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Just Pretend They’re Not There

“Negotiating a free-trade agreement with the U.S. is not something one has a right to – it’s a privilege.”1

This quote from US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick came to mind when the BBC reported former head of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, US army General Karpinski on policy at the US concentration camp in Guantanamo. Karpinski quoted former Guantanamo commander Major General Miller saying , “At Guantanamo Bay we learned that the prisoners have to earn every single thing that they have.” She went on, “He said they are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them.” 2

Lessons from that kind of psychological and physical torture are very evident in US government efforts to force through coercive “free trade” deals on weaker trading partners in Latin America. Disorientating high-pressure timetables, meagre incentives and seriously damaging penalities underlie the superficial, businesslike bonhomie. Over these trade-in-your-sovereignty negotiations hangs constantly the perennial imperial Damocles’ sword – “comply…. or else”. In the background, national and international media sound the endless confidence-eroding drip, drip, “there’s no alternative….what choice do you have?….no alternative…..”.

The idea that the poor majority in Latin America are unaware of the crude aggression and blunt contempt for their needs and interests on the part of the United States or complacent at their own governments’ canine roll-over responses is false. Resistance is widespread to US government attempts to extend and consolidate imperial control of Latin America’s resources on behalf of giant multinational corporations. One would never know that from the corporate-owned mainstream media.

If it’s bad news for US allies, it’s a non-event – Colombia

Only the most inescapable signs of that resistance in Latin America make the corporate media. The list of important events barely covered outside the countries where they happened reveals how popular protest is neglected. For example, the successful 37 day strike by national oil company workers in Colombia this year received virtually no coverage at all.

Organized to resist continuing attempts to privatize the State oil company to favor multinational giants like BP-Amoco and Occidental Petroleum, initially the strike was declared illegal. Over 200 workers were fired. Seventeen strike leaders were arrested. The government militarised petroleum installations throughout the country. 3

Similarly, on May 18th around half a million public workers held a national strike. A massive protest in Cartagena was brutally repressed by the army. None of this received coverage in the North American or European media in any way comparable to the coverage given to the 2002 Venezuelan opposition lock-out. Army and paramilitary massacres in Colombia, such as those this May in Guajira and in Arauca, that would be headline international news if they happened in Venezuela, are simply not reported.


Likewise, serious human rights abuses in Vicente Fox’s Mexico also go mostly unreported. An overwhelmingly peaceful recent demonstration in Guadalajara outside the meeting between European and Latin American leaders was violently dispersed after provocations by a small number of aggressive protestors well infiltrated by government provocateurs. Hundreds of bystanders and peaceful demonstrators were rounded up, severely beaten and in many cases tortured during their subsequent detention.4

In Chiapas, indigenous leaders continue to be assassinated and indigenous communities displaced and attacked. On June 7th indigenous leader Vazquez Alvaro was murdered by gunmen believed to be in the pay of local landowners. While Mexico has denounced Cuba for its human rights abuses, Amnesty International had this to report about Mexico “In May the UN Committee against Torture published its report on a five-year investigation into torture in Mexico. The report stated that incidents of torture “are not exceptional situations or occasional violations committed by a few police officers but that, on the contrary, the police commonly use torture and resort to it systematically as another method of criminal investigation”.5

AI also notes that a UN Special Rapporteur for the area expressed concern that Plan Puebla Panama threatens basic rights of indigenous communities in southern Mexico. The report observes “In June local human rights organizations opposed the threatened eviction of up to 42 indigenous settlements in the Montes Azules Biodiversity Reserve in Chiapas, on the grounds that communities had not been adequately consulted and the measures were intended to encourage private investment, not protect the environment.”


