Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cuba ready to send doctors, rescuers to Japan

Cuban authorities said they were ready to send a team of doctors and rescuers to assist in rescue efforts in earthquake-stricken Japan, Cuba's AIN news agency reported on Tuesday.

Cuban Ambassador to Japan Jose Fernandez de Cossio also said all Cubans currently in Japan were ready to render any necessary aid.

Relief operations continue in Japan following a devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that have killed nearly 6,000 people and left thousands missing. Aftershocks still continue to rattle the area.

Groups of Cuban doctors worked in Haiti during last year's severe earthquake, helping at least 71,000 victims of the natural disaster and cholera outbreak that followed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Colombia Slips Into the Abyss as FTA Threatens Further Havoc

By Dan Kovalik

While little attention has been paid by the press, Colombia just reached an ignominious benchmark -- it is now the country with the largest population of internally displaced persons in the world, surpassing Sudan which had held this position for the past several years. Colombia, with a population of around 44 million, now has 5.2 million internally displaced persons, meaning that almost 12% of its population is displaced -- most of them by violence, and a disproportionate number being Afro-Colombians and indigenous.

As a report by the Colombian human rights group CODHES notes, half of the 5.2 internally displaced were displaced during the presidential term of Alvaro Uribe and as a direct consequence of his "counterinsurgency program" -- a program funded in large measure by the U.S. As CODHES noted, in a significant proportion of the municipalities impacted by this program, there has been large-scale mining and cultivation of oil palm and biofuel. CODHES is clear that this production is directly responsible for the violent displacement of persons from their land Indeed, it appears that the "counterinsurgency program" has in fact largely been intended to make Colombia safe for multi-national exploitation of the land at the very expense of the people the program has claimed to be helping.

The proposed Colombia FTA is also intended to do the very same -- to protect the rights of multi-national corporations over the basic human rights of the Colombian people. For example, the Colombia FTA would privilege the very palm oil production which is leading to the mass displacement of people. Even more frightening, as The Nation Magazine explained in a detailed article, around half of the palm oil companies are actually owned and controlled by paramilitary groups, meaning that the FTA will directly aid these groups by incentivizing their crops.

As the Washington Office on Latin America recently noted, the FTA's agricultural provisions will also undermine the livelihood of Colombia's rural inhabitants who will not be able to compete with the subsidized, cheap food stuffs which will be able to flood the Colombian markets duty-free under the FTA. Indeed, we have seen this before in Mexico where NAFTA led to the impoverishment and displacement of 1.3 million small farmers, and in Haiti which lost its ability to feed its own people with its rice production after Clinton's free trade policies with that country.

And indeed, Bill Clinton apologized to the Senate last year over these very free trade policies, saying:

"It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. . . . I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."

Clinton went further, even conceding that such trade policy has "failed everywhere it's been tried." And yet, the current administration, with Bill Clinton himself cheering it on, appears to be pushing for the same failed free trade policy for Colombia.

Meanwhile, the labor rights situation in Colombia remains dismal. Thus, according to the Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS), fifty-one (51) trade unionists were killed in 2010, and 4 unionists (including 3 teachers) have already been killed this year. The 51 unionists killed in 2010 matches precisely the number of unionists killed in 2008 when President Obama vowed to oppose the Colombia FTA based upon his concern that unionists face unprecedented violence in that country. The same concerns should motivate President Obama to oppose the FTA now.

The continued violence against trade unionists in Colombia led the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to inform leaders of the EU, who are considering a similar free trade agreement, that the Colombian administration's attempts to sell the agreement on the claim that labor and human rights are improving in Colombia are in fact a sham. (See letter.) In the words of the ITUC, "the intensive lobbying campaign at the European Parliament by the Colombian Government is an attempt to mislead the international community." The ITUC urges the international community not to be fooled by the Colombian government's campaign and to continue to reject a free trade agreement with that country. Hopefully, the Obama Administration will take heed of such warnings.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Human Rights Crisis in Puerto Rico: First Amendment Under Seige

By American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Puerto Rico National Chapter (Ferbruary 2011)

While the world celebrates the democratic revolution in Egypt, major violations of basic human rights
are occurring in our own backyard. Since Governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño came into power two years ago, free speech has been under all-out assault. The following events have taken place recently:

* Thousands of public workers have been laid off and had their union contracts terminated, leading to tens of thousands of people peacefully protesting over the past year. One event turned out over 100,000 peaceful protestors and while in NYC hundreds marched on May Day, in Puerto Rico May Day turned out an estimated 30,000 citizens.

