Riding the Colombia Gravy Train

When you consider John McCain’s ties to Big Oil, the GOP candidate’s claim to be a political maverick confronting special interests is nothing short of absurd.

Just last week the Arizona Senator took valuable time out of his presidential campaign to travel personally to Colombia.  Catching a fast ride on a Colombian drug interdiction boat in the Bay of Cartagena, McCain praised the government for prosecuting the drug war and making “substantial and positive” progress on human rights.  Contrasting himself to his presidential opponent Barack Obama, McCain expressed support for a pending free trade deal with the South American country.

But as the Huffington Post has noted, “his [McCain’s] position as an independent arbitrator on Colombia – a country often criticized for its labor and human rights practices – is undermined by a bevy of advisers who have earned large amounts either lobbying for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, or representing corporations that do business with that country.”

To get a sense of the scope of McCain’s conflict of interest on Colombia one need look no farther than Charlie Black, a Senior Adviser to the Arizona Senator.  A successful 60-year-old Washington lobbyist, Black is a notorious figure within the GOP.  Over the course of his career he has gained a reputation as a ruthless operator possessed of a merciless instinct for exposing an opponent’s flaws.

Black’s Washington, D.C. public relations firm BKSH has developed a reputation for taking on foreign clients who display scant regard for human rights.  In 1998, Black agreed to represent Occidental Petroleum (or OXY), an energy company based in Bakersfield, California.  At the time, the GOP spin master was surely aware of Occidental’s sordid past.  In Colombia, the company had already acquired a reputation for its brutal policies undermining human rights.

While the liberal blogosphere was sent into a tizzy about McCain’s conflict of interest in Colombia and ties to Big Oil, it’s not the first time that Washington policymakers have been caught up in the nefarious Occidental web.  Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans have been equally corrupted by their ties to the California energy company and have gone to great lengths to preserve Colombia’s investment climate, even if this means promoting unrelenting militarization in the Andes.

Gore Sr. and Al Jr.: Drinking at the Occidental Trough

Traditionally a Republican firm, Occidental was linked to the Democrats for many years primarily through Gore’s father, Senator Al Gore Sr. of Tennessee.  The elder Gore was such a loyal political ally that Occidental’s founder and longtime chief executive, Armand Hammer, liked to brag that he had Gore “in my back pocket.”

In public, Hammer long cultivated an image of being a generous patron of the arts and a champion of peace during the Cold War.  But Hammer was also a consummate Washington insider and, according to the Wall Street Journal, “an influence peddler of the highest magnitude, [who] trafficked in politicians of all parties and stripes.”

When Gore Sr. finally left the Senate in 1970, Hammer rewarded the former Tennessee Senator for his political loyalty by providing him with a $500,000-a-year job at an Occidental subsidiary and a seat on the company’s board of directors.  But Hammer, always the equal opportunity influence peddler, had one of his operatives try to buy off the Republicans as well.  In 1972, Occidental gave $54,000 in illegal donations towards Nixon’s reelection campaign.

In exchange for Occidental’s financial largesse, Gore Sr. helped Hammer fend off the FBI for a time.  Ultimately however Hammer was hauled before a Senate committee where he lied about the money.  Unfortunately for Occidental, Hammer’s underlings crumbled under questioning.  In 1975, Hammer pleaded guilty to three counts of making illegal campaign contributions.  The oilman spent the rest of his life campaigning for a pardon, which Bush Sr. granted in 1989.

When he died in 1998, Gore Sr.’s estate included hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of Occidental stock.  Gore Jr. later became the executor of the estate, which included stock valued at between $500,000 and $1 million.  Neil Lyndon, who worked on Hammer’s personal staff and ghosted his memoirs, Witness to History, has remarked that his boss was as cozy with Gore Jr. as he was with Gore Sr.  When he traveled to Washington, Hammer regularly met Gore for lunch or dinner. “They would often eat together in the company of Occidental’s Washington lobbyists and fixers who, on Hammer’s behest, hosed tens of millions of dollars in bribes and favors into the political world,” Lyndon wrote.  The former Hammer aide added that Gore and his wife Tipper attended Hammer’s lavish parties. “Separately and together, the Gores sometimes used Hammer’s luxurious private Boeing 727 for journeys and jaunts,” he noted.

