"Oilmen are like cats; you can never tell from the sound of them whether
they are fighting or making love."
The famous Armenian entrepreneur spoke these words when reflecting on the post-World War I carve-up of oil rights in Iraq and the Persian Gulf at the 1928 summit of top world oil companies and Western governments at Ostend, Belgium. Now, with the world's eyes on Iraq, a similar carve-up may be underway in South America's Orinoco Basin and La Guajira, which together hold the planet's greatest proven reserves outside the Persian Gulf. These adjacent oil-rich regions are both dissected by the border between Colombia, Washington's closest ally on the hemisphere's southern continent, and Venezuela--ruled by a left-populist government sharply at odds with the White House.
One man who would do well to heed Gulbenkian's warning is Venezuela's charismatic President Hugo Chavez, who has just entered an agreement with ChevronTexaco for a natural gas project that will span the Colombian border. Not only may the project cost Chavez the support of the indigenous peoples who inhabit the region, but Colombian trade unionists warn that U.S. oil companies operating in the Orinoco are deeply complicit in a plan by Washington and Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe to prepare aggression against Venezuela across this militarized border.
Oil Field Becomes Military Base
The Colombian department of Arauca, heartland of that country's oil industry, is one the most violent. It lies just across the Rio Arauca, an Orinoco tributary, from Venezuela's own Orinoco Basin oil heartland of Apure-Barinas states.
The latest in a wave of recent massacres in Arauca came on March 6, when a group of local peasants were stopped at a roadblock set up by the 10th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) near Cososito village in Tame municipality. An army detachment arrived in an armored vehicle, and immediately opened fire, killing three civilians on the spot. Among the dead was a member of the local Guahibo indigenous people; and a child of six was among the injured, according to an account by the Bogota human rights group Humanidad Vigente. (A month later, the 10th Front boasted in a press release it had wiped out a detachment of 17 government troops in ambush near Tame in retaliation for the attack.)
The main oil field in Arauca is at Cano-Limon, run by California-based Occidental Petroleum in a joint partnership with the Colombia state company Ecopetrol. Many of the 800 U.S. military advisors in Colombia are assigned to Arauca, and since last year they have been overseeing a new Colombian army unit specially created to police Cano-Limon against guerilla attack. This project, which Occidental lobbied for heavily, marks a departure from the erstwhile U.S. policy of only assisting ostensible narcotics enforcement operations in Colombia. As the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) noted in a report last October: "In early 2003, US personnel embarked on their first major non-drug initiative, a plan to help Colombia's army protect an oil pipeline and re-take territory in the conflictive department of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border." Over this same period, Humanidad Vigente has reported a huge upsurge in paramilitary activity in Arauca.
Now, a leader of Colombia's oil workers union claims that the U.S. military is actually transforming Cano-Limon into a base intended for launching attacks against Venezuela. Oscar Canas Fajardo, advisor to Colombia's Central Workers Union, or CUT, speaking with Venezuelan journalist Alfredo Carquez Saavedra of Quantum magazine in November, said: "There is a military build-up going on in Cano-Limon with the excuse of protecting the oil pipelines against constant sabotage explosions... They are transforming the Cano-Limon facilities into a small military fort." He claims U.S. advisors and military surveillance planes are now based at the oil field. Noting proximity to the border and recent reports of Colombian paramilitary attacks on the Venezuelan side of the line, he asks rhetorically, "Who is to guarantee that all this [is] not being used against Venezuela?
Axis of Propaganda
U.S. training of Colombian military personnel is rapidly escalating. According to the WOLA report, the U.S. trained 12,947 Colombian troops in 2003--more than the total 12,930 for all Latin America in 1999. (The total for Latin America in '03 was 22,855.) And Washington is launching a major propaganda push against Venezuela at the moment.
A March statement from the well-connected Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), "South America--the Next Swamp?," warns that even as the U.S. is "draining the swamp" in Afghanistan, "ideological killers are regrouping with the aid of leftist governments and drug lords" in the western hemisphere. The principal "leftist government" in question is, of course, that of Hugo Chavez.