* At a protest at the steps of the Capital Building over the closing of access to legislative sessions,
access that is constitutionally mandated, protesters were beaten mercilessly, pepper sprayed and shot at by Puerto Rico Police. The same has occurred at other locations.

At most events young women are the first to be targeted for police violence. At the University of Puerto Rico, female students, many of whom were beaten, were also sexually harassed, groped and assaulted (touched) by police. Students have been mercilessly beaten, mazed and shot at with rubber bullets. Citizens have accused, which images captured confirm, police of applying torture techniques on immobilized student protesters. In the past two years, there have been several riots at protests in and around the University of Puerto Rico. Many protesters have accused the police of causing the riots, which some videos also seem to confirm.

Since taking the oath of office, the current administration, which controls all three branches of government, has set out to quash Freedom of Expression. In Puerto Rico, Expression has been in the form of protests against government policies, such as the firing of approximately 26,000 workers in total, privatizing government, closing off access to public information and legislative sessions, attempting to close down the university FM radio station during periods of civil unrest and going after the Puerto Rico Bar Association, which was a mandatory integrated Bar and is Puerto Rico's oldest institution. The 171 year old Puerto Rico Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico) has historically been a known focal point for liberal dissent against government policies.

Puerto Rico Governor Fortuño, who is considered a rising star in the Republican Party, has publicly committed to not allowing what he calls "extreme left" protests and expression. On Friday, February 11, 2011, Governor Fortuño spoke about his administration's policies while speaking at a Conservative Political Action Conference of the American Conservative Union (ACU) in Washington, DC, an activity attended by members of the National Rifle Association, the Tea Party and the John Birch Society.

* At the University of Puerto Rico all forms of expression have been prohibited, through a Resolution issued by UPR Chancellor Ana Guadalupe; a resolution which Governor Luis Fortuño ordered armed police officers to enforce. On Wednesday, February 9, 2011, a group of students participated in civil disobedience on campus, consisting of a paint-in. During the paint-in, students peacefully and without interrupting the educational process painted messages of protest in a limited area of the street at the front of the main library, in defiance of the Chancellor's absolute prohibition on any form of protest. Students immediately came under extreme physical and violent attack by members of the police force's elite and heavily armed SWAT and Riot Squad teams.

While the ACLU is looking to file charges on Human Rights violations and evaluating other legal options, the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, a conservative English language newspaper, published a damming editorial in which it called for the resignation of the university's president, chancellors and the Board of Trustees. On Friday, February 11, 2011, President Ramón De la Torres' resignation was unanimously accepted by the Board of Trustees. However, the Board Chairperson, Ygrí Rivera, immediately stated that she will not be removing armed Puerto Rico Police officers from the University of Puerto Rico campus.

In its editorial, the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, stated that "[t]he indiscriminate aggression of police riot squads against students, who are exercising their constitutional rights in public areas without interfering with any academic or administrative activity, is a gross violation of their rights and an act comparable only to the acts of the dictatorships we all denounce and reject". The Daily Sun added that "[w]e do not want this new order, neither for our university, the Capitol, La Fortaleza or our neighborhoods. We reject it with all our might, exercising our freedom of speech, or freedom of association, is not a crime".