Up to the very end of his life in December, 1990 Hammer was generous towards the younger Gore.  Former Senator Paul Simon of Illinois wrote in a 1989 book that Hammer promised him ”any cabinet spot I wanted” to withdraw from the 1988 Democratic presidential primary race and support Gore’s presidential candidacy.  Gore failed to attain the White House, but two years later Occidental was one of the largest contributors to the Tennessean’s successful bid for Senate re-election.

Even after Hammer vanished from the scene, the back-scratching between Occidental and Gore continued.  Overseeing Occidental operations after Hammer’s death was Ray Irani, in many ways as cynical and Machiavellian an operator as his predecessor. One of the campaign contributors who slept in Bill Clinton’s infamous Lincoln bedroom, Irani later greased the Vice President’s palm.  In response to an illegal call made by Gore from the White House itself, the oil man gave $50,000 in soft money to the Democrats [in total, Occidental donated nearly half a million dollars in soft money to Democratic committees and causes between 1992 and 2000].

Gore Goes to Bat for Occidental

Just like his Dad, Gore Jr. saw fit to serve and promote his corporate benefactors.  In late 1997 the Vice President supported the federal government’s three and a half billion dollar sale of the Elk Hills oil field in Bakersfield, California to Occidental Petroleum.  The area was known as an ancestral land for the Kitanemuk people (better known by the name the Spanish gave them, the Tejon). The Indians had been forced off Elk Hills by treaties signed with the federal government in 1851 during the midst of the gold rush and since then had lived on nearby Fort Tejon reservation or “Tejon Ranch.”

The sale of Elk Hills was the largest privatization of federal property in U.S. history.  Though the government had long sought to sell the property, such efforts had come to nothing: two prior Republican presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, had attempted to put Elk Hills on the auction block but were forced to back down in the face of fierce opposition.

Records show that federal agencies had concerns about the sale. The Environmental Protection Agency complained to the Energy Department that the E.P.A. had insufficient information to evaluate the impact of the sale. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service questioned the impact of developing the oil field on several endangered species within the 47,000 acre property.

Nevertheless, the Elk Hills sale was quickly approved. “I can’t say that I’ve ever seen an environmental assessment prepared so quickly,” said Peter Eisner, Director of the Washington-D.C. public advocacy group Center for Public Integrity.  After the sale, Eisner and his associates raised questions about the extent of Gore’s role in the transaction.

“What did Vice President Al Gore — who has deep personal and financial ties to Occidental Petroleum — know and when did he know it about the sale of the Elk Hills oil reserve to that company?” the Center asked just before the 2000 presidential election.  “Gore has never been willing to talk to us— or, apparently, anyone else — about it. The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to the White House, so his appointment calendar, phone logs and private memoranda are all unavailable. And for nearly a year, the Department of Energy has stonewalled our requests for information on the Elk Hills bidding process.  Since when is the bidding process for the unprecedented, multibillion-dollar sale of public land secret? That is, simply stated, outrageous and unacceptable.”

At long last Energy Department officials provided some records but declined to release the bid documents.  Such information, officials claimed, had to remain confidential.  Meanwhile, Elk Hills represented a huge boon to Occidental, with the oil company’s U.S. oil reserves tripling as a result of the purchase.

Occidental Heads South

But Occidental had already set its sights on other lucrative deals.  Having secured the valuable California property on Native American land, the oil company headed to South America.  Under an agreement with the Colombian government, Oxy acquired the right to explore for oil in the Andean country’s northeast.

Unfortunately, in granting Oxy its exploration permit, the government ignored a constitutional requirement that native peoples within the area be consulted first.  Oxy quickly became embroiled in conflict with the U’wa Indians, whose territory was nestled in the misty forests of northeast Colombia near the border with Venezuela.

