARC and is wont to pursue its political enemy across its borders in Venezuela to the east and Ecuador to the south.
Then as now, Uribe’s U.S.-assisted military brinksmanship resulted in a rhetorical outburst from Chávez. In light of the current crisis and threat of war perhaps it’s instructive to revisit my original piece for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Looking back on my article written a little more than a year ago it is striking how little politics has changed in the Andean region. Indeed, Chávez continues to employ Bolivarian symbols and his government has sought to pass an education bill based on “the Bolivarian doctrine”: a term used by the Venezuelan President to describe his socialist political movement. The measure has generated considerable controversy with some protesters claiming that the bill will open the door to socialist indoctrination in schools. In the international arena meanwhile, Chávez has said that the U.S. seeks to fracture Bolivarian unity by installing its bases in Colombia and Soto Cano in Honduras [for more on the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano, see my previous columns].
Chávez never misses a chance to use Bolívar for political ends. In a column for the state-run Bolivarian News Agency the Venezuelan President recently made allusion to an early diplomatic encounter between Bolívar and the United States. In 1817, American ships sought to supply arms to Spanish forces opposed to Bolívar in Venezuela. When Bolívar captured the two ships Secretary of State John Quincy Adams sent a Baltimore journalist with political ambitions named John Baptiste Irving to negotiate with Bolívar.
In her book Venezuela and the United States: From Monroe’s Doctrine to Petroleum’s Empire, historian Judith Ewell writes that Irving was instructed to secure the release of the ships and the handover of the vessels to their rightful owners. Irving was also told to secure an indemnity for the lost cargo. Bolívar received Irving graciously as he hoped that the diplomatic envoy would extend U.S. political recognition to his movement.
However, diplomatic negotiations quickly deteriorated: Bolívar would not back down on his position vis-a-vis the ships while Irving failed to provide the coveted recognition. Bolívar grew disenchanted with the U.S., a power which in his view had failed to provide adequate support for South American independence movements. According to Ewell, Irving did not take Bolívar’s dismissal of the shipping issue lightly. For several months, the American fired angry notes back to Adams which characterized Bolívar as a tyrant and a “Don Quixote with ambition.” “The wheels of his [Bolívar’s] government,” Irving wrote, “are clogged already with imbecility.” In 1819 Irving finally gave up his mission and returned to the U.S.
In his column Chávez made reference to the Irving-Bolívar diplomatic spat, writing that the U.S. has historically sought to head off Latin American unity. To this day, Chávez says, Washington continues its geopolitical strategy in such nations as Honduras and Colombia. A few days ago, during a summit of South American nations held in Quito, Ecuador Chávez continued to hark on this theme.
Ecuador has pursued a political alliance with Venezuela and recently the Rafael Correa government refused to renew a lease for a U.S. military base located at the port city of Manta. In Quito, Chávez was joined by Correa as well as the deposed President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. During the summit Chávez compared Uribe to General Francisco de Paula Santander and remarked that in Ecuador “Bolívar’s sword is more alive than ever.”
“Now I understand why Bolívar got tied up with Manuela Sáenz,” Chávez added. The Venezuelan was making reference to Simón Bolívar’s lover, a native of Quito. As I note in my book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left which came out just after I wrote my piece for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Sáenz is a potent political symbol linking Venezuela to Ecuador.
“To this day,” I wrote in my book, “Ecuador and Venezuela still have the same flag colors. Saenz belonged to the aristocracy and met the Liberator after the famed Battle of Pichincha. She accompanied Bolivar on his military campaigns, carrying out intelligence work, raising funds for independence forces, and cheering on the troops. Saenz also demonstrated great valor on the battlefield, seeing action during the Battle of Ayacucho…Saenz’s love letters to Bolivar are preserved in a Quito museum, along with some of her garments and an oil painting showing her in her childhood.”
In her day, Sáenz remarkably rose to the rank of coronela or colonel. Like Chávez, Correa is a politician who makes skilful use of historical symbols. Indeed, Correa recently raised Sáenz’s rank to generala or general in recognition of the woman’s efforts in the South American independence struggle.
When you consider John McCain’s ties to Big Oil, the GOP candidate’s claim to be a political maverick confronting special interests is nothing short of absurd.
Just last week the Arizona Senator took valuable time out of his presidential campaign to travel personally to Colombia. Catching a fast ride on a Colombian drug interdiction boat in the Bay of Cartagena, McCain praised the government for prosecuting the drug war and making “substantial and positive” progress on human rights. Contrasting himself to his presidential opponent Barack Obama, McCain expressed support for a pending free trade deal with the South American country.
But as the Huffington Post has noted, “his [McCain’s] position as an independent arbitrator on Colombia – a country often criticized for its labor and human rights practices – is undermined by a bevy of advisers who have earned large amounts either lobbying for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, or representing corporations that do business with that country.”
To get a sense of the scope of McCain’s conflict of interest on Colombia one need look no farther than Charlie Black, a Senior Adviser to the Arizona Senator. A successful 60-year-old Washington lobbyist, Black is a notorious figure within the GOP. Over the course of his career he has gained a reputation as a ruthless operator possessed of a merciless instinct for exposing an opponent’s flaws.
Black’s Washington, D.C. public relations firm BKSH has developed a reputation for taking on foreign clients who display scant regard for human rights. In 1998, Black agreed to represent Occidental Petroleum (or OXY), an energy company based in Bakersfield, California. At the time, the GOP spin master was surely aware of Occidental’s sordid past. In Colombia, the company had already acquired a reputation for its brutal policies undermining human rights.
While the liberal blogosphere was sent into a tizzy about McCain’s conflict of interest in Colombia and ties to Big Oil, it’s not the first time that Washington policymakers have been caught up in the nefarious Occidental web. Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans have been equally corrupted by their ties to the California energy company and have gone to great lengths to preserve Colombia’s investment climate, even if this means promoting unrelenting militarization in the Andes.
Gore Sr. and Al Jr.: Drinking at the Occidental Trough
Traditionally a Republican firm, Occidental was linked to the Democrats for many years primarily through Gore’s father, Senator Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee. The elder Gore was such a loyal political ally that Occidental’s founder and longtime chief executive, Armand Hammer, liked to brag that he had Gore "in my back pocket."
In public, Hammer long cultivated an image of being a generous patron of the arts and a champion of peace during the Cold War. But Hammer was also a consummate Washington insider and, according to the Wall Street Journal, “an influence peddler of the highest magnitude, [who] trafficked in politicians of all parties and stripes.”
When Gore Sr. finally left the Senate in 1970, Hammer rewarded the former Tennessee Senator for his political loyalty by providing him with a $500,000-a-year job at an Occidental subsidiary and a seat on the company’s board of directors. But Hammer, always the equal opportunity influence peddler, had one of his operatives try to buy off the Republicans as well. In 1972, Occidental gave $54,000 in illegal donations towards Nixon’s reelection campaign.
In exchange for Occidental’s financial largesse, Gore Sr. helped Hammer fend off the FBI for a time. Ultimately however Hammer was hauled before a Senate committee where he lied about the money. Unfortunately for Occidental, Hammer’s underlings crumbled under questioning. In 1975, Hammer pleaded guilty to three counts of making illegal campaign contributions. The oilman spent the rest of his life campaigning for a pardon, which Bush Sr. granted in 1989.
When he died in 1998, Gore Sr.’s estate included hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Occidental stock. Gore Jr. later became the executor of the estate, which included stock valued at between $500,000 and $1 million. Neil Lyndon, who worked on Hammer’s personal staff and ghosted his memoirs, Witness to History, has remarked that his boss was as cozy with Gore Jr. as he was with Gore Sr. When he traveled to Washington, Hammer regularly met Gore for lunch or dinner. "They would often eat together in the company of Occidental’s Washington lobbyists and fixers who, on Hammer’s behest, hosed tens of millions of dollars in bribes and favors into the political world," Lyndon wrote. The former Hammer aide added that Gore and his wife Tipper attended Hammer’s lavish parties. "Separately and together, the Gores sometimes used Hammer’s luxurious private Boeing 727 for journeys and jaunts," he noted.
Up to the very end of his life in December, 1990 Hammer was generous towards the younger Gore. Former Senator Paul Simon of Illinois wrote in a 1989 book that Hammer promised him ”any cabinet spot I wanted” to withdraw from the 1988 Democratic presidential primary race and support Gore’s presidential candidacy. Gore failed to attain the White House, but two years later Occidental was one of the largest contributors to the Tennessean’s successful bid for Senate re-election.
