by Eric B. Ross
In 2002, among the many creepy roles of James Carville was his work as strategist at Greenberg Carville Shrum (GCS), when the political consultancy firm he had helped to found went to work to help Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (nicknamed “Goni”) win the hotly contested presidency of Bolivia. Although they thought the man to beat was Manfred Reyes Villa, the mayor of Cochabamba, certainly the one who most worried Washington was the indigenous leader, Evo Morales. But, what kind of choice was Sanchez de Lozada? According to BBC News, (Oct. 18, 2003), “The US-educated millionaire mining magnate, who speaks Spanish with an American accent, is nicknamed ‘gringo.’” He was hardly the most enlightened choice to make president of a country whose population consists largely of Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians (of whom Morales is one), who have been deeply impoverished by centuries of autocratic rulers allied to U.S. policy-makers and to foreign capitalists who have profited handsomely from Bolivia’s rich mineral resources (silver, tin, oil, gas). But, Sanchez de Lozada had previously been Finance Minister and, then, president from 1993 to 1997. He had worked closely with the World Bank and IMF and had miles to go on behalf of international capitalism. He had aggressive neo-liberal plans. None of this would have been news to the boys from GCS. They made their choice knowingly. Never mind matters of conscience or principle.
And, of course, as a bonus, securing a victory for Sanchez de Lozada would prevent Morales (not initially a leading contender) from becoming a president who intended to reverse the perverse legacy of 500 years that had made Bolivians among the poorest people in the world. That wouldn’t be James Carville’s idea of progress. So, Greenberg Carville Shrum put their money on –well, got paid to support—Sanchez de Lozada. It’s all captured in Rachel Boynton’s 2006 film, Our Brand is Crisis. Reviewing it in New York Magazine, David Edelstein put his finger on a key issue: “The problem,” he wrote, “is that the blinkered patrician Goni doesn’t have the know-how to fix a stopped toilet, much less a country on the verge of economic collapse, with a disenfranchised indigenous majority howling to be recognized.” This was the man whose candidacy Carville and his associates championed, rather than Evo Morales, whose election the Bush administration was passionately opposed to. (Four days before the election, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia, Manuel Rocha, urged Bolivians not to vote for Morales –because he was associated with “drug dealers and terrorists”– or the U.S. might cut off aid.)
Despite the work of Carville and his colleagues, the election results were very close. Sánchez de Lozada got just over 22 percent of the vote, while Morales came in second with 20.9 percent, 721 ahead of Reyes Villa. This required the Congress to appoint the winner and, given its composition and with the Bush administration threatening to isolate Bolivia if it allowed Morales to win, Sanchez de Lozada took office in August 2002. He, then, predictably, embarked on a broad policy of free-market development that included plans to export natural gas to the United States through a deal with powerful multi-national corporations.
Carville moved on. Among his other activities, he works with Democracy Corps, an organization that he had founded in 1999 with Stanley Greenberg, Bob Shrum and Karl Agne, which describes itself on its web-site as “an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to making the government of the United States more responsive to the American people.” It’s a shame that Carville and his friends didn’t feel that Bolivians were entitled to the same dedication.
But, that’s not surprising. Democracy Corps is a really nice name, but it is actually indistinguishable from another Carville effort, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a polling and consulting firm of which Stan Greenberg is the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer and which Carville also co-founded. The headquarters of Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner are the same: 10 G Street, NE Suite 500, Washington, DC 20002. GQR describes itself, on its website, as “the world’s premium research and strategic consulting firm,” and, as such, has a predictably eclectic bag of clients. These include a few nice guys like Comedy Central. But, among its powerful corporate clients are: BP, Boeing, Allegheny Power and Monsanto. Nothing non-profit about this side of the Suite 500. They also, according to their web-site, “served as Sanchez de Lozada’s consultant on polling and strategy, and helped develop Sanchez de Lozada’s winning campaign message.” In their own words, they were “part of the GCS consortium of campaign consultants.” The 2002 Bolivian election was one of those “which side are you on” moments. Carville and his cronies chose to side with Lozada and the proverbial dust-bin of history.
Our Brand is Crisis quotes Jeremy Rosner, a chief strategist for the GCS campaign, as he professes his firm’s belief in “a particular brand of democracy, which is progressive, social democratic, market-based and modern.” This pretty much says it all. In U.S. political terms, in Carville terms, “progressive” is only defined within the framework of the market, with all its proven failings, iniquities and limits. To their credit, Latin Americans (like people throughout the Third World) are increasingly asserting their own ideas on this point. They no longer want –or require– the intervention of U.S. policy makers, strategists and opportunists to help them define the course of change. Throughout most of South America today, a new generation of creative indigenous leaders, such as Evo Morales, is affirming that the market will not –and should not– be permitted to define what is right, what is modern or what is possible. That’s a lesson that we should all learn in these difficult times.
In 2002, Bolivia had more reasons for real change than most countries. It is one of the poorest places in the world, with an annual average per capita income that is the lowest in Latin America. When Sanchez de Lozada came to power, with the help of James Carville’s crew, about 65% of Bolivians lived below the poverty line. Yet, like so many impoverished countries, the economic and social misery of its people is not because it is resource-poor. On the contrary, Bolivia’s mineral resources make it a glittering prize and have done so ever since the first century of European conquest, when the Spaniards discovered silver in the mountain of Potosi. So important were the mines from which they extracted it, on the cold, barren altiplano of the Bolivian Andes, over 13,000 feet above sea level, that the population of the town they established there, San Luis Potosi, reached 150,000 by the end of the 16th century. (It was then the same size as Seville, one of the largest cities in Europe.) Bolivian silver mines –especially Potosi– produced much of the wealth of the Spanish Empire and, indirectly, financed the rise of European capitalism. (Just read Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. Chavez had a point.)
