Carville, Colombia and BP

Some people are just nostalgic and seemingly can’t get enough of the go-go Clinton years.  Ever since 1992, the year his paymaster vanquished George H.W. Bush, high level marketer James Carville has backed political candidates in Latin America identifying with Bill Clinton’s militaristic and free market approach to the region.

A political guru, frequent CNN pundit and a personality who was featured in the well known documentary The War Room, Carville moves in powerful circles in the U.S.  What’s less commonly known, however, is that Carville is also a virtual kingmaker in Latin America — indeed, his professional contacts have ranged from Mexico’s Ernesto Zedillo to Brazil’s Fernando Enrique Cardoso to many others.

His latest stint is the troubled Andean nation of Colombia, which is fast approaching its presidential election.  There, according to Colombian magazine Semana, Carville has offered his consulting services to Juan Manuel Santos, a former Minister of Defense and member of the governing Social Party of National Unity or Party of the U.  Santos, who is trailing in recent polls against Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus, hopes that a bit of Carville’s previous luster will rub off on him.

He needs all the help he can get: as I pointed out in a recent article, Santos has been sullied by judicial investigations into allegations by human rights groups that the armed forces killed hundreds of civilians who were passed off as rebels downed in combat operations. The scandal took place under Santos’ watch while the latter served as Minister of Defense. Though the future presidential candidate was quick to demote top officials, an investigation is still ongoing.

In a sense, it’s not too surprising that Carville would back Santos, a militarist who has favored the U.S. free trade agenda.  As president, Carville’s paymaster Bill Clinton supported the Colombian elite to the hilt by supporting Plan Colombia and a $1.3 billion aid package to the Andean nation which waived human rights conditions.  Later, once out of office Bill backed the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement and met with President Álvaro Uribe personally in Bogotá.   Wife Hillary, who Carville advised during the presidential campaign of 2008, did not support the free trade deal.  However, her strategist Mark Penn was employed by the Colombian government to push for the initiative [to see my original article on the Clintons and their sordid ties to Colombia, click here].

Yanqui Packaging

Though Carville is making a splash in Colombia, the guru is no novice to Latin politics.  I was intrigued to learn for example that the former Clinton operative advised Honduran Manuel Zelaya, a leader who was later ousted in a military coup.  I came across this tidbit on Carville’s own web site, and wanted to find out more details but was unable to uncover any further information.

In light of his ties to the Clintons and the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, Carville would probably not have agreed with Zelaya’s post-election turn to the left and links with Venezuelan Hugo Chávez.  Perhaps, Carville did not anticipate that Zelaya would undertake a more populist trajectory once ensconced in office.

In Argentina too, I was surprised to find that Carville has reportedly advised Peronist Daniel Scioli, a politician linked to former President Néstor Kirchner.  As I pointed out in my second book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left, Kirchner was a frequent critic of Washington’s neo-liberal economic proscriptions.  During the Kirchner years, Scioli served as Argentina’s Vice President and currently he is the governor of Buenos Aires province.  He is also mentioned as a possible contender for the presidency in Argentina’s 2011 election.

Scioli doesn’t fit the usual Carville mould, though some observers frankly characterize the politician as a pragmatist.  Needless to say, Carville has been associated with some pretty conservative figures in Argentine political life.  Log on to Carville’s website and you will see a list of the marketer’s international clients, including one Domingo Cavallo.

A Client Not Worth Boasting About

That is nothing to boast about.  Cavallo, a supply-side economist who was the toast of Wall Street and Washington in the 1990s, served twice as Argentina’s Minister of Economy.  According to the New York Times, Cavallo presided over the country’s “pizza and champagne” bonanza.  He was furthermore “celebrated for his commitment to free-market principles and the huge profits they guaranteed foreign investors and cited constantly to other so-called ‘emerging markets’ as an infallible economic miracle worker.”

During his first stint as economy minister from 1991 through 1996, Cavallo advanced a policy that linked the Argentine peso to the American dollar at a one-to-one value. The move eliminated inflation, encouraged foreign investment and spurred middle-class Argentines to splurge on overseas travel and imported goods. Yet even the Times, whose coverage of Latin America trends towards the conservative side of the spectrum, conceded that the policy “eventually proved a straitjacket for the economy with exporters finding it harder to sell their goods, unemployment starting to climb and deficits expanding.”