As we say in Puerto Rico, "mas claro no canta un gallo" (it could not have been more clearly stated). On Sunday, February 12, 2011, just four days after students were mercilessly beaten by Puerto Rico Police agents, over 10,000 alumnus, parents, grandparents, family members and other citizens took to the streets and marched over to reclaim the UPR campus, demanding that the PRPD be immediately ordered off campus. See news video: http://www.primerahora.com/milesseunencontralacuotaylainvasionpoliciacaenlaupr-474118.html

In addition to the debacle and related violence at the University of Puerto Rico, in the past two years legislation has been passed that would prohibit protests at construction sites and most recently at any government building that renders educational services and other locations providing government services, under penalty of criminal prosecution.

The Puerto Rico Bar Association was recently de-certified through legislation which the governor signed into law, which all but shut down its operations. Several lawyers aligned with the views of the current administration pushed for de-certification and had previously sued the Bar Association in federal court alleging that the Bar was forcing them to purchase an unwanted insurance policy; its $78.00 per year cost was paid from Bar Association dues. Bar members were never informed of the particulars of the lawsuit and Federal Fudge José Antonio Fusté issued a GAG order prohibiting the disclosure of important aspects of the case to Bar class members.

The Puerto Rico Bar Association is not being allowed to inform and counsel Bar members about their right to opt out of the lawsuit. Thousands of lawyers are not even sure why they are a part of this lawsuit. It is believed that an English language notice on the right to opt out of the lawsuit may not be sufficient guarantee that Bar members will fully understand the ramifications of their actions. Many members of the Bar have limited English skills, particularly lawyers in the smaller and rural towns. The newly elected President of the now voluntary Puerto Rico Bar Association (Colegio de Abogados de Puerto Rico), Osvaldo Toledo, was jailed on Friday, February 11, 2010, at a federal detention center in Puerto Rico, where he remains on contempt of a court charges for refusing to pay a $10,000 fine imposed on him for having counseled Bar members who insist that they have a right to know the particulars of the suit and procedure for opting out.

Federal Judge José Antonio Fuste's GAG order extends not only to the President of the Puerto Rico Bar Association, but also board members, administrators, agents and servants. The Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Puerto Rico, William Ramírez, had previously been warned by the Bar that he may not be able to speak out against what is held to be an injustice and First Amendment infringement. Speaking out in defiance of the federal court order may result in the arrest of anyone covered by the court's GAG order and further fines imposed against the Puerto Rico Bar Association.

After studying the court's order, we at the ACLU do not, at this time, believe that the federal court order reaches class members or other members of the Bar, including the staff and cooperating attorneys of the ACLU in Puerto Rico. However, we do believe the order to be unjust and believe it should be set aside.

The ACLU will continue to fight for the right to free speech and peaceful assembly in Puerto Rico and fully intends to take on any challenges that it may face.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bolivia’s Morales confronts general strike over food prices