Sanchez de Lozada wanted to continue that lucrative tradition and so, obviously, did the Bush administration. So, too, did James Carville and his associates. But, the Bolivian people clearly would no longer accept such insults to their autonomy. They could not. The kind of neoliberal policies which Sanchez de Lozada promoted –which Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Carville and Shrum endorsed by directing his campaign for the presidency– have only exacerbated the plight of millions of Bolivians who already lived in abject misery. As Sacha Llorenti, President of the Permanent Assembly on Human Rights, Bolivia’s preeminent human rights organization, said to Gretchen Gordon, a consultant on Latin American issues, in 2005: “Neoliberal policies together with privatization are a very important part of the current crisis because they’ve resulted in poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and discrimination…Bolivians are in a much more vulnerable state than they were ten years ago; we’re in a vulnerable state because of the application of neoliberal policies.”
The main focus of protest against Sanchez de Lozada’s policies was his proposed deal with a private consortium known as Pacific LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) to sell Bolivian natural gas to California. Bolivia has one of the largest natural gas reserves in South America. According to Jim Schultz, the executive director of the Democracy Center, “Under the terms of the agreement with the Bolivian government, Pacific LNG would invest $5 billion to build the project while the Bolivian government would receive royalties of 18%. Critics argue that under these terms the impoverished country would find itself on the losing end, despite the current high price of natural gas. Bolivia deregulated its economy in the mid-1990s, under the auspices of the IMF and an earlier tenure of Sanchez de Lozada. These reforms cut the royalties that the government would receive from half to less than one fifth of the revenues from gas sales.”
Not surprisingly, Sanchez de Lozada soon encountered profound popular resistance to his policies, but particularly to the gas deal. His response was brute force. According to the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the president ordered in troops and his Minister of Defense, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, “gave them the green light to open fire on unarmed civilians.” At least 70 people were killed. But, protests continued and, by October, 2003, according to Elizabeth Nash in the Independent newspaper in the UK, he “was forced…to suspend plans by British and Spanish petroleum giants to export natural gas to the United States via Chile.” By then, however, he had lost key allies within his government. His Vice-President, Carlos Mesa, withdrew support; then, his Minister of Economic Development, Jorge Torres Oblea, resigned. Finally, his coalition partner, the centre-right New Republican Force (NFR), pulled out. On October 17, 2003, the president submitted his resignation to the Bolivian Congress and he and his defense minister fled the country. Mesa assumed the presidency, but the crisis continued and he himself, though a vast improvement on Sanchez de Lozada, resigned in June, 2005. Six months later, Evo Morales, head of the political party, Movement for Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo), an Aymara Indian who had never finished high school, was elected president. One of his main policies was re-nationalization of Bolivia’s fossil fuel resources.
Here’s the punch-line: The foreign consortium that would have profited so much from Sanchez de Lozada’s gas deal, Pacific LNG, according to World Gas Intelligence, is composed of Repsol-YPF, Spain’s largest oil company, the British-based BG Group, and Pan-American Energy. The latter is a joint venture of BP and Argentina’s Bridas. Thus, one of the companies that would have profited the most from Lozada’s election, BP, is currently a client of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner.
One more point before I’m finished. Sanchez de Lozada and his former Defense Minister are now living in the United States. Not Morales, but his predecessor, Sanchez de Lozada’s own vice president, wanted a “Trial of Responsibility” that would investigate the events that led to so many deaths in the weeks before Sanchez de Losada’s resignation. Charges were issued against James Carville’s former client and his Defense Minister –charges that, according to The Andean Information Network, were sanctioned by a two-thirds majority of the Bolivian Congress before Morales had been elected president, when the majority of Congress belonged to or supported the former president’s own political party. Bolivia has asked for Sanchez de Lozada to be extradited. In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! in September, 2006, Morales said of this request to the U.S.: “A government that says it fights against terrorism, for human rights, against corruption, it’s not conceivable that this person would still be here. So we ask the people, the government and all the institutions of human rights to help with this.”
A year later, Sanchez de Lozada and Sanchez Berzain were still enjoying life in the United States. In September 26, 2007, lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Harvard University filed civil cases in the U.S. against Sanchez de Lozada and Berzain on behalf of the families of Bolivian victims of what was called “Black October.” The former president’s case was originally filed in a Maryland District Court, because he lived in Chevy Chase, MD. The lawsuit against Berzain, who lived in Key Biscayne, was filed in a Florida District Court. Sanchez de Lozada’s case was eventually transferred to Florida as well. Almost a year later, in June, 2008, in order to prevent their extradition to Bolivia, Sánchez Berzaín and Sánchez de Lozada were granted political asylum by the Bush administration.
It would be a honorable and moral gesture if President Obama would send Sanchez de Lozada (and Berzain) back to Bolivia. But, what possible precedent would this set when we consider the accountability of George Bush and Dick Cheney?
[Cross-posted from The Porcupine]