Later, during his second stint in government in 2001, Cavallo issued a particularly unpopular order which virtually froze bank deposits.  The move was followed by a huge devaluation of the Argentine peso.  Cavallo was subsequently investigated under charges that he conspired with foreign bankers to increase his country’s indebtedness and inflate commissions to banks in exchange for their agreement to renegotiate billions of dollars in bonds.  The politician was also charged with “aggravated contraband” in connection with an illegal arms deal going back to the early 1990s.

From Panama to Ecuador

Carville moved on to Panama, where he advised President Ernesto Pérez Balladares.   A wealthy businessman and former CEO at Citibank, Balladares sought to sell off state industries and reduce labor laws which inhibited foreign investment.   The policy proved particularly unpopular amongst Panama’s unions, which demanded an end to the privatization in 1998.  When protests erupted against the government, the police repressed crowds with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Another one of Carville’s clients included Ecuadoran President Jamil Mahuad, a figure perhaps most well known for dollarizing his country’s currency.  That decision proved particularly unpopular amongst Ecuador’s large and impoverished Indian minority, which grew concerned that converting to dollars would erode its already painfully low standard of living.  At the time, critics pointed out that dollarizing one’s economy could reduce Ecuador’s control over the economy.  “More than a dollarization of the economy, this measure can be considered the Panamaization of the economy,” remarked one socialist legislator.

Mahuad’s policy prompted Indians to launch a civil disobedience campaign against the government.  In January, 2000 the president was forced out when indigenous peoples marched on Congress and a coup unfolded.  Later that year, Ecuador’s Supreme Court charged Mahuad with exceeding his constitutional powers when he ordered private bank accounts to be frozen amidst economic crisis.

Bolivia: My Brand is Crisis

Perhaps Carville’s most infamous political client, however, was Bolivian Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, also known as “Goni.”  In 2002, Goni was facing an incredible uphill battle in the presidential election against coca farmer Evo Morales, as well as a number of other candidates.  Previously, Goni had served as the Andean nation’s president from 1993 to 1997, during which time he displayed an autocratic style while pursuing “capitalization” or partial privatization of state enterprises.

Goni had spent much of his life in the States and spoke gringo-accented Spanish.  The politician, remarks the Washington Post, was “the CEO from hell, a ponderous guy who dresses not in the Bolivian fashion, but in the inside-the-Beltway power-suit tradition, down to the red ties, dark suits and white shirts.”

The campaign was later immortalized on the silver screen by documentary filmmaker Rachel Boynton.  Her movie, Our Brand is Crisis, is a fascinating look at the take charge Carville team.  Remarks Variety magazine, “`Our Brand Is Crisis’ proves as entertaining as the earlier ‘The War Room,’ which also featured Carville, but is more somber. The peculiarly American equation of democracy and capitalism seems to take on an especially sinister, even lethal turn when it is exported to foreign climes.”

Some of the most revealing moments of the film show Carville and other Washington insiders parachuting into Bolivia to lecture Goni on how to win over the hearts and minds of his countrymen.  Carville, who has a penchant for employing rhetorical zingers, tells Goni that voters shouldn’t trust Bolivian politicians because “they’re not going to know whether to wind their [rear ends] or scratch their watches” [maybe, Carville’s trademark zingers gave his employers the impression that this marketer knew what he was doing, and that his salary, which reportedly ranged up to $30,000 a month plus other expenses, was justified].

Two months before the election, Goni was down double digits in an 11-way race.  Enter Carville who flies in for a couple of cameos, who frankly admits that he’s in Bolivia to lend celebrity approval to other people’s work.  There are more zingers to be sure: “A campaign is like intercourse — you never know when it’s going to peak,” he declares sagely.

