If there needs to be more proof (beyond cops in riot gear and constant helicopter surveillance) that the protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles have scared government authorities, then one must only look to the recent denial of visas to a delegation of the U'wa people of Colombia. Leaders of the U'wa, a 5,000-member tribe who live in the Colombian cloudforest, were denied entry visas today to participate in a downtown Los Angeles rally and march, apparently because their threats -- to stop the Occidental Petroleum Company from drilling on their homeland and, barring that, to commit collective suicide -- are not good publicity for Al Gore.
To put it mildly, the U'wa are a touchy issue for Gore. The presidential candidate owns between $500,000 and $1 million in Occidental stock and his father, Al Gore Sr., served as chair of the board for 28 years, earning an annual salary of $500,000. The elder Gore was such a close political ally of the company that Armand Hammer, Occidental's founder and CEO, liked to say that he had Gore "in my back pocket."
For several years now, U'wa leaders and allies have urged the Vice President to make good on his promises to protect the environment and divest from Occidental Petroleum, but Gore has not responded to their pleas. Instead, according to The Nation, the Clinton Administration has been quietly helping the company with its Colombian drilling project, which in turn has been a generous donor to the Democrats. Occidental believes the Samore area, where the U'wa live, holds 1.4 billion barrels of oil, which at today's prices would fetch approximately $35 billion on international markets.
Protestors and activists who met at Pershing Square in L.A. this morning were not particularly surprised that the U'wa were not allowed to appear. "The drug war is just a guise," said Sandra Alvarez of the international human rights organization Global Exchange. "The corporations want to take control so they can exploit Colombia's natural resources." Otosa Salani of Amazon Watch added, "Nowhere is the corporate high-jacking of democracy better illustrated than in Gore's support of oil interests. His connection to Oxy is exactly what's wrong with America today."
Among many of the 500 or so protestors who came out to support the U'wa there seemed to be two general points of agreement: that Gore will not be the environmental president he says he will be and that the United States does not have the best of intentions in Colombia. "You don't solve the drug war by signing over a $1.7 billion aid package, which supplies U.S.-made helicopters to terrorize indigenous people," said Maria Lucia Gomez, a Davis Community College teacher, referring to a violent attack on the U'wa by the Colombian military shortly after the aid package was signed in June. "You certainly don't solve it by removing people from their land."
Although the U'wa failed to show, the protest continued as planned. Twelve-foot-high paper mache puppets -- of a black-suited, baton and gun-wielding cop as well as a few ungainly Colombia Indians -- livened up the atmosphere. Twentysomethings cried: "Gore profits from indigenous blood!" A young Colombian woman in native dress entertained the crowd with dancing and drumming. And a brief memorial was held for Terence Freitas, an American who died while serving as coordinator of the U'wa Defense Project, a coalition of human rights and environmental organizations.
Freitas was among the first Americans to make it clear to Occidental and Gore that the U'wa consider oil the blood of mother earth and that to extract it would be to threaten the balance of their world, their environment and their physical safety from Colombia's civil. Back in 1997 he said, "We want Occidental to know that we hold them accountable for the U'wa's welfare. It is up to this company to avert another tragedy like what is happening in Nigeria where 2,000 Ogoni, including leader Ken Saro-Wiwa, have been killed for organizing against Shell."
Although protestors were not allowed to march to Occidental's headquarters, which are based in L.A., a symbolic gesture was made in front of the office building of Arco, a company that also has plans to drill for oil in Colombia. A group of ten to twenty protestors making their way to the Staples Center, where the Democratic National Convention is being held, sat down en masse in front of Arco's offices, only to be arrested by policemen who quickly removed them from the street. Otherwise, the protest was peaceful. Hundreds of police in riot gear accompanied the marchers to Staples, where they directed their cries at the high security convention center and dispersed for the next round of rallies.
The only sure outcome of Monday's march for the U'wa people was that if Occidental starts drilling in October as planned and the U'wa decide to commit mass suicide, Gore will have a bloodbath on his hands. Should that happen, Americans will have yet another reason to feel bitter -- and bitter to the point of nausea -- about corporate influence over politics.
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