On Wednesday, Reuters reported that "Ecuador is willing to mediate a settlement between Chevron Corp and 30,000 Amazon jungle dwellers suing the oil company for up to $16 billion in environmental damages," according to the country's top attorney.
On the face of it, an innocuous and wholesome development. Who could be against mediation? "We will only step in as a facilitator if both sides want us to," said Inspector General Diego Garcia.
But the background to this story is that Chevron has been lobbying the U.S. government to pressure Ecuador to intervene. As Newsweek reported on July 26,
Chevron is pushing the Bush administration to take the extraordinary step of yanking special trade preferences for Ecuador if the country's leftist government doesn't quash the case. A spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab confirmed that her office is considering the request. Attorney Steven Donziger, who is coordinating the D.C. opposition to Chevron, says the firm is "trying to get the country to cry uncle." He adds: "It's the crudest form of power politics."
On the merits, this issue should be a no-brainer for most Democratic Members of Congress. Big Oil vs. the environment, a bunch of indigenous peasants, and the rule of law. Chevron's lobbying team includes former Senate majority leader Trent Lott and Wayne Berman, a top fund-raiser for McCain. Moreover, as Newsweek reported, the Democratic party's standard-bearer, Senator Obama, has a good position on the issue. In 2006 Senators Obama and Leahy wrote a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman urging the administration to permit the Ecuadoran peasants to have "their day in court."
An Obama spokesman said recently that Senator Obama "stands by his position" that the case is a "matter for the Ecuadoran judicial system."
Representative DeFazio has given House Democrats an opportunity to weigh in. He is circulating a letter to USTR asking the Bush Administration to stay out of the case and respect the rule of law in Ecuador. The letter closes today. So far Representatives McGovern, Grijalva, Doggett, Kucinich, Hinchey, Kaptur, Lee, Linda Sanchez, and Blumenauer have signed on. Ask your Representative to join them.
UPDATE: Rep. Pastor has signed the letter.
Here is the text of DeFazio's letter:
U.S. Trade Representative
Dear Ms. Schwab:
We are writing to express our concern over a recent news report that Chevron is lobbying your office to withhold U.S. trade preferences from Ecuador. Chevron apparently hopes to pressure the Government of Ecuador to interfere in a lawsuit brought by peasants in Ecuador seeking redress for the dumping of toxic oil waste in the Amazon. We are very concerned by the Newsweek account that your office confirmed that you are considering Chevron's request. We urge you to reject Chevron's request, and to affirm that access to the U.S. market will not be used as leverage to interfere in Ecuador's legal process.
While we are not prejudging the outcome of the case, we do believe that the thousands of indigenous residents of Ecuador who have brought suit against Chevron deserve their day in court.
Newsweek reports (Jul 26, 2008; http://www.newsweek.com/id/149090):
Chevron is pushing the Bush administration to take the extraordinary step of yanking special trade preferences for Ecuador if the country's leftist government doesn't quash the case. A spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab confirmed that her office is considering the request.
The apparent attitude of Chevron towards democracy and the rule of law in Ecuador is summed up by a Chevron lobbyist:
"We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this--companies that have made big investments around the world."
The report that your office is considering Chevron's request lends credence to the notion that the United States government might, acting on the request of a corporation defending itself against a lawsuit for environmental damage, use the power of access to the U.S. market to attempt to interfere in another country's legal process.
We urge you to publicly reject Chevron's request and affirm that the United States Government supports the rule of law in Ecuador.