All these abuses in Mexico tend to be played down in the international media. Similarly, in Ecuador, widespread popular protest against President Lucio Gutierrez precarious government is also under-reported. Protestors organized large demonstrations in Quito to mark the 34th general assembly of the Organization of American States in early June. Around the same time the major indigenous organizations declared they would no longer recognize the legitimacy of the Gutierrez government. 6

In the north of the country highways continue to be cut by demonstrators protesting Ecuador’s growing involvement in the war in Colombia and against the upcoming “free trade” talks with US trade negotiators. Gutierrez is reported to have closed down press and radio media critical of his government. But the formula for the international media seems to be “Cuban censorship, bad: Ecuadoran censorship, so what?….”7 So you only discover these reports on the web.

The Bolivian referendum

Just as all these events have failed to attract the same level of attention in the international media as similar events in Venezuela, coverage is largely absent of the referendum scheduled for July 18th which will decide the future of Bolivia’s huge gas fields. Will they be ransacked by the Pacific LNG consortium of BP- Amoco, British Gas and the Spanish giant Repsol for sale in Mexico and the US? Or will they be exploited so as to benefit Bolivia’s impoverished majority? The contrast between the virtually non-existent coverage of the rights and wrongs of this referendum and that given to Venezuela’s referendum is sharp.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America, with a population of just 9 million. It’s mineral wealth has been looted for centuries by Europe and North America. It also has some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, 52 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of proven or probable reserves and another 25 TCF of possible reserves. The importance of the Bolivian government’s energy strategy for the country’s future can hardly be overstated. In terms of Bolivia’s future geo-political options and economic development its reserves of natural gas are fundamental.

The discredited government of Sanchez de Lozada facilitated 78 natural gas concessions for foreign companies before popular outrage at the waste of national resources forced Sanchez de Lozada out of office and out of the country in October last year. The replacement President Carlos Mesa is desperately trying to defend his predecessor’s largesse to the multinational oil companies against growing popular rejection. As part of the strategy to respond to demands from the popular majority his government has called a referendum on the sale of Bolivia’s gas. President Mesa’s government hopes the measure may provide some legitimacy to the knock-down disposal of the country’s resources to foreign multinationals.

Some history

Rights to the country’s fabulous gas reserves began to be privatized under the government of Jaime Paz from 1989 to 1993. From 1993 to 1997 Sanchez de Lozada’s government deepened the privatization process, forcing State enterprises like the State energy company YPFB into public-private partnerships with foreign multinationals. Successive laws and administrative regulations throught the 1990s ate away at Bolivia’s sovereignty over its natural resources.

Much of this resulted from pressure to comply with creditors’ demands permitting Bolivia to enter the first round of the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. Even after that “concession” Bolivia’s debt in 1999 still stood at over US$6bn — nearly three times its Gross National Product. In addition, the Sanchez de Lozada government of that period signed agreements with World Bank and US government bodies guaranteeing giveaway investment terms in favor of foreign companies.

Bolivia’s low production costs — as low as a quarter of those in Venezuela or Mexico — are a powerful magnet for predatory multinational looters. They make exploitation of the gas fields viable in a pan-american market where huge US reserves tend to keep prices low. Apart from the Pacific LNG consortium, other companies anxious for a cut of Bolivia’s gas wealth include France’s Total and Brazil’s Petrobras as well as Bechtel and BHP of Australia who want to use the gas to generate electricity for copper operations in Chile — Bolivia’s traditional enemy.

Geopolitics — a route to the sea after 125 years

The geopolitical angle for many people in Bolivia is that Chile’s need for cheap gas might be land-locked Bolivia’s opportunity for a route to the sea. (Chile cut off Bolivia’s access to the sea after war between the two countries in 1879.) The Chilean army, the US government and the multinational energy giants have other ideas. Reports of large Chilean troop deployments along the border — reports vary from 22,000 to as many as 50,000 out of a total armed forces of arround 90,000 – and information suggesting potential coup attempts all raise the pressure on the Bolivian government to play along with the status quo as much as possible. 8 (It’s worth noting that the Chilean armed forces are guaranteed a percentage of all profits from Chile’s copper production. In the mid-1990s it received as much as US$400million from this source.)

