Letter to Al Gore from Abby Reyes, Terence Freitas' girlfriend

Terence Freitas, an American activist working on behalf of Colombia's U'wa people, was killed a year ago. This is a letter to Vice President Al Gore, which we recently received at CSN.

February 3, 2000

Dear Vice President Gore,

I write to you as the girlfriend of Terence Freitas, one of three human rights workers kidnapped and assassinated last March while assisting the U'wa indigenous community of oil-rich northeastern Colombia. I write to you from Palawan, Philippines, where I too help provide crucial environmental legal assistance to indigenous communities. I write to remind you of the various roles you personally have played in the case of the U'wa, including that of meeting Terence and the U'wa in 1997.

One year ago this week, as I unpacked moving boxes into the apartment Terence and I would have shared in Brooklyn, I found myself shelving two copies of Earth in the Balance: my own, and that of Terence. I sat down with the book again, rereading with marvel the poignant message you asserted in 1993. You insisted that policy makers and the general citizenry alike must take into account environmental and social costs of our coveted northern affluence. Proudly, I thought back to the time Terence met with you in Washington D.C., at a gathering for the 1997 Goldman Environmental Prize recipients. Terence was instrumental in bringing the U'wa struggle against Occidental Petroleum to world-wide attention. He accompanied U'wa leader Roberto Cobaria to your office. How strong a statement of solidarity, for the Vice President of the United States to meet with an indigenous leader from the cloudforest of Colombia, recognizing his peoples' adamant resistance to a US multinational oil company. You, Terence, the U'wa leader, and your principles, standing there together in your office.

While I reread Earth in the Balance last February, Terence was in the U'wa cloudforest with Native American leaders Ingrid Washinawatok and Lahe'ena'e Gay on a cultural exchange. On February 18, Terence called from Cubara, Colombia. I told him about the two copies of Earth in the Balance. We discussed whether you could be tapped as a more vocal U'wa ally in the campaign against the pending ecological, cultural, and economic havoc oil exploitation would spell for the U'wa and Colombia. We were hopeful about your potential leadership on this pressing environmental case. That phone call was the last time I talked to Terence. One week later, on the day he was to return to New York, he and his companions were kidnapped by guerrillas who are allegedly on friendly terms with Occidental. One week after that, the bound bodies of these three human rights workers were found splayed and disfigured by rounds of bullets just across the Venezuelan border.

You came to my attention again during the blurry week following the murders. In response to the appalling delay of the US State Department to fly the bodies home from Caracas, the families received word that the Office of the Vice President was trying to arrange Air Force transport. I wondered at that time if you remembered meeting Terence. I was hopeful that your personal connection to the U'wa struggle would expedite the process of getting their bodies home. Unfortunately, it was almost a week later before we met the United cargo plane in Los Angeles carrying Terence's body box.

Seven months later, I read the Wall Street Journal's account of your family's lucrative inheritance from your father of Occidental Petroleum and Occidental subsidiary stock and your long-standing personal relationship with Occidental directors (9/29/99, editorial page). By then I had experienced several such smacks of political double speak from most actors in the Colombian debate. In Washington, Representative Gilman used the murders of the three American human rights workers as a "wake up call" for the United States to increase military assistance to the Colombian military, despite that military's abysmal human rights record spanning four decades of escalating civil war during which guns held by any side have never proven a viable means toward peaceful resolution (see Washington Post editorial page, May 22, 1999). In Bogota, on September 21, 1999, the Colombian Minister of Environment Juan Mayr - himself a former Goldman Environmental Prize winner - issued the license for Occidental Petroleum to proceed with drilling the oil under U'wa land. To justify his action, he claimed the constitutionally-required community consent process and environmental review complete, despite the fact that the U'wa community continues to voice its vehement opposition and have been privy to no such process of environmental review. In Los Angeles, on April 30, 1999, at Occidental Petroleum headquarters, Public Relations Officer Larry Meriage held Terence's mother's hand, calling the guerrilla murderers atrocious, despite the fact that his company's incipient oil operations in U'wa land are directly responsible for the intensification of violent conflict in the previously peaceful region. Even given this prevalent political milieu, in which action wildly contradicts expressed values, I am appalled and disheartened to see you, America's lead environmental champion, living the antithesis of your espoused values by continuing to personally profit from Occidental Petroleum's exploits.

I am the same age as your daughter. Terence was one year our junior. Like your daughter, Terence and I looked forward to joining the legal profession together. We were eager to apply the conflict resolution and community organizing skills we have gained abroad to help address the wealth of environmental justice conflicts brewing domestically. Like your daughter, Terence and I had a bright future. With unbearable anguish, his family and friends buried him on his twenty-fifth birthday last spring. Think how much brighter your family's prospects, as you enter the candidacy, if you removed the shadow cast by your family's complicity in the unspeakable horrors faced by our family and those of the U'wa because of Occidental Petroleum.

I implore you to divest your family from Occidental Petroleum and answer the requests from the U'wa Defense Working Group, a coalition of US-based environmental and human rights organizations, to explain your position on that company's actions in the U'wa territory of Colombia. Further, I beseech you to engage your peers in Washington, at the development banks, in Bogota, and the private sector in the sincere pursuit of alternatives to military escalation and natural resource exploitation as the means to address Colombia's economic woes. Guns and oil have never spelled sustainable development or peace. Measures such as debt swaps and demonstrated multilateral commitment to Colombia's locally-driven social and economic development would move the country closer to these goals. Don't let your silence on the U'wa- Occidental conflict - an emblem of the wider sustainable development debate you champion - continue to corrode the standards you set for the American public with Earth in the Balance.

Look again at what stirred you to work for the earth in the first place. Take a minute from your campaign, go to the forest, any forest. Take a walk alone. Feel the pulse of your heart beating in time with that of the rivers running. Feel the soil underfoot, like your muscles stretching, resilient and alive. Breathe in the blessing of being alive. Think of Terence and the U'wa working to defend that basic human right, of life. Think of the Colombian military last week forcibly removing U'wa families from their ancestral and legally owned land to provide armed and protected access to Occidental's equipment and staff houses. Think of the newly granted US budget for this very Colombian military, the largest sum given in history, making Colombia the third largest recipient of US military aid. Think twice about where you have chosen to put not only your family's money, but that of the taxpayer as well.

Vice President Gore, you should have my vote and that of virtually all of my peers. We are young doctors, ecologists, policy analysts, teachers, historians, artists, journalists, public officials, development workers, and lawyers. We work for environmental and social justice. We should be your constituency. I urge you to demonstrate to us that you deserve it.


Abby Reyes