By Bill Van Auken

After five years in office, the government of Bolivia’s President Evo Morales faced a nationwide general strike, amid a growing popular rebellion against rising food prices.
All of Bolivia’s major cities—La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Oruro—were paralyzed last Friday, as workers marched in city centers and blockaded roads and highways to demand that the government substantially increase wages and take measures to combat rising prices and food shortages.
Long lines of workers marched through Cochabamba in a steady downpour, while thousands of factory workers, teachers, health care workers, other public employees and students took over the center of the capital of La Paz, punctuating their chanting of demands with explosions of dynamite.
Reelected in December 2009 by a landslide 62 percent majority, Morales has seen his popularity rating slide to barely one third. The country has been rocked by a series of escalating protests that began at the end of last year, with the government’s shock announcement of an end to fuel price subsidies.
The action sent gasoline prices soaring by 72 percent and diesel by 82 percent. The decision was rescinded in the face of violent protests, and now Morales is saying that he intends to introduce an end to the subsidies more gradually.
Despite this tactical retreat, the damage done by the brief price hikes proved to be sustained, unleashing an inflationary spiral that has seen the prices for virtually all basic foodstuffs climb between 10 and 50 percent.
Protests have escalated steadily as a result. Last month saw 5,000 people march through the southwestern town of Llallagua in two separate protests organized by miners and by the local farmers unions. Poorer peasants who had come in from the countryside for the demonstration looted stores, while police did not intervene.
Then on February 10, Morales was forced to flee the mining city of Oruro where he had gone to participate in a ceremony commemorating a colonial-era uprising. Miners, workers and the unemployed stormed the ceremony, tossing dynamite to protest deteriorating economic conditions. A presidential spokesman announced that Morales and other officials had left the city and returned to La Paz. “The government has decided not to respond to such shameful and painful provocations,” he said.
Bolivia’s unions issued a statement last week insisting that as a result of the inflationary spiral, the canasta familiar, or basic monthly expenses, for a Bolivian family, has risen to 8,300 bolivianos ($1,100)—approximately 11 times more than the present $96 monthly minimum wage in South America’s poorest country. They demanded that wages be increased accordingly.
Morales’ response only inflamed sentiments against the government. He called the demands “laughable,” insisting that the wages would be increased by only slightly more than 7 percent, the official inflation rate. Bolivians maintain that this rate does not begin to reflect the real double-digit increases in prices of basic necessities.
“It makes me laugh when” they demand “a wage increase of 40, 50 or even 70 percent,” said Morales, who added that when he was president of Bolivia’s coca growers union, “our demands were always reasonable.”
Morales continued, “It is important to think first of the future of the fatherland before regional or sectoral interests,” effectively equating the demands of masses of Bolivian workers and poor for food with the reactionary agitation of ruling elites, like those in Santa Cruz, seeking secession from the country.
Pedro Montes, the president of the COB (the Bolivian Workers Federation, the country’s main trade union), publicly acknowledged that the union leadership had been forced to call the general strike out of fear that the mass spontaneous protests were becoming uncontrollable.
“We can’t control the protest of the workers over the rising cost of living they are experiencing,” said the COB leader. “That’s why they are going into the streets to protest and express their discontent over hunger, misery, unemployment and over having nearly empty stomachs.”
In earlier protests, particularly in the volatile town of El Alto, outside of La Paz, populated largely by impoverished workers who have emigrated from the countryside, popular anger was turned against the COB itself because of the union leadership’s support for and close integration into the Morales government. Union offices were attacked by workers hurling bricks and stones.
It was in El Alto that the mass uprising of 2003 that toppled US-backed President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada was centered. That struggle, in which 63 Bolivian workers were shot to death by troops, began over a corrupt deal to sell off the country’s gas resources to the US and Chile. It laid the basis for Morales’ rise to the presidency two years later.
Hailed as the first indigenous president of the country, Morales came to office as the candidate of the Movement towards Socialism, or MAS. Since his election, he has regularly proclaimed his opposition to capitalism and his commitment to a “communitarian socialism”.
His vice-president, Álvaro Garcia Linare, a leftist professor and former guerrilla who comes from Bolivia’s upper middle class, has been somewhat more circumspect, declaring the government’s aim to be the creation of “Andean-Amazonian capitalism,” meaning state promotion of capitalist development.
In reality, the country’s social structure has remained little changed, while its economy continues to be dominated by multinational corporations centered on the extraction of Bolivia’s mineral wealth under some of the most favorable conditions for foreign capital existing on the continent.
In the first years of Morales’ presidency, an unprecedented rise in raw material prices made possible some minimum social assistance programs, but the impact of the world capitalist crisis and resulting downturn in foreign investment and production have created the conditions for new social explosion.
Morales recently reappointed all but three of his cabinet ministers—rejecting demands for the sacking of those most responsible for the drastic fuel price increases last December—and has attempted to portray his government as essentially stable.
There are growing signs of divisions, however, as popular unrest mounts. The Bolivian president’s former spokesman and close political associate, Alex Contreras, denounced Morales for his economic policies in statements to the Bolivian media.
“The president, with these measures, appears to be ruling in the interests of the agro-industrial sector, the multinational enterprises and the black-marketers, who speculate in and profit basic foodstuffs like sugar, rice, flour and others,” Contreras said.
Gonzalo Flores, one of Bolivia’s representatives to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, blamed the government’s policies for the food crisis, which he said had resulted in “a large part of the population not having access to sufficient food to maintain a healthy life.” He said that up to 25 percent of Bolivia’s children suffered from stunted growth because of inadequate nutrition.
Meanwhile, Morales’ erstwhile supporters in the COB and in the peasants’ union CSUTCB have called attention to the fact that the ruling party, the Movement for Socialism, has become increasingly dominated by political operatives drawn from the parties of the Bolivian right, including members of such fascistic forces as the Santa Cruz Youth Union.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Resettlement Plan Excludes Almost 200,000 Families

By Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 14, 2011 (IPS) - One year and one month after Haiti's horrendous earthquake, the world's eyes are focused elsewhere.

Aside from a few updates on ex-dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haiti has fallen from the headlines.

Gone are the foreign reporters and news crews pumping out anniversary stories.

Long-forgotten are the one-year reports from United Nations agencies, the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and watchdog groups, full of self-congratulations or hand- wringing over the lack of progress on Haiti's reconstruction. [See sidebar]

But there has been a kind of progress.

NGOs and the "humanitarian industry"
"In the language of NGOs, Haiti is a 'humanitarian hot spot,' because the NGOs go where the donors go," journalist Linda Polman told a group of reporters in Petion-ville, Haiti recently.

"That's why all these organisations are here. They're waiting for the billions… Haiti is just one station on the trip NGOs make. They ask people for money because they say they are going to help… You have to ask them questions. You have to make sure they spend that money on you."

The Dutch author of "The Crisis Caravan - What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid" took time out from her investigation into Haiti aid to urge Haitian journalists at Radio/Tele Metropole to dig into NGOs and the "humanitarian industry".

"NGOs are part of an international, multinational, multi-billion-dollar industry," she said. "Donor countries give over 130 billion dollars a year."

And that figure doesn't even take into account private donations.

According to Polman, about 37,000 NGOs, mostly from Western countries, work in poor countries. There are probably about 2,000 foreign NGOs in Haiti by her reckoning. And while NGOs say they come to poor countries to "help", that is not the only motivation, she said.

"This is a business, and sometimes they make decisions that are not moral," she noted.

In addition to being in business, they also do foreign policy work. In her book, Polman writes how, in 2001, just weeks after the 9/11 attack, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told NGO leaders that "American NGOs… NGOs are a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team."

Polman pleaded with journalists to investigate the foreign NGOs in Haiti which – according to many journalist and watchdog groups – are not delivering the quality and quantity of assistance needed.

"Western journalists come and go and that is why it is up to you. Ask the NGOs questions. And if you don't understand, ask and ask again, because it's your money."

*Author Linda Polman's visit to Radio/Tele Metropole was part of an ongoing training organised by the Knight International Journalism Fellow in Haiti.

Haitian authorities – or, to be more precise, those who have authority in Haiti, but who are not necessarily Haitian – actually do have a plan for Haiti's homeless.

The ambitious 30-page "Neighborhood Return and Housing Reconstruction Framework (version 3)," obtained last month by Haiti Grassroots Watch, outlines plans to rebuild neighbourhoods with better zoning and better services, help homeowners rebuild safer homes, or relocate homeowners to new homes in less precarious locations.

However, the Framework leaves out Haiti's largest group of earthquake victims: the poorest of the poor. The renters.

"With a few exceptions, the reconstruction is not going to make people homeowners who were not homeowners before," Priscilla Phelps, senior advisor for Housing and Neighbourhoods for the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), told IPS and Haiti Grassroots Watch in January.

That means 192,154 families – more than half of the 1.3 million internally displaced persons tallied last fall – will be left out in the cold. Or, in the case of Haiti, out in the sun, the rain and the dust.

According to the Framework, "[r]eturn and reconstruction will not change the tenancy status of earthquake affected households: the goal is to restore owners and renters to an equivalent status as before the earthquake, but in safer conditions."

For home- and land-owners, things are moving forward, albeit very slowly.

Humanitarian agencies have over 100 million dollars to build 111,240 "transitional shelters" or "T-Shelters" – small huts, usually 18 square metres. As of Feb. 1, only about 43,100 had been built, due to the rubble choking poor neighbourhoods and Haiti's convoluted land ownership situation. (Most donors want to be sure on land titles before building a T-Shelter.)

Agencies and construction firms also have at least 174 million dollars pledged of the 350 million dollars needed - in 2011 alone - for repairing or rebuilding homes and neighbourhoods. As of Feb. 1, of the approximately 193,000 homes needing to be repaired or rebuilt, only 2,547 had been repaired and 1,880 rebuilt.

But for the hundreds of thousands of former renters living hunched under tents in camps with few or no services, with an average of 392 residents per latrine, there is no shelter – transitional or permanent – on the horizon. Because they are supposed to rent.

Sanon Renel, of the Housing Reflection and Action Force coalition (Fòs Refleksyon ak Aksyon sou Koze Kay - FRAKKA), which is mobilising with unions and other groups on the housing issue, is outraged.

"This is pure and simple exclusion. You could even call this an official policy of apartheid," Renel told IPS.

In addition to losing all their belongings, many of Haiti's displaced also lost jobs, as well as the huge sums they had paid out for school tuitions and rent prior to the earthquake. In Haiti, one rents six, 12 and even 24 months at a time. Renel noted that it will take years for families to save that up again.

"These people are factory workers, day labourers. Many are former peasants forced into the city because their land has given out, or because they can't make ends meet. They are the eternal victims of an economic system that protects big landowners and rich capitalists," said Renel.

A typical example of "reconstruction"

The way the housing issue is being handled offers a typical example of Haiti's "reconstruction".

The Framework "is intended to signal what the approach is going to be," according to the IHRC's Phelps, who likely helped author the plan and who recently co-wrote 'Safer Homes, Stronger Communities: A Handbook for Reconstructing After Natural Disasters' for the World Bank.

But the document has never been approved by the government of Haiti. Not by the parliament, not by President René Préval, and not the Inter-Ministry Commission on Housing, which groups together five ministers.

Nor has the document ever been held up to public scrutiny or discussed at fora where local urban planners, construction firms or other stakeholders – like FRAKKA and the homeless people themselves – could perhaps make their opinions known.

Nevertheless, the Framework is more than what the "approach is going be".

De facto, it is the plan. Because NGOs are moving forward, according to Jean-Christophe Adrian of UN-HABITAT, which chairs the "Shelter Cluster" of the 200 or so NGOs working on the housing issue.

"The document represents the consensus," Adrian explained.

Phelps notes that the Inter-Ministry Commission on Housing has "seen it and made remarks," but they have never openly approved or disapproved of it, nor has it been made public.

In fact, national government officials have only gone public on one housing project – a plan for 3,000 to 4,000 apartments in the Fort National neighbourhood overlooking Haiti's National Palace.

"It's a project of public housing high-rises, respecting building norms for earthquake zones, which will house many hundreds of families," Jacques Gabriel, Minister of Public Works, told Agence France Presse in January.

But when Minister of Social Affairs Gérald Germain and his bodyguards showed up to place the cornerstone on Jan. 12, they were chased away by angry, homeless protestors.

"We want explanations!" a man who identified himself as Leguenson told AlterPresse.

Haiti's homeless are not the only ones who want explanations. According to Phelps, the project does not yet have IHRC approval.

Nevertheless, not unlike the lack of coordination and communication sometimes apparent in other sectors, the first stone for the Fort National project was going to be placed even before it received the IHRC's green light.

Or perhaps the Haitian government has decided to skip the IHRC? But according to a decree, it is "responsible for continuously developing and refining development plans for Haiti."

"There are still a lot of questions that have to be worked out," Phelps explained. "The proposal they have made is one that needs some vetting. It's quite expensive."

Shelter Cluster authorities are also sceptical. "Our experience shows us that, in all countries, these types of projects end up benefiting the middle classes. They don't benefit the poorest people," Adrian said.

