THE DA VINCI CODE: DECODING THE PHENOMENON

The Paradoxes of Mainstreaming Esotericism

by Mark Sanborne

Dizzy from all the Decoding? Tired of endless yammering about Tom Hank’s hair? Ready to move on from the “Greatest Coverup in Human History”? Well, welcome to the cult, er, club. The perfect media-publicity storm and religio-cultural zeitgeist-tickler that is The Da Vinci Code, the second coming of Dan Brown’s controversial super-blockbuster 2003 novel, has at last arrived in theaters. So let the deconstruction begin…

Despite being roundly panned by most critics, the movie is, unsurprisingly, making tons of money—nearly $150 million in its first two weeks—attracting both the book’s legions of fans along with many others curious what all the fuss is about. For those of you who may have been hiding in a tomb the last few years, here’s the gist:

Both the novel and movie posit that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who was not a prostitute (a folk tradition added later by Rome) but a lady of high standing who fled Palestine after the crucifixion with the couple’s child—a girl, Sarah—and settled among the Jewish community in southern France. After hundreds of years their descendants, carrying the royal blood of the house of the biblical King David, eventually got around to intermarrying with the Merovingians, the myth-shrouded first line of French kings who lived in the fifth through eighth centuries. Ever since, the Roman Catholic Church has been obsessed with extirpating this sacred lineage to prevent the explosive secret from getting out, beginning with the supposed assassination of Dagobert II in 679. (Much of Brown’s speculative information came from a 1982 British book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, about which more below.)

In response, a secret society known as the Priory of Sion was formed during the First Crusade in 1099 to protect the putative royal bloodline. The Priory, in turn, was said to have formed the real-life Knights Templar, the order of warrior-monks who served as the Crusader armies’ shock troops and went on to establish the first international banking system before being accused of heresy and suppressed by the greedy King Philippe IV of France in 1307.

Meanwhile, the Priory had also been busy behind the scenes propagating the Grail romances that became all the rage in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly those by Chretien de Troyes and Wolfram von Eschenbach, which included a Grail Family guarded by Templars. However, rather than being a sacred cup or chalice—the San Graal, or Holy Grail—it actually represented the Sang Raal, or Royal Blood, transformed from a pagan fertility symbol like the Horn of Plenty into a covert reference to the womb of the Magdalene, the Sacred Feminine suppressed by the church, and the secret lineage of the King of the Jews.

But wait, there’s more. The Priory of Sion supposedly has continued to exist down through the centuries, with grand masters of the order ranging from the first, Jean de Gisors, to such luminaries as Nicolas Flamel, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Robert Fludd, Robert Boyle, Issac Newton, Charles Nodier, Victor Hugo, Claude Debussy, and Jean Cocteau. However, the only “grand master” we can be sure of is one Pierre Plantard “de Saint-Clair,” an eccentric Frenchman who died in 2000 and who may have been the man behind the curtain who pulled the levers on the whole thing.

TELL & SHOW

Enough gist for now, let’s review the movie in question. In most key respects it is indeed faithful to the book—many might argue to a fault, though clearly director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman felt they couldn’t afford to alienate the novel’s vast readership. (Similar logic lies behind the Star Trek movies: first satisfy the trekkie fan base, then everything else is gravy.)

That faithfulness means the movie consists largely of exposition, with patches of competently staged action serving as brief bridges to the next set of esoteric talking points. (Despite Brown’s hammy prose, reading the novel seemed faster than watching the film, though Hans Zimmer’s score is nicely evocative.) And a fair amount of the special-effects “action” consists of brief, sepia-tinted historical flashbacks to such events as the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the First Crusade, and the suppression of the Templars.

In brief, for the lucky few who have not read or seen The Da Vinci Code, the movie follows the adventures of Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks), who while visiting Paris is called to the Louvre to view a dead and self-mutilated curator laid out on the floor like da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Langdon quickly hooks up with Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a police cryptographer who turns out to be the estranged grand-daughter of the dead man—who in fact is the latest grand master of the Priory of Sion.

The two are quickly on the run from Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), a French cop, and Silas (Paul Bettany), a cowl-wearing albino assassin, both of whom are acting under orders from a bishop of Opus Dei, the ultraconservative Catholic society. The bishop (Alfred Molina) is seen conspiring with several shadowy Vatican figures, discussing the need for “sacrifices” to cover up the church’s dirty laundry. Meanwhile, Ian McKellen steals the show in the role of Grail expert Sir Leigh Teabing, who employs hi-tech computer wizardry to demonstrate to Sophie that the person to the left of Jesus in da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” is actually Mary Magdalene. He seems to be the only one in the movie having fun, and offers viewers a knowing smirk like he did when playing Gandalf smoking a bowl of Hobbit-weed back in the first installment of The Lord of the Rings.

Needless to say, I was not disturbed by the book or film’s cavalier treatment of orthodox Christian tradition. (For the record, I was confirmed as an Episcopalian, but my instinctive adolescent doubts were even more confirmed when I learned that “my” Anglican religion had been created so that Henry VIII could get laid. That early cynicism, combined with my early interest in anthropology, eventually helped make me the scientific Taoist-Gnostic I sort of am today.) In fact, by far the most disturbing thing in the movie came early on, in a scene showing Silas demonstrating an X-treme form of the “corporal mortification” practiced by some Opus Dei adherents, pulling the sharp barbs of a “cilice” from the bloody and suppurating flesh of his thighs as he lashes his back with a cat-o-nine-tails and the camera lingers far too long on his naked white butt crack.

The action, such as it is, moves from France to London, but once McKellen leaves the scene the movie slows to a crawl, and the last 15 minutes seemed painfully endless. In their search for the Grail—which apparently consists of the bones of the Magdalene and some bloodline documents—Langdon and Sophie finally get to Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, a hotbed of esoteric speculation built in the 1400s that includes Templar and pagan influences. Our loveless couple encounters a crowd of locals looking like they’d stepped out of an English country catalog who turn out to be members of the Priory “family,” and Sophie finds out (SPOILER ALERT!) that she, too, is carrying the royal blood. Langdon ends up back in Paris at the Louvre, but I’ll save the final plot “twist” for those still don’t know and insist on going to the movie.

FAITH, HOLLYWOOD, AND THE GLOBAL MARKET

Since Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ caused a vicious religious backlash around the world—and it only showed Jesus fantasizing about having sex with Mary Magdalene—Sony Pictures Entertainment knew it had a big problem on its hand when it acquired the rights to The Da Vinci Code in 2003. A fascinating story in the May 22, 2006 New Yorker detailed how, in the wake of the unexpectedly huge box office success of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, Hollywood was learning not to totally ignore the concerns of religious-minded moviegoers.

Sony hired a faith-oriented consultant and by last year was already funding websites like www.thedavincidialogue.com, where mainstream religious experts debunk Brown’s work. The effort to proactively reach out paid off, and most clergy around the country talked more about engaging the issues than protests and boycotts, which were seen as counterproductive. Even Opus Dei spoke of the upcoming movie—which of course no one could stop from being a blockbuster, anyway—as a “teaching moment.” But this new spirit of toleration did not sit well with everyone: Barbara Nicolosi, a screenwriter and Christian blogger, called those working with Sony “useful Christian idiots” who were debating the issue “on Hell’s terms.”

Hollywood movies are one of the most reliable exports from the West to the rest of humanity, but in this most unflat world of globalization, pleasing everyone is not always easy. Ironically, while Sony was able to help temper the tone of the domestic debate about the movie, it appears to have had more problems with its customers in much of the rest of the world.

In advance of The Da Vinci Code‘s mid-May debut at the Cannes Film Festival, a variety of protests were staged in India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, and Zambia, among other places. India even put a temporary hold on the movie’s release because of complaints. Apparently, Christians outside the US, particularly those who are a minority in their own country, are more militant in defense of their faith than many god-fearing Americans. (Though thankfully the protests haven’t risen to the level caused earlier this year by Danish cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad.)