Even after Hammer vanished from the scene, the back-scratching between Occidental and Gore continued. Overseeing Occidental operations after Hammer’s death was Ray Irani, in many ways as cynical and Machiavellian an operator as his predecessor. One of the campaign contributors who slept in Bill Clinton’s infamous Lincoln bedroom, Irani later greased the Vice President’s palm. In response to an illegal call made by Gore from the White House itself, the oil man gave $50,000 in soft money to the Democrats [in total, Occidental donated nearly half a million dollars in soft money to Democratic committees and causes between 1992 and 2000].
Gore Goes to Bat for Occidental
Just like his Dad, Gore Jr. saw fit to serve and promote his corporate benefactors. In late 1997 the Vice President supported the federal government’s three and a half billion dollar sale of the Elk Hills oil field in Bakersfield, California to Occidental Petroleum. The area was known as an ancestral land for the Kitanemuk people (better known by the name the Spanish gave them, the Tejon). The Indians had been forced off Elk Hills by treaties signed with the federal government in 1851 during the midst of the gold rush and since then had lived on nearby Fort Tejon reservation or "Tejon Ranch."
The sale of Elk Hills was the largest privatization of federal property in U.S. history. Though the government had long sought to sell the property, such efforts had come to nothing: two prior Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, had attempted to put Elk Hills on the auction block but were forced to back down in the face of fierce opposition.
Records show that federal agencies had concerns about the sale. The Environmental Protection Agency complained to the Energy Department that the E.P.A. had insufficient information to evaluate the impact of the sale. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service questioned the impact of developing the oil field on several endangered species within the 47,000 acre property.
Nevertheless, the Elk Hills sale was quickly approved. "I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an environmental assessment prepared so quickly," said Peter Eisner, Director of the Washington-D.C. public advocacy group Center for Public Integrity. After the sale, Eisner and his associates raised questions about the extent of Gore’s role in the transaction.
“What did Vice President Al Gore — who has deep personal and financial ties to Occidental Petroleum — know and when did he know it about the sale of the Elk Hills oil reserve to that company?” the Center asked just before the 2000 presidential election. “Gore has never been willing to talk to us— or, apparently, anyone else — about it. The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the White House, so his appointment calendar, phone logs and private memoranda are all unavailable. And for nearly a year, the Department of Energy has stonewalled our requests for information on the Elk Hills bidding process. Since when is the bidding process for the unprecedented, multibillion-dollar sale of public land secret? That is, simply stated, outrageous and unacceptable.”
At long last Energy Department officials provided some records but declined to release the bid documents. Such information, officials claimed, had to remain confidential. Meanwhile, Elk Hills represented a huge boon to Occidental, with the oil company’s U.S. oil reserves tripling as a result of the purchase.
Occidental Heads South
But Occidental had already set its sights on other lucrative deals. Having secured the valuable California property on Native American land, the oil company headed to South America. Under an agreement with the Colombian government, Oxy acquired the right to explore for oil in the Andean country’s northeast.
Unfortunately, in granting Oxy its exploration permit, the government ignored a constitutional requirement that native peoples within the area be consulted first. Oxy quickly became embroiled in conflict with the U’wa Indians, whose territory was nestled in the misty forests of northeast Colombia near the border with Venezuela.
Even worse, as company geologists and engineers moved in to build roads through the Indians’ reservation, so too did the Colombian army, which installed two military bases in the vicinity. It wasn’t long before the military began to harass local residents. Known as a proud, strongly rooted people, the U’wa repeatedly denounced Occidental’s oil operation. The Indians argued that oil exploration would threaten their tribe, damage the land, fill their territory with alien workers and destroy the world they knew. At one point the approximately 5,000 U’wa even threatened to commit collective suicide by leaping from a cliff unless the oil company stopped operations on their territory.
In 1998, the year that future McCain adviser Charlie Black took on Occidental, the oil company was embroiled in controversy when the Colombian Air Force dropped cluster bombs on Santo Domingo, a village located near an Oxy pipeline. The attack killed 18 people. Human rights groups and Colombian government officials said the bombing was a mistake that occurred because three employees of a Florida-based aerial security company employed by Occidental to monitor guerrilla movements had provided incorrect coordinates to Colombian military pilots.
The American employees of the security company dropped out of sight and Colombian government efforts to have them handed over for questioning and perhaps trial proved fruitless. Frustrated by the security company’s stonewalling, human rights groups filed suit in California in 2003 and 2004 against Occidental. To this day, Occidental denies any responsibility for the bombing of Santo Domingo, and has claimed that it “has not and does not provide lethal aid to Colombia’s armed forces.”
Clinton-Gore Team Escalates in Colombia
Occidental, which hoped to protect its investments in Colombia, was aided by the Clinton-Gore White House which backed Plan Colombia, a militaristic, multi-billion dollar effort designed to ostensibly fight drug trafficking. Team Clinton was intent on backing the plan, despite evidence that the Colombian military was working closely with right wing paramilitaries to wage a dirty war against the civilian population. Six months before Plan Colombia was implemented, an investigative piece published by one of Colombia’s leading daily newspapers described how the Colombian army had aided the paramilitaries in the massacre of 49 peasants in the southeastern village of Mapiripán.
Even the U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report for 1999, the year Plan Colombia was conceived, pointed out that Colombia’s “security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups that committed abuses; in some instances, individual members of the security forces actively collaborated with members of paramilitary groups by passing them through roadblocks, sharing intelligence, and providing them with ammunition. Paramilitary forces find a ready support base within the military and police, as well as local civilian elites in many areas.”
At the time, as Gary Leech pointed out in an article published for the online Colombia Journal, “There wasn’t a peep out of Vice-President Gore…regarding Colombia’s human rights situation…Gore owned almost $500,000 worth of stock in Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, which was one of the most ardent lobbyists for Plan Colombia and one of the U.S. companies that stood to benefit from an escalated U.S. military role in the South American nation….At that time, Gore repeatedly refused to respond to questions from reporters about his links to Occidental Petroleum. He also failed to make mention of any human rights concerns regarding the U.S. funding of a military closely linked to paramilitary death squads.”
The Colombian Oil Connection
Dire reports of human rights violations were of apparently little concern to Charlie Black. The PR man lobbied Congress, the State Department and the White House on Occidental’s behalf regarding “general energy issues” and “general trade issues” involving Colombia. McCain’s future campaign strategist also fought to win foreign assistance to Colombia and to block an economic embargo against the South American country.
Even as tensions escalated within the U’wa reserve, Black was unperturbed. According to Atossa Soltani, Executive Director of Amazon Watch, a human rights group that works on behalf of Colombian Indian tribes opposed to oil drilling, Black was “very active” while Congress was debating the $1.3 billion military assistance package to Colombia that became law in 2000. “We’d be making the rounds in Congress,” Soltani said, “and Oxy would be there making the rounds, too.” In all, Oxy spent nearly $4 million lobbying Congress in Washington to expand military funding to Colombia.
Why would Black also be interested in trying to secure military funding for Colombia? As Oxy’s oil operations expanded, acquiring military support proved increasingly vital for the company. Oxy was part owner of the Caño Limon-Coveñas oil pipeline which led from Arauca to the Caribbean coast and which crossed the northeastern boundary of the U’wa reserve. Not surprisingly, Oxy’s activities quickly attracted the attention of left wing guerrillas who repeatedly detonated the pipeline. The attacks caused more than $500 million in losses to the company between December 1999 and December 2000.
Oxy had little to fear from the Clinton White House which bent over backwards to appease Big Oil. In 1998 Oxy CEO Ray Irani was personally invited to a state dinner at the White House to honor Colombian President Andrés Pastrana. The following year, U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson visited the Colombian city of Cartagena to address U.S. economic interests in the South American nation. During his visit, Richardson announced, “The United States and its allies will invest millions of dollars in two areas of the Colombian economy, in the areas of mining and energy, and to secure these investments we are tripling military aid to Colombia.”
According to The Nation magazine, Richardson was already compromised by his ties to Occidental. The future presidential candidate had in fact hired a longtime Occidental lobbyist, Theresa Fariello, to serve as his Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Energy Policy, Trade and Investment. While working for Occidental, Fariello lobbied the Energy Department on the company’s interests in Colombia.
Meanwhile Lawrence Meriage, Oxy’s Vice President for Communication and Public Affairs, urged the United States to expand its military operations in Colombia — largely focused on coca eradication efforts in the south of the country — into Colombia’s northeast, where the U’wa stood in the way of Oxy’s drilling operations. The investment paid off when the U.S. government agreed to provide military aid, equipment and training to the 18th Brigade in Arauca, a unit which had been involved in grave human rights violations including attacks against trade unions and other members of civil society.
