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Enron's Asian Misadventure

By Tim Shorrock
Asia Times
January 29, 2002

WASHINGTON - From Indonesia to India to the Philippines, Asia figured large in Enron Corp's global business strategies. And along the way, the now-bankrupt United States company obtained major assistance from the US government and multilateral lending agencies.

The cozy relationship between this paragon of free enterprise and the representatives of globalized state power - stretching from the White House to the World Bank - makes the American criticism of the Asian economies as "crony capitalism" sound like the shrill hypocrisy it always was.

It also underscores how much American corporations depend on the largess of government, even as they preach the gospel of deregulation and free trade.

No wonder even Republicans are calling for increased regulation of accounting firms such as Arthur Andersen, which acted simultaneously as Enron's auditor and consultant, and the private pension system, which allowed Enron to pay its future retirees in the form of now worthless stock.

But Congress should also be looking at how Enron typifies a culture in Washington where high-level officials, in the name of global competition and national security, support the business interests of the largest US multinationals while ordinary citizens live with the consequences of these economic decisions.

One of Enron's largest payoffs came in 1997. That year, the World Bank's Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA), which insures foreign investors in emerging markets against political risk, paid the company US$15 million for the losses it suffered when the Indonesian government cancelled a 500 megawatt power plant project at Pasuruan, East Java.

The decision to cancel the Pasuruan project, which never reached the construction phase, was made in the midst of the Asian economic crisis. Enron sought to revive it, but couldn't reach an agreement with Indonesia's state-owned utility, Perusahaan Listrik Negara (PLN), which argued that electricity demand didn't justify the new plant and that the tariffs - which Enron had negotiated with the Suharto government - were too high.

That, of course, went to the crux of the problem: Enron's, and corporate America's, embrace of one of Asia's most authoritarian governments. Yet MIGA fought vociferously to make sure that Enron was paid under its expropriation insurance. "Enron's power project was unavoidably swept up in the economic turmoil that affected Indonesia at the end of the past decade," MIGA blandly reported last year.

A more accurate account was provided by Nikkei, the Japanese economic newspaper, in November 2000. Indonesia's PLN, Nikkei said, signed power supply agreements with Enron and 26 other multinationals "during the 32-year autocratic rule of former president Suharto, who resigned in 1998 amid massive anti-government protest, and the prices were set some 30 percent higher than the international market."

Nikkei quoted Djiteng Marsudi, the former president of PLN who signed the agreements, as saying that he "had no choice" because of pressure from the Suharto government. "Most of the private power plants rely on their connections with Suharto's family and cronies," Marsudi said. "Only one of the 27 private power plant projects won a contract through a competitive bid."

Despite these clearly unfair contracts, the Clinton administration pushed hard on Indonesia to honor all business agreements signed during the Suharto era, arguing that to do otherwise would undermine the sanctity of contracts.

Adding insult to injury, MIGA refused to provide insurance to Indonesia until 2001, when Jakarta, after months of negotiations, agreed to repay the agency in full for the $15 million it had paid Enron (at around the same time, Indonesia paid a $290 million claim to the US government's Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC), which had insured a separate deal between PLN and MidAmerican Energy Holding - the largest such claim in OPIC's history).

Another example of Enron's reach and political largess is India, where the company was involved in a long, contentious dispute with the Indian government over a controversial $2.9 billion power project in Dabhol (which the World Bank wisely opposed).

Last week, the Washington Post and several other US news agencies reported that senior members of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, intervened last year with the Indian government to help Enron recoup $2.3 billion by selling its share in the project.

Quoting from declassified documents obtained from OPIC, which had $340 million at stake in the Dabhol project, the Post reported last Friday that President George W Bush's National Security Council also played a prominent role in trying to persuade India to go along with Enron's demand to disinvest. "For a moment last year, [the NSC] acted as a sort of concierge service for Enron chairman Kenneth L Lay and India's national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra," the Post said.

Bush officials claim that the administration's action on Enron's behalf ended abruptly on November 8 - the day that Enron admitted to US securities officials that it had filed false statements hiding more than half a billion dollars in losses. It was also the day that Lay, who resigned as CEO last week, told Treasury Secretary Paul H O'Neill about his company's desperate situation.

But it is hard to escape the conclusion that Enron - which was the largest single contributor to Bush's presidential campaign and which had close personal ties to the Bush family and members of his administration - was calling in its political chits.

The upcoming hearings will undoubtedly shed more light on this sordid affair, which was aimed at helping a company accused in detailed reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of gross violations of human rights in Dabhol.

In the early 1990s, Enron struck several deals to build and operate power plants in the Philippines, including a small plant in Subic Bay abandoned by the US military. In those deals, according to a 1995 article in Inter Press Service, Enron was aided by US Ambassador Frank Wisner Jr and officials from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who "provided Enron with key data on the risks of the project and strategies of possible competitors".

Wisner, who was US ambassador to India when Enron became involved in the Dabhol project, was appointed to the Enron board of directors in 1997. Wisner, as many historians of US intelligence know, is the son of the infamous Frank Wisner Sr, who was a top CIA operative until he committed suicide in 1965. He distinguished himself in two US-supported coups in the 1950s that later came back to haunt US diplomacy: the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala and the Mossadeq government in Iran.

Enron, of course, was involved in power projects throughout the world. But it was in Asia where Enron received its biggest assistance from the US government and its greatest help from the international financial institutions backed by Washington. For Asians tired of American hectoring, crony capitalism has a new meaning.

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