Tuesday 29 May 2012

Greg Palast Vultures' Picnic: stunning. Everyone should read this book

Greg Palast's Lady Baba-Land: The Islamic Republic of BP (BP in Azerbaijan and worldwide for Channel 4 Dispatches)

If you ever suspected how filthy big business is at the top but never knew the details, investigative journalist Greg Palast's latest book, Vultures' Picnic, will have your jaw hitting the floor every few pages. Greg gives the ins and outs of the dirty deals that are screwing our planet by a bunch of psychopaths (see Jon Ronson's fab The Psychopath Test) with nothing but money and power on their minds.

"You know what the perfect crime is? It's the one that's not illegal."

You knew about BP's Deep Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 men and that we feared would never stop spilling oil (it's still seeping). But did you know this wasn't the first time the dodgy Halliburton cement had failed at a BP well? Yeah, yeah, they swore blind to Congress that this was their first such accident but did you know they'd had one two years before in the land of Eurosong, Azerbaijan? Did you know HOW they got the solo contract in that part of the Caspian Sea?

How about the Euro? You think it's an accident that the new currency is taking us down? Did you know that this was its design? The US under Reagan realised that they hated Europe with its pussy socialist welfare systems and decided to bring it down. Mundell was the architect [Edit: Robert Mundell of Reagonomics infamy]. If that sounds far-fetched, Palast studied under Milton Friedman so he knows the Chicago School of Venality better than most.

Or take the repeal of FD Roosevelt's 1933 Glass-Steagall Act prohibiting saving's banks from merging with the casino "investment" banks: FDR would guarantee deposits but not gambling losses. Following intensive lobbying, US Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin smashed up the act in 1999 and promptly joined Citigroup as co-chair on $126 million "compensation". (Check out Rubin's CV since then to understand how fucked we are.) This is what we're reaping now, swallowing America's toxic financial assets: derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, "and all the other exotica coming out of the mad bankers' laboratories"."Let Ireland, Brazil, and Portugal pay cash money to take on the US bankers' risks.... How do we bust down financial rules across the planet? ... It was not enough to erase the laws against speculating with bank deposits in the United States if it was still a crime to do so in Brazil, India, Spain, and Greece."

And, lo, the Financial Services Agreement (FSA) was rewritten, errant nations brought to heel. And here we are today.

So what of China, "the juiciest target of the new FSA"? They signed, joined the WTO and allowed JP Morgan and Citibank into Shanghai. "In effect, US workers' jobs would be sold for the bankers' right to gamble in the new market." Skynet's tentacles have encircled the globe.

Greg Palast is part Hunter S Thompson, a large dollop of Spider Jerusalem and a hefty chunk of Sam Spade. He pursues his corrupt quarry with a breath-taking zeal and steel. In a wrist-slitting scenario, his great strength as a writer is that he gives us all courage in the face of overwhelming odds and overwheening power.

* * *

Engelbert Humperdinck sang "Only love will set you free" at the Eurovision Song Contest last Saturday. Well, in Azerbaijan that's right, 'cause little else will.

Here's an article written by Greg about BP in the Eurovision host country.

EuroVision in the Islamic Republic of BP
The "sexiest Muslim woman in the world" has already won
by Greg Palast

Will "Beyond Petroleum" oil giant BP pick the winner of the EuroVision Song contest this Saturday in Baku, Azerbaijan? If so, I wouldn't be surprised.

When I was arrested by the military police of Azerbaijan during my investigation of BP for Channel 4's Dispatches in 2010, one of the cops who surrounded our crew in the desert told us, with great pride, "BP drives this country."

Photo: Military police chief, Azerbaijan, photo by Palast, under arrest, with hidden pen-camera.

Indeed it does.

In 1992, the newly independent former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan elected a kindly Muslim professor Abulfaz Elchibey as President.

But the voters had made an error: Elchibey refused to give BP an exclusive contract to drill the nation's massive Caspian Sea fields as the company wished. In 1993, with the assistance and, reportedly, guns provided by MI6, Elchibey was overthrown by the nation's former Soviet KGB boss, Heydar Aliyev.

Within three months, Aliyev handed BP a sweetheart deal, called "The Contract of the Century", to take Azerbaijan's Caspian oil.

The way to the no-bid deal for BP was "greased," to use the term applied by former BP operative Leslie Abrahams, with several million dollars in illicit payments and weekends with lap dancers in London for Azeri officials. I asked Abrahams, who was ordered by BP to provide military intelligence to MI6, whether he understood that he was paying "bribes on behalf of BP and the British government." He replied, "Absolutely, yes."

Photo: BP Executive/MI6 operative Leslie Abrahams at BP Baku office, with Kalashnikov, during 1993 coup.