Even worse, as company geologists and engineers moved in to build roads through the Indians’ reservation, so too did the Colombian army, which installed two military bases in the vicinity.  It wasn’t long before the military began to harass local residents.  Known as a proud, strongly rooted people, the U’wa repeatedly denounced Occidental’s oil operation.  The Indians argued that oil exploration would threaten their tribe, damage the land, fill their territory with alien workers and destroy the world they knew.  At one point the approximately 5,000 U’wa even threatened to commit collective suicide by leaping from a cliff unless the oil company stopped operations on their territory.

In 1998, the year that future McCain adviser Charlie Black took on Occidental, the oil company was embroiled in controversy when the Colombian Air Force dropped cluster bombs on Santo Domingo, a village located near an Oxy pipeline.  The attack killed 18 people.  Human rights groups and Colombian government officials said the bombing was a mistake that occurred because three employees of a Florida-based aerial security company employed by Occidental to monitor guerrilla movements had provided incorrect coordinates to Colombian military pilots.

The American employees of the security company dropped out of sight and Colombian government efforts to have them handed over for questioning and perhaps trial proved fruitless.  Frustrated by the security company’s stonewalling, human rights groups filed suit in California in 2003 and 2004 against Occidental.   To this day, Occidental denies any responsibility for the bombing of Santo Domingo, and has claimed that it “has not and does not provide lethal aid to Colombia’s armed forces.”

Clinton-Gore Team Escalates in Colombia

Occidental, which hoped to protect its investments in Colombia, was aided by the Clinton-Gore White House which backed Plan Colombia, a militaristic, multi-billion dollar effort designed to ostensibly fight drug trafficking.  Team Clinton was intent on backing the plan, despite evidence that the Colombian military was working closely with right wing paramilitaries to wage a dirty war against the civilian population.  Six months before Plan Colombia was implemented, an investigative piece published by one of Colombia’s leading daily newspapers described how the Colombian army had aided the paramilitaries in the massacre of 49 peasants in the southeastern village of Mapiripán.

Even the U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report for 1999, the year Plan Colombia was conceived, pointed out that Colombia’s “security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups that committed abuses; in some instances, individual members of the security forces actively collaborated with members of paramilitary groups by passing them through roadblocks, sharing intelligence, and providing them with ammunition. Paramilitary forces find a ready support base within the military and police, as well as local civilian elites in many areas.”

At the time, as Gary Leech pointed out in an article published for the online Colombia Journal, “There wasn’t a peep out of Vice-President Gore…regarding Colombia’s human rights situation…Gore owned almost $500,000 worth of stock in Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum, which was one of the most ardent lobbyists for Plan Colombia and one of the U.S. companies that stood to benefit from an escalated U.S. military role in the South American nation….At that time, Gore repeatedly refused to respond to questions from reporters about his links to Occidental Petroleum.  He also failed to make mention of any human rights concerns regarding the U.S. funding of a military closely linked to paramilitary death squads.”

The Colombian Oil Connection

Dire reports of human rights violations were of apparently little concern to Charlie Black.  The PR man lobbied Congress, the State Department and the White House on Occidental’s behalf regarding “general energy issues” and “general trade issues” involving Colombia.  McCain’s future campaign strategist also fought to win foreign assistance to Colombia and to block an economic embargo against the South American country.

Even as tensions escalated within the U’wa reserve, Black was unperturbed.  According to Atossa Soltani, Executive Director of Amazon Watch, a human rights group that works on behalf of Colombian Indian tribes opposed to oil drilling, Black was “very active” while Congress was debating the $1.3 billion military assistance package to Colombia that became law in 2000. “We’d be making the rounds in Congress,” Soltani said, “and Oxy would be there making the rounds, too.”  In all, Oxy spent nearly $4 million lobbying Congress in Washington to expand military funding to Colombia.

Why would Black also be interested in trying to secure military funding for Colombia?  As Oxy’s oil operations expanded, acquiring military support proved increasingly vital for the company.  Oxy was part owner of the Caño Limon-Coveñas oil pipeline which led from Arauca to the Caribbean coast and which crossed the northeastern boundary of the U’wa reserve.  Not surprisingly, Oxy’s activities quickly attracted the attention of left wing guerrillas who repeatedly detonated the pipeline.  The attacks caused more than $500 million in losses to the company between December 1999 and December 2000.