Meanwhile, the Da Vinci Moment was the sort of thing American cable TV was made for: wall-to-wall coverage with what seemed like dozens of news reports, documentaries, profiles, and puff pieces all tied to the movie. The History and Discovery channels were particularly gung-ho in the week leading up to the premier, and my eyes glazed over as I took in as much as I could.

Several interesting examples from the History Channel stand out. One was on the network’s new hit, “Digging for the Truth” with host Josh Bernstein, a hunky Jewish Indiana Jones who travels the world taking a hands-on approach to archaeology. In this one, he actually got a French museum to donate a sample from the bones of a supposed Merovingian princess and compared its DNA to that of an ancient community of Jewish descent in Israel. Result: Supposedly the princess didn’t carry a Middle East “marker,” providing extremely-sketchy-to-the-point-of-nonsense evidence that the genes of the Semitic Jesus and Mary Magdalene did not mix with early French kings. (Whew!)

Another eye-opener: a documentary that suggested the Knights Templar, both before and after the suppression of their order, were instrumental in the formation of the five cantons of the modern Swiss state. It noted the rapidity with which Switzerland went from being a collection of isolated settlements to an organized confederation with famously well-drilled defense forces during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance periods, and developed into a center of international banking. There’s also Switzerland’s traditional neutrality in international affairs and spirit of religious tolerance, both Templar traits. And oh yeah, the Templar emblem appears on the Swiss national flag and on the flags and emblems of many of the cantons—not to mention on the Swiss Army knife! Good stuff.

Finally, while watching yet another program, I was suddenly struck by the image of a painted statue at a church in southern France dedicated, like many in the region, to the Magdalene. The statue is of both Mary and her child, Sarah, and while Mary appears European, Sarah’s skin is a chocolate brown, and her features appear to be Egyptian. A Black Madonna in waiting, perhaps?

THE PRIORY OF PIERRE PLANTARD

There were also numerous programs, on both cable and broadcast TV (including 60 Minutes) dissecting the “facts” that Brown claimed lay behind his fictional story. The prologue of his novel is preceded by this statement: “FACT: The Priory of Sion—a European secret society founded in 1099—is a real organization. In 1975 Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale discovered parchments known as Les Dossiers Secrets, identifying numerous members of the Priory, including Sir Issac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and Leonardo da Vinci.”

So much for the “facts”—it’s hard to know where to begin. The so-called Secret Dossiers were not “discovered” by France’s national library, but were deposited there in the 1960s by the aforementioned Pierre Plantard and his cohorts—and are generally assumed to be fraudulent. They were not “parchments” but consisted mostly of copies of modern typewritten documents, including numerous genealogies and the infamous list of Priory “grand masters.” The dossiers were uncovered in the 1970s by three British writers—Henry Lincoln, Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh—in the course of research that led to their controversial 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which first formulated and laid out the whole Priory-Merovingian-Jesus-bloodline scenario, and which Dan Brown (and his wife and principal researcher Blythe Brown) later appropriated for The Da Vinci Code.

In the novel, the name of the Ian McKellen character, Leigh Teabing, is an anagramatic tribute to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and Teabing actually points out the book on his shelf and cites its importance. But those indirect acknowledgements were not enough to prevent Baigent and Leigh from suing Random House, publisher of The Da Vinci Code, in London’s high court for copyright infringement, charging that Brown had in effect stolen the “architecture” of their nonfiction book for his novel.

This past April, Judge Peter Smith ruled against the plaintiffs while also strongly criticizing the methods and testimony of Dan Brown and the fact that his wife declined to appear before the court. In keeping with the circus-like spirit of the occasion, the judge also embedded his own gimmicky coded message in his 70-page decision (italicized letters spelled out “Smithy Code Jackie Fisher who are you Dreadnought,” an obscure reference to British Naval history), while the highly publicized trial helped pump up the sales of both Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code in the run-up to the movie’s premier.

And what about elusive Mr. Plantard? It turns out to be a story that neither begins nor ends well During the war, he formed a quasi-occult, pro-Vichy association that was both anti-masonic and anti-semitic. In 1956, he registered the Priory of Sion as an association with the French government, indicating in its statutes a desire to form a monastic order. In the 1960s he teamed up with author Gerard de Sede to begin spreading the idea the Priory was descended from the Abbey of Sion, a monastic order that records indicate indeed was formed in Jerusalem during the First Crusade but later was dissolved.

Though French researchers were already casting doubts on Plantard’s credibilty as early as the 1970s, the manufactured Secret Dossiers became a centerpiece of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, ultimately providing much of the intellectual basis for The Da Vinci Code. Finally, however, Plantard’s confabulations caught up with him, and what remained of his reputation was ruined. In 1993, an investigative judge ordered a search of his home, which turned up numerous forged documents, including some proclaiming him as the true king of France through a nonexistent Merovingian linkage. Plantard admitted to his fabrications under oath and afterwards lived quietly until his death in 2000.

BLASPHEMERS AND FUNDAMENTALISTS: PARADOXICAL UNITY

In the end, it’s hard to see clearly through all the murk. But maybe that’s sort of the point. The Da Vinci Code is successful because it taps into the deep inner stuff that makes us tick, drilled into our collective unconscious by 2,000 years of mass indoctrination.

Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln also worked the notorious anti-semitic forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, into their story, maintaining that it actually referred to the Priory of Sion, with the Jews as stand-ins for the real secret order. Meanwhile, fringe Christian end-timers view the pseudo-unveiling of the Priory as a fulfillment of prophecies in the Book of Revelations and proof of a vast anti-Christian conspiracy.

Hollywood merely appropriates the outrage of the fundamentalists as an implicit tool of the publicity machine, while the fundamentalists likewise use outrage at this evidence of society’s domination by amoral apostasy as a recruiting tool. These seeming opposites feed off each other—the same dynamic which is at work in the global showdown between Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism.

RESOURCES:

Sony’s “The Da Vinci Dialogue”
http://www.thedavincidialogue.com

Wikipedia page on the Priory of Sion
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Priory_of_Sion

See also:

“Bible scholars to crack Mafia code?,” April 23
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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 1, 2006
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Issue #. 122. June 2006

Electronic Journal & Daily Weblog SAMIR ADIL INTERVIEW: The Voice of Iraq’s Civil Resistance by Bill Weinberg ANATOMY OF THE WEST BANK “REALIGNMENT” Strategic Pull-Back to Perpetuate Occupation by David Bloom 9-11’s HIDDEN VICTIMS New York’s Hero Rescue Workers Face… Read moreIssue #. 122. June 2006

CENTRAL AMERICA: ANTI-CAFTA MOBILIZATION

from Weekly News Update on the Americas

MAYDAY ANTI-CAFTA MOBILIZATION

As they did last year, many Central American workers marked May 1 with demonstrations protesting the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), a US-sponsored trade bloc composed of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the US. Many marchers also expressed solidarity with hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers demonstrating the same day in the US.

