Good and Evil at the Center of
the Earth: A Quechua Christmas Carol
[interviews President Correa
by Greg Palast
[Quito] I don't know what the hell seized
me. In the middle of an hour-long interview with the President
of Ecuador, I asked him about his father.
I'm not Barbara Walters. It's not the
kind of question I ask.
He hesitated. Then said, "My father
He paused. Then added, "He took a
little drugs to the States This is called in Spanish a mula [mule].
He passed four years in the States - in a jail."
He continued. "I'd never talked about
my father before."
Apparently he hadn't. His staff stood
stone silent, eyes widened.
Correa's dad took that frightening chance
in the 1960s, a time when his family, like almost all families
in Ecuador, was destitute. Ecuador was the original "banana
republic" - and the price of bananas had hit the floor. A
million desperate Ecuadorans, probably a tenth of the entire adult
population, fled to the USA anyway they could.
"My mother told us he was working
in the States."
His father, released from prison, was
deported back to Ecuador. Humiliated, poor, broken, his father,
I learned later, committed suicide.
At the end of our formal interview, through
a doorway surrounded by paintings of the pale plutocrats who once
ruled this difficult land, he took me into his own Oval Office.
I asked him about an odd-looking framed note he had on the wall.
It was, he said, from his daughter and her grade school class
at Christmas time. He translated for me.
"We are writing to remind you that
in Ecuador there are a lot of very poor children in the streets
and we ask you please to help these children who are cold almost
It was kind of corny. And kind of sweet.
A smart display for a politician.
Or maybe there was something else to it.
Correa is one of the first dark-skinned
men to win election to this Quechua and mixed-race nation. Certainly,
one of the first from the streets. He'd won a surprise victory
over the richest man in Ecuador, the owner of the biggest banana
Doctor Correa, I should say, with a Ph.D
in economics earned in Europe. Professor Correa as he is officially
called - who, until not long ago, taught at the University of
And Professor Doctor Correa is one tough
character. He told George Bush to take the US military base and
stick it where the equatorial sun don't shine. He told the International
Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which held Ecuador's finances
by the throat, to go to hell. He ripped up the "agreements"
which his predecessors had signed at financial gun point. He told
the Miami bond vultures that were charging Ecuador usurious interest,
to eat their bonds. He said 'We are not going to pay off this
debt with the hunger of our people. " Food first, interest
later. Much later. And he meant it.
It was a stunning performance. I'd met
two years ago with his predecessor, President Alfredo Palacio,
a man of good heart, who told me, looking at the secret IMF agreements
I showed him, "We cannot pay this level of debt. If we do,
we are DEAD. And if we are dead, how can we pay?" Palacio
told me that he would explain this to George Bush and Condoleezza
Rice and the World Bank, then headed by Paul Wolfowitz. He was
sure they would understand. They didn't. They cut off Ecuador
at the knees.
But Ecuador didn't fall to the floor.
Correa, then Economics Minister, secretly went to Hugo Chavez
Venezuela's president and obtained emergency financing. Ecuador
And thrived. But Correa was not done.
Elected President, one of his first acts
was to establish a fund for the Ecuadoran refugees in America
- to give them loans to return to Ecuador with a little cash and
lot of dignity. And there were other dragons to slay. He and Palacio
kicked US oil giant Occidental Petroleum out of the country.
Correa STILL wasn't done.
I'd returned from a very wet visit to
the rainforest - by canoe to a Cofan Indian village in the Amazon
where there was an epidemic of childhood cancers. The indigenous
folk related this to the hundreds of open pits of oil sludge left
to them by Texaco Oil, now part of Chevron, and its partners.
I met the Cofan's chief. His three year old son swam in what appeared
to be contaminated water then came out vomiting blood and died.
Correa had gone there too, to the rainforest,
though probably in something sturdier than a canoe. And President
Correa announced that the company that left these filthy pits
would pay to clean them up.
But it's not just any company he was challenging.
Chevron's largest oil tanker was named after a long-serving member
of its Board of Directors, the Condoleezza. Our Secretary of State.
The Cofan have sued Condi's corporation,
demanding the oil company clean up the crap it left in the jungle.
The cost would be roughly $12 billion. Correa won't comment on
the suit itself, a private legal action. But if there's a verdict
in favor of Ecuador's citizens, Correa told me, he will make sure
Chevron pays up.
Is he kidding? No one has ever made an
oil company pay for their slop. Even in the USA, the Exxon Valdez
case drags on to its 18th year. Correa is not deterred.
He told me he would create an international
tribunal to collect, if necessary. In retaliation, he could hold
up payments to US companies who sue Ecuador in US courts.
This is hard core. No one - NO ONE - has
made such a threat to Bush and Big Oil and lived to carry it out.
And, in an office tower looking down on
Quito, the lawyers for Chevron were not amused. I met with them.
"And it's the only case of cancer
in the world? How many cases of children with cancer do you have
in the States?" Rodrigo Perez, Texaco's top lawyer in Ecuador
was chuckling over the legal difficulties the Indians would have
in proving their case that Chevron-Texaco caused their kids' deaths.
"If there is somebody with cancer there, [the Cofan parents]
must prove [the deaths were] caused by crude or by petroleum industry.
And, second, they have to prove that it is OUR crude - which is
absolutely impossible." He laughed again. You have to see
this on film to believe it.
The oil company lawyer added, "No
one has ever proved scientifically the connection between cancer
and crude oil." Really? You could swim in the stuff and you'd
be just fine.
The Cofan had heard this before. When
Chevron's Texaco unit came to their land the the oil men said
they could rub the crude oil on their arms and it would cure their
ailments. Now Condi's men had told me that crude oil doesn't cause
cancer. But maybe they are right. I'm no expert. So I called one.
Robert F Kennedy Jr., professor of Environmental Law at Pace University,
told me that elements of crude oil production - benzene, toluene,
and xylene, "are well-known carcinogens." Kennedy told
me he's seen Chevron-Texaco's ugly open pits in the Amazon and
said that this toxic dumping would mean jail time in the USA.
But it wasn't as much what the Chevron-Texaco
lawyers said that shook me. It was the way they said it. Childhood
cancer answered with a chuckle. The Chevron lawyer, a wealthy
guy, Jaime Varela, with a blond bouffant hairdo, in the kind of
yellow chinos you'd see on country club links, was beside himself
with delight at the impossibility of the legal hurdles the Cofan
would face. Especially this one: Chevron had pulled all its assets
out of Ecuador. The Indians could win, but they wouldn't get a
dime. "What about the chairs in this office?" I asked.
Couldn't the Cofan at least get those? "No," they laughed,
the chairs were held in the name of the law firm.
Well, now they might not be laughing.
Correa's threat to use the power of his Presidency to protect
the Indians, should they win, is a shocker. No one could have
expected that. And Correa, no fool, knows that confronting Chevron
means confronting the full power of the Bush Administration. But
to this President, it's all about justice, fairness. "You
[Americans] wouldn't do this to your own people," he told
me. Oh yes we would, I was thinking to myself, remembering Alaska's
Correa's not unique. He's the latest of
a new breed in Latin America. Lula, President of Brazil, Evo Morales,
the first Indian ever elected President of Bolivia, Hugo Chavez
of Venezuela. All "Leftists," as the press tells us.
But all have something else in common: they are dark-skinned working-class
or poor kids who found themselves leaders of nations of dark-skinned
people who had forever been ruled by an elite of bouffant blonds.
When I was in Venezuela, the leaders of
the old order liked to refer to Chavez as, "the monkey."
Chavez told me proudly, "I am negro e indio" - Black
and Indian, like most Venezuelans. Chavez, as a kid rising in
the ranks of the blond-controlled armed forces, undoubtedly had
to endure many jeers of "monkey." Now, all over Latin
America, the "monkeys" are in charge.
And they are unlocking the economic cages.
Maybe the mood will drift north. Far above
the equator, a nation is ruled by a blond oil company executive.
He never made much in oil - but every time he lost his money or
his investors' money, his daddy, another oil man, would give him
another oil well. And when, as a rich young man out of Philips
Andover Academy, the wayward youth tooted a little blow off the
bar, daddy took care of that too. Maybe young George got his powder
from some guy up from Ecuador.
I know this is an incredibly simple story.
Indians in white hats with their dead kids and oil millionaires
in black hats laughing at kiddy cancer and playing musical chairs
with oil assets.
But maybe it's just that simple. Maybe
in this world there really is Good and Evil.
Maybe Santa will sort it out for us, tell
us who's been good and who's been bad. Maybe Lawyer Yellow Pants
will wake up on Christmas Eve staring at the ghost of Christmas
Future and promise to get the oil sludge out of the Cofan's drinking
Or maybe we'll have to figure it out ourselves.
When I met Chief Emergildo, I was reminded of an evening years
back, when I was way the hell in the middle of nowhere in the
Prince William Sound, Alaska, in the Chugach Native village of
Chenega. I was investigating the damage done by Exxon's oil. There
was oil sludge all over Chenega's beaches. It was March 1991,
and I was in the home of village elder Paul Kompkoff on the island's
shore, watching CNN. We stared in silence as "smart"
bombs exploded in Baghdad and Basra.
Then Paul said to me, in that slow, quiet
way he had, "Well, I guess we're all Natives now."
Well, maybe we are. But we don't have
to be, do we?
Maybe we can take some guidance from this
tiny nation at the center of the earth. I listened back through
my talk with President Correa. And I can assure his daughter that
she didn't have to worry that her dad would forget about "the
poor children who are cold" on the streets of Quito.
Because the Professor Doctor is still
one of them.
Greg Palast is an investigative journalist
and author of the New York Times bestseller, ARMED MADHOUSE: From
Baghdad to New Orleans -- Sordid Secrets and Strange Tales of
a White House Gone Wild.