Doing Business in Colombia
The Santo Domingo massacre was certainly a black mark on Occidental’s record. However, there were yet more controversies in store for the company. Tensions were ratcheted up when, in February 2000, Oxy began construction on its Gibraltar 1 drill site. Some 2,700 U’wa Indians, local farmers, students and union members immediately attempted to stop Oxy’s construction. When indigenous peoples sought to prevent trucks from reaching the construction site, riot police used tear gas to break up a road blockade. Three U’wa children were drowned in a fast-flowing river as the U’wa fled the attack.
Two months later, when Oxy began to move heavy equipment and materials into the area, the U’wa again blocked local roads. While the Indians permitted other traffic to pass, they lay their bodies in front of Occidental trucks. In June, the government sent in riot police and soldiers; 28 demonstrators were subsequently injured and 33 arrested. Believing that the area might contain up to 1.5 billion barrels of oil, Occidental shortly thereafter began test drilling on U’wa ancestral lands.
As if things could get no worse, Colombia’s wider civil conflict began to spill over into U’wa traditional territory. In March, 1999 three U’wa supporters from the U.S., Terence Freitas of Brooklyn, N.Y., Ingrid Washinawotok, and Laheehae Gay were kidnapped and killed by FARC guerrillas while working with the Indians in the department of Arauca.
While it’s unclear whether Oxy had any direct involvement in the killings, the company is known to have had links to the guerrillas. In testimony given before a Congressional subcommittee, Meriage acknowledged that Occidental personnel regularly paid off guerrillas in exchange for being left alone.
Gore and the U’wa in Election 2000
As the 2000 presidential election neared, environmental activists targeted Gore for his ties to Occidental. Abby Reyes, Freites’ girlfriend, personally wrote a strongly worded letter to Gore about the situation in Colombia:
February 3, 2000
Dear Vice President Gore,
I write to you as the girlfriend of Terence Freitas, one of three human rights workers kidnapped and assassinated last March while assisting the U’wa indigenous community of oil-rich northeastern Colombia…One year ago this week, as I unpacked moving boxes into the apartment Terence and I would have shared in Brooklyn, I found myself shelving two copies of Earth in the Balance [Gore’s famous book dealing with global environmental problems]: my own, and that of Terence. I sat down with the book again, rereading with marvel the poignant message you asserted in 1993. You insisted that policy makers and the general citizenry alike must take into account environmental and social costs of our coveted northern affluence…
While I reread Earth in the Balance last February, Terence was in the U’wa cloudforest with Native American leaders Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe’ena’e Gay on a cultural exchange. On February 18, Terence called from Cubara, Colombia. I told him about the two copies of Earth in the Balance. We discussed whether you could be tapped as a more vocal U’wa ally in the campaign against the pending ecological, cultural, and economic havoc oil exploitation would spell for the U’wa and Colombia. We were hopeful about your potential leadership on this pressing environmental case. That phone call was the last time I talked to Terence.
One week later, on the day he was to return to New York, he and his companions were kidnapped by guerrillas who are allegedly on friendly terms with Occidental. One week after that, the bound bodies of these three human rights workers were found splayed and disfigured by rounds of bullets just across the Venezuelan border…
Seven months later, I read the Wall Street Journal’s account of your family’s lucrative inheritance from your father of Occidental Petroleum and Occidental subsidiary stock and your long-standing personal relationship with Occidental directors. By then I had experienced several such smacks of political double speak from most actors in the Colombian debate…In Los Angeles, on April 30, 1999, at Occidental Petroleum headquarters, Public Relations Officer Larry Meriage held Terence’s mother’s hand, calling the guerrilla murderers atrocious, despite the fact that his company’s incipient oil operations in U’wa land are directly responsible for the intensification of violent conflict in the previously peaceful region.
Even given this prevalent political milieu, in which action wildly contradicts expressed values, I am appalled and disheartened to see you, America’s lead environmental champion, living the antithesis of your espoused values by continuing to personally profit from Occidental Petroleum’s exploits.
I am the same age as your daughter. Terence was one year our junior. Like your daughter, Terence and I looked forward to joining the legal profession together. We were eager to apply the conflict resolution and community organizing skills we have gained abroad to help address the wealth of environmental justice conflicts brewing domestically….With unbearable anguish, his family and friends buried him on his twenty-fifth birthday last spring. Think how much brighter your family’s prospects, as you enter the candidacy, if you removed the shadow cast by your family’s complicity in the unspeakable horrors faced by our family and those of the U’wa because of Occidental Petroleum.
I implore you to divest your family from Occidental Petroleum and answer the requests from the U’wa Defense Working Group, a coalition of US-based environmental and human rights organizations, to explain your position on that company’s actions in the U’wa territory of Colombia.
Despite such poignant appeals, Gore had no time for the activists. Speaking in Nashville, he said there had been nothing improper about his family’s relationship with Occidental. Meanwhile, Gore adamantly refused to meet with an U’wa representative who had personally traveled to Washington to see him, despite the entreaties of a Democratic member of Congress.
But Stephen Kretzmann of Amazon Watch said Gore did meet with him and several other environmentalists. At that meeting, Gore explained that he could not interfere in a Colombian internal issue or Occidental’s practices.
Environmentalists however gave little credence to such arguments.
"It’s ludicrous to say, ‘We can’t interfere,’" Soltani remarked.
Indeed, Gore’s deferrals and denials contradicted the politician’s previous actions. As a Senator, Gore had presented himself as both a committed environmentalist and an internationalist. He had for example introduced two senate resolutions calling upon the Japanese government to look into the havoc lumber companies were wreaking in Malaysia and Papua, New Guinea. Additionally, one of Gore’s last actions as a Senator, in April 1992, was almost directly comparable: he spoke out in support of the Penan Indians in Malaysia, whose lands were being threatened by loggers.
Perhaps, Gore was concerned about offending Big Oil, which had contributed mightily to his presidential campaign. Indeed, the Tennessean raised $92,000 from the oil and gas industry. Occidental was the number-two donor in that category, with company executives and their wives donating $10,000 to fuel Gore’s campaign. Gore went on to express support for Plan Colombia during the 2000 campaign before going on to defeat at the hands of George W. Bush.
In May 2002, following a massive outcry by environmental groups, Oxy finally announced that it would return its controversial oil block to the Colombian government. Nevertheless, the company continued to operate in Colombia. Currently, the oil firm occupies the Caño Limón oil field located in the Llanos Basin in the northeastern part of the country. The company also holds a 35% working interest in the Caricare field and has signed a production agreement with Ecopetrol to operate the La Cira-Infantas field, located in central Colombia. Though Oxy’s Caño-Limón field has yielded hundreds of million dollars annually in profits, the pipeline has been an ongoing target for guerrilla forces. In 2007, Occidental again found itself in the midst of a human-rights mess. This time, the company was accused in congressional testimony of being "complicit" – with several other major corporations – in the murder of three labor leaders.
In recent years, Gore has tried to refashion himself as a champion of human rights in Colombia. In April, 2007 he cancelled a scheduled appearance as the keynote speaker at a conference on the environment because Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe was also on the program. The problem, according to a statement issued by Gore, was that he found accusations that Uribe was linked to right-wing paramilitary death squads “deeply troubling” and didn’t want to appear with the Colombian president until “this very serious chapter in history is brought to a close.”
Writing in Colombia Journal, journalist Gary Leech remarked “Former Vice-President Al Gore has again exhibited a degree of political hypocrisy that is simply astounding…Where were Gore’s noble proclamations in defense of human rights when he was vice-president in the administration that made Colombia the world’s third-largest recipient of US military aid?”
From Hillary to McCain: Same Old Oxy PR Men
Undeterred by Gore’s defeat in 2000, Occidental has continued to cultivate ties to Team Clinton. In Washington, when it comes to Colombia lobbying it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the Democrats and Republicans.
In fact, Charlie Black’s firm BKSH merged with another PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, in 1990. During the presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton was caught up in a scandal when it was disclosed that her campaign strategist Mark Penn, a CEO at Burson-Marsteller, was lobbying Congress on behalf of the Colombian government. Penn’s firm had also represented Occidental. Penn was employed by the Uribe government in Bogotá to help win passage of a free trade agreement in Congress. News of Penn’s ties to the Colombian government proved acutely embarrassing to Clinton, who had gone on record as opposing the trade agreement.
BKSH’s work on behalf of Occidental has proved enormously lucrative: between 2001 and 2007 the PR firm netted $1.6 million in fees. Occidental was surely pleased with Black’s work: in 2003, Congress approved a special appropriation of nearly $100 million for the protection of oil pipelines in Colombia.
McCain’s aides have repeatedly argued that the Senator’s presidential campaign does not have direct connections to companies represented by such advisers as Black. The Arizona Senator’s handlers assert that McCain should not be held accountable for any company misdeeds nor should the public presume that McCain is unduly influenced by corporate interests.
Granted, McCain may claim that there is a degree of separation between Charlie Black and himself. There are several problems with this argument however. To begin with McCain appointed Black to his position, which speaks volumes about the Arizona Senator’s political priorities. In the second place, McCain has a personal connection to Oxy through Ray Irani. In 2008, the Oxy CEO doled out $2,800 to McCain’s presidential campaign and a full $25,000 to the Republican National Committee. Irani could easily afford the donation: in 2007 he was the tenth highest paid CEO in the United States, raking in a whopping $34.2 million from Occidental.
In contrast to Team Clinton and McCain, Obama has shown some spine when dealing with Colombia. The Illinois Senator has questioned President Bush’s close alliance with Bogotá and has said that he is concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries. The Colombian government, he has argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries’ financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then "maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify."
On the pending Colombia free trade measure, Obama should be lauded for his position. He emphatically opposes the pending free trade deal, remarking "I’m concerned frankly about the reports there of the involvement of the administration with human rights violations and the suppression of workers."
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe recognizes the potential threat posed by an Obama administration and even chastised Obama for not being aware of Colombia’s "efforts" on trade. Obama retorted hotly, "I think the president is absolutely wrong on this. You’ve got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition…That’s not the kind of behavior that we want to reward. I think until we get that straightened out its inappropriate for us to move forward."
There’s a slight chance that we might get a serious rethinking of Colombia policy under an Obama administration. The Illinois Senator will have to seriously clean house however so as to make sure Big Oil loses its political influence in the White House. Oxy has a way of maintaining its pull over Democratic and Republican politicians alike. From Armand Hammer to Ray Irani, the company never seems to give up.
Despite his record unpopularity, it would appear that President Bush wants to go out of office with a bang. Having failed to overthrow Hugo Chávez through an attempted coup, the White House now hopes to escalate pressure on Venezuela’s President by other means.
On Saturday, a U.S. navy plane strayed into Venezuelan airspace. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel said that the aircraft "practically flew over" the island of La Orchila – where Venezuela has a military base and President Hugo Chávez has a residence – and another island before turning back. U.S. officials claimed the plane had “navigational problems.”
"This is just the latest step in a series of provocations," Rangel said.
From Orchila to the Fourth Fleet
Indeed, tensions have been mounting in recent days. The Navy is now reactivating its fourth fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet, which will include a nuclear aircraft carrier, will be based in Mayport, Florida.
The fleet hasn’t seen any action in Caribbean waters since World War II. In February 1942, the Germans sank a number of oil tankers full of Venezuelan crude. The attack caused a nationalist outcry in Venezuela and Caracas began to side more openly with the allies. In response to the attacks the U.S. patrolled the area, hunting down Nazi submarines which were wreaking havoc on allied shipping. After the war, with no more German U-boats prowling Caribbean waters, the Fourth Fleet was dissolved.
So, why resuscitate the fleet now?
The navy claims the move is necessary to protect maritime security. The real reason however may have more to do with Washington’s desire to wage a kind of psychological war against the Chávez government and to foment a climate of political tension.
From Laptops to Border Incursions
In its quest to get rid of Chávez, the White House has also sought to spark tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. There’s a good chance that the U.S. Southern Command passed crucial military intelligence to the Bogotá government when the latter attacked an encampment of FARC guerrillas inside Ecuadoran territory. After the March 1 assault, which resulted in the deaths of guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes as well as 20 other insurgents, and which arguably constituted an act of international terrorism, the Colombian authorities claimed that Chávez and Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s pro-Venezuelan President, were doing their utmost to support the FARC.
As evidence they produced documents allegedly found on FARC laptop computers which remarkably survived the attack intact. The documents, Colombia says, prove that Chávez has provided weapons, munitions, and $300 million in aid to the FARC. After conducting its own investigation, Interpol declared that Colombia did not modify, delete or create any files, although the Andean nation did not always follow internationally accepted methods when handling the computers. The agency stated that the documents came from a FARC camp, but investigators could not conclusively prove that the information contained within the documents was totally accurate.
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack pounced on Interpol’s report, remarking that the laptop files indicating Venezuelan support for the FARC were “highly disturbing.” Chávez has rejected the accusations, calling the Interpol report a "clown show" that "doesn’t deserve serious comment." The Venezuelan leader said all relations with Colombia as well as his country’s cooperation with Interpol would undergo “deep review.” Seeking to rhetorically destroy his adversaries, Chávez referred to Interpol chief Ronald Noble as a "mafioso” and “an aggressive Yankee cop." In yet another memorable outburst from the Venezuelan leader, Chávez added that Noble’s true name was "Mr. Ignoble.”
As if relations between Colombia and Venezuela could slip no further, on Saturday, the same day that the U.S. navy plane passed into Venezuelan airspace, Chávez accused Bogotá of sending its troops across the border in an illegal incursion. The two South American nations share a 1,370-mile border that winds through mountains and thick patches of jungle. In a written statement, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said that 60 Colombian troops had been intercepted in Venezuela’s western Apure state, about 875 yards from the nations’ shared border.
Controversy Over Guajira
Amidst ominous signs that the U.S. might be seeking to destabilize the Venezuelan government, a new controversy is swirling. William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, recently remarked that the U.S. would consider relocating its military air base at Manta, Ecuador to Colombia. According to the New York Times, an area mentioned in later reports was the Guajira region near the Venezuelan border. Colombia’s foreign minister, Fernando Araújo, quickly denied that Colombia had any plans to allow the United States to establish a base in Guajira.
The controversy could not have come at a worse time.
Already, tensions have risen as a result of secessionist efforts in the westernmost state of Zulia which spans the Venezuelan Guajira region. Recently, the Chávez opposition in Zulia proposed a feasibility study for potential independence from the federal government. What’s more, Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chávez in the December 2006 presidential election, announced his support for his state’s autonomy.
Speaking on his weekly TV show Aló, Presidente!, Chávez warned opposition leaders that any move towards Zulia autonomy would lead to confrontation. “I advise those individuals who want to break up Venezuela to think it through very well. We won’t tolerate a political fragmentation of our country,” he declared, adding that any such attempts would be met with force. The Venezuelan leader went on to say that Zulia autonomy constituted an “imperial plan” designed and supported by the United States to take control of strategic oil areas.
An impoverished region, the Guajira is home to Wayúu Indians who come and go across the frontier. The area is full of barren desert and straddles the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Geographically remote, the Guajira has historically been embroiled in diplomatic controversy. In 1928, Colombian authorities were so concerned about secessionist plots in the region that Bogotá’s House of Deputies met in secret session to discuss "moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of Santander and Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement which, united to Zulia [in the midst of the Venezuelan oil zone] would form the Republic of Zulia."
As a result of the tangled history, any talk of installing a U.S. presence in the area inevitably stirs nationalist passions. Chávez has stated that "We will not allow the Colombian government to give La Guajira to the empire,” referring to the U.S. As media reports surfaced, local authorities in the Guajira raised their voices in protest. Eber Chacón, a Chávez supporter and the Mayor of Páez, a local indigenous municipality, called on the Wayúu in Colombia and Venezuela to repudiate attempts by the Venezuelan opposition to divide them with their "autonomist and separatist positions." Chacón added that installing a U.S. base in Guajira would represent a potential threat to hemispheric security.
From Manta to Colombia
How did we get to the point where the U.S. is actually thinking about closing its military base in Manta, Ecuador and opening a new one in Colombia? That is a question I seek to answer in my book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), just released in April of this year.
In Ecuador it is difficult to ignore the public climate of hostility towards the U.S. military base at Manta, which is used for drug over flights of Colombian air space. The facility, located 160 miles southwest of Quito on the coast, is a large installation which is technically not controlled by the United States but belongs to the Ecuadoran air force.
Many Ecuadorans believe that the United States is trying to draw their nation more deeply into the Colombian conflict, which has spilled over the border. The air base at Manta was leased to the U.S. military for 10 years in 1999, and President Rafael Correa made it clear even before he was elected that he did not plan to extend the lease once it expired in 2009.
During a trip to Quito, I found myself on the campus of the city’s Catholic University. At a table, a woman was registering people to go on a bus trip to the coast to protest the base at Manta. In the hallway, I met Gualdemar Jiménez, a local activist.
U.S. Air Base at Manta: A Social Disaster
“Manta used to be a purely fishing town,” he explained. “Now the fishermen don’t have access to certain parts of the ocean, which are closed off for security reasons.” On the sea, U.S marines had intercepted Ecuadoran boats, even sinking some vessels. “The marines are not the Ecuadoran coast guard,” Jiménez declared indignantly.