More than 20,000 workers, indigenous people, unionists, women and older people marched in Guatemala City, burning US flags and effigies of US president George W. Bush and Guatemalan president Oscar Berger. “The DR-CAFTA is a plague that will kill the people who live in extreme poverty,” campesino leader Daniel Pascual told the ACAN-EFE wire service. “Today is a day of Latin America inside the US,” said Jose Pinzon, a leader of the General Workers Central of Guatemala (CGTG), one of the country’s largest labor federations. The more than 1.2 million Guatemalans living in the US sent $3 billion back to Guatemala in 2005; some 60% of them are reportedly undocumented. US restaurant chains in Guatemala City’s historic center seemed empty as workers honored a boycott of US products in support of immigrants’ demands. (La Nacion, Costa Rica, May 1)

Thousands of Honduran workers, students, campesinos, indigenous peoples and others marked May 1 in 10 different cities to oppose DR-CAFTA, to show support for immigrants in the US and to commemorate the 52nd anniversary of a strike against the US-based Chiquita Brands and Standard Fruit companies which revitalized the Honduran labor movement at the time. “No unionist consumed any product from US companies today. This way we showed the empire, the US, how important we Latinos are to the US economy,” said Carlos H. Reyes, leader of the Popular Bloc, which is made up of more than 40 different grassroots and leftist organizations. According to official statistics, nearly a million Honduran live the US and one half are undocumented. Popular Bloc supporters blocked avenues and roads in a number of the cities where they marched. (La Prensa, Tegucigalpa, May 1)

Hundreds of Salvadoran workers marched in San Salvador in a demonstration sponsored by labor unions, grassroots organizations and the leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). Workers in El Salvador are “trampled on every day,” Nidia Diaz, an FMLN deputy to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), told Radio Maya Vision. This and the lack of job opportunities is what provokes the migration of Salvadoran workers to the US, she said. (La Nacion, May 1)

In Nicaragua, unions and organizations affiliated with the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) led a march to the Colonia Primero de Mayo in eastern Managua to protest the 16 years of neoliberal economic policies promoted by right-wing governments that followed the FSLN’s electoral defeat in 1990. The FSLN is gearing up for Nov. 5 presidential and legislative elections. Organizers estimated that more than 3,000 people participated in the march. (La Prensa, Managua, May 2; El Nuevo Diario, Managua, May 1)

According to organizers, more than 5,000 Costa Ricans from 300 organizations marched in San Jose in a protest against DR-CAFTA. Costa Rica signed on to DR-CAFTA in 2004 but its legislature has not yet ratified the treaty; the legislatures of all the other signatories have completed the ratification process. “[T]he central goal of the protest is to show our opposition to the free trade agreement in order to defeat it,” Jesus Vazquez, president of the Association of Secondary School Teachers (APSE), told the ACAN-EFE wire service. “No to TLC” and “TLC=Poverty” were typical signs, using the Spanish initials for “free trade agreement.”

The march included an organized presence from the lesbian-gay rights movement, following the decision of the First Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Conference, held in Heredia province near San Jose on April 28-30, to issue a declaration against DR-CAFTA. At the march Abelardo Araya, president of the Diversity Movement, cited DR-CAFTA’s “negative effects,” especially on access to medicines. The movement was also calling for an end to labor discrimination. “[O]n many occasions homosexuals experience firings, persecution [and] harassment and even have problems advancing professionally,” he said. (La Nacion, May 1)

Hundreds of workers marched in Panama City in two separate marches by the Confederation of Workers of the Republic and the Public Servants Federation. In contrast to other Central American protests, support for immigrants in the US was not a theme in Panama; and Panama is not a signatory to DR-CAFTA. Instead, marchers demanded a referendum on the $5 billion plan for expansion of the Panama Canal and improved workplace safety. The day before, a Costa Rican immigrant construction worker identified as Luis Araya had fallen to his death from the 23rd floor of a building under construction. (El Nuevo Herald, Miami, May 1; El Siglo, Panama, May 1)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 14

GUATEMALA: UPRISING BRINGS ACCORD

On April 20, Guatemalan Mayan indigenous campesino and grassroots organizations grouped in the National Indigenous and Campesino Coordinating Committee (CONIC) began a national uprising to press a series of popular demands, including land rights and an end to discrimination and social injustice. In Escuintla, more than 100 people blocked the road leading to Puerto Quetzal; in Coatepeque, 100 more gathered; in the community of El Zarco, in Retalhuleu, more than 400 people blocked the road; in Mazatenango more than 500 people marched. Teachers protested in Chiquimula and Salcaja, Quetzaltenango, while campesinos protested in San Julian Tactic, Rio Polochi, Santa Catarina and Charca. In western Guatemala, protesters walked to the capital from San Lucas Sacatepequez. In Guatemala City, teachers gathered in Zone 9 and thousands of campesinos marched to Congress. Market vendors also marched.

The government responded to the mobilization with repression in all locations. Police fired tear gas grenades and guns at the demonstrators; one death was reported, several people were wounded and more than 27 people were arrested. (CONIC Statement, April 20 via Adital)

Later on April 20, after seven hours of negotiations, Vice President Eduardo Stein reached an agreement with CONIC to open a dialogue with labor, campesino and grassroots organizations on the movement’s demands. In exchange, CONIC agreed to suspend the protests. The agreement was reached with the mediation of human rights ombudsperson Sergio Morales. (Prensa Libre, Guatemala, April 21; Guatemala Hoy, April 25)

Meanwhile, Carlos Arriaga of the National Coordinating Committee of Campesino Organizations reported that on April 24, campesinos were violently evicted from the La Verde farm in San Andres Villa Seca, Retalhuleu. (GH, April 24)

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VENEZUELA: CAMPESINOS ARRESTED; ALBA ADVANCES

from Weekly News Update on the Americas

BARINAS: CAMPESINOS ARRESTED

Early on May 25, Venezuelan army soldiers carried out a surprise raid against campesino activists in the town of Sabaneta, Barinas state. The raid was carried out with the participation of agents from the Scientific, Penal and Criminal Investigations Corps (CICPC, a unit of the Ministry of Interior and Justice) and the Rural Police. The army arrested 30 people, including at least 15 campesino leaders, two journalists and a minor. Those arrested included members of the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ) Barinas regional directorate and FNCEZ national directorate members Simon Uzcategui, Armonio Ortega, Oberto Viera, Alexander Bolano and Inder Herrera. The activists were held at the army post in Sabaneta, and later transferred to the general police station in Barinas. Some were apparently physically mistreated by judicial police.

The 30 campesinos were freed late on May 25 after a protest by local campesinos blocked traffic along a three-kilometer stretch of the Jose Antonio Paez highway.

The FNCEZ had been holding talks with the vice president’s office to press for compliance with accords reached last year after several campesino mobilizations. The FNCEZ feels that bureaucratic problems are blocking the implementation of agrarian reform, and that the state security forces have failed to take effective action against Colombian paramilitaries acting in western Venezuela, or against landholders who hire professional killers to attack campesino activists.

FNCEZ members in Barinas had been holding public assemblies and distributing fliers urging an occupation of La Marquesena estate. The government confiscated the estate from large landholders, but instead of redistributing it to landless campesinos, set up the “Florentino Genetic Center,” an agricultural and livestock development project, on the site. The government accused the campesinos of acting against the project, even though no concrete action toward an occupation had taken place; the FNCEZ said the raid appeared to be a preventive operation carried out by military intelligence. Among other demands, the FNCEZ is seeking the repeal of Article 471 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes land occupations; they say it is contradictory with the struggle for agrarian reform.

The National Workers Union (UNT) issued a statement condemning the arrests of the FNCEZ leaders and expressing solidarity with the campesino struggle. (Aporrea.org, May 25 via Minga Informativa de Movimientos Sociales; El Universal, Caracas, May 26, 27) The UNT led a massive pro-government march on May 1, International Workers’ Day, in Caracas; a smaller opposition march that day, led by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), also numbered in the thousands. (Venezuelanalysis.com, May 2)

from Weekly Update on the Americas, May 28

THREE COUNTRIES SIGN ON TO ALBA

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez Frias brought his plan for a Latin American trade pact closer to becoming a reality on April 29 when Bolivia officially joined the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) formed by Chavez and Cuban president Fidel Castro in 2005. The three governments didn’t immediately release the details of the two texts Bolivian president Evo Morales signed with Castro and Chavez during a meeting in Havana, but the pact was expected to combine lower tariffs with cooperation on social programs such as raising literacy rates. The new agreement came just one week after Venezuela’s April 22 announcement that it was leaving the Andean Community of Nations (CAN) trade pact.