Writes JINSA: "A British newspaper reports that the IRA is conducting mortar training in the Venezuelan jungle for the Marxist Colombian FARC. Photographs show the jungle training camp of three IRA terrorists who fled Colombia where they had been sentenced to 17 years in jail for terrorist training... The Chavez government in Venezuela has pursued close relations with Fidel Castro... Chavez has ordered MIG-29s from Russia and 100,000 Kalashnikov rifles. Who are they planning to shoot? Or to whom are they going to give them?"
JINSA was, of course, a top advocate and architect for Washington's Iraq adventure. One prominent JINSA advisor is Richard Perle, head of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board at the time of the Iraq invasion. Former JINSA advisory board members include Pentagon policy advisor Douglas Feith and current nominee for ambassador to the UN, John Bolton.
The British newspaper account JINSA cites is from the London Sunday Times of March 13. It concerns three accused Irish Republican Army militants who jumped bail and disappeared following their conviction in Colombia last year on charges of providing the FARC with mortar training. The story cited Colombian government claims of satellite data indicating the three have established a training camp on Venezuelan territory in the Sierra de Perija, a branch of the Andes whose divide forms the international border heading north from Arauca.
Another salvo comes from Otto Reich, until December 2002 Bush's assistant secretary of state for hemispheric affairs and subsequently a member of the National Security Council staff. Reich has the cover story in the April 11 edition of National Review, entitled "THE AXIS OF EVIL... Western Hemisphere Version"--sporting a photo of Chavez with Fidel Castro, both in fashionable military fatigues.
Writes Reich: "The first task of the U.S., and whatever coalition of the willing it can muster in the region, is to confront the dangerous alliance posed by Cuba and Venezuela." He does not fail to link this Latin Axis of Evil to the traditional Eurasian one, noting Chavez' pledge to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami to cut off oil to the U.S. in the event of military aggression against Tehran. He also blasts "Chavez's misappropriation of Venezuela's extraordinary oil wealth"--by which he presumably means the diversion of profits into literacy campaigns and other programs to improve the lot of Venezeula's poor.
Miami-Bogota: The Real "Axis of Evil"?
2005 began with a dramatic deterioration in Colombia-Venezuela relations following the Colombian government's admission that it sent bounty-hunters to abduct FARC representative Rodrigo Granda Escobar in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, on Dec. 13. The incident prompted a cut-off in trade and diplomatic ties between the two nations. On Jan. 23, tens of thousands of Chavez supporters marched in Caracas to protest the violation of Venezuela's sovereignty. Some carried banners reading "Bush: Venezuela is Not Iraq!" Speaking that same day, Chavez accused the U.S. of being behind the affair: "This provocation came from Washington, it is the latest attempt by the imperialists...to ruin our relations with Colombia." U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood stated that the U.S. was "100% behind Colombia," and State Department spokesmen began accusing Venezuela of providing a safe-haven for Colombian guerillas. Chavez, in turn, accused Washington of trying to foment war between Venezuela and Colombia, and even plotting to assassinate him.
The situation de-escalated in mid-February, when, following the mediation of Brazil, Peru, Cuba and Spain, both sides agreed to restore full relations and cooperate on border security. But given the profusion of armed groups in the border zone, there is much potential for re-escalation. Last September, unidentified gunmen ambushed a commission from the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA working on a surveying project in Apure state near the Colombian border, killing a company engineer and six soldiers--one grim instance of Colombia's endemic violence spilling across the frontier into Venezuela's oil zone.
Another came in late March when the Ezequiel Zamora National Campesino Front (FNCEZ), a civil peasant organization in Barinas state, reported that one of their activists had been hacked to death by the hired thugs of a local landowner, who they had denounced for disguising his idle lands through bureaucratic means to prevent their being expropriated under Venezuela's agrarian reform law. FNCEZ accused the landowner of maintaining a private army of some 20 men, with links to Colombian paramilitaries.