The situation is aggravated by the decision by Argentina’s President Kirchner to restrict sales of gas from Argentina to Chile as a result of the energy crisis confronting his government. That energy crisis itself is viewed by many as bogus, resulting more from attempts by the energy multinationals to fix prices than from genuine shortages. A powerful statement of that view is given by the Bolivian Coordinating Group for Defence of Gas and Life in an open letter to the people of Argentina, “There’s much talk these days of an Energy Integration Plan for the Southern Cone. We are ready to contribute to it but to an integration between peoples in accord with the need of the peoples not with the businesses of amoral multinationals.”9

The questions 10

The Bolivian July 18th referendum asks voters if they are in agreement with five apparently non-controversial measures. These are:

1. the revocation of the current Hydrocarbons Law

2.the recovery of all well-head property rights over hydrocarbons by the Bolivian State

3.the re-establishment of YPFB as a State entity controlling the production of hydrocarbons

4.the use of Bolivia’s gas to recover “useful and sovereign” access to the Pacific 5.the domestic industrialization of Bolivia’s gas for internal development with up to 50% charges to private companies for rights to exploit the gas

The Central Obrero de Bolivia (COB) the country’s main workers union has rejected the questions arguing that they represent an attempt to facilitate the passage of a new Hydrocarbons Law to replace the discredited existing Hydrocarbons Law. Opponents argue that whatever the result in the first two questions, the multinationals will still retain the rights granted by Sanchez de Lozada for 78 concessions lasting up to 36 years representing the country’s most important gas reserves. The referendum touches nothing retrospectively, only new concessions will be covered by any change in the law.

On question three even a “yes” would only permit the Bolivian government more say in the three privatized entities that resulted from the privatization of the State petroleum company YPFB. Final decisions would still rest with the majority shareholders — the multinationals. Question four is so vaguely worded that the government could use a “yes” vote to accept merely a commitment to negotiate on the part of the Chilean government while Bolivia’s gas was still sold cheap for shipment to Mexico and the US.

Question five conceals the fact that without full control of the gas reserves and a State company capable of exploiting those reserves it makes no sense to talk about industrialization of the gas for the benefit of the people of Bolivia. The question that is missing is: “Should Bolivia’s gas reserves be nationalized under a State energy company?” That position is supported by around 80% of Bolivia’s population according to various groups opposing the government. 11

Bolivian resistance: a civics lesson for Roger Noriega

On June 21st the COB launched a campaign to collect a million signatures calling for nationalization of the country’s gas reserves. The US government may need to send its regional representative on a basic civics class in Bolivia. Apparently after having been asleep during recent events in Bolivia, Roger Noriega woke up on March 2nd this year to tell the US Senate, “A principal objective of our democracy program in Bolivia is to draw the long-marginalized indigenous population into political life.”12

Arguably as crucial for the future of Latin America as the presidential referendum in Venezuela, very little of the national debate in Bolivia reaches the international media. The imperial “free trade” consensus has never had much time for genuine debate based on accurate and timely information. But the referendums in Bolivia and Venezuela are likely to deliver unmistakeable signals that the empire’s subject peoples have had enough – whether the corporate media report it fairly or not.

TONI SOLO is an activist in Central America. He can be reached at:


1Speech to the International Institute for Economics in Washington. May 8th 2003

2″General Karpinski : Iraq Abuse ‘Ordered From the Top'” BBC , Tuesday 15 June 2004 posted in Truth Out International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions.

4″Due Process in Guadalajara Repression of Globalization Activists” by Patrick Leet, ZNet, June 17, 2004


6″Ecuador – Las naciones indigenas desconocen al Gobierno de Lucio Gutierrez”, 06/06/2004,


8″Coup d’Etat Plot, Exposed, Shakes Bolivia” By Luis Gomez, NarcoNews, April 22nd 2004

9″Carta abierta al Pueblo Argentino De la Coordinadora de Defensa del Gas y de la Vida de Bolivia”, 22-06-2004 ,


11- 7864&format=html –

12Testimony of Roger F. Noriega Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Department of State Before the Committee on Foreign Relations United State Senate, March 2, 2004

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