Under the original ALBA agreement, Venezuela, which is the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, has been selling Cuba 90,000 barrels of crude a day; Venezuela charges international market prices but receives payment in services and agricultural products instead of cash. The Associated Press reports that Venezuela-Cuba trade is expected to reach more than $3.5 billion this year–about 40% higher than in 2005. In the new three-way deal, Cuba is to send Bolivia doctors and teachers, while Venezuela will send gasoline and set up a $100 million fund for development programs and a $30 million fund for other social projects. Cuba and Venezuela also agreed to buy all of Bolivia’s soybeans; Colombia signed a free trade pact with the US on Feb. 27 that is expected to undercut Bolivia’s soybean sales to Colombia.

The BBC reports that “closer integration between oil-rich Venezuela and gas-rich Bolivia will give the new pact added weight.” “Now, for the first time, there are three of us,” Castro said after the signing. “I believe that one day all [Latin American] countries can be here.” (BBC, May 1; The Guardian, UK, April 30)

from Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 14

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Weekly News Update on the Americas
http://home.earthlink.net/~nicadlw/wnuhome.html

See also WW4 REPORT #121
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“Venezuela: the hip-hop revolution,” May 24
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ECUADOR: PROTESTERS WIN; OXY GETS THE BOOT

from Weekly News Update on the Americas

Some 5,000 people marched in Quito on May 9 to demand that the government cancel its contract with the US oil company Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) within 15 days, and end all negotiations on the Andean Free Trade Agreement which the US is promoting with Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. Most of the marchers came from Ecuador’s Amazon region and were also demanding approval of a law that would increase oil revenues to the six Amazon provinces by $0.50 per barrel. A group of about 100 protesters broke through police lines at the Carondelet presidential palace and tried to sing the national anthem in front of Independence Monument. But 300 riot police agents attacked the group, shoving journalists and spraying several protesters with some kind of colored liquid tear gas. (El Diario- La Prensa, NY, May 10 from EFE; Altercom, May 9)

On May 10, Eduardo Delgado of the Common People Movement and Luis Macas of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) filed a lawsuit against Energy Minister Ivan Rodriguez Ramos for illegitimate omission of public authority for having failed to cancel Oxy’s contract. (Altercom, May 10)

According to Britain’s Financial Times, Petroecuador, the state oil company, sought to revoke Oxy’s operating contract because the US company improperly transferred a 40% interest in its fields to EnCana of Canada in 2000. In March of this year, the Ecuadoran government rebuffed Oxy’s offer to settle for a package worth more than $1 billion in back taxes, social programs, investments and extra revenues in return for a seven-year extension in its operating contract. Occidental is now thought to have upped the offer to $1.7 billion. On May 8, Energy Ministry Rodriguez gave Petroecuador until May 22 to negotiate an agreement. (FT, May 10)

On Sept. 13 of last year, EnCana announced it had reached an agreement to sell all of its interests in Ecuador for approximately $1.42 billion. (EnCana News Release, Oct. 26, 2005)

Government negotiator Manuel Chiriboga said on May 13 that Ecuador’s talks with the US government over the Andean Free Trade Agreement (AFTA, or TLC in Spanish)—suspended at the end of March—were unlikely to resume. Uncertainty over the legal battle with Oxy and attempts to reform Ecuador’s hydrocarbons law have been stumbling blocks in the negotiations, said Chiriboga. Chiriboga also said the US has engaged in sneaky tricks; in the case of Colombia, the final text of the treaty differed from what Colombian negotiators had agreed on. (Prensa Latina, May 13)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 14

On May 15, Energy Minister Rodriguez announced that Petroecuador was canceling its contract Oxy. The decision to cancel the contract–and reject an offer from Oxy to settle the case—was based on the fact that Oxy had violated the terms of its contract by transferring 40% of its shares in Block 15 in the Ecuadoran Amazon to EnCana on Nov. 1, 2000. Cancellation of the contract means Oxy must immediately return to Petroecuador all the areas under its control, as well as hand over without cost and in good condition all equipment, machinery, installations and transportation etc. used in its oil operations in Ecuador.

Humberto Cholango, leader of Confederation of the Peoples of Kichua Nationality of Ecuador (ECUARUNARI) called the decision a triumph of the indigenous and social movements. The next step is the nationalization of Ecuador’s oil, said Cholango. Before Oxy leaves Ecuador, the company should be investigated for environmental damages in the regions where it operated, warned Esperanza Martinez of the grassroots environmental group Accion Ecologica.

The US Embassy was said to be pressuring hard behind the scenes for a settlement that would allow Oxy to stay; the cancellation of Oxy’s contract is expected to further chill negotiations between Ecuador and the US over the Andean Free Trade Treaty, stalled since March. Rejection of the trade pact is another major demand of Ecuador’s grassroots movements. (Servicio Informativo “Alai-amlatina,” May 16) In a statement on May 16, the Office of the US Trade Representative (USTR) said it was “very disappointed with Ecuador’s decision” to cancel Oxy’s contract. USTR spokesperson Neena Moorjani told CNN: “At this time we don’t foresee new conversations” with Ecuador over the trade pact. Moorjani said the administration of US president George W. Bush would ask Ecuadoran president Alfredo Palacio for “immediate explanations” and details about how Oxy would be compensated. (El Barlovento, Mexico, May 16, quotes retranslated from Spanish)

On May 18, Petroecuador assumed 100% control of Oxy’s oil fields in Ecuador. Oxy reported the previous night that it had transferred all its Block 15 operations to Petroecuador, and that on May 18 a technical unit would take over operations of the Limoncocha wells in Sucumbios province. Oxy has meanwhile filed an international trade suit against the Ecuadoran government with the World Bank’s International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington. (El Barlovento, May 18)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 21

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See also WW4 REPORT #121
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“Ecuador Boots Oxy,” May 24
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Reprinting permissible with attribution

Continue ReadingECUADOR: PROTESTERS WIN; OXY GETS THE BOOT 

BOLIVIA: OIL AND GAS NATIONALIZED

from Weekly News Update on the Americas

On May 1, in a ceremony at the San Alberto oilfield in Carapari, Tarija department, Bolivian president Evo Morales Ayma signed supreme decree 28.701, ordering the nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbons resources. “The looting is over,” Morales announced as he ordered the armed forces to seize control of all the oil and gas fields. With the decree, the Bolivian state “recovers the property, possession and total and absolute control of these resources,” said Morales. Foreign companies now have six months to renegotiate their oil and gas contracts with the government; in the meantime they must give up control of their facilities and channel all sales through the newly refounded state oil company, Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB). Morales also ordered the confiscation of the shares necessary to guarantee more than 50% state control of the oil companies operating in Bolivia. (Resumen Latinoamericano, May 1; New York Times, May 2)

“If the negotiations do not go well, we could go to the next step, expropriation,” said energy minister Andres Soliz Rada. He said companies would be compensated. But the first step, said Soliz, is an audit of foreign company documents. “It’s time to open the black boxes of the petroleum companies.” (NYT, May 4)

Nationalization of Bolivia’s resources, especially gas and oil, had become the main consensus demand of the country’s grassroots movements following the popular protests that ousted ex-president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Sanchez was responsible for selling off the country’s hydrocarbons to transnational corporations at extremely unfavorable rates for Bolivia. The contracts were never ratified by Congress, as the Constitution requires, making their legality questionable. (Resumen Latinoamericano, May 1)

At a May 4 summit in the northeastern Argentine province of Misiones, the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela confirmed their interest in moving together towards regional energy integration. The meeting was called to discuss the impact of the Bolivian nationalization. After a three-hour meeting, the four presidents held a joint press conference in the Casino Hotel in the town of Puerto Iguazu. Argentine president Nestor Kirchner said it was “one of the best meetings” he has taken part in as president.

