AMBATO, ECUADOR (CN) – After singing a local folk tune, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa on Saturday answered a New York judge’s decision blocking a $9.5 billion verdict against Chevron with a fiery speech that decried “lies,” “bias” and “imperialism.”
“Imagine for a moment that an Ecuadorean judge said that a sentence from North American tribunals was not valid,” Correa said.
He was drawing a parallel to U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan’s Tuesday finding that Ecuador’s judgment had been “procured by corrupt means,” such as bribery. Kaplan devoted two separate subsections of the 500-page decision to Correa’s election and “influence” on the Lago Agrio litigation.
Those sections described how Correa pushed for the prosecution of Chevron lawyers, offered to call a judge, and launched a public relations campaign attacking Chevron and its allies to help the country’s citizens win in court.
Before slamming Kaplan as “biased” in his 364th enlase, a Saturday tradition that spokespeople say started in 2007, Correa had withheld comment on the ruling.
“But I insist, there is no proof that President Correa, imagine the craziness, is interfering in a trial between private parties,” an animated Correa said in the third person, during his enlase ciudadano address, Spanish for “Citizen Link.” “What is the reality? That we refused to submit to Chevron’s pressures.”
Officials estimated that more than 5,000 people filled the seats at the center of the Estadio Tisaleo in the Tisaleo, a canton just outside of the commercial hub of Ambato, with more sitting around the perimeter of the stadium.
A seven-man folk band greeted the speakers with traditional canciones like the love ballad “Pobre Corazón,” and Correa regaled the crowd during his entrance with a rendition of “Tierra de Los Flores y Las Frutas” (“The Land of Flowers and Fruits”), a song that predated Ambato’s annual festival of the same name. Ambato ironically plays no role in Ecuador’s enormous flower industry, and its local economy is sustained by car manufacturing.
As he entered, Correa shook hands with and hugged the attendants of every social class, and many of the men and women there waved red, fuschia, pink and white roses as he sang. State-run media broadcast the proceedings throughout the country and in the stadium, while representatives of indigenous communities provided translation.
Correa followed the festive entrance with a more-than-three-hour lecture touching upon various topics. He talked about the anniversary of the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Coca-Cola’s recent $1 billion investment in Ecuador, explained his thoughts on microeconomics and “21st century socialism,” and remarked that it was also International Women’s Day.
As usual, he also delivered sharp words for what he called the “corrupt press” and bankers.
“A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain,” Correa said, tying a quotation that he attributed to Mark Twain to Ecuador’s banking crisis of 1999.
Speaking about the New York front of the Chevron litigation as the speech drew to a close, Correa remarked: “The government has nothing to do with this trial.”
In 1993, indigenous and farmer residents of the Ecuadorean rainforest sued Chevron’s predecessor Texaco in New York, alleging that the company left behind an environmental and public health disaster for the 30,000 residents of Amazon. Chevron’s first step after acquiring Texaco was convincing the New York courts to relocate the lawsuit to the Ecuadorean city of Lago Agrio, where the drilling occurred.
Recounting this history in his remarks, Correa said: “It really gives indignation because the truth is the prior governments interfered in this trial, but in favor of Chevron. And they met various times with functionaries of Chevron.”
During the case in the Amazon, the Lago Agrio plaintiffs called themselves los afectados, or the affected ones. Chevron had no complaints about Ecuador’s courts until roughly three years after Correa’s election, as a verdict appeared imminent.
Kaplan’s ruling states that the Lago Agrio plaintiffs worked closely together with the Ecuadorean government since that time, mentioning how Correa had offered to “call a judge,” according to an email from one media contact for the Lago Agrio plaintiffs.
Several more alleged quotes from Correa’s public relations campaign mentioned in the ruling denounced Chevron’s “homeland-selling lawyers” and vocally support for the plaintiff’s team.
For some time, that campaign has featured a picture of Correa dipping his hand into Aguarico 4, an oil pit in the Ecuadorean rainforest once operated by the Texaco subsidiary Tex-Pet. That picture flashed upon the screen overlaid with the text “La Mano Sucia de Chevron” (“The Dirty Hand of Chevron”), as Correa broached the subject on Saturday. The slideshow also included pictures of Judge Kaplan, the signature page of his ruling, and Steven Donziger, a New York-based attorney for the Ecuadoreans.
Chevron maintains that a prior Ecuadorean administration cleared its remediation efforts of the land pursuant to a 1995 agreement. “Donziger’s team met with members of President Rafael Correa’s administration to try to stop the remediation program and developed a plan to halt the remediation fearing it would hurt their case,” Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw said in an email.
The Lago Agrio plaintiffs say that Ecuador-owned Petroecuador should not have to pay for Texaco’s “sham” remediation.
Ecuador, for its part, insists that the agreement of its prior government did nothing to prevent private citizens from pursuing their own lawsuits, an issue currently being fought in arbitration in The Hague. Correa said that this arbitration is “more grave” because it could “bankrupt the country,” if Ecuador is found responsible to pay Chevron for its court’s verdict.
In another regular portion of his weekly speech against media outlets, Correa singled out Ecuadorean private media outlets El Universo and El Comercio among those he called the prensa corrupta, or the “corrupt press,” a phrase he used repeatedly throughout his remarks.
During a section of his speech devoted to particular media figures, many members of the audience loudly booed as their images flashed on the screen. The crowd roared at Cesar Ricaurte, the director of the Quito-based group Fundamedios, an organization that joined the New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) in condemning attacks on the private press in Ecuador.
Ricaurte did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
The Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders shared its concerns about the Ecuadorean government’s use of defamation laws against journalists.
A controversial media law Ecuador adopted last year that broke up control of the airwaves by the private sector meanwhile won the group’s support. Decrying the “often aggressive and much criticized privately-owned media,” Reporters Without Borders said press “polarization” is “often detrimental to public debate.”
Passage of the media law boosted Ecuador 25 spots, though still at 96th place, on the group’s Press Freedom Index this year.
Meanwhile, U.S.-based organizations taking the opposite view were Human Rights Watch and CPJ, which made Ecuador the only Latin American country on its “Risk List.”
Correa accused U.S. nonprofits and the State Department of “double standards” regarding Ecuador’s human rights record. An image of the U.S. National Security Agency flashed on the screen as he spoke about a U.S. State Department report criticizing Ecuador for monitoring private Twitter accounts.
Unlike his other weekly talk in Guayaquil, Correa’s enlase ciudadano is not a press conference, but a scripted presidential address with written notes, multimedia displays, and state-run videographers directing certain audience members to move for the cameras. There was no question-and-answer session, but Correa is expected to field questions about these and other issues on March 18.
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