He went on to tick off a number of other problems associated with the U.S. airbase. For example, the base had gradually expanded over time. This expansion had displaced campesino farmers from their traditional lands. In addition, there had been environmental damage: within the local area, hillsides had been destroyed in an effort to acquire the necessary raw materials to mix asphalt and repave the runway.
The Manta air base contributes some $7 million to the local economy annually, but activists are critical of the lack of real economic development in the area. The marines don’t do any shopping in Ecuadoran markets, nor do they utilize local transportation. “The only thing they contribute to is local discos and prostitution,” Jiménez explained bitterly.
“What you´re describing is hardly unique,” I remarked. “It reminds me of the history of other U.S. military bases.”
“It´s a trend that is repeated around the world,” Jiménez said. “In Vietnam, you had houses of prostitution springing up as well.”
Now that Correa is likely to give the U.S. the boot, the Americans must figure out where they may go next. The Defense Department doesn’t have too many options: across South America, Pink Tide nations are unlikely to host a prolonged U.S. military presence on their soil. About the only country which might agree is Colombia, but for different reasons such a move would prove perilous.
If U.S. troops were deployed to Colombia, they would be stationed in the middle of a war zone and would be exposed to attacks by the FARC. Politically, opening a new base on Colombian soil would further antagonize Chávez across the border. Whether the Pentagon decides to station its base in Guajira amongst the Wayúu or elsewhere in Colombia, the installation is likely to give rise to prostitution and other negative social consequences for the local population, just like Manta.
As the debate over the U.S.-Colombian free trade deal heats up in Washington, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has grown concerned. On the Hill, the deal faces an uncertain future. Many Democrats have opposed the initiative because Colombia’s labor and human rights record continues to remain atrocious. Currently, the agreement is in a state of legislative limbo as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has moved to postpone consideration of the deal.
In order to ram through his free trade agreement, Uribe must win over key African American legislators in Washington. In the unfolding debate over free trade, the Congressional Black Caucus could play a key role. Founded more than 30 years ago, the group of legislators seeks to achieve greater equity for people of African descent through domestic and international programs and services. What’s at stake with the Colombia trade deal, and why have African American legislators showed an interest in the issue?
Afro-Colombian Communities Displaced by War
Colombia is a country with the hemisphere’s third largest population of Afro-descendants, one million more than Haiti’s approximately 8 million predominantly African descendants. While Afro-Colombians make up more than 25 per cent of Colombia’s population, they are disproportionately affected by the ongoing violence in the Andean nation.
Indeed, approximately 40 per cent of Colombia’s 3.8 million internally displaced persons are of African descent. Whether they are caught in the crossfire or specifically targeted, Afro-Colombians are frequently forced to abandon their communities and ancestral lands.
Alba María Cuestas Arias, a displaced Afro-Colombian and board member of AFRODES (or the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians), has said that displacement is used as a weapon of war. “Towns are destroyed, lives are destroyed,” she remarked. “The social fabric is also destroyed. People are forced to leave that which they have been constructing for years and years.”
Aerial spraying of coca leaf, backed by the Bogotá government and Washington, has posed another thorny problem for Afro-Colombians. “Plan Colombia,” started in 1999 under Bill Clinton, was launched to stop cocaine production by supplying the Colombian government with helicopters and other aircraft to spray fields. Unfortunately, the U.S., which gave $2.5 billion of aid through the program, only hastened the displacement of Afro-Colombian peoples.
The reason is clear to see: coca fumigation has destroyed many of the food crops traditionally grown by Afro-Colombians.
Fighting for Their Ancestral Lands
Nevertheless, Afro-Colombians have achieved some notable victories in recent years, including passage of the so-called Law 70. Enacted in 1993, the measure validates Afro-Colombians’ right to their historical territories. Under the law, communities must be consulted and must first give their approval prior to any new projects planned on their land.
Having a law on the books however is one thing and enforcing it is another.
According to Nicole Lee, Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, the Colombian government “has used every ploy to cheat Afro-Colombians out of their traditional titled territories” since the passage of Law 70. Fundamentally, Afro-Colombians’ lands are valuable, and powerful people want to get their hands on the prime real estate.
Marino Córdoba is the founder of AFRODES. He played a critical role in the struggle to secure Colombia’s progressive Law 70 granting land rights to Afro-Colombian communities. After surviving many attempts on his life, Córdoba was forced into exile in the United States. He says that the Colombian government and its right wing paramilitary allies have targeted Afro-Colombian leaders in the Chocó region who have been pressing for land rights. By allowing the attacks to continue, President Uribe and his wealthy backers pave the way for the entry of oil palm plantations, logging operations and mining projects on Afro-Colombian lands.
Afro-Colombians and the Palm Oil Curse
Palm oil, which has been a social and environmental disaster world-wide, is now affecting Afro-Colombian communities for the worse. Producing palm oil takes a high toll on the environment as it involves clearing and draining the rainforest which in turn sends huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Moreover, oil palm plantations also require large amount of toxic fertilizer which pollutes local streams and wildlife.
Formerly used just for cooking, palm oil is now a major source of bio-fuel. Today, Colombia is the largest palm oil producer in the Americas, and 35 per cent of its product is exported as fuel. Fedepalma, the palm oil owners’ association, plans to expand production to a million hectares (about 3,861 square miles). Palm oil production stands to benefit only a handful of planters in Cali and Medellín while Afro-Colombians are displaced from their land.
One of the major forces helping to spur the palm oil boom in Colombia is none other than the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has allocated money to resettle right wing paramilitaries. According to journalist David Bacon, the paramilitaries are frequently resettled on Afro-Colombian lands. Writing in the magazine Dollars and Sense, Bacon adds that paramilitaries often wind up being employed by the oil palm companies which seek to displace Afro-Colombians.
Another important player in the unfolding oil palm imbroglio has been the Uribe government. Indeed, the authorities have passed new Forestry and Rural Development Laws and amended the Mining Law so as to extinguish the rights of Afro-Colombians and further empower palm oil, logging and other companies which have relied upon the paramilitaries to enforce their will.
The new laws dealing with forests, water and other natural resources, passed at the behest of conservative parties in the Colombian Congress and USAID, declare that such resources must be commercially exploited. Unfortunately, if a community doesn’t exploit the resources it can lose title to the land.
The Colombian President, who has nothing but contempt for Afro-Colombians and their culture, envisions a bleak future for blacks in which the latter become junior partners to the oil palm companies, maintaining and harvesting the trees and turning over the product to the companies for refining.
What’s more, Uribe wants to turn over more land for monoculture. During Fedepalma’s 2006 congress, Uribe went so far as to remark to the growers’ organization that he would “lock up the businessmen…with our Afro-Colombian compatriots, and not let them out of the office until they’ve reached an agreement on the use of these lands."
Incensed by the Colombian leader’s attitude, Afro-Colombian representatives wrote Uribe that, “it [the President’s plan] would bring with it great environmental, social and cultural harm." Afro-Colombians argue that encouraging monoculture on the Pacific coast, which is full of rich mangrove forest, could lead to the depletion of one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet.
If that were not bad enough, Afro-Colombians suffer from some of the worst socio-economic conditions in the country: an estimated 86 per cent of people of African descent lack access to basic public services such as sewers and running water. Most white and mestizo communities have such services.
The Colombian health care system isn’t all that great, having suffered from budget cuts to fund Uribe’s counterinsurgency war. Still, it manages to cover 40 per cent of white Colombians. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of Afro Colombians receive health services, while a pathetically low 3 per cent of black workers receive social security benefits.
Consider the statistics on illiteracy: whites 14 per cent, blacks 45 per cent.
About 120 of every 1000 Afro-Colombian infants die in their first year, compared to 20 white babies. At the other end of life, Afro-Colombians live to only 54 years of age on average while whites live to 70 years.
Only 38 per cent of Afro-Colombians attend high school, compared to 66 per cent of non-Black Colombians. Just 2 per cent of Afro-Colombians go to university.
Non-black Colombians earn $1,500 a year on average. Afro-Colombian families take in only $500. Meanwhile, 76 per cent of Afro-Colombians live in conditions of extreme poverty.
Brutal Past to a Brutal Present
That level of poverty is particularly jarring in light of the fact that Afro-Colombians often live in areas of rich natural wealth. A case in point is Chocó, the department with the largest Afro-Colombian population in the country. The area is one of the most neglected in the country and, disgracefully, receives the lowest per capita government investment in health, education and infrastructure of any department in Colombia.
"They [government authorities] see Black people as objects that have no value," declared Juan de Dios García, an Afro-Colombian community organizer. "Therefore sacrificing us, even to the extent of a holocaust, doesn’t matter. That’s the kind of racism to which we’re subjected. We believe all acts against a people’s culture should be considered crimes against human rights, because there is no human life without culture."
Sadly, such conditions are nothing new for Afro-Colombians who have long faced institutionalized racism and discrimination. Confronted with a declining native population and labor shortages in the 16th century, the Spaniards imported African slaves to Colombia and forced them to work in sugar plantations, cattle ranches and gold mines.
Fleeing the harsh conditions, many slaves managed to escape. Later, they settled along the Pacific coast in Chocó and formed their own towns or palenques. There, the slaves were able to live out the rest of their lives as cimarrones or freemen. Slavery was not abolished into well into the Republican period in 1851.
Today it is the Chocó, rich in natural resources and home to many of these ex-slaves, which is at the heart of the debate over the free trade agreement with the United States. Chocó, a cocaine-producing area sandwiched between Panama to the north (a common destination for smugglers) and Valle del Cauca province to the south (home to Colombia’s toughest drug cartel) is prime real estate for palm oil planters.
Encircled by an increasingly nefarious web of palm oil interests and Uribe government officials, Afro-Colombian leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C. in an effort to sway lawmakers to vote against the proposed U.S.-Colombian free trade deal which, they say, will expand palm oil production on their lands.
Speaking recently at New York University, Córdoba decried the underlying economic and political agenda of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. One part of the initiative, he said, calls for more mega-agricultural projects along Colombia’s Pacific coast. Under the deal, Colombia would supply the world with bio-fuels produced from large scale cultivation of palm oil, sugar cane, and corn.
Riding the Colombia Gravy Train
In line with his feverish desire to promote foreign investment, Uribe has been pushing hard for a free trade deal in Washington. Though the Colombian government has already received billions of dollars in military assistance and economic development from the United States, it’s clearly not enough: the Uribe regime wants more and is hiring Washington lobbyists and power brokers to push for its free trade agreement.
Collectively, the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal. Recently, it was disclosed that Mark Penn, an advisor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was employed by the Colombian government to help win passage of the trade agreement in Congress.
Husband Bill was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is ostensibly a development group tasked with bringing investment to Colombia and educating world leaders about the country’s business opportunities.
Even as Uribe’s sleazy PR handlers in Washington join forces with U.S. corporations like Caterpillar, WalMart and Citigroup in an effort to secure a trade agreement, the Colombian government has been doing its utmost to railroad Afro-Colombians at home.
According to AFRODES, the Colombian government did not consult with Afro-Colombian communities when it was negotiating the free trade deal with the U.S. As a result, the Uribe regime fundamentally undermined Law 70.
In a slick PR move, Uribe has created the so-called Commission for the Advancement of Afro-Colombian people which, according to Córdoba, undermines communities’ ability to advance their own development strategies. “President George Bush…and the vast array of lobbying firms hired by the Uribe government are now trying to tout this outrageous Commission as evidence that Afro- Colombian concerns are being addressed as they push to pass the FTA [free trade agreement],” declares Córdoba.
The commission, he adds, is stacked with Uribe supporters and is designed to feign “consultation” with Afro-Colombian communities so as to give the illusion of participatory democracy.
Pushing Afro-Colombians towards “Economic and Cultural Extinction”
Unfortunately, Afro-Colombians don’t have an army of public relations firms at their disposal to make their case, and the U.S. media has all but ignored the free trade agreement as a story, save to briefly mention the Mark Penn scandal in the run-up to the Pennsylvania primary.
If the U.S. press investigated, however, it would find a whole host of problems associated with the deal.
Take, for example, the issue of agriculture.
Afro-Colombians are particularly concerned because, they say, the agreement stands to protect the rights of corporations while adversely affecting local agriculture. Initially, they claim, the deal could force 80,000 families off the land but this could be only the tip of the iceberg: in Mexico, 1.3 million farmers have been displaced as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
According to Nicole Lee, Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, the agreement would “legalize the appropriation of constitutionally-protected collective territories by the government and corporate interests, furthering displacement, poverty and discrimination faced by these marginalized communities.”
In late 2006 a host of local Afro-Colombian groups wrote the U.S. Congress expressing their concerns. “The people in our communities are mostly subsistence…farmers,” they wrote. “They depend on access to land in order to produce the food necessary for their own survival, as well as to sell to local markets in order to procure the currency necessary to buy food, medicine, clothing, and school supplies for their children.” What Afro-Colombian farmers most needed was increased access to credit and technical assistance, improved transportation and land use policies, and fairer prices for commodities.
Unfortunately, the letter added, the free trade agreement did not offer a single one of these development alternatives for local communities. “To the contrary, the deal would increase unfair competition for our local markets. Our families will have to compete with heavily subsidized agricultural products from the United States, pushing us toward economic and cultural extinction.”
Congressional Black Caucus: Failing to Protect Afro-Colombians Through H. Res. 618
Given the appalling human rights situation facing Afro-Colombian peoples, you would think that the Congressional Black Caucus would organize a solidly anti-Uribe bloc. Bizarrely, however, African American legislators have failed to provide a united front.
Take, for example, black legislators and their record on House Resolution 618. Congressman Donald Payne, a Democratic African American legislator from New Jersey, has introduced the measure urging the United States and Colombia to take steps to respect the cultural, territorial, and human rights of Afro-Colombian communities.
H.Res. 618 calls on the Colombian government to end racial discrimination and protect Afro-Colombians’ constitutionally guaranteed lands. The resolution encourages the U.S. and Colombian governments to consult with Afro-Colombians when developing policies which stand to affect their communities.
The measure is currently in the first stage of the legislative process and is being considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Co-sponsors of the bill include prominent African American lawmakers such as John Conyers, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Barbara Lee. But, out of 38 African American members in the House, a whopping 13 refused to become co-sponsors of H.Res 618.
What does this say about the leadership abilities of veteran legislators such as John Conyers?
Even more disgracefully, Charlie Rangel, Democrat of New York and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, refused to sign on to the legislation. In fact, African Americans from New York have been particularly derelict. Yvette Clarke, who represents one of the most liberal districts in the state comprising Park Slope, Brooklyn, also failed to support the legislation.
Rangel and Clarke were joined by Gregory Meeks of Southeast Queens. Meeks in particular has become a huge thorn in the side of anti-Uribe activists in Colombia and the United States (for more on the peculiar case of Rep. Meeks, see below).
When you add up the overall scorecard of Congressional Black Caucus members on Colombia for 2007, the results are even more dismal. Last year, legislators faced a number of important legislative decisions concerning the Andean nation.
For example, they had the option of signing on to a letter calling for more U.S. aid for rural development in Colombia and a strengthening of the nation’s judicial system.
Another important measure, introduced by Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, called on the U.S. to increase aid to the internally displaced in Colombia and to help refugees rebuild their lives successfully.
Legislators also had the option of signing on to a letter addressed to Uribe, expressing concern over a series of politically-motivated break-ins targeting human rights and peace organizations. The letter urged the president to condemn such attacks and publicly express support for the work of human rights organizations.
So, how did the Congressional Black Caucus fare on the three key measures? I have compiled the shameful result, below:
Danny Davis, 1-3
Artur Davis, 0-3
Johnson, Eddie-Bernice, 1-3
Johnson, Hank 0-3
Robert Scott, 0-3
David Scott, 1-3
Tubbs Jones, 0-3
As we may see, with the rare exception of such legislators as Clay, Fattah, and Rush most African American legislators are undistinguished when it comes to Colombia. Meanwhile, an astounding number, 21, have failed to show any backbone whatsoever when it comes to reining in Uribe.
Uribe’s Booster on Capitol Hill: Congressman Gregory Meeks
If these votes are not bad enough, it is clear that some African American legislators would vote for a free trade agreement if it ever came up for a vote. One such politician is Representative Gregory Meeks, whose boosterism of the Uribe regime is so bizarre as to be perverse.
Meeks, who has traveled to Colombia to meet with Uribe personally, is a member of the Clintons’ Democratic Leadership Council. Currently, the New York legislator is seeking to broker a compromise between House Democrats and the Bush Administration that could allow for congressional consideration of the free trade agreement.
"I would like to see a situation where we give [Colombian President Álvaro Uribe] a list of parameters of the things that we need to see, and give [Colombia] an opportunity to accomplish them," Meeks said in an interview. He suggested that there needs to be more of an effort in Colombia to prosecute individuals who have victimized labor leaders.