The gathering was called by Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva; Brazil’s Petrobras is the largest foreign investor in Bolivia’s natural gas industry. A full 67% of the gas consumed by industry in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s industrial and financial center, comes from Bolivia. Before the nationalization, Petrobras had control of Bolivia’s two refineries, its biggest gas fields, a chain of gas stations and a pipeline running from Bolivia to Brazil. Petrobras will now have to negotiate a new contract, at a higher price. Although the presidents did not discuss prices, they acknowledged that they had agreed that gas supplies would be guaranteed. (Inter Press Service, May 4 via CorpWatch)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 14

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See also WW4 REPORT #117
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“Bolivia hosts hemispheric indigenous conference,” April 9
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Continue ReadingBOLIVIA: OIL AND GAS NATIONALIZED 

COLOMBIA: URIBE RE-ELECTED, REPRESSION ESCALATES

from Weekly News Update on the Americas

Right-wing Colombian president Alvaro Uribe Velez was re-elected in the country’s first round of elections on May 28, eliminating the need for a second round. With 80% of the vote counted, Uribe had 62% of the vote; his closest rival, left coalition candidate Carlos Gaviria, had 22.18%. The third place candidate, Horacio Serpa of the Liberal Party—Uribe’s old party—had less than 12%. Three other candidates were far behind: former Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus with 1.12%; former justice minister Enrique Parejo with 0.37%; and medical doctor Carlos Rincon with 0.17%.

Uribe is the first president to be re-elected in Colombia in over 100 years. Congress amended the Constitution to allow reelection in late 2004; that amendment was upheld by the Constitutional Court on Oct. 18, 2005.

No electoral incidents were reported, although the army claimed five guerrillas were killed as they were preparing explosive attacks in Cali (Valle del Cauca department) and Tame (Arauca). A bus rigged with explosives was allegedly deactivated in Tolima department. In San Calixto municipality, Norte de Santander department, near the border with Venezuela, civilian authorities reported that two soldiers were killed and three wounded in a clash with leftist rebels from the National Liberation Army (ELN) who were allegedly trying to attack a polling place. (AFP, May 28)

CAUCA: GRASSROOTS SUMMIT ATTACKED

Starting on May 14, nearly 15,000 indigenous, campesino and African-descended people from the north of Cauca department in southwestern Colombia gathered in the Guambiano indigenous territory of La Maria Piendamo for a summit of organized grassroots sectors building strategies of resistance against constant human rights violations, the signing of the Andean Free Trade Treaty with the US and the repressive “democratic security” policy of President Alvaro Uribe Velez. More than 50,000 people gathered at other sites in southwestern Colombia on May 15 to participate. More than 2,000 Nasa, Guambiano and Embera indigenous people and Afro-Colombians held an eight-kilometer march to the main government buildings in Cali. (Minga Informativa de Movimientos Sociales, May 15; Comunicaciones ONIC Boletin, May 15)

On May 15, agents from the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) of the National Police used tear gas and rubber bullets against summit participants who were carrying out a protest blockade of the Panamerican highway near Mondomo municipality in Cauca. At least five people were wounded and 10 people were arrested, including two members of the Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace. A newborn baby was affected by the tear gas. The ESMAD agents were joined by agents of the Highway Police and troops from the National Army’s Jose Hilario Lopez Battalion and the 19th Brigade’s Meteodoro Battalion. After the initial attack, the protesters withdrew and regrouped 500 meters down the road, where ESMAD agents resumed the attack with tear gas, sparking three fires in the area. The agents also destroyed a house where summit participants were storing their belongings. (Prensa Libre, alternative communication project of the grassroots movement of southwestern Colombia, May 15 via Servicio Prensa Rural; Report from Organizaciones Sociales, May 15 via Servicio Prensa Rural)

At the same time, police used tear gas and truncheon blows to disperse more than 3,500 campesinos who were demonstrating in front of the National Training Service (SENA) building in Popayan, capital of Cauca department. According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), two people were wounded by bullets, including Emer Achicue, of Tambo municipality in Cauca.

According to the Only National Agricultural Union Federation (Fensuagro), security forces arrested campesinos in San Juan de Arama as they marched on May 15 through the Lower Ariari region of Meta department, from Puerto Toledo to Villavicencio. Security forces also blocked a mobilization of indigenous people and campesinos heading from different areas of Putumayo department toward the municipality of Pinunas Negras. (Report from Organizaciones Sociales, May 15 via Servicio Prensa Rural) In Narino department, Esmad agents and army troops have tried to block Awa indigenous people from mobilizing in two locations. (ONIC Boletin, May 15)

On May 16, army troops, police and ESMAD riot agents backed by four helicopters attacked the summit in La Maria Piendamo, bombarding participants with tear gas and weapons fire. Security forces apparently fired directly at members of the Cauca indigenous guard–an organized community defense force armed only with traditional staffs—and also targeted infrastructure sites such as community kitchens, food storage warehouses and lodging areas. Pedro Coscue, an indigenous guard member from the Corinto indigenous reserve, was shot to death, and 78 people were wounded–32 of them seriously—while another 36 people were arrested and more than 10 were disappeared. [Note: Pedro Coscue’s last name was given in different sources as Poscue, Pascue or Soscue.] (Comunicaciones ONIC Boletin, May 16; Radio Nizkor, May 17) Over all, in Cauca, Narino, Valle and Meta departments, government repression against summit participants left more than 100 people wounded, and more than 30 people detained and disappeared. (Asociacion Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos Unidad y Reconstruccion-ANUCUR, May 17 via Minga Informativa de Movimientos Sociales) The indigenous organizers responded to the violence by extending the summit indefinitely, and calling for national and international solidarity. (Radio Nizkor, May 17)

The social movements are asking that messages be sent to Colombian officials demanding guarantees for the lives and physical and psychological safety of the participants in the Summit of Social Organizations; guarantees for the rights to free movement and protest; and dismantling of the ESMAD. Send messages to President Uribe at fax +571-566-2071 or auribe@presidencia.gov.co; Vice President Francisco Santos at fsantos@presidencia.gov.co; Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe at fax +571-222-1874 or siden@mindefensa.gov.co, infprotocol@mindefensa.gov.co or mdn@cable.net.co. For more information, see the websites of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) http://nasaacin.net/ and ONIC http://onic.org.co/.

(Report from Organizaciones Sociales, May 15 via Servicio Prensa Rural)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 21

META: ARMY KILLS 10

On April 15, troops from the Colombian Army’s Mobile Brigade No. 12 began a massive military operation in the area of the Puerto Nubia School in the village of Sanza, San Juan de Arama municipality in the southern department of Meta. Using explosives and machine gun and rifle fire, the army attacked a house where some 50 civilians—including many children and older adults—had taken refuge next to the Puerto Nubia School. The civilians screamed in panic and called out to the army to stop shooting, but the troops kept firing. One mother who survived the attack said the soldiers appeared to be on drugs as they kept shooting in all directions.

The army’s gunfire killed at least eight people at the house, including 12-year old Yorladys Osorio Gonzalez, whose 13-year-old sister, seven-year-old sister and both parents were also wounded in the attack. One of the soldiers apparently broke down in tears at the sight of the victims; he called the killing an error, saying the army had no information that there were civilians in the house. The other victims were Rafael Pinzon, Gerardo Rios and four members of the Prieto family: 15-year old Weymar Prieto, his brother, Audom Prieto, their father, Floriber Prieto and a cousin, Jesus Prieto. Two more residents were apparently killed elsewhere: residents saw the body of Alexander Medina, a minor, floating down the Sanza river but were unable to recover it; they did recover the tortured body of a woman with a coup-de-grace shot to the head from the river. Residents are unsure whether she is Rubiela Castillo, who disappeared a day before the military operation, or another village resident named Nina.

About 50 residents of the village were detained by the army on April 16; as of April 27 they remained disappeared, and the army was still not allowing anyone–not even the International Red Cross–into or out of the area. There are rumors that the detained residents have been already murdered and presented as rebels killed in combat.

