Greg Palast speaks to FRFI

FRFI 170 December 2002 / January 2003

Greg Palast speaks to FRFI

‘History is a complex sausage, with a lot stuffed into it’

US investigative journalist and author Greg Palast was interviewed in November 2002 by Dalton Hilliard.

Why do you have to do a new edition of your book, The best democracy money can buy, for publication in the UK?
First, there’s a lot more information and I want to journalistically undress a few of the ne’er-do-wells in Britain, including Lord Wakeham of Enron, Tony Blair’s favourite Tory. But the other side is that I have to take out material that will be in the new US edition, because British libel law is the most repressive on earth. I think the only place that would compete would be Malaysia.

In Britain saying the truth will land you in court. The people who read British papers are being lied to every day. You read The Guardian and think you’re getting all the news and it’s a courageous paper. We get 1,000 lawyers’ letters a year at The Guardian, three a day. If anyone says don’t write about this subject, you don’t, with maybe a half-dozen exceptions. It just doesn’t get past the legal department. There are literally thousands of issues, people, organisations and mainly corporations who are completely off-limits to reporting in Britain, even by papers like The Guardian. Very few guys will buck a threat from a lawyer.

You reported on the US-backed coup d’état in Venezuela. Is another coup attempt brewing against Chavez? Is he taking radical steps to prevent it?
If he’s lucky, it’s going to be a coup, as opposed to a simple bullet to the head. The reforms proposed by Chavez are only radical in the current right-wing ideological avalanche. Under the Bush/Blair dynasty, Hugo Chavez seems radical. He’s a simple reformer, calling for a break-up of the giant plantations – land that’s been lying fallow should be given to the millions of landless people of Venezuela. Now, that’s not too radical. In the 1960s, under President Kennedy, that was a keystone of the Alliance for Progress programme. The second thing Chavez has done – and this is where he’ll probably get the bullet to the head – is to call for a doubling of the royalties on oil companies, mostly paid by Exxon-Mobil, from 16% to about 30%. Venezuela is the biggest oil exporter to the US in the hemisphere.

Is Chavez not radical enough? He’s left the press in the control of private interests and the corporate elite more or less untouched...
There’s huge debate among the Venezuelan left and intelligentsia that Chavez’s problem is that he plays too many games with these guys. After all, most of the people who tried to kidnap him and intended to kill him he let off the hook after the coup [in April 2002]. He has not armed his followers. He’s one of the only officials in Latin America who hasn’t gaoled opposition journalists. He believes very much in freedom of the press and has allowed people openly to discuss his assassination. You couldn’t do that, by the way, in Britain.

I think he hopes to win over segments of the middle class. So far, that strategy doesn’t seem very effective. Chavez also believes that somehow he might convince George Bush that he’s not such a threat. In fact, one thing he tried to do, once he got word a coup was boiling up, was to contact Bush and say, ‘Listen, if you attack Iraq or if there’s an embargo by Arab nations, I’m not going to go along with that’. Venezuela holds the presidency of OPEC and is unquestionably the swing nation in OPEC because it is the one nation, other than Saudi Arabia, which is not operating at flat-out production. It’s only operating at less than half of its potential output. Chavez tried to convince Bush that Venezuela would cooperate with the US as it did after the 1973 oil embargo. But this is not the old days. Chavez is no fool, but he has made an error in thinking that there is a way to mollify Bush and therefore his own business class. The Venezuelan elite is getting a constant drumbeat from Otto Reich, the US Under-Secretary of State for Latin America, who was one of the plotters in the Iran-Contra affairs. Reich basically has been pounding on guys like Gustaves Cisneros, the owner of the big newspaper and television station, saying that they’ve got to get rid of Chavez, wink, wink. And since elections won’t do it, obviously that means the bullet.

What’s the role of British capital and foreign investment?
British capital is, of course, grasping with both hands, but their hands are a little bit smaller than those of the American corporations in whose pockets they ride. You have to look at the IMF and the World Bank as pushing this massive privatisation programme, but at the lead are these multinational corporations. And they’ve basically been these Anglo-American combos, to a great extent, with the British being the little brothers. For example, International Water, a notorious operator, is a combination of Bechtel Corporation and Northwest Utilities.

There’s kind of a gentleman’s agreement about which operations get what segments of the spoils of the international class war. The spoils, for example, in the case of water tend to go to the French. Natural gas is kind of conceded to Britain, British Gas. When all these countries do this so-called bidding process, no one actually bids. You have consortia with a leader pre-picked. So, in the case of, for example, the Sao Paulo gas company, which was picked up for a song in the privatisation, you had basically one bidder, British Gas. All the others become their junior partners. So, British Gas is a big player. In the privatisation of oil, British and US interests are well combined – and here again, we go to Venezuela, because Venezuela still has substantial public ownership of its system through the national oil company, unlike Argentina which sold theirs off to the Spanish.

Take the war in Iraq. There’s a lot of discussion about so-called postwar Iraq between the Iraqi National Congress and US government officials about the division of the oil concessions and the so-called ‘restoration’ of the Iraqi economy – ie British and American companies taking over those oil fields, which are now conceded to the French and Italians. So if you’re wondering about the French and the Italians dragging their feet on going to war, that’s why. It’s hard to remember when France was the font of peaceful solutions. They are as imperial and brutal as anyone. It’s just that they already have their Iraqi concessions and they don’t want to lose them to the British.

So Britain has played a major role. In fact, one of the most brutal cases – and this is also in the upcoming version of my book – is National Power, which had much to do with the coup d’état in Pakistan, putting Musharraf in power. The reason Musharraf came to power in Pakistan was National Power of Britain and Entergy Corporation of Little Rock, Arkansas, which had massive contracts to sell power to the Pakistan government. These contracts were outrageous. They were paying about as much for power in Pakistan as you are in England, which means about three times the US price. It was a rip-off. And these contracts were quite suspect because they were changed in favour of National Power, unilaterally. Why would Pakistan unilaterally up the price they had agreed to pay? They did that at a time when Benazir Bhutto was in power, and she seemed to be salting a helluva lot of money away in London, in various properties. Putting two and two together, the Pakistan Government charged National Power and its Pakistan operation with bribery and tried to cancel the contracts. Cancelling the contracts led to a takeover of the power stations and a banning of union activity by the military under Musharraf. Once that happened Musharraf had control of the money to pay back National Power and the US corporations.

Now, did I say that National Power planned a coup d’état in Pakistan so that they could get paid? No. Were their contracts and demands a major factor, which led to the coup d’état? Absolutely 100 per cent. In fact, the IMF and World Bank – at the demand of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton – cut off funds to Pakistan unless they paid off these power companies, which were very suspect and were the subject of bribery charges. You don’t have to pay a contract which is the fruit of bribery, by international law. But that didn’t seem to bother Mr Blair, who, by the way, was refusing at that time to sign the International Anti-bribery Convention. One wonders why.
So we end up with Musharraf being the guarantor to Tony Blair’s and Bill Clinton’s buddies, and, lo and behold, as someone from National Power said, ‘Now we have a way to collect our money’. You sure do. Musharraf was controller of the economy and the flow of hard capital to British and American corporations. The final step, taking power, was obvious and easy.

You mentioned that the French and Italians have contracts to control Iraqi oil. Is oil what the war in Iraq is about?
You know, history is a complex sausage, with a lot stuffed into it. We have to be careful, among progressives, about reducing everything to oil. I think, in the case of the US, the threat of war was basically a campaign issue to get Republican control of Congress and Brother Jeb re-elected Governor of Florida in the mid-term elections, and they got that. So actually carrying out the war may not be worth a shit, especially if Saddam Hussein starts playing ball also with the oil companies. For example, some quiet things have been going on that have gotten very little notice in the press. Saddam Hussein had a surcharge on oil, which was basically paid only by US corporations. He’s dropped that surcharge, making US oil companies less concerned. So there may not be a war.

We’ve got to be very careful about how the European left is handling these threats of war. I was horrified when Margaret Thatcher would have tea with General Pinochet, a bloodthirsty dictator. And then I turn around and see George Galloway, a left MP, having biscuits and tea with Saddam Hussein, and I still want to throw up. Saddam Hussein is a fascist and a murderer, a genocidal maniac. However, let’s not forget Saddam Hussein was created by George Bush Sr’s Frankenstein factory. Bush was the head of the CIA in the US and vice-president under Reagan. And we thought Saddam Hussein was just too marvellous for words. It’s just that he got out of line. In fact, the invasion of Kuwait was virtually at the invitation of the US ambassador, April Gillespie. There was an assumption that Iraq was simply going to enter the border oil fields of Kuwait and punish them, because the Kuwaitis were taking oil that wasn’t theirs. Which for George Bush Sr, who is an oil man, made a helluva lot of sense. The Kuwaitis were stealing oil from the Iraqis and if you did that in Texas you’d get your kneecaps broken. So George Bush basically allowed his ambassador to say, well, if you want to go break a few Kuwaiti kneecaps, go ahead. Where Saddam overstepped was by changing the OPEC balance of power by taking over Kuwait in its entirety. So he went from being our guy to being the monster. The left should be calling for regime change in Iraq, too. But not a change in who owns the oil concessions, but from dictatorship to democracy.

The first edition of The best democracy money can buy by Greg Palast was published in 2002 by Pluto Press at £18.99 (hb).


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