Gore's Oil Money | The Nation


Gore's Oil Money

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All this firepower came together last spring, when Richardson headed to Colombia to speak at a forum organized by the Colombian Energy and Mines Ministry. While there, he talked up the Occidental project with government officials, including President Pastrana. According to the US government source, who was in Colombia at the time, Richardson spent the night at a presidential residence in Cartagena, where he and Pastrana were up until 2 am drinking rum and gabbing. "It was a real lovefest," this person says. "They really hit it off."

Research assistance was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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Ken Silverstein
Ken Silverstein is a Washington, DC–based investigative reporter.

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Richardson's trip was a huge success for Occidental. Shortly after the secretary's return, Pastrick reported in a Black, Kelly memo that Richardson had held "positive" talks with Colombian officials about the Samore project and that "things are moving in the right direction." The FOIA log shows that on May 4, 1999, less than two weeks after sipping rum with Pastrana, Richardson wrote a letter to Colombian Energy Minister Luis Carlos Valenzuela urging him to improve the climate for multinationals seeking to invest in Colombia's energy sector. Five months later the Colombian government awarded Occidental the first exploratory-drilling license for the Samore block. (In pressuring Valenzuela, Richardson was pushing on an open door: This past January Valenzuela resigned in response to charges that he pressured a state energy company to sell cheap natural gas to an affiliate of the US energy company Enron.)

Occidental and the Administration are also cooperating in promoting President Clinton's controversial $1.6 billion package in military aid for Bogotá. (Occidental already pays the Colombian military to keep an army base next to a refinery it runs in the country.) The aid request came in the wake of three reports--from the US State Department, the United Nations and Human Rights Watch--that slammed Pastrana's government for human rights abuses and for failing to cut ties between the army and paramilitary death squads. According to the Human Rights Watch report, at least seven senior military officials in Colombia who have links to paramilitary units are graduates of the US Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.

On February 15 an Occidental vice president, Lawrence Meriage, testified before a House subcommittee in favor of the package, saying that Colombia's military "lack mobility, equipment and, perhaps most serious, they lack the intelligence-gathering capabilities afforded to their better-funded adversaries." Meriage took the opportunity to denounce opposition to his company's Samore project, which he said is limited to "extremists" in Colombia and "several fringe nongovernmental organizations in the US." The latter--which Meriage didn't name but which include the Rainforest Action Network and Project Underground--are "de facto allies of the subversive forces that are attacking oil installations, electric power stations and other legitimate business enterprises," the Occidental executive said.

The Clinton Administration's cozy relationship with Occidental stands in sharp contrast to its posture toward the U'was. Robert Perez of the U'was met with a number of members of Congress during his April visit but failed, despite repeated requests, to gain an audience with Gore. The same thing happened in 1997, when Gore stiffed Roberto Cobaria, a tribal official then visiting the capital. "We can generally get meetings with the Administration, but it's a question of who comes to the meetings," says David Rothschild of Amazon Alliance, who accompanied Cobaria during his 1997 Washington trip. "We rarely get anyone other than low-ranking officials. That gives you an idea of the level of interest the Administration has in the issue."

Gore has also rebuffed members of his own party who have asked him to support the tribe. On February 22 Representative Cynthia McKinney wrote to Gore and urged him to meet with U'wa leader Perez and to support an immediate suspension of the Samore project. "I am concerned that the operations of oil companies, and in particular Occidental Petroleum, are exacerbating an already explosive situation, with disastrous consequences for the local indigenous people," she said. "I am contacting you because you have remained silent on this issue despite your strong financial interests and family ties with Occidental." McKinney wrote to Gore again on March 30 to complain that he had not responded to her earlier letter. A few days later, Gore finally dropped a note to McKinney to say that, regrettably, he didn't have the time to meet with Perez.

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