Corporacion Reiniciar is urging letters to President Alvaro Uribe Velez (uribe@presidencia.gov.co), Vice President Francisco Santos (fsantos@presidencia.gov.co) and other officials, demanding a full investigation, punishment for those responsible, and an explanation of the whereabouts of the disappeared. For more information and a full list of officials to contact, see http://www.dhcolombia.info/. (Corporacion Reiniciar, April 30 via Red de Defensores No Institucionalizados de Colombia)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 30

BARRANCABERMEJA: ACTIVISTS MURDERED

Yamile Agudelo Penalosa, a 26-year old member of the Popular Women’s Organization (OFP) from the Colombian city of Barrancabermeja, in Santander department, was brutally tortured, raped and murdered. Her body was found in the Barrancabermeja municipal trash dump, on the road leading to the village of Llanito, on March 22; the body was identified two days later by her parents, OFP member Marisabel Penalosa and Alfonso Agudelo. Her face had been destroyed and one of her ears was cut off. The OFP has not accused any armed group of responsibility for the killing, but notes that Yamile Agudelo was assigned to one of the OFP’s community soup kitchens in Barrancabermeja, and that the city is controlled by rightwing paramilitaries. (OFP Communique, March 25 via Colombia Indymedia; Vanguardia Liberal, Bucaramanga, March 26; Yahoo Noticias, March 28)

On April 2, armed assailants shot to death Daniel Cortez Cortez, a member of the Sintraelecol union, while he was working in the Montoyas village of Puerto Parra municipality, Santander department. Cortez was an active union member throughout his nearly 16 years working at Electrificadora de Santander, the departmental electric company. He was murdered in a place completely controlled by the allegedly demobilized members of the supposedly disbanded rightwing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The assailants also apparently robbed Cortez’s pay. (Communique from Unitary Workers Federation-CUT, Barrancabermeja Committee, undated, via Resumen Latinoamericano, Apil 8)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, April 9

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See also WW4 REPORT #120
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“Colombia: army fires on indigenous protesters,” May 16
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Continue ReadingCOLOMBIA: URIBE RE-ELECTED, REPRESSION ESCALATES 

THE POLITICS OF THE FARC INDICTMENT

A “Secret Formula” Against Colombia’s Guerillas?

by Paul Wolf

The US State Department has developed the secret formula to dismantle the armed groups of Colombia’s war. Or so it believes. It is believed that the demobilization of 28,000 members of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was the result of threatening its leaders—notably Salvadore Mancuso and Don Berna—with extradition to the US.

Fear of extradition, accompanied by promises of amnesty, convinced large numbers of paramilitaries to lay down their arms, confess their crimes, and put their faith in the government to restore order in Colombia.

Now, the same strategy is being tried on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an insurgency with roots in Colombia’s civil conflict of the 1940s (“La Violencia”) and greatly influenced by the Cuban revolution. The FARC has grown over the decades, despite concerted efforts by the Colombian and US governments to destroy it, including the use of death squads, forced displacement of its supporters, and the most modern technologies of surveillance and counter-terrorism.

Top 50 FARC Leaders Indicted

On March 29, US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the indictment in the US of the top 50 leaders of the FARC on drug charges. According to the indictment, the FARC not only taxes Colombian coca growers, but also operates cocaine processing laboratories, and enforces a monopoly on the purchase of the drug in areas it controls. According to Gonzales, and to Justice Department press releases, the FARC is responsible for 50% of the world’s cocaine, worth more than US $25 billion.

This staggering figure cannot represent the true income of the FARC, however. The FARC has an estimated 18,000 fighters—this would be more than one million dollars per guerrilla. That’s a lot of money for people who live in the jungle, sleep in hammocks, and live on a diet of yucca, rice and chicharón (pork fat).

A different estimate was made by the Information and Financial Analysis Unit of the Colombian government’s Ministry of Land, which it is said that the FARC receive about 30% of their income from drugs: 8.5 million US dollars per year in “tribute” from coca farmers, and about 3 million from the sale of cocaine.

Even multiplying this figure by the ten years the US says the FARC have been in the cocaine business, the US estimate exceeds that of Colombia by a factor of 200. The US government has offered $75 million in rewards for information leading to the capture of FARC leaders.

Same Evidence, Different Defendants

The FARC indictment supercedes the 2002 indictment of “Negro Acacio”, a case that has languished in DC District Court for the last four years. The new evidence apparently implicating the Estado Mayor (central command) of the FARC, consists of captured documents, witness testimony, and intercepted radio transmissions which allegedly show the complicity of the FARC leadership in the production and trafficking of vast quantities of coca paste and cocaine. The physical evidence, however, is the same “five or more kilograms of a substance containing a detectable amount of cocaine” in the original indictment of 2002.

In addition to Negro Acacio, several other FARC members are already on trial in the US for drugs and terrorism, including Carlos Bolas, Simon Trinidad, and Omaira Rojas (“Sonia”). According to the DEA, three others await extradition at Combita prison: Jorge Enrique Rodriguez Mendieta (“Ivan Vargas”), Erminso Cuevas Cabrera (“Mincho”), and Juan Jose Martinez Vega (“Gentil Alvis Patino”). These three are accused of having significant personal involvement in the production and trafficking of thousands of kilograms of cocaine.

While one might assume that Colombia would agree to their extradition, Colombia does not recognize the 1982 extradition treaty with the US, and has the discretion to either extradite or not. Colombia might try to use the threat of extradition to put pressure on the FARC to demobilize. At Gonzales’ press conference in March, the first thing said by Colombian Ambassador Andres Pastrana was that “[t]he indictment of 50 leaders of the FARC guerrillas is a decision taken by the Department of Justice of the United States.” This appears to leave the door open for Colombia to negotiate this point, if the FARC have any interest in it.

The belief that the FARC leaders fear extradition, and can be convinced to demobilize, is held by the US, but not the Colombian government. This is clearly Washington’s policy, and not Bogota’s. Nevertheless, Colombia is likely to go along with it, since its own policy is to defeat the insurgency through pressure and force of arms.

The indictment describes the FARC as being substantially in control of most of the cocaine production in Colombia. While it has been acknowledged for many years that the FARC tax the coca trade, and fight with the AUC to control rural parts of Colombia, the indictment accuses the FARC of operating cocaine laboratories, as well as killing coca growers who sell to anyone other than themselves. It does not, however, accuse the FARC of trafficking drugs outside of Colombia, although guns-for-drugs transactions have allegedly occurred on the Colombia-Brazil border.

All of these prosecutions will have to overcome a serious hurdle; that is, in order for any extradition to be valid, there must be some connection between the crime and the United States. In the case of drug trafficking, the defendants must intend that the drugs are shipped to the US. Even if it is true that the defendants have produced hundreds of thousands of kilograms of cocaine, as the indictment alleges, if they didn’t know, or didn’t care where the drugs went, then they would not have had the intent to send the drugs to the US, and could not be extradited here.

If there is no intentional connection with the United States, no US law would have been violated. In this respect, the threat of extradition may be an empty one. On the other hand, the threats of being held in solitary confinement for many years, and of inadequate legal representation in the face of a government with unlimited prosecutorial resources, are very real. Even the well-known FARC guerrillas Simon Trinidad and Sonia have been represented by public defenders with limited resources. For example, in Sonia’s case, the defendants were provided with over 100 compact disks of intercepted communications to review themselves in prison, to prepare their own defense, and more than 10,000 documents that the prosecution might use in the trial. In the Trinidad case, between 20-25 witnesses will be flown up from Colombia to testify in the drug trafficking trial alone.

The Prosecution of Simon Trinidad

Simon Trinidad, the well-known negotiator for the FARC during the peace process of the Pastrana administration, was captured in Ecuador two years ago, and extradited to the US on charges of drug trafficking, kidnapping, and providing material support to a terrorist organization. The case has attracted the attention of the Latin American press, but none whatsoever in the US, despite the fact that the case will test numerous traditional legal principles as applied in the new paradigm of the “war on terror.” It also appears that Trinidad will be the first of the FARC members to be prosecuted in the new program announced by Gonzales, although nowhere in the FARC indictment does Trinidad appear in the leadership of the FARC organization.

The first case against Trinidad stems from the crash or shoot-down of a surveillance plane operated by California Microwave, a US military contractor. After a firefight at the crash site, three North Americans were taken captive by the FARC, who are still holding them. To date, the prosecution has not tried to show that Simon Trinidad gave the order to shoot down the plane. Neither is there any evidence that Trinidad was involved in the decision to take the North Americans as prisoners. It appears that Trinidad’s only involvement in the incident was to travel to Ecuador to try to arrange their release, supposedly in concert with the UN.

It would be hard to find Simon Trinidad guilty under these facts. Any crime, even one involving a conspiracy, requires that the defendant have the necessary mental state to commit the crime. The intent to commit one crime, such as rebellion against the government, cannot be substituted for the intent to commit another, nor can the commission of one crime be the basis of guilt for another crime requiring a different intent merely because the harm flowed from the first crime. In other words, if Simon Trinidad was not involved in taking the North Americans captive, his efforts to negotiate their release should not make him criminally liable for their capture.

A second argument, already made by Trinidad’s public defenders, is that the incident occurred in the context of an armed conflict. Taking prisoners in a war is not a war crime. Ironically, the prosecution has emphasized the fact that Trinidad is seen in various photos wearing a FARC uniform, as evidence of his membership in the group. The US contractors, accused by columnist Robert Novak of working for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), did not wear uniforms, and their surveillance of the FARC could be considered as espionage. As a lawful combatant in uniform, Trinidad would be entitled to the protection of the Geneva Conventions, while the US contractors, as spies, would not.

Judge Thomas Hogan, who is hearing the case, however, has ruled that because the United States is not at war with the FARC, Trinidad is not entitled to combatant immunity.

One interesting development in the case will be whether the defense is able to learn, from the court-ordered production of US government documents, what exactly the contractors were doing flying over the Colombian jungle. Was the surveillance plane looking for coca plants, or intercepting FARC radio transmissions and reporting on FARC positions? If the latter is the case, then the defense will have the opportunity to prove at trial that the US was participating in the war between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Of course, these arguments do not apply to the drug trafficking charge against Trinidad. Drug trafficking is still a crime during a war. Trinidad’s drug trafficking trial will begin shortly after his kidnapping trial ends, sometime around January of 2007.

Disregarding the Defendant’s Human Rights

Simon Trinidad is being held incommunicado, and without access to his lawyer, in Washington, DC. As these hearings progress, numerous other legal cases against Trinidad are proceeding in Colombia, where he is being tried in absentia. This is in clear contravention of his basic rights, guaranteed by the International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Article 14(3)(e) of the Covenant guarantees the right to “be present in the proceeding and to defend personally or to be assisted by counsel of his choice.” Nevertheless, Judge Hogan has said that under the US Constitution, the rights to be present in a criminal proceeding, and to have effective legal representation, do not apply to proceedings outside of the US. Hogan has failed to consider that international treaties like the ICCPR have the force of law in US courts, regardless of whether provisions of the US Constitution apply.

The public defenders assigned to Trinidad’s case had to sign agreements with the US government, called Special Administrative Measures, promising not to communicate any information between their client and the outside world. These measures clearly violate the defendant’s right to counsel. One might ask whether attorneys agreeing to these conditions are a part of the problem, particularly when Trinidad’s chosen lawyer, Oscar Silva, is not permitted to meet with him unless an FBI agent is present.

The case is full of problems with evidence, the jurisdiction of the court, and the political nature of the charges. But most important are the fundamental rights of the defendant. Trinidad has the right to be present for the cases against him in Colombia, and to have an attorney of his choice where he is judged.

Mistake to Ignore These Cases

Although the FARC may benefit from boycotting Colombian elections, or from enforcing a “paro armado” (armed blockade) in concert with union strikes, it makes an error if it ignores the trials of its own members. The FARC should defend them in court. Regardless of the fairness or political nature of the trials, they do provide a forum for the FARC to explain its policies and make the case that it is an insurgent group rather than merely a drug trafficking organization. If the FARC doesn’t make these arguments, no one will. The trials will proceed with or without the participation of the FARC, and even the most liberal observers will have little to say as FARC members are minimally defended by overworked attorneys paid by the US government. It seems unlikely that the FARC will be intimidated by the new extradition program, or that any demobilization will be forthcoming, but this doesn’t mean the FARC should simply ignore what is happening.

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Paul Wolf is an attorney in Washington, and may be contacted at paulwolf@icdc.com.

SOURCES:

Report of the Unit of Financial Information and Analysis (Uiaf) of the Treasury Department, cited in “El Transito de las Farc al narcotrafico” (The Passing of the FARC to Drug Trafficking), Colprensa, March 25, 2006

“United States Charges 50 Leaders of Narco-Terrorist FARC In Colombia With Supplying More Than Half Of The World’s Cocaine,” US DEA press release, March 22, 2006.

See also:

“COLOMBIA QUAGMIRE DEEPENS
FARC Indictments Spell Escalation in Andean Oil War”
by Peter Gorman
WW4 REPORT #121, April 2006
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Continue ReadingTHE POLITICS OF THE FARC INDICTMENT 

THE WEALTH UNDERGROUND:

Bolivian Gas in State and Corporate Hands

by Benjamin Dangl

Years before the arrival of the Spanish, Bolivia’s indigenous people used “magic water” to cure wounds and keep fires going. With the invention of the automobile in the 1880s this black liquid took on a new importance. Since then, the oil and gas has been more of a curse than a blessing for the Bolivian people. On May 1 of this year, the history of these resources entered a new phase.

Bolivian President Evo Morales announced that the oil and gas will be nationalized and put into the hands of the state-run oil and gas company, Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales Bolivianos, (YPFB). Though what this nationalization plan truly entails may not be known for weeks, the move raises the question: will state control of resources be more beneficial to the Bolivian people than corporate control?

“Property of the Bolivian People”

“The time has come, the awaited day, a historic day in which Bolivia retakes absolute control of its natural resources,” Morales said in a speech from the San Alberto petroleum field, wearing a white helmet from YPFB. Nearby a banner hung that said, “Nationalized: Property of the Bolivian people.” The day the announcement was made thousands converged to celebrate the nationalization in La Paz’s central Plaza Murillo.

The decree bumps up Bolivia’s share of profits coming from two major gas fields, San Alberto and San Antonio, from roughly 50% to 82%. These fields, which represent 70% of Bolivia’s natural gas, are currently owned and operated by Brazil’s Petrobras, Spain and Argentina’s Repsol and France’s Total. Smaller fields will continue with the same tax arrangement which allots 50% to the government. Within 60 days, YPFB is to control oil and gas production, exploration, and distribution. Within 180 days, foreign companies are obliged to sign renegotiated contracts which give more control to the state. If they refuse to renegotiate, they have to leave the country. The new decree does not call for the total expropriation of foreign assets. It does involve a mandatory sale of most assets in the oil and gas industry to the government. The state will seize the assets of those companies which refuse to renegotiate contracts. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said that by 2007, these changes will increase the government’s annual income by $320 million.

In order to establish the new terms of operations and tax rates, the decree includes an audit of all oil and gas companies working in Bolivia. The state will recover 51% of shares from five companies which were carved out of the privatization of YPFB in 1996, when many of the current contracts were drawn up. Bolivian officials contend that these contracts are unconstitutional because they were not ratified by congress, which is required by Bolivian law. In this light, the nationalization is a return to constitutionality.

From September to October in 2003 massive protests took place against a plan to export Bolivia’s gas to the US for a meager price. Government repression against the mobilizations resulted in an estimated 80 deaths and hundreds of injuries. In the end, the protests forced President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to resign. The current nationalization plan is in part a response to pressure from this grassroots movement.

