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American nightmare, the ballad of Steven Donziger

Pollution in the Lago Agrio oil field was just a small portion of the devesation caused by Texaco’s operations in Ecuador. (credit: Courtesy of Julien Gomba via Wikimedia Commons) Pollution in the Lago Agrio oil field was just a small portion of the devesation caused by Texaco’s operations in Ecuador. (credit: Courtesy of Julien Gomba via Wikimedia Commons)
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Steven Donziger is an American attorney that has been locked in a legal battle for almost 30 years, fighting for the Ecuadorian people against the company that created unfathomable pollution in the Amazon Basin. He has been under house arrest since Aug. 2019. He has just been sentenced to six months in prison. He has pledged to continue to fight, but despite all the support behind him, he will almost certainly lose. How did this happen?

In the mid-1970s, Texaco began heavy-duty drilling operations in Ecuador. This caused heavy ecological damage, and created what is now known as the “Amazon Chernobyl,” a 1700 square mile disaster zone in the Lago Agrio oil field. Texaco admitted that they deliberately discharged tens of billions of liters of toxic waste and oil into the environment, and told the Indigenous members of the community living there that the oil wastes were medicinal. All this has been shown to have caused numerous health problems, including an estimated thousands of excess cancer deaths. The waste has devastated the ability of the indigenous tribes to live off their land and has killed many animals. The irreparable damage caused in this region is still felt today and continues to kill people. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have found an increased incidence of cancer and other health risks in the area, while a Chevron-funded study denies this claim.

Steven Donziger, a reputable journalist and lawyer, was asked to help in 1993 and brought a class-action lawsuit to Texaco on behalf of the Indigenous people. This lawsuit was then filed in New York, a decision that made sense at the time but would cause loads of trouble. In 2001, Chevron bought Texaco, and the twists to this story began to appear. Chevron refused to have the trial be held in America and managed to get the case moved to Ecuador, under the condition that they would accept whatever decision the Ecuadorian courts ruled out. Chevron lawyers claimed they wanted this move because in Ecuador courts are “impartial and fair,” a claim that they then proceeded to contradict. Finally, in 2011, after almost 20 years of work, Chevron was found guilty and ordered to pay $18 billion in damages. They were able to appeal this number down to $9.5 billion, but even then this would still be a monumental victory for the Ecuadorian people. However, Chevron refused to pay and moved all their assets out of the country, forcing plaintiffs to appeal to other countries for aid. So far, the plaintiffs have received absolutely none of the money from Chevron, and most likely never will. Chevron seems to have won, but not content with winning, they have attempted to use their resources and influences to crush everyone involved.

Concurrently, Chevron has been working on a new strategy. Since 2009, they have been working on primarily demonizing and discrediting Donziger, as shown in released internal memos. They are trying to destroy him, and with their market cap of $210 billion, they have the funds to pursue this as long as they want. In 2011, Chevron filed a civil suit accusing Donziger of bribing an Ecuadorian judge and faking scientific studies. The judge they claimed Donziger bribed, Alberto Guerra, was being paid a monthly salary of $12,000 by Chevron and later admitted to having completely lied, and that Donziger and his associates never bribed him. This suit would have required a trial by jury, but Chevron changed its demands to allow the case to be tried solely by a judge. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, a man with investments in Chevron and former tobacco lawyer, was to be that judge.

The case was decided based on Guerra’s testimony. Despite Guerra admitting to having lied about the bribery, Kaplan still insists that he told the truth and that Steven Donziger ghost wrote the judgment from the trial. On the subject, he said that "Guerra on many occasions has acted deceitfully and broken the law […] but that does not necessarily mean that it should be disregarded wholesale."

When Donziger refused to surrender his computer, cellphone, and passwords to Chevron, Kaplan held him in civil contempt. He then personally filed criminal contempt charges against Donziger. He appointed the private law firm Seward and Kissel to act as government prosecutors against Donziger. Chevron had previously been a client of Seward and Kissel, a fact that neither Kaplan nor Chevron disclosed. Kaplan then personally chose District Judge Loretta Preska to preside over the trial, bypassing local rules in an unprecedented move.

Donziger was denied his request for a jury trial, denied access to a public trial, and was shown total contempt from Judge Preska while United Nations experts decried his situation as a violation of international human rights law. Unsurprisingly, Donziger was found guilty of six counts of criminal contempt but will appeal the decision.

This entire case is completely tragic, and I encourage everyone to inform themselves further on the issues. The story goes even deeper than what I have written here. For example, I completely glossed over the fake clean-up operation done by Texaco, as well as the numerous other law and PR firms hired to slander and threaten Ecuadorian workers. This case is a clear example of how our justice system can be exploited by corporations and how the vestiges of American Imperialism still run deep. How can we expect our justice system to work for us in the future when it is so clearly being exploited right now?