With authorities bickering, with no high-rise in sight, and with construction and reconstruction only planned for the homeowners, 13 months later, Haiti's poorest earthquake victims are left exactly where they were on Jan. 13, 2010 - in tents and under tarps, living in subhuman conditions, under constant threat of eviction, facing a depleted housing stock with no savings.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ecuadoreans Plan to Pursue Chevron in Other Countries

CARACAS, Venezuela — Armed with a $9 billion ruling against Chevron in Ecuador but little chance of collecting it there, representatives for Ecuadorean villagers said Tuesday that they were looking at waging legal battles against the company in more than a dozen countries where it operates, hoping to force Chevron to pay.
Enlarge This Image

Dolores Ochoa/Associated Press
Pablo Fajardo, the lead lawyer representing the Ecuadorean villagers at a news conference in the capital, Quito, on Tuesday.

Ecuador Judge Orders Chevron to Pay $9 Billion (February 15, 2011)
The latest salvo, coming only a day after an Ecuadorean judge ordered Chevron to pay one of the largest environmental awards ever, suggests that the legal battle between villagers and oil executives, which began in 1993, is far from over.

The case stems from oil pollution in the Ecuadorean rain forest, but Chevron does not operate there and has no significant assets in the country. It was Texaco, which Chevron acquired in a merger in 2001, that was accused of widespread environmental damage before pulling out of Ecuador in the early 1990s.

Chevron has much larger operations elsewhere in Latin America, and the plaintiffs’ strategy of pursuing the company across the region could open a contentious new phase in the case — one that would test Ecuador’s political ties with its neighbors and involve some of Washington’s most prominent lobbyists and lawyers.

Advisers to the plaintiffs said Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela would be obvious candidates to pursue Chevron assets, but they acknowledged it would not be easy. Venezuela, for instance, is a close Ecuadorean ally and its president, Hugo Chávez, is a frequent critic of the United States. But Chevron has extensive operations in Venezuela and enjoys warmer ties with Mr. Chávez’s government than just about any other American company.

The plaintiffs also face an uphill struggle collecting damages in the United States, at least immediately, given that a judge in New York this month temporarily prevented enforcement of the Ecuador awards. Still, legal advisers said they were prepared to try to collect damages in the United States as well.

A confidential memo prepared by the Washington law firm Patton Boggs recently released under court order laid out the plaintiffs’ strategy, which foresees using a European industrial espionage firm to investigate Chevron’s assets around the world.

“The fact that Chevron has agreed to ‘play ball’ in Venezuela, while the company’s peers have universally rejected the unfavorable contract terms imposed by the Chávez government, may portend difficulty there,” said the memo, code-named “Invictus.” “Nonetheless, the populist Chávez government remains a natural ally” of the plaintiffs.

In the memo, lawyers also identified the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, Angola, Canada and several other countries where Chevron has significant assets as potential targets. In the Philippines, it even suggested using the services of Frank G. Wisner, the retired diplomat and a foreign affairs adviser for Patton Boggs, who recently waded into the crisis in Egypt as an envoy for the Obama administration.

Citing the Invictus memo, Judge Lewis Kaplan of the Southern District of New York argued that the plaintiffs were seeking to use a “worldwide, full-court press” to extract a settlement against a company of considerable importance in providing energy supplies to the United States economy.

Chevron said it did not intend to pay a dime. “We intend to resist enforcement anywhere where the plaintiffs seek to take what we perceive to be a fraudulent judgment,” said Kent Robertson, a Chevron spokesman.

Beyond the temporary protection issued by Judge Kaplan, Mr. Robertson noted a decision by a panel of international arbitrators in The Hague that granted the company a preliminary injunction that might also block enforcement of the judgment.

But Ecuadorean lawyers said they did not consider themselves under the jurisdiction of either the American court or the arbitrators.

Referring to the arbitration process, one of the lawyers, Pablo Fajardo, said, “This is part of the Chevron legal strategy to delay and obstruct.”

