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Obama’s War for Oil in Colombia

This past summer, President Obama announced that he had signed an agreement with Colombia to grant the U.S. military access to 7 military bases in Colombia. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper announced at the time, “[t]he proposed 10-year lease will give the US access to at least seven Colombian bases – three air force, two naval and two army – stretching from the Pacific to the Caribbean.” And, these bases would accommodate up to 800 military and 600 civilian contractors of the United States. As the Guardian explained, this announcement caused outrage in neighboring Latin American nations and “damaged Barack Obama’s attempt to mend relations with the region.”

This announcement also angered human and labor rights advocates in both the U.S. and Colombia as the U.S. was now solidifying a cozier military alliance with by far the worst labor and human rights abuser in the Western Hemisphere. The human rights nightmare in Colombia, fueled by billions of dollars of U.S. military assistance, includes the forced internal displacement of nearly 4 million civilians – the second largest internally displaced population in the world (Sudan holding the number one position); the extraordinary killing of over 2700 union members since 1986 (by far the greatest number in the world), with 35 being killed in 2009 alone; and the extrajudicial killing of around 2,000 civilians by the Colombian military since President Uribe took office in 2002.

As for the extra-judicial killings by the Colombian military, these were carried out as part of the “false positive” scandal – a controversy involving the military murdering civilians and then dressing them up to look like guerillas in order to increase their body count numbers, thereby guaranteeing further U.S. aid. That scandal deepened earlier this month when 31 Colombian soldiers awaiting trial for their role in the killings were released from prison because of the Colombian government’s failure to indict them in a timely fashion.

While the U.S. has claimed for years that it is fighting a drug war in Colombia, though having to sheepishly admit year after year that its ostensible efforts have not yielded any decrease whatsoever in the amount of coca grown in Colombia or cocaine exported to the U.S., the real reason for the war has always been the control of Colombia’s rich oil resources. Indeed, at a Congressional hearing in 2000, entitled “Drugs and Social Policy in Colombia” – a hearing to debate the relative merits of Clinton’s new Plan Colombia, pursuant to which the U.S. has sent billions of dollars of military assistance to Colombia – one of the key witnesses invited to testify in support of this policy was none other than Lawrence Meriage, the Vice-President of Occidental Petroleum. Not surprisingly, Mr. Meriage had nothing to say about drugs or social policy in Colombia, but a lot to say about the need for military assistance to protect his oil pipelines.

Now, according to a January 19, 2010 Bloomberg article, “The Export-Import Bank of the United States [a U.S. government agency] announced Jan. 19 its approval of a $1 billion preliminary commitment to help finance the sale of goods and services from various U.S. exporters to Ecopetrol S.A., Colombia’s national oil company.” It should be noted that Ecopetrol is a business partner with L.A.-based Occidental Petroleum.

Citing an industry expert, the Bloomberg article goes on to explain that “Ecopetrol is being aggressive in exploration and production,” and that, with the help of the financing from the Export-Import Bank, “Ecopetrol will almost double to 1 million barrels daily by 2015 as the company drills more wells in Colombia and neighboring South American nations.”

As a November 12, 2009 press release from the human rights group Amazon Watch explained, Ecopetrol is currently engaged in oil exploration on the sacred land of the U’wa indigenous peoples and against their wishes. A spokesperson for the U’Wa explained that, as is invariably the case, with Ecopetrol’s exploration and drilling comes the Colombian military, as well as paramilitaries, to protect Ecopetrol’s operations.

As Ecopetrol’s own website indicates, it is also involved in oil exploration in Peru and Brazil. As for Peru, Survival International, a UK-based human rights group advocating for the rights of threatened indigenous tribes, warned last year that Ecopetrol’s exploration of the Peruvian Amazon jungle threatens hitherto uncontacted indigenous tribes whose very existence will be jeopardized by these operations. As Survival International explained, these uncontacted tribes are “exceedingly vulnerable to any contact with outsiders because of their lack of immunity to disease.” Prior contacts between companies and uncontacted tribes have resulted in the mortality of 50% of the tribe.

While the current U.S. Administration seems bent on deepening its fatal ties to Colombia in the interest of oil, there is still an opportunity to derail this policy. Pursuant to the statute which created and regulates the U.S. Export-Import Bank, the President of the U.S. (who, by a 1979 Executive Order, delegated such authority to the Secretary of State) may, after consultation with the House and Senate Committees on Banking, determine that an application for credit should be denied by the Bank if the extension of credit “clearly and importantly” impacts U.S. “policy in such areas as international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, environmental protection and human rights.” 12 U.S.C. Sec. 635(2)(b)(1)(B).

Clearly, the prelimimary decision to extend credit to Ecopetrol adversely impacts human rights and the environment and should be overturned as a result. A movement to halt this extension of credit on these grounds would be a worthy effort for the U.S. peace and solidarity groups. Similarly, there is still a chance to impede the U.S.’s decision to access 7 new military bases in Colombia. With the Administration reeling from the election results in Massachusetts last week, now is the time to try to shame it into reversing course on its predictably devastating policy in Colombia and the rest of Latin America.

DANIEL KOVALIK is a labor and human rights lawyer working in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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