There's at least one ethnic group that won't get any speaking time at this week's Democratic National Convention: the U'Wa.
The U'Wa is an indigenous people in Colombia numbering about 8,000. Since 1992, they have been tenaciously battling a plan by Occidental Petroleum to drill 550 yards away from the U'Wa's oil-rich property, which is expected to have 1.4 billion barrels of oil beneath it. The U'Wa have even threatened mass suicide -- a collective leap off a 1,400-foot cliff -- if Occidental realizes its plans.
And though Vice President Al Gore has close ties with Occidental, he has been unwilling to even remotely discuss the controversy, dispatching his aides to spin and shade and parse in his defense.
There was supposed to be a U'Wa presence in Los Angeles, but Friday, two U'Wa were reportedly denied travel visas from the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. They were on their way to a protest rally held Monday morning at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles.
Many of the same cast of characters protesting corporate globalism from last year's rallies in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Seattle are here as well -- but at this rally, their cause was more specific.
"The U'Wa controversy is the best example of what's wrong with politics today," says Atossa Soltani, executive director of Amazon Watch. "Gore controls Occidental shares, and has enjoyed the sponsorship of Occidental Petroleum, but so far he's been completely silent."
A healthy serving of approximately 400 protesters, CHiPs on the side, rallied in the shadow of various oil and gas association buildings. Their signs read "Gore -- Oxy out of U'Wa land," but it was essentially the same protest as held in other venues, their papier-mbchi puppets mocking what they view as corporate America's marionette relationship with both Gore and Gov. George W. Bush.
One banner formerly reading "Stop the War Against the Poor," was taped over, "the U'Wa" replacing "the Poor." Recycling!
Gore and his father both enjoyed close personal and financial relationships with Occidental and its founder and CEO Armand Hammer, who died in 1990. In his lifetime, Gore has received almost $500,000 in payments from Occidental stock, according to the Wall Street Journal. Additionally, Gore serves as the executor of a trust fund for his mother that contains Occidental stock valued at between $500,001 and $1 million, according to his 1999 financial disclosure report.
"Al Gore can personally do something" about the U'Wa controversy, Soltani insists. "He can divest his money from Occidental, he can make a statement in support of the U'Wa people ... but he has done nothing."
That's not quite true -- he's actually hidden from the topic, and done a fairly good job of it. But the conflict has heated up; in February, three U'Wa children drowned while fleeing Colombian police during a rally, and at the end of June, riot police broke up a U'Wa road blockade, shooting two members of the tribe.
As the chaos has increased, Gore's spokespeople have been asked to comment with increasing frequency.
"He doesn't own stock in that company, and he doesn't have any connection to that issue in Colombia," said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway to the Associated Press in January. "It's a matter that involves the internal policies of another country," spokeswoman Laura Quinn told the Nation. "We just don't have any control over what the entities are trying to do in other countries," spokesman Mark Fabiani told "Fox News Sunday" in July.
"It's ludicrous to say, 'We can't interfere,'" Soltani says.
And indeed, the deferrals and denials offered by Gore spokesmen contradict the previous actions of Gore, who sells himself as both a committed environmentalist and an internationalist.
As a senator, for instance, Gore introduced two senate resolutions calling upon the Japanese government to look into the havoc lumber companies were wreaking in Malaysia and Papua, New Guinea. Additionally, one of Gore's last actions as a senator, in April 1992, was almost directly comparable: He spoke out in support of the Penan Indians in Malaysia, whose lands were being threatened by loggers. (Occidental Petroleum was involved in neither of those two controversies.)
The GOP ticket contains two Texas oil men -- Bush ran Arbusto Oil into the ground, while running mate Dick Cheney was president and CEO of Halliburton Company, in Dallas, which provides oil industry equipment. But the Occidental issue is enough to convince Soltani and her crew that "when it comes to 'big oil,' there's no difference between Bush and Gore." She says she will probably end up voting for consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
But surely Gore -- who's been resoundingly endorsed by the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations -- is better than Bush, whose environmental record in Texas is a disaster. Surely Gore, warts and all, is the natural pick for anyone on the political left.
"We always vote for the lesser of the two evils," Sultani says. "But if we keep doing that, we will always have evil, and we will always have less."