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:

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.

Ecuador Judge Orders Chevron to Pay $9 Billion

Moises Saman for The New York Times

CARACAS, Venezuela — A judge in a tiny courtroom in the Ecuadorean Amazon ruled Monday that the oil giant Chevron was responsible for polluting remote tracts of Ecuadorean jungle and ordered the company to pay more than $9 billion in damages, one of the largest environmental awards ever.

Times Topics: Ecuador | Chevron Corporation
The decision by Judge Nicolás Zambrano in Lago Agrio, a town founded as an oil camp in the 1960s, immediately opened a contentious new stage of appeals in a legal battle that has dragged on in courts in Ecuador and the United States for 17 years, pitting forest tribes and villagers against one of the largest American corporations.

The award against Chevron “is one of the largest judgments ever imposed for environmental contamination in any court,” said David M. Uhlmann, an expert in environmental law at the University of Michigan. “It falls well short of the $20 billion that BP has agreed to pay to compensate victims of the gulf oil spill but is a landmark decision nonetheless. Whether any portion of the claims will be paid by Chevron is less clear.”

Both sides said they would appeal the ruling, setting the stage for months and potentially years more of legal wrangling in the closely watched case, which has already been marked by claims of industrial espionage and fraud, and remarkably bitter disputes among the various lawyers involved. Legal experts said that the size of the award and the attention the case has focused on environmental degradation were likely to encourage similar suits.

The 188-page ruling found Chevron responsible for damages of about $8.6 billion, and perhaps double that amount if Chevron fails to publicly apologize for its actions within 15 days. The judge also ordered Chevron to pay $860 million, or 10 percent of the damages, to the Amazon Defense Coalition, the group formed to represent the plaintiffs.

Pablo Fajardo, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, called the ruling a “triumph of justice,” but said it still fell short. “We’re going to appeal because we think that the damages awarded are not enough,” he said in a telephone interview. The plaintiffs were seeking as much as $113 billion, according to a report recently submitted to the court.

A Chevron spokesman, Kent Robertson, called the decision “illegitimate and unenforceable.” He said Chevron would appeal through the Ecuadorean legal system, and would not pay the damages.

“This is the product of fraud,” he said. “It had always been the plan to inflate the damages claim and coordinate with corrupt judges for a smaller judgment.”

He suggested that the timing of the ruling, a week after Chevron filed a lawsuit against the plaintiffs’ lawyers, was not coincidental. He said it was coordinated between the plaintiffs and the court, which had previously accepted an expert environmental opinion that Chevron contended was partly ghost-written by representatives of the plaintiffs, who include villagers and Indian tribes in northeastern Ecuador.

The plaintiffs have denied any collaboration with the judge and said they merely provided information for the expert’s report as the court encouraged both sides to do.

Chevron, the second-largest American oil company, reported a net profit of $19 billion last year. In addition to its appeal in Ecuador, the company hopes to block enforcement of the judgment in American courts.

“It might as well be Monopoly money, given all the respect that Chevron will show it,” said Ralph G. Steinhardt, professor of law and international affairs at George Washington University Law School. “There is a legal regime for enforcing foreign judgments but there is a lot of discretion for U.S. judges to suspend the enforcement of foreign judgments.”

The decision was the latest installment in a legal soap opera in which Chevron and lawyers for Ecuadorean peasants have sued and countersued over oil pollution in Ecuador’s rain forest.

The origins of the case go back to the 1970s, when Texaco, which was later acquired by Chevron, operated as a partner with the Ecuadorean state oil company. The villagers sued in 1993, claiming that Texaco had left an environmental mess that was causing illnesses. Chevron bought Texaco in 2001, before the case was resolved.

Chevron has been playing hardball for at least the last two years. It produced video recordings from watches and pens wired with bugging devices that suggested a bribery scheme surrounded the proceedings and involved a judge hearing the case. The judge was forced to resign, although it was later revealed that an American behind the secret recordings was a convicted drug trafficker.

Chevron appeared to gain the upper hand again when it won a legal bid to secure the outtakes from a documentary about the case, “Crude,” in which Steven Donziger, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, is seen developing strategy and discussing the judicial system and how it operates. Mr. Donziger appeared boastful about meetings with judges and other Ecuadorean officials.

Last week, Chevron filed a suit against dozens of people involved in the case, charging that they conspired to extort the company for $113 billion by making up evidence and trying to manipulate the Ecuadorean legal system. At the company’s request, an American judge issued a temporary restraining order to block any judgment for at least four weeks. A day later, international arbiters ordered Ecuador to suspend the enforcement of any judgment.

Almost lost in the various disputes related to the lawsuit is the fact that Chevron and plaintiffs have agreed that oil exploration contaminated what had been largely undeveloped swaths of Ecuadorean rainforest. The plaintiffs claim that Chevron must be held responsible for damage where Texaco once operated. Chevron, however, argues that Texaco carried out a cleanup agreement with the Ecuadorean government and that much of the damage was done after Texaco left in the early 1990s, actions for which it should not be held responsible.

“The judge recognized the crime committed,” said Guillermo Grefa, head of a Quichua Indian community who claims that Texaco’s oil contamination created respiratory problems among his people. “For us, this is very little. For us, the crime committed by Texaco is incalculable.”

