By Stan Santos
(Author’s note: This article is based on research done in July 2014 and presented in the Spanish language section of the August Community Alliance.)
In September 2013, a nonprofit organization, El Agua es Asunto de Todos (Water is Everyone’s Business), was registered with the State of California. Its office, under the direction of the former Mexican Consul, Martha Elvia Rosas, is located at 1444 Fulton Street, Suite 201, in downtown Fresno. According to its Web site (at the time of this research), “El Agua es Asunto de Todos offers a platform so that members of our community can express themselves regarding the primordial need for a reliable and consistent supply of water in our valley.”
The funds for this effort were provided by “friends and relatives of Rosas and community leaders.” Based on their generosity, El Agua es Asunto de Todos maintains an office in downtown Fresno, which is the base of operations for the distribution of bumper stickers, posters, t-shirts, banners and videos, in addition to Facebook and a professional crafted Web site that showcases their promotional materials. They have also invested in surveys and studies to determine public sentiment on the subject of water and document the efficiency of their efforts.
Representatives of El Agua es Asunto de Todos travel to locations around and beyond the Central Valley with their message. In October 2013, Rosas flew to Washington, D.C., with volunteer spokesperson Maria Gutierrez, who is a prominent member of the Latino community, due to her former position as vice-president, regional director and political sales director for Univision in Fresno.
Gutierrez is also listed alongside business and community leaders who endorse Cary Catalano for Fresno City Council District 1. She shares the list with the California Apartment Association, the Fresno Association of Realtors, Chamber of Commerce leaders, developers, conservative members of the Fresno City Council, the mayor of Fresno and representatives of various business and governmental bodies. Catalano is running against Attorney Esmeralda Soria, a Latina who is supported by Democrats, progressive community groups and labor.
Testimony or Lobbying?
Rosas and Gutierrez went to Washington, D.C., to give testimony in a Congressional hearing regarding the Endangered Species Act. In her statement, Gutierrez said, “For the Latino community in California’s Central Valley, the Endangered Species Act is just a euphemism that means my people and my community are going to be devastated. The Endangered Species Act for Central Valley Latinos is a recipe for economic and personal disaster.”
She went on to express, “In 2009, the Bureau of Reclamation shut off Valley water to Valley agriculture…(pause) to protect a minnow. The Latino community suffered first and the most.”
Based on the data from studies undertaken by El Agua es Asunto de Todos, she issued a pointed threat to Democratic legislators: “In fact, the feeling in favor of water for placing farms and families ahead of fish is so strong that among 93% of Latino registered voters, who identify themselves as Democrats, a 54% majority would support a politician who was willing to work (to) solve our Valley’s water crisis by promoting pro-agriculture, pro-jobs water priorities regardless of their party. By a 2 to 1 margin (54% to 23%), the Latino community has said it will break partisan ranks to throw their support behind individuals working to place families and farms first and solve the Central Valley’s water crisis.”
The Community Alliance spoke with Humberto Enriquez, another spokesperson for El Agua es Asunto de Todos and who also has ties with the Mexican consulate in Fresno. According to Enriquez, “We are inviting the community to be informed and participate in the water debate.”
When asked if there was any connection with the California Latino Water Coalition, Enriquez responded, “We are not part of the Coalition, we are not the same. We are a campaign, we inform the people; we are not political activists.”
Although there appears to be no direct connection with the Latino Water Coalition, the testimony presented in Washington sounds identical to statements made by representatives of the Coalition. The Latino Water Coalition considers the Endangered Species Act as the main legislative obstacle in the way of its efforts to overhaul the water infrastructure of California. Their activists insist on the cancelation of the protections of the Act in order to place the priorities of agriculture ahead of all others. (See “Crisis in the Valley of Riches,” Community Alliance, August 2014.)
There are other disconcerting similarities between El Agua es Asunto de Todos and the Latino Water Coalition. The images being promoted through media are products of companies traditionally known as “public relations.” Today, they define themselves as consultants who specialize in the application of sophisticated technology to mold public opinion. The videos, testimonials, Web sites, Facebook, YouTube and other social media and public events are the tools of their trade.
Now, the context becomes more complex and shadowy. In the case of El Agua es Asunto de Todos, the California Department of Corporations identifies Kim Shaeffer as the agent for service and process. Shaeffer is the vice president for operations and marketing for a company known as the Fenenbock Group. In July, a review of the Group’s corporate Web site showed offices in New York and California, with its West Coast location at 1444 Fulton Street, Suite 202—the same location as El Agua es Asunto de Todos in Fresno.
The president of the Fenenbock Group is Michael Fenenbock, who is characterized in the Internet blog, Israel Opinion, as a longtime American political consultant who lives in New York but spends “a great deal of time in Jerusalem.” Fenenbock is well-known for strident commentaries in print and other media that support Israel’s violent response to the efforts of the Palestinian people to defend their right to live with dignity in their ancestral lands.
Fenenbock is a strong critic of President Obama’s policies, in particular, his “lack of military support for Israel,” despite the fact that the United States gives more than $3 billion in military and economic aid to Israel each year, and on Aug. 4, Obama approved an additional $225 million to replenish Israel’s “defensive” missile system. Fenenbock is also known for spearheading the Internet campaign, “D-Nuke Iran,” which seeks to justify an attack by Israel on Iran, which would bring grave consequences for the most dangerous region in the world.
Americans for Prosperity
A photo album on the El Agua es Asunto de Todos Facebook portrays a smiling, bearded man with a baseball cap and camera, posing with a group of farmworkers. The caption reads, “Yesterday, El Agua es Asunto de Todos organized a meeting with David Spady, State Director for ‘Americans for Prosperity’ during which he filmed testimonials of Huron residents for a documentary called No Water, No Farmers, No Food.”
Americans for Prosperity is a conservative activist organization established with funds from Charles and David Koch. Their company, Koch Industries, is an empire built on oil, wood, plastics and thousands of other products that are found in homes and businesses throughout the United States and in other countries. The Koch brothers are among the richest men in the world with a personal value of more than $100 billion, surpassing Carlos Slim, the Mexican magnate.
Aside from being among the richest, they are also the most influential conservatives in U.S. politics. They contribute heavily to candidates and build “grassroots” campaigns to wage their attacks on labor unions, civil rights and the environment, including the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts. Americans for Prosperity is a vehicle for achieving designs that have little to do with “nonprofit” activities.
The Truth Is Everyone’s Business
El Agua es Asunto de Todos fulfills an important need by elevating and informing rural communities affected by the water crisis. In their important humanitarian work, they have helped to raise funds and gain donations of food and other items for needy families. They have given them a voice in the media, both traditional and the social networks.
The question is whether the information is objective, based on science and the truth, or a product of the convergence of economic interests and the needs of poor communities. The presence of actors like the Latino Water Coalition, the Fenenbock Group, Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers casts a dark cloud over the terrain where the debate over water is unfolding.
Still to be resolved is the contradiction between the mission of a “nonprofit” and an organization that participates in political activities. It is assumed that a nonprofit does not promote candidates or legislation; they do not encourage voters to come out in favor or against any candidate, party or referendum.
The informational events and activities of El Agua es Asunto de Todos are portrayed as neutral and nonpolitical. Nonetheless, they have a net effect of pressuring the community and politicians to vote in favor of the expense of public funds on a massive restructuring of the water delivery system of the state of California. It is a project that, once undertaken, will be irreversible and will have economic and social consequences that will affect generations of Californians. If it fails, the effects could convert the Golden State into a bankrupt state and the Valley landscape into a devastated, lifeless of almonds and oil fields. Where will farmworker families go then?
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.