Oxy had little to fear from the Clinton White House which bent over backwards to appease Big Oil.  In 1998 Oxy CEO Ray Irani was personally invited to a state dinner at the White House to honor Colombian President Andrés Pastrana.  The following year, U.S. Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson visited the Colombian city of Cartagena to address U.S. economic interests in the South American nation. During his visit, Richardson announced, “The United States and its allies will invest millions of dollars in two areas of the Colombian economy, in the areas of mining and energy, and to secure these investments we are tripling military aid to Colombia.”

According to The Nation magazine, Richardson was already compromised by his ties to Occidental.  The future presidential candidate had in fact hired a longtime Occidental lobbyist, Theresa Fariello, to serve as his Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Energy Policy, Trade and Investment. While working for Occidental, Fariello lobbied the Energy Department on the company’s interests in Colombia.

Meanwhile Lawrence Meriage, Oxy’s Vice President for Communication and Public Affairs, urged the United States to expand its military operations in Colombia — largely focused on coca eradication efforts in the south of the country — into Colombia’s northeast, where the U’wa stood in the way of Oxy’s drilling operations.  The investment paid off when the U.S. government agreed to provide military aid, equipment and training to the 18th Brigade in Arauca, a unit which had been involved in grave human rights violations including attacks against trade unions and other members of civil society.

Doing Business in Colombia

The Santo Domingo massacre was certainly a black mark on Occidental’s record.  However, there were yet more controversies in store for the company.  Tensions were ratcheted up when, in February 2000, Oxy began construction on its Gibraltar 1 drill site.  Some 2,700 U’wa Indians, local farmers, students and union members immediately attempted to stop Oxy’s construction.  When indigenous peoples sought to prevent trucks from reaching the construction site, riot police used tear gas to break up a road blockade.  Three U’wa children were drowned in a fast-flowing river as the U’wa fled the attack.

Two months later, when Oxy began to move heavy equipment and materials into the area, the U’wa again blocked local roads.  While the Indians permitted other traffic to pass, they lay their bodies in front of Occidental trucks.  In June, the government sent in riot police and soldiers; 28 demonstrators were subsequently injured and 33 arrested.  Believing that the area might contain up to 1.5 billion barrels of oil, Occidental shortly thereafter began test drilling on U’wa ancestral lands.

As if things could get no worse, Colombia’s wider civil conflict began to spill over into U’wa traditional territory.  In March, 1999 three U’wa supporters from the U.S., Terence Freitas of Brooklyn, N.Y., Ingrid Washinawotok, and Laheehae Gay were kidnapped and killed by FARC guerrillas while working with the Indians in the department of Arauca.

While it’s unclear whether Oxy had any direct involvement in the killings, the company is known to have had links to the guerrillas.  In testimony given before a Congressional subcommittee, Meriage acknowledged that Occidental personnel regularly paid off guerrillas in exchange for being left alone.

Gore and the U’wa in Election 2000

As the 2000 presidential election neared, environmental activists targeted Gore for his ties to Occidental.  Abby Reyes, Freites’ girlfriend, personally wrote a strongly worded letter to Gore about the situation in Colombia:

February 3, 2000

Dear Vice President Gore,

I write to you as the girlfriend of Terence Freitas, one of three human rights workers kidnapped and assassinated last March while assisting the U’wa indigenous community of oil-rich northeastern Colombia…One year ago this week, as I unpacked moving boxes into the apartment Terence and I would have shared in Brooklyn, I found myself shelving two copies of Earth in the Balance [Gore’s famous book dealing with global environmental problems]: my own, and that of Terence. I sat down with the book again, rereading with marvel the poignant message you asserted in 1993. You insisted that policy makers and the general citizenry alike must take into account environmental and social costs of our coveted northern affluence…

While I reread Earth in the Balance last February, Terence was in the U’wa cloudforest with Native American leaders Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe’ena’e Gay on a cultural exchange. On February 18, Terence called from Cubara, Colombia. I told him about the two copies of Earth in the Balance. We discussed whether you could be tapped as a more vocal U’wa ally in the campaign against the pending ecological, cultural, and economic havoc oil exploitation would spell for the U’wa and Colombia. We were hopeful about your potential leadership on this pressing environmental case. That phone call was the last time I talked to Terence.

One week later, on the day he was to return to New York, he and his companions were kidnapped by guerrillas who are allegedly on friendly terms with Occidental. One week after that, the bound bodies of these three human rights workers were found splayed and disfigured by rounds of bullets just across the Venezuelan border…

Seven months later, I read the Wall Street Journal’s account of your family’s lucrative inheritance from your father of Occidental Petroleum and Occidental subsidiary stock and your long-standing personal relationship with Occidental directors. By then I had experienced several such smacks of political double speak from most actors in the Colombian debate…In Los Angeles, on April 30, 1999, at Occidental Petroleum headquarters, Public Relations Officer Larry Meriage held Terence’s mother’s hand, calling the guerrilla murderers atrocious, despite the fact that his company’s incipient oil operations in U’wa land are directly responsible for the intensification of violent conflict in the previously peaceful region.

Even given this prevalent political milieu, in which action wildly contradicts expressed values, I am appalled and disheartened to see you, America’s lead environmental champion, living the antithesis of your espoused values by continuing to personally profit from Occidental Petroleum’s exploits.

I am the same age as your daughter. Terence was one year our junior. Like your daughter, Terence and I looked forward to joining the legal profession together. We were eager to apply the conflict resolution and community organizing skills we have gained abroad to help address the wealth of environmental justice conflicts brewing domestically….With unbearable anguish, his family and friends buried him on his twenty-fifth birthday last spring. Think how much brighter your family’s prospects, as you enter the candidacy, if you removed the shadow cast by your family’s complicity in the unspeakable horrors faced by our family and those of the U’wa because of Occidental Petroleum.

I implore you to divest your family from Occidental Petroleum and answer the requests from the U’wa Defense Working Group, a coalition of US-based environmental and human rights organizations, to explain your position on that company’s actions in the U’wa territory of Colombia.


Abby Reyes

Despite such poignant appeals, Gore had no time for the activists.  Speaking in Nashville, he said there had been nothing improper about his family’s relationship with Occidental.  Meanwhile, Gore adamantly refused to meet with an U’wa representative who had personally traveled to Washington to see him, despite the entreaties of a Democratic member of Congress.

But Stephen Kretzmann of Amazon Watch said Gore did meet with him and several other environmentalists.  At that meeting, Gore explained that he could not interfere in a Colombian internal issue or Occidental’s practices.

Environmentalists however gave little credence to such arguments.

“It’s ludicrous to say, ‘We can’t interfere,'” Soltani remarked.

Indeed, Gore’s deferrals and denials contradicted the politician’s previous actions.  As a Senator, Gore had presented himself as both a committed environmentalist and an internationalist.  He had for example introduced two senate resolutions calling upon the Japanese government to look into the havoc lumber companies were wreaking in Malaysia and Papua, New Guinea. Additionally, one of Gore’s last actions as a Senator, in April 1992, was almost directly comparable: he spoke out in support of the Penan Indians in Malaysia, whose lands were being threatened by loggers.

Perhaps, Gore was concerned about offending Big Oil, which had contributed mightily to his presidential campaign.  Indeed, the Tennessean raised $92,000 from the oil and gas industry. Occidental was the number-two donor in that category, with company executives and their wives donating $10,000 to fuel Gore’s campaign.  Gore went on to express support for Plan Colombia during the 2000 campaign before going on to defeat at the hands of George W. Bush.

In May 2002, following a massive outcry by environmental groups, Oxy finally announced that it would return its controversial oil block to the Colombian government.  Nevertheless, the company continued to operate in Colombia.  Currently, the oil firm occupies the Caño Limón oil field located in the Llanos Basin in the northeastern part of the country.  The company also holds a 35% working interest in the Caricare field and has signed a production agreement with Ecopetrol to operate the La Cira-Infantas field, located in central Colombia.  Though Oxy’s Caño-Limón field has yielded hundreds of million dollars annually in profits, the pipeline has been an ongoing target for guerrilla forces.  In 2007, Occidental again found itself in the midst of a human-rights mess.  This time, the company was accused in congressional testimony of being “complicit” – with several other major corporations – in the murder of three labor leaders.

