Financial irregularities at Harken Energy during President Bush’s tenure at the Texas oil company have dominated headlines in recent days. But the press has ignored a much bigger scandal: how Harken Energy has benefited from war and terror in Colombia.
George W. Bush went to work for Harken Energy in 1986 when the company bought out Spectrum 7, a company that had earlier purchased Bush’s failed Arbusto oil company. Harken gave Bush $2 million in stock options, a $122,000 consulting job, and a seat on its board of directors.
While Bush was working for Harken, Rodrigo Villamizar, an old friend Bush had met at a fraternity party in 1972, became director of Colombia’s bureau of Mines and Minerals, the ministry that oversees the sale of oil concessions by the state oil company, Ecopetrol. According to a December 2001 report in Counterpunch,, Bush had helped Villamizar out in the ’70’s by getting him first a job with the Texas state senate’s Economic Development committee, and then a seat on the state Public Utilities Commission. Toward the end of Bush’s tenure at Harken, Villamizar returned the favor by granting Harken a series of oil contracts in Colombia.
The bulk of the oil contracts were in the Magdalena Valley where military officers, drug traffickers, and cattle ranchers had come together to form right wing paramilitary groups that fought guerillas, assassinated union leaders and human rights activists, and terrorized peasants in order to force them off coveted land. Most of the oil companies doing business in the region either tacitly accepted or actively sought out the protection of these death squads. A 1996 Human Rights Watch report documents the fact that the Colombian military armed and assisted these groups and, under the guidance of the CIA, integrated them into its intelligence networks. The close cooperation between the military and the paramilitaries continues today – and tends to be most rampant in areas where there is a lot of oil production. The State Department has listed the paramilitaries as terrorist organizations, but has looked the other way as the <U.S.-funded> Colombian army has continued to rely on them to do its dirty work in its war against dissidents. Harken is still doing business in the Magdalena Valley, thanks in part to funding from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, and paramilitaries continue to terrorize anyone who threatens corporate interests in the region.
Noone is alleging that President Bush personally ordered paramilitaries to kill peasants and intimidate union leaders in order to improve Harken’s bottom line. But at the same time, given his close ties to Villamizar, and the fact that his father was President at the time, its highly unlikely that Bush was ignorant of the human rights issues involved in oil drilling in Colombia.
All of this has a very immediate relevance today because Villamizar, who left Colombia to escape corruption charges and is now a covicted felon and fugitive from justice, drafted the Colombia policy for the Bush campaign in 2000, and still maintains close ties to the President. Counterpunch reports that Villamizar, who should be serving four years in a Colombian prison, was Bush’s first choice to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, but turned down the appointment.
Villamizar’s recommendations on expanding U.S. military aid to Colombia have been largely accepted by the Bush administration, and a new President in Colombia with links to the death squads is poised to use expanded U.S. aid to dramatically escalate the country’s forty year civil war against leftist guerillas. Hundreds of U.S. military advisors are on the ground in Colombia today. Officially they have no combat role, but that is likely to change when the guerillas begin treating the advisors as military targets. Colin Powell’s old doctrine of making sure the U.S. has clear military goals and a viable exit strategy before getting involved in a war seems to have been completely forgotten.
The cornerstone of Bush’s new military aid package is a $98 million grant to help the Colombian government establish a new battalion of its army’s 18th Brigade to protect an oil pipeline against guerilla attacks. The 18th Brigade has a long history of ties to the paramilitaries, and its own history of attacks on civilians – earlier this year soldiers killed a teenage boy for walking too close to the pipeline. Ironically the first beneficiary of this program will be Occidental Petroleum, the company that helped the Gore family make its fortune. But U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson has said that in the long run the Pentagon is eyeing similar programs for other key economic assets in Colombia. These would likely include pipelines maintained by Harken’s subsidiary, Global Energy Development, , a natural gas pipeline operated by Enron, and projects involving Dick Cheney’s old company, Haliburton, as well as assets owned or used by Texaco, Exxon-Mobil, and BP.
The Bush administration’s conflicts of interest in Colombia need to be investigated, exposed, and thoroughly examined before the U.S. gets drawn deeper into Colombia’s bloody war.
Sean Donahue is co-director of New Hampshire Peace Action and has written and spoken extensively on U.S. policy toward Colombia. He is available for interviews and speaking engagements and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.