“The ghost of Bill Clinton haunts the film,” remarks Variety, “his bygone presidency the one-size-fits-all pattern for progressive global leadership. Unfortunately, the pattern is far beyond the reach of clueless wannabe Goni. The American spin team quickly settles on portraying him as the lesser of three evils. Using fear as their trump card, they confidently push the Goni brand: Yes, he is partly responsible for the country’s crisis, but in the hands of a corrupt, inexperienced leader, the situation could get much worse.”

Despite Goni’s many shortcomings, Carville’s man manages to eke out his competitors and win the election by the narrowest of margins.  But victory proves short-lived, as Boynton’s film shows.  Shortly into his presidency, Goni decides to ship Bolivia’s natural gas to the U.S. through a port in the neighboring enemy nation of Chile, thus sparking an uprising and riots in the streets.  Indigenous peoples launched a hunger strike against the gas policy, claiming the plan would permit foreigners to plunder the country’s natural resources at the expense of Bolivia’s poor.

After a hundred people died in clashes, Goni’s government crumbled and the embattled president fled to the U.S. “Globalism extends to the American way of campaigning, it seems,” remarks the Boston Globe, “and the hubris of the gringo strategists — earnest ex-Clintonistas employed by James Carville’s Greenberg Carville Shrum group — would be hilarious if human lives and a country’s political will weren’t at stake.”

From Carville to Greenberg to BP

Needless to say, most Americans are unaware of Carville’s Bolivian fiasco or his other forays in Latin America.  Boyton’s film, meanwhile, was not distributed widely.  These days, the U.S. public has been watching Carville on CNN, where the political operative has taken on a new role as environmental gadfly of BP.

Carville, who was born and raised in Carville, Louisiana, a town named after his grandfather, is referred to as the “Ragin’ Cajun” for his colorful debating style.  Day after day on CNN, Carville has been laying into BP, taking the side of Cajun people against the oil giant.  What CNN failed to mention, however, was that some of Carville’s associates have had ties to BP.

Take, for example, the case of Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who works with Carville and helped with the infamous Goni campaign in Bolivia.  According to Tom Hayden of The Nation, one of Greenberg’s clients included BP.  Interestingly enough, Hayden adds, BP was also heavily invested in Bolivia at the time to the tune of billions of dollars.  Indeed, during Goni’s embattled presidency BP was at the center of Bolivian political controversy, as the company formed part of a planned consortium which would have piped gas to Chile and from there on to the U.S.

In the wake of Goni’s ignominious departure from Bolivia, Carlos Mesa inherited the presidency and held a referendum asking Bolivians whether they wished to recuperate state control over natural resources.  “BP,” writes Hayden, “supported the referendum, along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, as did US Embassy officials, because the possible alternative–an Indian-led revolution–was even worse.”

It’s The Environment, Stupid

All of this prior history is now being brought to bear on Colombia, where Carville in his role as political confidant once again stands to play an influential role.  In Colombia, as in Bolivia, energy companies loom large.  Recently, Bogotá has militarily taken on guerrilla forces and undertaken measures to make the investment climate more promising for foreign oil corporations.

As a result, the country has seen rising petroleum investment, and currently BP is a key player in Colombia.  A company which has already accumulated a sordid environmental and human rights track record in Colombia, BP is —incredibly — thinking about commencing exploratory drilling in offshore Colombian oil blocs.

Colombia needs to give BP the boot if it wants to avert disasters like the one in the Gulf, yet it’s by no means clear that Carville’s man Santos is the one to take on the oil industry.  An establishment politician who favors the military and foreign investment, Santos would seem to be an unlikely environmental champion.

His opponent, Antanas Mockus, is no radical either and it’s not clear whether he would usher in an environmental revolution in Colombia.  However, if Mockus was victorious he would be the first Green Party president in the world.  A politician who wants to restore integrity and legality to Colombian politics, Mockus is therefore more likely to rein in Big Oil.

Yet, even as he rails against BP in Louisiana, Carville backs Santos.  Nearly twenty years ago when he campaigned for Bill Clinton, Carville coined the famous phrase “it’s the economy, stupid.”  Some Colombians, however, might want to know why the U.S. guru is backing a business-friendly candidate who may fail to heed a more appropriate zinger: “it’s the environment, stupid.”

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





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.