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How Can We Escape This Abyss?

by Arundhati Roy Saturday, Nov. 27, 2004 at 4:26 PM

One hand washes the other even if it is bloodstained.. The government of one of the poorest countries paid Enron 0 million per year for energy that was not produced!.. Now Bechtel and GE aresuing the Indian government for .6 billion..


By Arundhati Roy

The Indian author’s acceptance speech for the Sydney Peace Prize. The real tragedy is that most people in the world sit in the trap between the alleged peace and the terror of war. These are the two steep rocks between which we are caught.

[Arundhati Roy was awarded the “Sydney Peace Prize” on November 4, 2004. This part of her address originally published in: junge Welt, 11/13/2004 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Not surprisingly Iraq’s sellers caused a panic at the feeding trough. Firms like Bechtel and Halliburton, the company that US vice-president Dick Cheney once managed, received enormous contracts for “reconstruction work”. A short resume from one of these firms would show that all this occurs everywhere in the world, not only in Iraq. Bechtel is emphasized here because poor little Halliburton is investigated for overpriced oil shipments to Iraq and on account of its contracts to “rebuild” Iraq’s oil industry that came with a hefty price tag of .3 billion.

The Bechtel group and Saddam Hussein are old business partners. Many of their contracts were negotiated by no one other than Donald Rumsfeld. In 1988, after Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds, Bechtel signed contracts with Saddam’s government on building a chemical plant in Baghdad.


Historically the Bechtel group had and has very close connections to the republican establishment. Bechtel and the Reagan-Bush administration could be called a team. Former Defense secretary Caspar Weinberger was a Bechtel lawyer. Former energy secretary W. Kenneth Davis was Bechtel’s vice-president. Riley Bechtel, the company chairman of the board, sits on the export advisory board of the president. Jack Sheehan, a pensioned general of the Marine Corps, is senior vice-president at Bechtel and member of the “Defense Policy Board”, an influential advisory group of the US defense secretary. Former secretary of state George Schultz who sits on the board of directors of the Bechtel group was chairperson of the advisory group of the committee for Iraq’s liberation.

When Schultz was asked by the New York Times whether he was worried about a conflict of interest between his two “jobs”, he said: “I don’t think Bechtel would profit greatly from the Iraq invasion. But if work is to be done there, Bechtel is the type of business that can do the job.” Bechtel was helped out with reconstruction contracts for Iraq amounting to over a billion dollars including contracts for rebuilding power plants, power circuit lines, water supply, sewage systems and airport structures. One hand washes the other, even if it bloodstained.

Between 2001 and 2002, nine of the 30 members of the “Defense Policy Board” were tied to firms with defense contracts exceeding billion. In the past, weapons were produced to wage wars. Now wars are launched to sell weapons. Between 1990 and 2002, the Bechtel group contributed .3 million to election campaigns of republicans and democrats. Since 1990 Bechtel gained more than 2000 government contracts worth eleven billion dollars. Isn’t that an incredible profit from their investment? Bechtel leaves its traces everywhere in the world. Therefore it is a multinational.

The Bechtel group first attracted international attention when it signed a contract with Hugo Banzer, the Bolivian dictator at that time, to privatize the water supply of the city Cochabamba. Bechtel’s first act was to raise the price of water. Hundreds of thousands of people who simply could not pay Bechtel’s charges took to the streets. A powerful strike paralyzed the city. Martial law was imposed. Although Bechtel was finally forced to close its office, it is currently negotiating with the Bolivian government on payment of millions of dollars for lost potential profits. As we will see, this is increasingly a national sport of corporations.


In India, Bechtel together with General Electric (GE) is the new owner of the notorious Enron power plant that is now on ice. The Enron contract that legally obligates the government of the Maharashtra province to pay Enron a sum of billion was one of the largest contracts ever made in India. Enron was not timid in boasting about millions of dollars spent to “educate” Indian politicians and officials. The Enron contract in Mararashtra, India’s first private energy project negotiated on the “fast track”, has become known as the most massive fraud in the history of the country. (Enron was another major donor to the election campaign of the Republican Party.) The electricity that Enron wanted to produce was so incredibly expensive that the government decided that it was cheaper to buy no electricity and pay the contractual penalty. The government of one of the poorest countries paid Enron 0 million a year for energy that was not produced!

Now since Enron does not exist any more, Bechtel and GE are suing the Indian government for .6 billion. This is more than they (or Enron) actually invested in the project. It is a projection of the profits that they would have made if the project had been realized. .6 billion is more than India’s government spent annually on jobs programs in rural areas guaranteeing subsistence wages for millions of people living in deep poverty and worn down by debts, uprooting, chronic malnutrition and the World Trade Organization. This happens in a country where indebted farmers are driven to suicide in thousands, not hundreds.

India’s corporate class mocks the jobs program as an irrational utopian idea brought by the “mad” and recently powerful left. Where can the funds come from, it asks with a sneer. At the same time the same cynics rant and rail about capital flight and “poor investment climate” when a bad contract with a notoriously corrupt firm like Enron is cancelled. The arbitration proceedings between Bechtel, GE and India’s government takes place in London. Bechtel and GE have reason for hope. The Indian finance minister who negotiated the disastrous Enron contract returned home after a few years with the IMF. He not only returned home but was promoted. He is now the acting chairperson of the planning commission.

This is more material for reflection. The assumed profit of a single corporate project would have been enough to finance employment at minimum wage to 25 million persons for 100 days. This is five million more persons than Australia’s population and reflects the horror of neoliberalism.

The Bechtel story gets even worse. Naomi Klein writes that Bechtel successfully sued war-shattered Iraq for “war reparations” and “lost profits”. This can only be called unscrupulous. The firm could pocket seven million dollars.

All young business graduates from Harvard and Wharton should remain very calm. Here is the instruction for lazy managers seeking business success. Firstly, fill your board of directors with stout government officials. Then bring members of your board of directors into the government. Add oil and stir. When no one sees any more where the government ends and your company begins, collaborate with your government so a cold-blooded dictator in an oil-rich society is awarded a human rights prize in the name of your company. You could give Mother Teresa the first prize. She wouldn’t be able to refuse or argue against it.


The attacked and occupied Iraq was forced to pay 0 million “reparations” for lost profits to corporations like Halliburton, Shell, Mobil, Nestle, Pepsi, Kentucky Fried Chicken and ToysRUs. This is in addition to the #125 billion of sovereign indebtedness forcing the country to turn to the IMF waiting in the background like the angel of death with its structural adjustment programs (although hardly any structures or adjustment are left outside the shadowy Al-Qaida).

Privatization has gained new ground in the new Iraq. The US army increasingly recruits private mercenaries to support the occupation. The advantage of mercenaries is that they need not be recorded in the death lists of US soldiers. This helps stimulate public opinion which is very important in an election year. Torture is privatized. We know where this leads. The closing of newspapers is another attraction in the new Iraq. Television stations are bombed; reporters are killed. US soldiers have opened fire on unarmed demonstrators and killed countless persons. The only form of resistance that has survived is as mad and brutal as the occupation. Is there room for a secular, democratic, feminist, nonviolent resistance in Iraq? Not really.

Creating this massive, secular, nonviolent resistance against the US occupation is incumbent on us outside of persons living in Iraq. If we fail, we risk the hijacking of resistance and its merger with terrorism. This would be unfortunate because resistance and terrorism are not the same.


What does peace mean in this barbaric, corporatized, militarized world? What does it mean in a world where an entrenched system of appropriation has created a situation in which poor countries plundered for centuries by colonial regimes are heavily indebted and must repay these heavy debts amounting to 2 billion a year? What does peace mean in a world where the combined wealth of 587 multimillionaires worldwide exceeds the combined gross domestic product of the 135 poorest countries? Or when rich countries that pay agricultural subsidies amounting to a billion dollars a day force poor countries to cancel their agricultural subsidies? What does peace mean in occupied Iraq, Palestine, Kashmir, Tibet and Chechnya? Or for Australia’s aborigines? Or the Ogoni of Nigeria? Or the Kurds in Turkey? Or India’s dalits and adivasi? What does peace mean for non-Moslems in Islamic countries or for women in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan? What does it mean for millions of people uprooted by dams and development projects? What does peace mean for the poor who are robbed of their resources and for whom everyday life is a constant battle for water, shelter, survival and above all a little dignity? For them peace is war.

We know very well who profits from war in the age of empire. Still we must honestly ask who benefits from peace in the age of empire. Wzr-mongering is criminal. However speaking of peace without speaking of justice quickly becomes a kind of capitulation. Speaking of injustice without unmasking the institutions and systems that practice injustice is more than hypocritical.

Accusing the poor for their poverty is simple. Believing that the world is caught in an escalating spiral of terrorism and war is also simple. This allows the American president to say: “Either you are with us or with the terrorists.” Nevertheless we know this is a deceitful decision. We know that terrorism is only the privatization of war and that terrorists are free marketers of war. They believe the legitimate use of force is not only the right of the state.

It is hypocritical to make a moral distinction between the unspeakable brutality of terrorism and the indiscriminant slaughter of war and occupation. We cannot support one and condemn the other.

The real tragedy is that most people in the world sit in the trap between the horror f a supposed peace and the terror of war. These are the two steep rocks in which we are caught. The question is: How can we escape this abyss?

If one really wants out, there is good and bad news. The good news is that the advance battalion began the exodus some time ago. Thousands of activists have industriously hammered hooks to secure the sails, making it easier for us to follow. There are many paths upward. Hundreds of battles are fought daily that need your abilities, your spirit and your resources. No struggle is irrelevant. No victory is too small.


The bad news is that colorful demonstrations, weekend marches and annual participation in the World Social Forum are not enough. Targeted actions and real civil disobedience with real consequences are necessary. We cannot conjure a revolution. Still we can do different things. For example, you could make a list of those businesses that profit from Iraq’s invasion and have offices here in Australia. They could be named and occupied. Their offices could be occupied; they could be forced to abandon their businesses. If this happened in Bolivia and India, it could also happen in Australia. Why not?

This is only a small proposal. Remember vision, beauty and imagination are lost when the battle becomes violent. Most dangerous of all, women would be marginalized and made victims. There can be no political struggle in which women are not involved on all planes.

Participating in the struggle is essential. As the marvelous American historian Howard Zinn proclaimed, you cannot be neutral on a moving train.

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