Meeks said he was confident Uribe would do his utmost to meet those conditions, even as evidence mounts of the government’s ties to right wing paramilitary death squads who assassinate labor leaders. Colombia’s Supreme Court has even ordered the arrest of fourteen members of congress on suspicion of collaboration with death squads; thirteen of the legislators back Uribe. The president’s former intelligence chief is also facing charges of passing information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill opponents.
Recently, Uribe’s cousin, a Senator, was forced to resign in an effort to avoid a Supreme Court inquiry into whether he had ties to the paramilitaries. Mario Uribe was a key ally of the President. So far, Álvaro Uribe has not been directly implicated, but the President has been accused of letting paramilitary groups use his family’s farms to kill opponents during the 1990s. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy cut off $55 million in military aid to Colombia over the allegations.
It’s bad enough when the Bush White House and its Republican allies in Congress seek to prop up the paramilitary government of Álvaro Uribe and try to secure a free trade deal. On the other hand, at least the Republican right is consistent in its philosophy. Not so with the Congressional Black Caucus, a hypocritical body which prides itself on displaying solidarity with Africans of the Diaspora but which does nothing to rein in a racist regime which is doing its utmost to eliminate Afro-Colombians and their culture.
With the Pennsylvania primary fast approaching on April 22, Barack Obama will have the opportunity to end the race for the Democratic nomination once and for all. If he wins by only a slim margin in the state, the "punditocracy" will declare him the presumptive choice of the party and the pressure will build on Hillary Clinton to withdraw. Obama should do well in Philadelphia amongst black voters and will probably pick up a decent percentage of the white affluent vote in the city’s suburbs.
In order to clinch the victory, however, Obama will have to make inroads amongst blue collar workers in the more industrial, western section of the state. In Ohio, Obama lost that constituency to Clinton and he’s desperate to cut into her lead amongst this critical voting bloc. But with less than two weeks to go, how can he turn things around?
In one word: Colombia.
The Scandal Breaks
Recently, Clinton handed Obama a golden opportunity to sew up the nomination when her chief strategist, Mark Penn, was caught up in a scandal involving the pending free trade deal with Colombia. Bush has been pushing hard for the agreement, which would allow for duty free commerce with the United States. Many Democrats and most unions oppose the initiative because of Colombia’s appalling labor record.
Penn’s ties to Team Clinton go back some time: the PR man was originally admitted to Bill’s circle by consultant Dick Morris in an effort to shore up the 1996 presidential campaign. Penn headed up a global public relations firm called Burson-Marsteller; the company has offered public relations help to such unsavory entities as Blackwater, the security contractor accused of killing Iraqi civilians, and Countrywide, a major lender of risky subprime mortgages. Penn was employed by the Colombian government to help win passage of the trade agreement in Congress. Penn’s ties to the Colombian government were revealed when the Wall Street Journal reported that the PR man held a private meeting with the Colombian ambassador.
News of Penn’s ties to the Colombian government proved acutely embarrassing to Clinton, who has gone on record as opposing the agreement. Surely fearing that she might lose out amongst the blue collar constituency in western Pennsylvania, Clinton promptly demoted Penn—though he remains on the campaign staff as a pollster and adviser.
It’s odd to think that the Penn-Colombia story could exert an impact on domestic U.S. politics. Most Americans, if they are aware of Colombia at all, probably associate the country with drug cartels and little else. The media has done a swell job of ignoring Colombia as a news story, despite the fact that successive administrations in Bogotá have been proud recipients of billions of dollars in U.S. foreign aid.
Álvaro Uribe: Creating a Climate of Fear for Colombian Labor
On the other hand, the recent scandal within the Clinton camp might touch a nerve among angry, blue collar workers in the industrial heartland. Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world for labor organizers. In the six years since President Álvaro Uribe took office, over 400 labor activists have been murdered, according to Colombia’s National Trade Union School (Escuela Nacional Sindical). In 2008, almost one unionist a week has been murdered, while 39 unionists were murdered in 2007, far more than in any other country. In addition, threats of violence and murder are now sufficient to halt an organizing drive or to abort a strike.
The connection between this horrific labor climate and the Uribe government is pretty clear. Indeed, there’s been mounting evidence of collusion between many of Uribe’s allies and right wing paramilitaries who assassinate labor leaders. Colombia’s Supreme Court has even ordered the arrest of fourteen members of congress on suspicion of collaboration; thirteen of the legislators back Uribe. The president’s former intelligence chief is also facing charges of passing information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill opponents. Recently, Uribe’s cousin, a Senator, was forced to resign in an effort to avoid a Supreme Court inquiry into whether he had ties to the paramilitaries. Mario Uribe was a key ally of the President.
So far, Álvaro Uribe has not been directly implicated, but the President has been accused of letting paramilitary groups use his family’s farms to kill opponents during the 1990s. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy cut off $55 million in military aid to Colombia over the allegations.
At the very least, the Uribe regime has created a climate of impunity in which labor activists have been targeted. Recently, human rights groups wrote a letter accusing a top Uribe adviser of endangering the lives of labor leaders by claiming that a protest march against right-wing death squads had been organized by FARC left wing guerrillas. The letter charged that four people involved in the march were subsequently murdered, and dozens more threatened with death.
In Colombia, there’s little chance that the paramilitaries will face justice: since the reign of terror against trade unionists began in the 1980s, only three percent of the cases have been clarified.
Riding the Colombia Gravy Train
The Colombian government has already received billions of dollars in military assistance and economic development from the United States, but clearly that is not enough: the Uribe regime wants more and is hiring Washington lobbyists and power brokers to push for its free trade agreement. The winners in this equation include U.S. corporations which for years have been trammeling human rights in Colombia. Big business sees the trade deal as opportunity to increase its fast-track looting of Colombian human and natural resources.
Together, the Colombian government and its lobbyists have launched an all out assault in an effort to sway members of Congress into signing on to the deal. According to the New York Times, there have been all-expense paid trips to Colombia for more than 50 members of Congress, featuring coffee tastings and dinner at a posh restaurant inside an old Spanish fort. Uribe has visited Washington to make personal appeals. Collectively, the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal.
In this fight, Clinton staffers like Penn are intent upon picking off as many Democratic legislators as possible in an effort to secure the trade deal for the Colombian elite and U.S. multinationals. Major corporations such as WalMart, Citigroup and Caterpillar stand to benefit and are working double time to ram the deal through Congress.
From Colombia to Pennsylvania
Colombia’s sorry track record is not lost on the likes of organized labor in the U.S., which says the Andean nation’s record in curbing assassinations of labor organizers by paramilitaries remains poor. In Pennsylvania, the Colombia story has political traction: one of four primary voters in the state hails from a union household.
Just yesterday, Teamsters President Jim Hoffa went to a Hershey-owned York Peppermint Patty Plant in Reading, Pennsylvania to denounce the Colombia free trade agreement. Hoffa was in Reading as part of a three-day tour through the state, meeting with Teamsters in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Allentown, Reading and Pittsburgh.
"These so-called trade deals are killing American jobs," he said. "They aren’t about trade; they’re about helping companies move their factories to countries with cheaper labor. The last thing American workers need is a trade deal with Colombia, one of the most anti-union countries in the world," Hoffa added.
In traveling to Reading, Hoffa was making a political statement about Latin American free trade deals. The Hershey plant will move to Monterrey, Mexico by year’s end, resulting in the loss of 260 jobs. It’s yet another painful blow to the residents of Reading, which has already lost one-fourth of its good-paying manufacturing jobs since January 2001.
Appearing at an Obama rally in Scranton, Hoffa declared, "In 1998, we lost 1,000 jobs at Tops Chewing gum, those jobs went to Mexico. In York, Pennsylvania, Peppermint Patties is closing 600 union jobs will go to Mexico (where) they won’t pay health care. They won’t pay unemployment it’s about money. And these CEOs don’t care about America."
Pennsylvania has been especially hard hit by foreign trade. More than 44,000 jobs were lost due to NAFTA since it took effect in 1994, and Hoffa claims that 1,583 plants, offices and warehouses have closed in the state as a result of the trade deal. Pockets of the state have suffered from chronic unemployment and low wages since many factories and steel mills closed.
What this adds up to is a fired up electorate which is prone to punish any candidate tied to corporate-friendly free trade agreements. Change to Win, a labor alliance which has endorsed Obama, called Penn’s meeting with the Colombian ambassador "outrageous" and urged Clinton to fire him. "We have questioned Penn’s role in the Clinton campaign in the past for his representation of union busting employers," Change to Win executive director Greg Tarpinian said. Meanwhile, significant union leaders like Hoffa continue to call for Clinton to fire Penn outright.
