CNS Talks to President Correa on Legacy of Oil Drilling in Ecuador


     MANHATTAN (CN) - Chevron adopted a strategy to "destroy the reputation" of the Ecuadorean government and judiciary after realizing a court there would hold it liable for massive oil contamination in the Amazon, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said today in an interview at the Pierre Hotel.
     "When Chevron realized that it couldn't control our government, it started this campaign against Ecuador and our government," Correa said, just in New York after back-to-back speaking engagements at Harvard and Yale.
     "Before, the Ecuadorean government supported Chevron," the president continued, his breezy charm a marked contrast to the fiery public persona. "Now, they are claiming that the judiciary system is not independent because they couldn't interfere with the government, or with the legal process."
     Chevron inherited the lawsuit, initially filed 21 years ago in New York by indigeneous and campesino residents of the Ecuadorean rainforest, when it acquired Texaco, which had for decades drilled in the Amazon alongside the state-owned Petroecuador.
     It was Chevron that brought the case to Ecuador, only to return to Manhattan in recent years with a lawsuit calling the country's judiciary corrupt.
     Just weeks later, on Feb. 14, 2011, a judge in Lago Agrio held Chevron liable to the tune of $19 billion. That figure was later cut in half.
     U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan last month blocked the collection of the verdict, which he said was "procured by corrupt means."
     As part of a two-week series on the heels of that ruling, Courthouse News watched as Correa condemned Kaplan's ruling before an audience of roughly 5,000 of his citizens in Tiseleo Canton.
     That first public response to the decision complained of "lies," "bias" and "imperialism," but Correa adopted a more conciliatory view of U.S. justice in general while speaking one-on-one in New York today.
     "I admire a lot of the judiciary system of the United States," said Correa, who earned his master's degree and a doctorate in economics from the University of Illinois. "I lived here for years. I know the judiciary system. I continue to admire this judiciary system in spite of Judge Kaplan."
     Two full sections of Kaplan's lengthy opinion dealt with what he called Correa's "influence" over the case in Lago Agrio, named after the "Sour Lake" headquarters of Chevron's predecessor, Texaco.
     Picking up on that finding, Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said, "While Correa and his subordinates like to claim they have had no involvement in the case, the facts prove otherwise."
     Correa countered that the New York ruling contained "a lot of untrue facts and a lot of inaccurate information."
     "It's incredible," he added.
     For example, Kaplan mistakenly wrote that Correa had tried to pressure a settlement by tapping a "college roommate" to prosecute two of Chevron's lawyers, the president said.
     "Washington Pesantez was not my fellow [room]mate," Correa said, referring to Ecuador's prosecutor general at the time.
     Chevron's attorneys stood accused of submitting false information about the cleanup of the rainforest a decade earlier, but Ecuador ultimately dropped its criminal case against the lawyers.
     Correa emphasized that he did not - and could not - have appointed Pesantez because only Ecuador's National Assembly has the power to make such a nomination.