Since BP has taken control of Azerbaijan's oil, the nation has become fabulously wealthy--at least for those close to the Aliyev family and BP.

And they eat well. The daughters of the new President, Ilham Aliyev (son of Heydar), picked up the tab for dinner in London for a half dozen of their friends. It came to £300,000 (excluding tip and VAT).

According to Robert Ebel, the CIA's former oil intelligence chief, the whereabouts of $140 million in BP and other oil industry payments are "totally unknown."

This week, EuroVision Song Contest viewers will be treated to the images of the ancient city of Baku where the Silk Road streets are filled with Maseratis and Bentlys. The Bently dealership, and much of the capital, is owned by Azerbaijan's First Lady,

Photo: First Lady Hon. MP Mehriban Aliyeva (middle) and daughters.
Mehriban Aliyeva, the Sexiest Muslim Woman in the World. That's official, the vote was taken by Esquire Magazine. (She's actually the twelfth Sexiest Women in the World, but the other eleven, infidels all, can be ignored here.)

I'm not saying she doesn't deserve the title: her fashion model face has been created at great expense by "so much plastic surgery," according to the US State Department Manning/WikiLeaks cables, that Lady Mehriban "appears unable to show a full range of facial expression."

But when I left the Old City and its Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana stores and headed off to Sangachal, the town where BP's terminal operates, I found a nation heading full speed into the 14th century.

Baku, once the world's leading manufacturer of oil drilling equipment, is now one of the world's leading centers of oil-toxin cancers.

Walking along the main street of Sangachal, the aptly nick-named, "Terminal Town," was like doing the rounds in a cancer ward. The local shoemaker, Elmar Mamonov, who hasn't sold a shoe in two years, told me, “This one’s daughter has breast cancer; there, Rasul had a brain tumor. Cancers we had never seen. His funeral was last week."

Azlan, afraid to give his last name, paid to have a cancerous lung cut out,” because employer BP wouldn't pay. He says the oil company fired him after he could not keep up with his work.

And there was Shala Tageva, a schoolteacher, who has ovarian cancer. She needs treatment soon, but how to pay for it, Mamonov can’t imagine. Shala is Mamonov’s wife. Suddenly, Mamonov stopped himself. “If I am arrested, you will help me, yes?”

Sorry, sir, not in the Islamic Republic of BP.

Oil, their main industry, has seen employment drop about 90% according to journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Her father, the former oil production minister, was fired by Aliyev when Ismayilov suggested that shopkas, bribery, was behind the destruction of the industry, bribes which allegedly allowed BP to avoid "local content" laws that would have saved those jobs.

Throughout the nation, we heard the same refrain: nostalgia for the old days of freedom and prosperity under Soviet rule. Under BP rule, the people's health, income and freedoms have decayed rapidly, as pollution has turned their Caspian fisheries into a dead, chemical toilet.

But Azeris are well entertained. The massive expenditure for the EuroVision Song Contest follows the government's spending $1 million for an Elton John concert during a depression.

Today, only one in seven dollars of GDP is paid in salaries (versus four of five dollars in the US and UK). Where have the billions gone?

No one dare look for it, nor the source of the First Lady's wealth. The last journalist who asked about the funds, Elmar Huseynov, was gunned down in his home. A journalist who questioned what happened to Huseynov was jailed. No third journalist is investigating what happened to the first two.

Azerbaijan is, nominally, a democracy. Indeed, the First Lady won a convincing election to Parliament (as did every other candidate supporting her husband's regime–- there was not a single member of the opposition elected). But it doesn't, in the end, matter who is voted in, as long as "BP drives."

Within hours of our arrest, my crew and I were released by the Deputy Chief of the Security Ministry: Imprisoning a Channel 4 reporter would have been an embarrassment for BP. But our witnesses to BP's horrific drilling practices didn't do so well. One made it out of the country, but others disappeared.

When you watch the Euro-warblers compete this Saturday, just remember that in Azerbaijan, the winners are already chosen: BP and the family of the Sexiest Muslim Woman in the World. And that's not a pretty sight.

Greg Palast's book on BP, Vultures' Picnic: a tale of Oil, High-Finance and Investigative reporting, will be released in Britain on June 26.

Welcome to the 21st Century in which Skynet makes its move. In the words of Prince, "I've seen the future and, boy, it's rough!". And, while we're on the subject, the present ain't that great, either.

More on this at Left Foot Forward

Greg Palast on YouTube

UPDATE: Special Guest Warren Ellis (Author of Transmetropolitan), Nick Dearden of Jubilee Debt Campaign and John Hilary of War on Want (more guests to be confirmed) will be sharing the stage at the Vultures' Picnic launch in London 26 June with special guest appearances by Laurie Penny and Anna Chen.

No comments: