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by Tim Wheeler
Monday, Feb. 25, 2002 at 9:34 PM
A couple of weeks ago, Argentina’s daily newspaper, La Nacion, was looking for an explanation of the country’s economic collapse, with $141 billion in unpayable foreign debt and five governments falling in the space of a week. They turned over a rock and found – you guessed it – Enron.
With help from a friend, Enron fleeces South America
by Tim Wheeler
WASHINGTON – A couple of weeks ago, Argentina’s daily newspaper, La Nacion, was looking for an explanation of the country’s economic collapse, with $141 billion in unpayable foreign debt and five governments falling in the space of a week. They turned over a rock and found – you guessed it – Enron.
According to La Nacion, George W. Bush came to Argentina in 1988 as an Enron lobbyist and met with Rodolfo Terragano, the Argentine government’s Minister of Public Works. According to Terragano, Bush pressed him “on Enron’s behalf” to help push through privatization of Argentina’s publicly owned energy complex. Bush told the cabinet minister that Enron should be given first option to buy up the gas, electricity, water and other utilities of that South American country.
At the time, Bush was the son of the Vice President who was soon to be elected President of the United States, and had backing from Enron and every other oil and gas company in Texas. Since the mid-1980s, the newspaper report added, the Bush family had invested heavily in Argentina and had cultivated crony ties to Carlos Saul Menem.
In 1989, Menem was elected president of Argentina. He embraced Enron’s privatization and deregulation policies with a vengeance.
In 1996, Enron and its subsidiary, Enron Global Power & Pipelines, bought a controlling interest in Transportadora de Gas del Sur S.A. (TGS), owner of a 4,104-mile natural gas pipeline system in Argentina. The pipeline is the largest in South America, with a capacity of 1.9 billion cubic feet of gas per day.
At the time, Enron CEO Kenneth Lay said the purchase of TGS “reflects our continued confidence in Argentina and TGS.” By then, Enron South America had spread its tentacles throughout the hemisphere.
“Enron is playing a key role in the deregulating energy markets in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and other countries in the region,” boasts an Enron statement on their official website. “Enron is building power plants, operating natural gas pipelines and providing energy, commodity and finance solutions to industrial and commercial customers.” It brags of its skill at “risk management.”
The trick in these privatization schemes was to take over pipelines, pumping stations and other facilities that had been constructed at taxpayer expense, thus sparing Enron most of the cost of building these facilities. They pursued a similar strategy in the U.S., maneuvering – so far without success – to get their hands on power generated by the federally owned Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest.
On May 4, 1998, the Menem regime surrendered to Enron’s diktat. Its wholly owned Argentine subsidiary, Enron Commercializadora de Energia Argentina, “has been granted the first power marketer license in Argentina,” permitting Enron to buy and sell electricity. Scott Porter, executive secretary of Enron International, called the license, “an important step in Enron’s strategic efforts to establish marketing operations in Latin America and to further participation in the future integration of the Southern Cone’s energy markets.”
In early 2000, Argentina’s energy regulatory agency, known by its acronym ENARGAS, pleaded with Enron to postpone a rate increase pegged to the U.S. producer price index. Like the pegging of the Argentine peso to the dollar, this rate increase was ruinous for the fragile and depressed Argentine economy. Eduardo Ojea Quintana, CEO of TGS, brushed aside this request. “We will maintain the firm position of strictly applying the clauses agreed upon in the privatizing process,” he wrote to Enron shareholders. “Any violation of them would imply serious damage to the country’s credibility.”
Quintana boasted that while the Argentine economy plunged deeper into recession and 80 percent of the people fell below the poverty line, “our revenues increased a record 11 percent – the highest revenue growth since the commencement of our operations.”
In 1996, Enron and Shell jointly acquired a 50 percent stake in all the transportation assets of the 1,655 mile pipeline owned by Bolivia’s Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales Bolivianos (YPFB), a nationalized energy company. Enron and Shell also took a 50 percent ownership of the 1,438 mile long pipeline that will reach from Bolivia to Brazil. Ominously, an Enron news release reports, “The remaining interest in the transportation assets will be held by the Bolivian Pension Fund.”
Enron also owns a pipeline in Colombia. The Associated Press reported from Bogota Feb. 6, “A top level Bush administration delegation unveiled plans yesterday to widen U.S. involvement in Colombia’s civil war, including training, arming and providing air support to Colombian troops to protect a pipeline carrying U.S. oil.”
The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. taxpayer-funded outfit, provided much of the capital for these Enron foreign investments. OPIC has warned that Enron’s bankruptcy “could leave U.S. taxpayers liable for as much as $1 billion in debt.”
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