     Rebutting claims that the Ecuadorean judiciary became less independent under his administration, Correa countered that his predecessor Lucio Gutierrez ousted Ecuadorean Supreme Court judges outside the democratic process without the oil giant complaining.
     Speaking of Gutierrez's judicial "purges," Judge Kaplan wrote: "Ecuador's judiciary never has recovered from these events."
     Nevertheless, then-U.S. Charge d'Affaires Jefferson Brown wrote in a cable less than a year later: "Chevron had not had any real complaints about the judge in the Lago Agrio case."
     Credit for the appearance of that telegram belongs to WikiLeaks, whose editor-in-chief Julian Assange has been holed up in London's Ecuadorean embassy ever since Correa offered him asylum nearly two years ago.
     Correa emphasized that his restructuring of Ecuador's judiciary relied on a public referendum.
     The president called Chevron's complaints "a strategy from 2008 to destroy the reputation of the Ecuadorean government, to destroy the reputation of the judiciary system and to continue the impunity."
     Ecuador's deputy foreign affairs minister Leonardo Arízaga revealed last month that a dozen Latin America nations plan to resist such pressure from transnational corporations.
     Referring to this, Correa said, "Especially during the '90s, [Latin American nations] signed a lot of these bilateral agreements to, between quotation marks, 'to protect investment.'"
     Indeed, Chevron brought an international arbitration against Ecuador under one of these bilaterial investment treaties at The Hague, alleging that the lawsuit against it was precluded by a 1995 agreement with a prior administration.
     "In reality, these [agreements] are instruments in order to control our economies, to go beyond our judiciary systems, so we are organizing ourselves to find an alternative to this situation," Correa added.
     For Correa, the arbitration at The Hague is "more serious" than his citizens' lawsuit.
     "In case of losing this arbitration process at the Hague, the country could be in bankruptcy because what Chevron is trying to do - they are sustaining that pollution in our rainforest is not because of them but because our public enterprise, Petroecuador," he said.
     A perpetual target of Chevron's, the state-run oil company stoked controversy in recent by resuming drilling in the ecologically sensitive Yasuni region of the Amazon.
     Though Correa had tried to avoid drilling here by soliciting international donations, the Ecuadorean government abandoned that initiative in August with Correa saying in a nationally televised speech, "the world failed us."
     Critics had described the Yasuni-ITT initiative as a "ransom" of the jungle, but Correa said Ecuador had pledged half of what it expected to lose in income in return for keeping the oil underground. He accused opponents of the plan of putting forward a "misleading" campaign against the project.
     "They say, 'Well, Yasuni, or oil?'" Correa said. "That is not true. It is one-tenth of 1 percent of the Yasuni Park, or almost $20 billion."
     The Wildlife Conservation Society said that this frequently cited statistic by Correa does not account for the impact of the infrastructure needed to implement the plan, according to an article from the Christian Science Monitor.
     Nevertheless, Correa emphasized: "We need these financial resources in order to alleviate poverty, in order to give public services to our people."
     Chevron has seized upon Correa's disputes with environmental groups, and the press, to attack his democratic record.
     Recently re-elected for a third term, Correa continues to gain high approval ratings and popular support, while bristling at accusations that his administration squelches dissent. He talked about the topic at length during his interview with Julian Assange.
     Correa famously ended that talk by telling Assange: "Welcome to the club of the persecuted."
     Asked if he still feels under attack, Correa immediately said, "Of course, every day."
     He added that he regularly faces "a lot of propaganda, negative propaganda, lies, political manipulation, instead of information."
     "For example, what is the news to the world," he asked. "That in Ecuador, you don't have human rights. You don't have free speech. You don't have free press. Everyone's in prison because they have a different opinion than the president's opinion. It's not like that."
     Despite this image, Reporters Without Borders listed Ecuador's record last year among the "Noteworthy Rises" in boosting its ranking 25 spots for the annual press freedom index. The Paris-based organization said Correa's controversial media law, which broke up private-sector control of the airwaves in 2013 reflected a trend throughout Latin America of "democratization" to reform "oligopolies."
     Correa's condemnation of the "corrupt press" is a regular feature of his weekly "Citizen Link" presidential addresses, which he plans to deliver tomorrow at the New York Hall of Science. Press-advocacy groups have urged the president to cool down his rhetoric and drop defamation laws that allowed him to prosecute a handful of journalists and recently, a cartoonist.
     Meanwhile, Correa defends such measures as necessary to subdue such threats as an attempted "coup d'etat" against him in Sept. 30, 2010.
     Assange cited this event as the birth of Correa's "controversial counteroffensive" against the private press on his show "The World Tomorrow."
     Whether coming from transnational oil giants or media conglomerates, Correa said the forces against him are real.
     "It is not victimization," he said. "It is a fact."
     
      Check back next week for footage of the interview.