Duncan Hollis, associate dean of the Temple University law school, said it was logical for the plaintiffs to take their battle to other countries in the region because “there is some commonality in Latin American legal systems.” But, Mr. Hollis added, “there is no international law about how one court is supposed to enforce the judgments from another nation’s court.”

For now, the case moves forward in the Ecuadorean courts. Three judges will hear appeals from both sides. The Amazon coalition intends to appeal the amount of the damages, while Chevron will appeal the entire ruling.

“I don’t know if we will be broadcasting” our legal argument, Mr. Robertson said. But he added: “It is the illegitimate nature of the ruling. The scientific evidence demonstrates that this is a meritless outcome.”

The final appeal will go to a national appeals court, a process that could take months. Then the fight may move to several countries simultaneously. Advisers to the villagers and forest tribes said they hoped to extract Chevron money from many countries until they reach the final judgment total.

The ruling’s impact is already being felt in Ecuador and beyond as a cautionary tale of the environmental and legal aftermath of oil exploration. Alberto Acosta, a former oil minister in Ecuador, called the ruling “a historical precedent.”

It is “a reminder that we have to defend ourselves from the irresponsible activity of extraction companies, both oil and mining,” Mr. Acosta said.

Ugly showdown seems probable in Puerto Rico as student strike paralyzes university


A showdown is looming in the student strike that has paralyzed all 11 campuses of the University of Puerto Rico for more than six weeks.

Late Tuesday, protest leaders rejected a 4 p.m. deadline from university President José Ramón de la Torre to cease their campus occupations and end the strike, which has kept 65,000 students out of classes since April 21.

De la Torre and Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuño warned the rebellious students they will seek court orders to have them arrested and removed.

The strike, one of the longest and biggest in modern U.S. history, has garnered considerable support from both the university's faculty and the Puerto Rican public.

Yet the mainland press ignores it.

Many island residents admire the way the students have resisted massive government cutbacks to one of their most revered institutions. This Great Recession, after all, has been a far bigger disaster for Puerto Rico than for rest of the nation.

Even before the Wall Street financial collapse, 45% of the island's population was living below the poverty level.

Since then, tourism and manufacturing, Puerto Rico's main sources of income, have been devastated, and so have government revenues. More than 20,000 public employees have been laid off the past year by Fortuño as he sought to close a huge deficit. The unemployment rate jumped to 17.2% in April, while the pension system for public employees is nearly bankrupt.

For generations, a University of Puerto Rico education was regarded as a sure way to escape poverty. Sixty percent of UPR's students, for example, have family incomes of less than $20,000 a year.

Since the university was largely funded through a 9.6% set-aside of all government tax revenues, it was able to maintain low tuition, about $2,000 annually, and even provide scholarships for standouts. It also enjoyed relative autonomy from the government.

But Fortuño's administration has promised Wall Street bondholders that it will make students pay a bigger share of the university's operating costs, downsize government and initiate more public-private partnerships.

As part of that plan, Fortuño wants to rewrite the higher education law.

Students oppose the reductions in scholarships as well as a new $1,200 student fee the university wants to impose. They fear that a new education law will usher in privatization efforts. Their supporters in the Puerto Rican legislature are urging instead new revenue streams, either through increasing the island's low corporate tax from 2.5% to 10% or through video lottery games, with the money earmarked for higher education.

Two weeks ago, the faculty senates of all 11 campuses met in their first-ever joint session and voted overwhelmingly to back the student demands. Many union leaders throughout the island have also expressed their support.

At first, the university's trustees negotiated with student leaders and it seemed that a deal might be reached. But in recent days, both sides have hardened.

In the midst of those talks, de la Torre suddenly announced a 24-hour ultimatum for the strike to end. At the same time, more radical students in the leadership vowed to peacefully resist any attempts to remove them.

Forty years ago, a similar protest at the UPR led to a tragic police invasion of the main campus in Rio Piedras. When the confrontation was over, 100 students had been injured. One, 21-year-old Antonia Martinez, was fatally shot in head by a police officer.

Unless cooler heads prevail soon, Puerto Rico's greatest university could once again spiral out of control.