In recent years, Gore has tried to refashion himself as a champion of human rights in Colombia.  In April, 2007 he cancelled a scheduled appearance as the keynote speaker at a conference on the environment because Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe was also on the program. The problem, according to a statement issued by Gore, was that he found accusations that Uribe was linked to right-wing paramilitary death squads “deeply troubling” and didn’t want to appear with the Colombian president until “this very serious chapter in history is brought to a close.”

Writing in Colombia Journal, journalist Gary Leech remarked “Former Vice-President Al Gore has again exhibited a degree of political hypocrisy that is simply astounding…Where were Gore’s noble proclamations in defense of human rights when he was vice-president in the administration that made Colombia the world’s third-largest recipient of US military aid?”

From Hillary to McCain: Same Old Oxy PR Men

Undeterred by Gore’s defeat in 2000, Occidental has continued to cultivate ties to Team Clinton.  In Washington, when it comes to Colombia lobbying it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the Democrats and Republicans.

In fact, Charlie Black’s firm BKSH merged with another PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, in 1990.  During the presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton was caught up in a scandal when it was disclosed that her campaign strategist Mark Penn, a CEO at Burson-Marsteller, was lobbying Congress on behalf of the Colombian government.  Penn’s firm had also represented Occidental.  Penn was employed by the Uribe government in Bogotá to help win passage of a free trade agreement in Congress. News of Penn’s ties to the Colombian government proved acutely embarrassing to Clinton, who had gone on record as opposing the trade agreement.

BKSH’s work on behalf of Occidental has proved enormously lucrative: between 2001 and 2007 the PR firm netted $1.6 million in fees.  Occidental was surely pleased with Black’s work: in 2003, Congress approved a special appropriation of nearly $100 million for the protection of oil pipelines in Colombia.

McCain’s aides have repeatedly argued that the Senator’s presidential campaign does not have direct connections to companies represented by such advisers as Black.  The Arizona Senator’s handlers assert that McCain should not be held accountable for any company misdeeds nor should the public presume that McCain is unduly influenced by corporate interests.

Granted, McCain may claim that there is a degree of separation between Charlie Black and himself.  There are several problems with this argument however.  To begin with McCain appointed Black to his position, which speaks volumes about the Arizona Senator’s political priorities.  In the second place, McCain has a personal connection to Oxy through Ray Irani.  In 2008, the Oxy CEO doled out $2,800 to McCain’s presidential campaign and a full $25,000 to the Republican National Committee.  Irani could easily afford the donation: in 2007 he was the tenth highest paid CEO in the United States, raking in a whopping $34.2 million from Occidental.

In contrast to Team Clinton and McCain, Obama has shown some spine when dealing with Colombia. The Illinois Senator has questioned President Bush’s close alliance with Bogotá and has said that he is concerned about the links between the Colombian government and paramilitaries. The Colombian government, he has argued, should undertake measures such as investigating and sanctioning paramilitaries’ financial backers and accomplices in both the government and the military, regardless of their rank. If the Uribe regime did not take more effective action, Obama warned, then “maintaining current levels of assistance will be difficult to justify.”

On the pending Colombia free trade measure, Obama should be lauded for his position. He emphatically opposes the pending free trade deal, remarking “I’m concerned frankly about the reports there of the involvement of the administration with human rights violations and the suppression of workers.”

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe recognizes the potential threat posed by an Obama administration and even chastised Obama for not being aware of Colombia’s “efforts” on trade.  Obama retorted hotly, “I think the president is absolutely wrong on this. You’ve got a government that is under a cloud of potentially having supported violence against unions, against labor, against opposition…That’s not the kind of behavior that we want to reward. I think until we get that straightened out its inappropriate for us to move forward.”

There’s a slight chance that we might get a serious rethinking of Colombia policy under an Obama administration.  The Illinois Senator will have to seriously clean house however so as to make sure Big Oil loses its political influence in the White House.  Oxy has a way of maintaining its pull over Democratic and Republican politicians alike.  From Armand Hammer to Ray Irani, the company never seems to give up.

NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)







NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of the upcoming No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, senorchichero.