“We are moved because the nationalization of hydrocarbons has been one of the fundamental demands of the mobilizations of October 2003 and May and June 2005. For us, it’s homage to the fallen of October,” Edgar Patana, the executive secretary of the Regional Workers’ Central of El Alto told ZNet journalist Jeffrey Webber. “It’s an historic act that, hopefully, in the following months, will bring the country more revenue, to relieve unemployment, and make more jobs available.”

Morales, along with other newly elected left-leaning leaders in Latin America, came to power on a platform which promised a change from the structural adjustments pushed by the International Monetary Fund and free market economic policies which favored the interests of foreign corporations over the welfare of the people. Instead of bringing about the promised development and progress, thirty years of such policies has plunged the region into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. By following an unconventional path, Venezuela and Argentina have become the fastest growing economies in the region in recent years. Morales’ nationalization may produce similar results. As Bolivians know, business as usual has had a devastating effect on their country, which is the poorest in South America.

The Case for Nationalization of Oil and Gas in Bolivia

History illustrates that an oil and gas industry run by YPFB is a feasible and lucrative option. In 1937, during the government of David Toro, the state-run company was created. From then until 1940, YPFB produced 882,000 barrels of oil which was more than Standard Oil had produced in 15 years of operations in Bolivia. In 1953, the company produced enough to take care of the national consumption of oil. For over 60 years, YPFB generated enormous funding for the government. It explored, exploited, built ducts, refining plants. From 1985-1995, YPFB was the main source of economic support for the state. The highest amount YPFB exported was 55.7% of total exportation in 1985. Through YPFB, the technology and expertise was developed to sustain an infrastructure which is still intact to this day. The success and experience of the company contributed to the population’s recurring demands for nationalization of oil and gas.

“People have the hope that after all of this history of misery, exploitation of the natural resources, the gas could be the basis for a modernization of the economy. Not just to be utilized as energy, but also a basis for a future of industrialization,” Carlos Arze of Bolivia’s Center for Labor and Agricultural Development (CEDLA) explained in an interview in his office in La Paz, where large windows looked over the city. The key element to this industrialization is the rising cost of oil and gas.

As the amount of global gas reserves decrease, the demand will increase, putting Bolivia in a good position to financially gain from the business if the state takes advantage of its position as a major gas producer. According to Gregorio Iriarte in his book El Gas: Exportar o Industrializar?, in 2020, the US will demand 50% more gas than it uses currently. Meanwhile, the gas reserves in Argentina will end in 17 years and Chile depends primarily on Argentina for their gas. Brazil is hugely dependent on Bolivian gas. Over time, there will be more interest in Bolivia as a gas producer. Studies have shown that in 1997 the amount of gas in Bolivia was estimated to be 5.7 trillion cubic feet. In 2003, that figure rose to 54.9 trillion. It’s likely that more gas will be discovered in the coming years.

There is a general feeling in Bolivia that to sell most of the gas to the exterior is a poor use of the resource. The gas and its derivatives could be better used by the impoverished Bolivian population. Before it is processed, natural gas has methane, propane, ethane, butane and other gases in it. It can also be used to produce fertilizers, explosives, plastics, heat and electricity. The resource could be used in industries, kitchens and energy plants. Even if all of the houses and kitchens in Bolivia had access to gas, it wouldn’t use even 1.5% of the reserves.

For decades, gold, rubber, tin and other raw materials from Bolivia were sold for a low price. Foreign companies profited from the industrialization of these raw materials and sold them abroad for a much higher price, while Bolivia remained impoverished. This took place, Iriarte explained, under the argument that “Bolivia requires investments and work” and that “those who oppose the sale of the gas, oppose development…. In practice, the biggest benefits of the sale are the transnational companies that transport, liquidize and commercialize the gas.” He argues that the gas needs to be industrialized in order to use it in Bolivia and to export it for a higher price. He suggests the price of gas to private companies needs to be raised so it can stimulate the Bolivian economy.

Arze explained that there were various demands in the gas conflicts of 2003, all of which revolved around the slogan, “recuperate the gas to industrialize it.” People wanted to improve their own access to the resource:

“Whereas there are 6-7 barrels of oil [used] per capita in Argentina, Chile—in Bolivia we have around two, and we have a large reserve of energy. Natural gas, which is the most important hydrocarbon in our reserves, only arrives to 1.5-2% of the population, of the families of Bolivia. There is not a network of consumption. More than 90% of the gas is exported. And of the 10% that is left, a very small amount enters the network of domestic use. Most of this goes to the thermo-electric plants, where they generate electricity with this. The electricity is also in private hands, in Spanish hands. And the electricity is very expensive. It doesn’t arrive to most of the population, especially to rural areas. In rural areas there is very small amount of people who have access to electricity, and even less to gas. They are still living as if in medieval times…so the people are far from the benefits of this use of energy [that we have]. People want access to the gas in order to improve their standard of living.

People also want cheaper access to gas-related products, such as diesel for tractors and agriculture. In Bolivia, more than half of the diesel used is imported from abroad. Diesel could be produced from natural gas in Bolivia, and offered at a lower price to farmers.

State vs. Corporate Ownership

In Morales’ nationalization plan, the management of the oil and gas goes to YPFB. This leaves the question: how will the industry operate without foreign investments? Arze explained that foreign corporate investment is not needed to expand the gas industry in Bolivia. In fact, he argues, corporate control and investment of the resources has so far has had the opposite effect. As for transportation, foreign companies have mainly created gas ducts to other countries for exportation, and there are no new gas ducts for international users. For example, the biggest gas duct to Brazil is 40 times bigger than the one that goes to La Paz. The older ducts created by YPFB are in disrepair and cause regular environmental problems. When the Brazilian oil and gas company Petrobras bought three of the state refineries, they didn’t invest anything into them.

Foreign investors have placed more emphasis on making money by selling to external markets than developing the infrastructure in Bolivia for national use and industrialization. The technology needed for industrialization has not been provided, and what infrastructure that does exist is in poor condition. The result is that the country with one of the largest gas reserves in the region has some of the worst distribution and industrialization methods for its own citizens.

Arze emphasizes the role of the state in what infrastructure Bolivia does have. “The areas with the most reserves were discovered by YPFB more than 15 years ago.” However, at the time, YPFB lacked enough funding from the government to utilize the discovery, and it went into the hands of foreign corporations. “The state created an infrastructure that up to today continues, and created many technical experts that are currently working for private companies. The state did this with a small amount of financial resources.” This business was given up to foreign companies, and the government, in a sense, turned its back on the highest priced market in the world.

Says Arze: “Now we develop something like 20 times more gas than before. Is it possible to find [financial] resources? Is it possible to improve the terms of our negotiation with other companies and countries? I think so. Right now the world market is good for us because of the high price of oil; the gas market is becoming more important. There is also an energy crisis in the region. Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina need gas. And who has the gas? Bolivia. So Bolivia could negotiate for better conditions. Now, the state, in the immediate moment, probably doesn’t have sufficient capital [for industrialization]. But if the business of gas and oil is the best in the world, something which has caused invasions, could one find better negotiations for the country? I think so.”

By renegotiating with companies, raising the taxes and royalties which companies pay, Arze believes the Bolivian government could significantly increase the money it makes from the oil and gas industry. It could then use that funding to recuperate YPFB, which had operated well years earlier which a much smaller budget.

The new nationalization plan could, as Morales has promised, end up being the “solution to the economic and social problems of the country.” However, much still depends on how the corporations and the Bolivian people respond once the dust settles.

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Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (forthcoming from AK Press, 2007). He edits UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events.

This story originally appeared in Upside Down World, May 7
http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/282/1/

See also:

“THE PROGRESSIVE MANDATE IN LATIN AMERICA
Bolivia, Evo Morales and A Continent’s Left Turn”
by Benjamin Dangl & Mark Engler
WW4 REPORT #121, May 2006
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Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, June 1, 2006
Reprinting permissible with attribution

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