Pressing Colombia’s Agenda: Hillary’s Sleazy Advisers
Though Clinton herself has opposed the Colombia free trade agreement, her campaign is knee deep in Colombia sleaze. In addition to his public relations work lobbying for the Colombia free trade agreement, Penn also worked as an adviser to Coca-Cola, a company which faces legal action in connection with its bottling plants in Colombia.
A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida accused the Coca-Cola Company, its Colombian subsidiary and business affiliates of using paramilitary death squads to murder, torture, kidnap and threaten union leaders at the multinational soft drink manufacturer’s Colombian bottling plants. The suit was filed by the United Steelworkers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund on behalf of SINALTRAINAL, the Colombian union that represents workers at Coca-Cola’s Colombian bottling plants.
The story doesn’t end there, however.
Another top Clinton campaign aide spokesman Howard Wolfson is an owner of the Glover Park Group, to which the Colombian government pays a $40,000 per month retainer to lobby for the US-Colombia free trade agreement. In the wake of the scandal involving Penn, Clinton promoted Wolfson to take over the campaign’s "strategic message team."
In other words, Hillary’s clarifications on Colombia notwithstanding, Glover Park Group has been arguing the same position on the free trade agreement as Penn (several other Glover Park employees have deep connections with the Clintons, including founding partner Joe Lockhart, who served as the White House press secretary under President Bill Clinton, and Joel Johnson, who was a senior communications adviser in the Clinton White House).
Bill’s Sordid Colombia Past and Present
In addition to Penn and Wolfson, there’s also husband Bill to consider. As President, Clinton went to bat for Andrés Pastrana, whose administration was equal to if not worse than the sordid Uribe regime when it came to protecting human rights. Clinton backed so-called Plan Colombia and approved $1.3 billion to the Andean nation while waiving human rights conditions. More than $900 million of the U.S. contribution went toward military and police equipment, including attack helicopters and other lethal aid, ostensibly in an effort to prosecute the drug war.
What’s particularly jarring is that Clinton backed the Pastrana government despite rampant human rights abuses in Colombia at the time. According to Human Rights Watch, right wing paramilitaries massacred civilians, committed selective killings, and spread terror with the tolerance and open support of the armed forces.
Labor was hit particularly hard during the Pastrana years: the Colombian President enacted strict austerity measures and began selling off state-owned banks and other nationalized enterprises. When some 800,000 state workers struck in protest, Pastrana declared the strike illegal.
Meanwhile, labor leaders were assassinated.
Bill’s Colombia advocacy has continued under the Uribe regime. According to the Politico, the former President was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is ostensibly a development group tasked with bringing investment to Colombia and educating world leaders about the country’s business opportunities.
As early as 2005 Clinton remarked that he was in favor of a Colombian free trade agreement. In that year, he went to Bogotá personally to meet with Uribe. The Colombian President said that he needed Clinton’s support to ensure the passage of the free trade agreement. Clinton agreed to follow up on the request once he returned to the U.S.
After speaking with the Colombian President, Clinton accompanied Uribe on a walk through downtown Bogotá. The two headed from the Tequendama Hotel to the Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada Convention Center. During their walk Bill greeted the city’s many street vendors, many of whom were surely cast out of the formal economy as a result of Colombia’s draconian labor policies.
On Colombia, Hillary is little Better
Though Hillary hasn’t made personal junkets to Bogotá, her record on Colombia does not inspire much confidence. In the Senate she has been careful not to stick her neck out on behalf of human rights in Colombia, leaving this task to more principled liberal folk.
In 2002, The Latin American Working Group singled out the late Paul Wellstone, Patrick Leahy, and Russ Feingold for their tireless efforts to raise the issue of human rights in Colombia. All three denounced aerial fumigations of coca leaf which had dire environmental consequences in Colombia. Clinton was nowhere to be found on the issue.
In 2003, the usual Senate suspects including Dodd, Feingold, Leahy and Kerry sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell expressing serious concern about a speech given by Uribe. In chilling fashion, the Colombian President accused some human rights groups of acting as "terrorist spokespeople," remarks which put human rights defenders in danger. The Senators’ letter of protest also opposed amnesty for paramilitary leaders involved in grave human rights abuses.
Where was Clinton? The junior Senator from New York refused to sign on to the letter.
Fast forward to 2004, and the dire plight of trade unionists continued unabated. Once again it fell to Feingold and Dodd to lead the charge: the two drafted a letter to Uribe urging him to make progress on breaking ties between the Colombian army and paramilitary forces. Feingold and Dodd expressed concern about ongoing attacks against human rights and union activists, and raised concerns about policies granting police powers to the military.
Again, Clinton refused to sign the letter.
In 2005, it was again the same: Leahy, Dodd and Leahy signed a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, calling on her not to certify that Colombia met human rights conditions in law until greater progress was made on a series of cases. Clinton passed when it came time to add her name.
And as recently as 2007, Hillary refused to sign a letter sponsored by Leahy and Dodd that expressed concern over public statements by government officials, including Uribe. The statements led to attacks against human rights defenders, journalists, and other members of civil society.
Obama’s Contrasting Record
In contrast to Hillary, Obama has shown some spine when dealing with Uribe. The Illinois Senator has questioned President Bush’s close alliance with Bogotá and, unlike Clinton, signed the letter to Condoleezza Rice. Obama wrote that he was concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries.
To his credit, Obama has taken a strong stance advocating the dismantling of paramilitary networks. The Bogotá government, he argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries’ financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then "maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify."
On the pending Colombia free trade measure, Obama should be lauded for his position. He emphatically opposes the pending free trade deal, remarking "I’m concerned frankly about the reports there of the involvement of the administration with human rights violations and the suppression of workers." On the campaign trail, Obama added that he opposed the treaty “because when organizing workers puts an organizer’s life at risk, as it does in Colombia, it makes a mockery of our labor protections.”
On the positive side, Obama recognizes the need to rethink the nature of trade agreements. "I think it is very important for us in our free trade agreements with any country to ensure that basic human rights are being observed, basic worker rights are being observed, basic environmental rights are being observed," he remarked.
Uribe recognizes the potential threat posed by an Obama administration. A few days ago, the Colombian President chastised Obama for not being aware of Colombia’s "efforts" on trade. Apparently, Uribe was referring to the Colombian government’s public relations campaign in Washington, designed to whitewash human rights atrocities.
Obama retorted hotly, "I think the president is absolutely wrong on this. You’ve got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition…That’s not the kind of behavior that we want to reward. I think until we get that straightened out its inappropriate for us to move forward."
What’s striking is that Uribe would openly meddle in the U.S. presidential campaign, perhaps underscoring the Bogotá government’s deep nervousness about the future. One might ask though: why did Uribe not criticize Hillary, since her stance on the Colombia trade deal is identical to Obama’s? Clearly, Uribe isn’t too concerned about a Clinton administration in Washington. After all, the Clinton machine has a long history of backing the Colombian far right, its politicians and death squads, of whom Uribe is the top leader.
Sewing up the Nomination in Pennsylvania
Mark Penn reportedly believes that the entire Colombia story, and the issue of his conflict of interest within the Clinton campaign, will ultimately blow over. According to Huffington Post, Penn remarked that the fiasco would vanish from the news cycle within a couple of days.
Camp Obama seems to be catching on to the importance of the story, however. A campaign spokesperson sent reporters a note reading, "Just ask yourself [what you would do] if some of my advisers had been having private meetings with foreign governments." For whatever reason, however, Obama doesn’t mention Penn’s name while campaigning in Pennsylvania.
It’s a mistake.
Unfortunately, Obama still hasn’t given white voters in the western part of the state much of a compelling reason to vote for him. He must draw a starker contrast to the Clinton campaign on foreign policy and labor rights. Having already delivered a major speech on race, he could now discuss class within the context of Pennsylvania’s de-industrialization. He could point out, poignantly, how free trade benefits the corporate elite in Colombia and the United States and harms workers in both countries.
Threatening to cut off economic aid to Colombia unless Bogotá improved its labor record would be a gutsy move and make Obama an instantaneous hero to organized labor. He could top it all off by riffing a bit about Clinton and her campaign’s unseemly ties to the Uribe regime (it would be drole, and that is putting it mildly, to see the mainstream media struggle to play catch up on the story. Having systematically ignored the issue of labor in Colombia during the Pastrana and Uribe years, it would now have to explore the underbelly of U.S. foreign policy in the Andes).
If Obama were to take such a daring move, he could sew up Pennsylvania and the nomination. If he fails to electrify working class voters however, the nominating contest goes on, perhaps even to the Convention. The Illinois Senator would still probably prevail, but the public will lose interest in the campaign and "Obama-mania" could fade somewhat.