And last May, more than 50 men said to be Colombia paramilitaries were arrested at an estate outside Caracas, on charges of planning a coup to remove Chavez in league with opposition businessmen and military officers. Chavez also directly implicated the U.S. "Miami and Colombia are two points of an axis...where the invasion of Venezuela has been planned, trained and prepared," proclaimed Chavez, pointing to the "criminal hand of a group of evildoers."
Despite these tensions, Chavez is inviting new multinational investment for the oil zone--and even an ambitious trans-border project with Colombia. In August 2001, Texaco, PDVSA and Ecopetrol signed a memorandum of understanding for a feasibility study on a new pipeline linking natural gas fields of La Guajira, on Colombia's Caribbean coast, to Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela's main export terminal.
In May 2003, PDVSA announced new oil finds of up to 2.4 billion barrels in the Orinoco Basin, and sought foreign partners to develop the fields. Texaco--which merged with Chevron to form ChevronTexaco in 2001--immediately proposed building another pipeline to pump the crude to the coast. Just days ago, on April 1, 2005, ChevronTexaco and the Spanish firm Repsol-YPF announced that they would be jointly investing $6 billion in the new oil field.
But oil companies definitely have a sweeter deal on the Colombian side of the border, where Uribe is moving to free the industry from public oversight. Chavez, in contrast, has boosted royalties private companies must pay the Venezuelan government to fund his ambitious social programs.
The new pipeline connecting ChevronTexaco's gas fields in the Colombian department of La Guajira to Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo would have to cross the Sierra de Perija, where Uribe and JINSA now claim a FARC-IRA training camp is operating. La Guajira itself is among Colombia's most violent regions, with a string of assassinations of indigenous leaders by presumed paramilitary forces reported already this year. The new pipeline may carry war and human rights abuses to Venezuela as well as gas.
On April 4, hundreds of representatives of the Bari, Yukpa and Wayuu indigenous peoples from the Venezuelan side of the Sierra de Perija, clad in traditional dress and wielding bows and arrows, marched in Caracas to demand a halt to coal mining operations near their traditional lands.
"We want to tell companero President Hugo Chavez that he can't continue granting land concessions in the Sierra and in Guajira without consulting us first, as required by the constitution," said Wayuu community leader Angela GonzÃ¡lez.
The indigenous protestors made clear they supported Chavez, who instated guarantees of indigenous autonomy in his new constitution in 1999. Many wore red berets, symbol of the ruling Fifth Republic Movement. "Companero Chavez, support our cause," read one sign, according to an Inter-Press Service account.
ChevronTexaco and Shell are among a handful of foreign firms operating coal mines in the Sierra in joint ventures with the Venezuelan state company Carbozulia. The coal is currently transported by truck to Maracaibo, the port and regional capital, but there are plans to construct a rail line for this purpose, as well to build a deep sea port in the Gulf of Venezuela, just to Maracaibo's north. The new gas pipeline would be another artery through this same conflicted border zone.
The deep sea port project is part of a continental scheme known as the Initiative for South American Regional Infrastructure Integration (IIRSA), being promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank. Lusbi Portillo of Homo et Natura, a Venezuelan environmental group that supported the indigenous protesters, told Inter-Press Service, "We are opposed to these mining-port projects that form part of the IIRSA, which will serve to take our energy, mining, forestry and biodiversity resources to Europe and the United States."
Hugo Chavez is in a difficult position. He needs more oil and gas revenues to fund the populist social programs which guarantee his support among the peasants and urban poor. But cooperation with the multinational industrial agenda for the bloody border zone may cost him his support among indigenous peoples. Worse still, by welcoming oil companies which appear to be cooperating in a destabilization drive, he could be making a noose for his own neck.
On Otto Reich and Venezuela destabilization, see:
WW4 REPORT #30
- 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign