Part 1: The Three Greatest Disasters of Our Time
In the first part of this two-part series, ImportantCool explains why the corporate media aided and abetted the invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis, and fossil-fueled global warming; and why we’ve looked to Ecuador as our headquarters in our quest to change the media and change the world.
This is a story of hope, but to tell it we need to start with the three biggest disasters of our time. When I say “our”, I’m referring to you, me, and the rest of the English-speaking world. Let’s not make the mistake of tacitly assuming that America or Britain speaks for the entire so-called “international community”.
The three disasters are global warming, the invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 financial crisis. Strikingly, all were avoidable. Unlike civilizations past, we are not living in fear of barbarian invasions or plagues and floods of biblical proportions. Our own societies created these disasters.
Why? Scientists have been warning about carbon dioxide emissions for decades. Millions of people foresaw the calamity of the invasion of Iraq and took to the streets in protest. And one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in economics to see the flaw in allowing Wall St. to gamble with people’s life savings.
These disasters share another commonality. Each was and is both a crisis for the vast majority of people and enormously profitable for a select few.
The oil majors, along with engineering and construction firms like Halliburton, continue to make a killing in Iraq.
Wall St. made huge amounts of money off the crash, both in the orgiastic preceding years and via the obscene corporate welfare handed out afterwards by the White House and the Federal Reserve.
All the while, coal and oil companies pour out carbon emissions and their shareholders keep cashing cheques, quietly contemplating which non-sea-level paradise they will sit out the dystopian future.
The Corporatocracy and The 1 Percent
If you look at the different companies involved in the invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis, and global warming, from Chevron and Exxon to JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Koch Industries, they appear a motley bunch. Go one level deeper, however, and you find they are founded on the same bedrock.
Some multinational corporations, like Koch Industries, are directly owned by multi-billionaires. Most though are owned by the investment funds where the 1 Percent park their money.
Let’s take a look at the first dozen major shareholders of America’s three largest oil companies – Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Phillips 66 – and America’s three largest investment banks – JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citigroup.
Five different investment trusts are among the top 12 shareholders of each one of these companies. Another two trusts are among the major shareholders in five of the six companies. Their names – Northern Trust, for example – are suitably ambiguous as regards the activities they involve themselves in. Of these six companies, moreover, the biggest bank, JP Morgan, is among the top 12 shareholders for three of the other five companies.
Of course, we live in a democracy, nominally-speaking. You have as much of a right to buy $1 billion worth of shares in a Wall St. investment fund as anyone else.
In reality, the ownership of these trusts is obscenely concentrated. America’s richest 1 percent own more than a third of all shares owned by Americans. The richest 5 percent own over two-thirds of all shares.
What this means is that the wealthiest 5 percent hold majority ownership across the corporations responsible for the three greatest disasters of our time. They could have stopped these disasters, but they chose to continue profiting off them.
The money they’ve made has only made them more powerful and more dangerous. The government is capable of checking the 1 Percent. Yet with the revolving door between multinational corporations and Washington, and the amount of money these companies spend on lobbyists and “political contributions”, the government is in a state of near-complete corporate capture.
Call this the rantings of a radical if you will. A review of 1,779 policy debates in a 2014 research paper from Princeton and Northwestern put the same point in more neutral language:
The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.
Where is the Outrage?
It’s not that there is no outrage; it’s that the outrage is buried beneath the surface of day-to-day life. In the Anglophone world, there is nothing as obvious as a government department of propaganda or censorship. Yet beneath the appearance of freedom of speech, the actual opinions of citizens are marginalized.
The newspapers, the radio, the television stations, the institutions that dominate public discourse on every major issue we face as a society, are owned by the very same 1 Percent making immense profits off these disasters.
The Washington Post is wholly owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in America. Bezos is currently a member of the executive committee of the Business Council of the United States, an advocacy group that represents corporate interests.
Time Warner, owner of CNN and Time Magazine and recently in talks with Vice.com, already part-owned by Rupert Murdoch, has among its top 12 shareholders the same six investment trusts that feature across the top 12 of all six of the richest oil companies and banks. Time Warner’s second-largest shareholder is America’s largest investment bank, JP Morgan.
The New York Times became notorious in 2003 for parroting the government lies used to justify the invasion of Iraq. The Times’ shares a director with Chevron. Its largest shareholder, T. Rowe Price Associates, is the thirteenth largest shareholder in Exxon, the ninth in Chevron and the fifth in Phillips 66.
The pattern extends to the supposedly progressive and intellectual press. The chair of Guardian Media is also a director of Bank of Queensland. The major shareholders in The Economist are the Rothschild and Schroder banking families.
In Anchorman 2, the film’s media mogul refers to such arrangements as “synergies”. He also happens to own “Koala Airlines” and has a ripping Australian accent, a direct reference to Australian-born News Corporation owner Rupert Murdoch, or more accurately to his Fosters-swilling incarnation in “The Simpsons.”
As numerous researchers have found, Murdoch’s media systematically dismisses concern over global warming. Not coincidentally, Murdoch owns shale oil (fracking) interests, as well as oil interests in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. This also helps explain his rabid support for U.S.-backed militarism in the Middle East.
In the Anglophone world, it is only the politicians that accept the corporate dominance of society who are presented in a positive light by the corporate media. Any public figure who argues that democratic government must intervene to counter their influence is presented as a fringe lunatic, whether it’s Ralph Nader or the Australian Greens.
In short, the corporate mass media is the frontline for the 1 Percent. If we change the media, we change the world.
Ecuador: The Threat of a Good Example
Yet our predicament is far from hopeless, because there are places in the world where the rich and powerful have been thrown out of government and people’s governments have been put in their place. They prove that it is possible.
These are often the countries that are the most vilified by corporate media outlets. As we’ve seen, the mainstream media is owned by the 1 Percent and is therefore terrified by “the threat of a good example” that people’s governments represent. The multinational media cooperative ImportantCool decided to make its home in one such country: Ecuador.
ImportantCool is made up of journalists, writers, filmmakers, and organizers from every continent bar Antarctica. However, IC’s HQ can be found nestled in an equatorial Andean mountain valley 2,800 metres above sea level, a place that goes by the name of Quito, Ecuador.
From the start, IC wanted to sidestep the ominously increasing criminalization of investigative journalism in countries like the United States, where the FBI tails journalists in the name of national security, and the United Kingdom, where journalists’ spouses have been detained under anti-terror laws. We wanted to locate our HQ in a country with a sovereign, independent foreign policy that allows it to stand up for free speech and other human rights.
How did the small, Andean nation of Ecuador come to hold such a status? Ecuador never had much resonance in the English-speaking world. In the 1970s it was vaguely known as the quintessential banana republic. In the early 2000s, eminent economists considered it an economic basket case with scarce hope for development and political stability. In 10 years the country went through eight different presidents.
From being on the margins of the world, Ecuador was instantly at its centre when Wikileaks founder Julian Assange sought asylum at its London Embassy in June, 2012. When on 16 August, 2012, he announced the decision to grant asylum, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño argued that “the extradition of Señor Assange to a country outside the European Union was feasible.”
If Assange were extradited to the U.S., Patiño argued, the evidence “clearly shows that el Señor Assange would not have a fair trial and could be tried by extraordinary or military tribunals. It would not be improbable that he suffer cruel and degrading treatment and be condemned to indefinite detention or the death penalty, all of which would be in contravention of his human rights.”
How had it come to pass that Ecuador, a nation of just 15 million people, could publicly denounce the human rights credibility of the U.S., the so-called leader of the free world? How could a nation with less personnel in its armed forces than the U.S. 7th Fleet possibly be poking the giant in the eye?
The story of Ecuador and its capital, Quito, is a miraculous one that should inspire all those who want to believe that another world is possible. To tell it, we have to go right back to the beginning.