Simon Romero reported from Caracas, and Clifford Krauss from Houston. John Schwartz contributed reporting from New York, and Irene Caselli from Quito, Ecuador.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Struggle for Democracy and Public Education in Puerto Rico

by Victor M. Rodriguez

"The epicenter of the struggle for the public university in Latin America is Puerto Rico." -- José Carlos Luque Brazán, professor and researcher of political science and urban planning at the Autonomous University, Mexico City1

The social conflict taking place at the University of Puerto Rico is polarizing this island to such an extent that this United States' possession, which used to be heralded as the "Showcase of Democracy" during the Cold War ideological struggles, is now sliding into a system of widespread civil and human rights violations. The University of Puerto Rico, for the first time in decades, is occupied by police: political demonstrations are banned; summary expulsions of student leaders are common; and hundreds of students have been arrested, beaten, and at times sexually assaulted or tortured. On February 9, after the riot squad violently intervened with students painting murals, 28 students were arrested, many were hurt and chaos ensued when pepper gas and batons were used to violently arrest students and bystanders. The police violence was of such magnitude that the faculty organization, the Puerto Rican Association of Professors, and the Brotherhood of Non-Faculty Employees called for a 24-hour strike, which was later extended. The university is closed and the president of the system, Jose Ramon de la Torres, after writing a letter requesting the removal of the police from the campus, announced he was resigning as president.

The coverage of this social movement by U.S. mainstream media is scant, and only Al Jazeera has begun to provide some international coverage. In addition, just as in Egypt, youth have created their own media in order to organize and tell the world what is happening in this territory of the United States. Hidden from the eyes of the world, and especially from the U.S. public, this island with 3.9 million inhabitants is experiencing the most intense struggle for democracy and public education since the 1960s. Since early April 2010, students of the most prestigious institution of higher education in the Caribbean, the University of Puerto Rico, have been involved in a struggle to preserve a system of public higher education. This is the system that provides 95% of the research and development in Puerto Rico.

Neo-Liberalism in Puerto Rico

Since his landslide election in 2008, Governor Luis Fortuño, of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, has implemented a series of neo-liberal measures, which have polarized the island's population and increased economic inequality. Governor Fortuño is the first Puerto Rican governor who is an avowed member of the National Republican Party, despite the fact that the Republican Party as such does not participate in Puerto Rican elections. Despite his electoral promises, he has fired 30,000 public workers and reduced investments in social services and education. The unemployment rate in December 2010 was 14.7%, which is lower than it was at the beginning of the fiscal year (16.9% in July 2010), but the reason behind this decline is not an increase in jobs but the discouraged worker effect, that is, workers who are dropping out of the work force and either working in the informal economy or participating in social welfare programs. Puerto Rico moreover has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the world. The proportion of the able-bodied population who participates in the work force has declined dramatically. In July 1999, 47.8 per cent were in the labor force and in December 2010 it was 41.1 %. In contrast, the labor participation rate in the United States in January was 64.2%.

In addition, efforts to privatize segments of public services including education are being made through what the government call "private-public partnerships." These are ways of providing the private sector with public assets without the risks involved in the private market. Attempts to create these partnerships include the building of a gas pipeline through some of the most environmentally fragile areas of the island which are close to population centers. There is strong citizen opposition to this project, in light of the gas pipeline explosions in California, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but the government is committed to its construction.

The privatization of higher education has involved another strategy to achieve the same objective. Funds for the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) since 1997 have been cut by $336 million. The university imposed an $800 fee hike on the students in order to solve the financial deficit of the system. What this increase will mean is that close to 10,000 students will not be able to attend the university. What seems to be behind the financial gutting of the university is the neo-liberal ideology supported by Governor Fortuño. From the academic year of 2001-02, to 2006-07, there was a dramatic decline in the proportion of public university students in the total university student population. In 2001-02, only 117,714 attended private universities while 73,838 attended the UPR. In 2006-07, 158,031 went to private universities and only 65,939 the UPR. In an island with a 47% poverty rate and a median family income of $20,425, a third of the United States median family income ($58,526), education is the only avenue toward upward mobility. And yet, the burden of educating the island's youth has been and will be further shifted to private universities, relying more on federal Pell Grants. So, by expanding the role of private universities the neo-liberals are transferring Puerto Rico's economic responsibility on United States' taxpayers.

Poll ratings of Governor Fortuño are extremely low, and yet he is steadfast in implementing draconian measures and supporting the repressive measures used against the university community, even though the Department of Justice sent investigators in response to a request by the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union as well as other interested parties for an investigation of civil rights violation by the Puerto Rican Police Department. One reason behind his obstinate efforts may be that he is being courted by the National Republican Party as a way of attracting the Latino vote. Governor Fortuño attended a Heritage Foundation briefing in Simi Valley, California and a Koch brothers event in Rancho Mirage, California last month. At such venues he has been boasting of how he has established law and order in Puerto Rico. Most recently, on February 11, he was one of the speakers at the CPAC 2011 meeting in Washington, D.C., where he touted his neo-liberal policies. Toeing the Tea Party line, he spoke about reducing government, emphasizing higher bond ratings, but not about the collapse of the social fabric caused by his measures. Puerto Rico last year had 1,000 murders; this year, already in January, the homicide number in Puerto Rico reached more than one hundred. And yet the police are at the campus of the University of Puerto Rico, repressing freedom of expression. In the meantime, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States, the highest number since the great migration in the aftermath of World War II.

It seems that the only strategy of neo-liberals in Puerto Rico is to shirk the social and public responsibility to provide for the Puerto Rican population by transferring segments of the population to the United States.