City of the Sun:
Quito was the Incan Empire’s second capital, its Constantinople. The first beating heart of the Incas was Cusco, in modern-day Peru. Today, it’s made famous by the winter palace Machu Picchu, built in a valley outside the city. Yet as the Incas expanded their domain to cover most of the Andean mountain range, Quito came to surpass Cusco in spiritual and political importance. Sitting just 20 kilometres from the equator, the Incas concluded that of all their territory, Quito was the site most favoured by the Sun God, Inti, who shone down on Quito from almost directly above. At 2,800 meters above sea-level, it is a place of abundant sunshine and rainfall, deep black soils, and a year-round temperate climate.
When the Spanish arrived in 1534, they were similarly enamoured with Quito and set up their own regional capital here. On the ruins of Incan temples and palaces, they constructed their own sites of spiritual significance – their churches, cathedrals, and monasteries. Quito’s Old City still looks much the same as it has for centuries. It was the first city granted United Nations World Heritage status.
The Incan Empire had managed to extinguish hunger among the approximately 10 million people within its borders, over thousands of kilometres of extreme mountain ranges. Yet it was a level of security that gave way to centuries of suffering from the moment of the Spanish conquest. Plagues were followed by brutal enslavement in the silver and mercury mines of the Andes.
Colonialism by Another Name:
Even after Ecuador won its independence from Spain during the Napoleonic Wars, the indigenous people remained chattel of the rich and powerful, commonly referred to in Latin America as “the Oligarchy”. Mixed-race and Afro-Ecuadorian people were barred from the halls of power by this upper class, which considered itself the representative of Europe in the colonies. The Oligarchy modeled itself on the white, wealthy, and “cultured” classes of Europe and North America, the 1 Percent that still rule the world today through banks, trust funds, and multinational corporations.
Until 1964, Ecuador’s indigenous people lived in medieval conditions, legally obliged to stay on the lands of estate-owners. Even into the 1980s, indigenous people were forced to provide free labour to municipal governments and to work in exchange for the right to travel on the country’s roads, which passed through one estate after another.
In 1981, social democrat President Jaime Roldós died in a light plane crash. He had proposed reform of the Texaco-dominated petroleum sector in Ecuador.
Many Ecuadorians hold the CIA and the Videla dictatorship in Argentina responsible for his death. Roldós had spoken out against Latin America’s Cold War-era dictatorship and their U.S. backers and he was ultimately succeeded by another of those same dictators, President Luis Cordero, under whose rule numerous political opponents were disappeared. Such political manoeuvres were common in this era, when the dictators and their U.S. backers brutally repressed any attempt to reform ownership of land or natural resources, in the name of the fight against communism.
Ecuador was rocked by an indigenous uprising in 1990, in which thousands of Andean and Amazonian people descended upon the capital, Quito, in protest. After a few years of near-constant mobilization, another massive uprising in 1994 cemented the place of the indigenous movement in Ecuadorian politics.
The Saraguro-Kichwa indigenous leader Luis Macas was elected to parliament in 1996, followed by Nina Pacari (whose name means “Dawn of Fire”) in 1997. One year later, Ecuador’s constitution was rewritten to recognize indigenous rights and the “pluricultural” character of the nation.
In a decade, Ecuador’s indigenous peoples had built the largest social movement in the country and arguably the most influential indigenous movement in the world. They led the resistance to successive governments that, with the backing of the U.S. and the IMF, sought to eliminate social spending, privatize basic services, and slash taxes on oil companies.
The movement could topple presidents, but it struggled to come up with programmatic alternatives. Its leaders formed an alliance with former Colonel Lucio Gutiérrez, who was elected president in 2003. However, upon assuming the presidency, Gutiérrez turned his back on Ecuador and danced to the tune of IMF and international finance. A Wikileaks cable showed that the U.S. embassy considered that “it is difficult to imagine an Ecuadorian government in which we enjoyed greater access.” Having backed Gutiérrez, the indigenous movement was left discredited and unsure of its next steps.
Rafael Correa and the Citizens’ Revolution:
The uprisings had delegitimized the system, but no one stepped into the newly opened space. The banking crisis of 1999 had deepened the rut and forced Ecuador to adopt the U.S. dollar as its official currency. Corrupt financiers the Isaías Brothers fled to the U.S., where money laundered from the Third World is always welcome. They still enjoy “asylum” there today.
When Gutiérrez was overthrown in 2005 by “The Rebellion of the Wicked,” as he dubbed the uprising of the people of Quito, he was replaced by Emilio Palacio, his vice-president. Palacio chose Rafael Correa as finance minister, an unknown economics professor and member of a group of radical intellectuals in Quito. While the most of the world was suffering from privatizations – in which more and more of the functions of society are captured by corporate interests – these intellectuals were discussing how to win back “policy space” that could be taken advantage of by a people’s government.
Correa had denounced IMF-backed economic policies from his post at Quito’s most prestigious university and continued to do so as finance minister. He slammed Ecuador’s foreign debt policies, according to which the country was legally obliged to spend its budget surplus and higher-than-expected oil revenues on its foreign debt. Ecuador was at one stage spending 47 percent of its annual budget on foreign debt interest repayments, compared with 7 percent on healthcare and 12 percent on education. Within four months, Rafael Correa was forced to renounce his ministerial position, but his public presence was solidified and the stage was now set.
In the 2006 election, Correa ran for president with the support of Ecuador’s socialists, communists, and the indigenous movement. Calling for a “citizen’s revolution,” he defeated the Oligarchy’s candidate, Álvaro Noboa, the richest man in Ecuador, and assumed the presidency in 2007.
Rafael Correa, El Presidente:
The achievements of eight years of Correa’s government are too numerous to list. A new constitution entered into force in 2008 with sweeping guarantees for human rights and the collective rights of indigenous and African-descended groups.
The government saved billions through partial default and renegotiation of its foreign debt. Correa also closed down the U.S. military base at Manta on the Ecuadorian coast. He offered to renew the agreement for the American military base as long as the United States allowed Ecuador to build a military base in Florida.
Correa made Ecuador an ally of Venezuela. He reached an agreement with Hugo Chávez to build an oil refinery in Ecuador, counteracting its dependence on Californian refineries, and he joined Chávez in the Bolivarian Alliance for Our América (ALBA) in 2009. When asked about Chávez calling George Bush Jr. “the Devil” at the U.N. General Assembly, Correa replied that the comparison was unfair to the Devil.
In the 2008 constitution, the new government declared the principle of “universal citizenship”, meaning that citizens from any country in the world would be given an entry visa for Ecuador. Arab and African refugees began to arrive in Ecuador, joining the hundreds of thousands of Colombians who have sought refuge in Ecuador, fleeing the U.S. proxy war against the left-wing FARC guerrilla army.
Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño proudly cited Ecuador’s history as a haven for refugees when granting asylum to Julian Assange.
These changes are indicative of a country whose government’s motto is “Proud and Sovereign Nation.” By winning sovereignty, a scarcely achieved feat in the Third World, Ecuador has managed to dramatically improve its people’s living conditions.
Oil and mining revenue is taxed heavily. Corporate tax is enforced. Foreign debt was renegotiated. The extra revenue then allowed the government to extend basic services to the population for free, including healthcare and university education. Poverty has been reduced from 37 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in December, 2013.
The more people see of this, the more they vote for it, both inside and outside of Ecuador. Growing out of the Madrid indignados movement, Spain’s PODEMOS leaders now call for a “citizens’ revolution” against their country’s corrupt political system. The “threat of a good example” is already taking effect.
Read Part 2 for a blow-by-blow account of the people’s government of Ecuador’s battle with the 1 Percent corporate media, both inside and outside Ecuador. Don’t forget to like us on Facebook for all the latest in Important and Cool.