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Galeria de Ilustres de Guinea Ecuatorial

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The Crude Politics of Trading Oil; Despite an abysmal record on human rights, EquatorialGuinea is a major U.S. supplier.

publicado por: Marcello Mba el 06/01/2003 3:49:42 CET

Strange things happen around here when a country discovers oil.

For most of its 34 years of independence, Equatorial Guinea was best known
for the outlandish brutality of its rulers, which left the tiny West African
country isolated on the international stage.

Then in the mid-1990s, American oil companies found vast oil reserves there
and Washington quickly took notice. Two years ago, Rep. William J. Jefferson
(D-La.) led the first congressional delegation there. The Bush administration,
faced with heavy lobbying from the oil industry and eager to reduce U.S.
dependence on Middle East oil, reopened the U.S. Embassy in Equatorial Guinea,
which was shuttered in 1995.

Now, the U.S. is Equatorial Guinea´s major trading partner and the country
will soon become sub-Saharan Africa´s third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria
and Angola. African countries already provide the United States with about 15%
of its oil, nearly as much as Saudi Arabia, and that figure could grow to 25%
2015, according to the National Intelligence Council, a panel of intelligence
officials and outside experts that studies global trends and reports to the
director of the CIA..

It all sounds like a successful case study of how Washington and U.S.
corporations, faced with turmoil in the Mideast and a potential war in Iraq,
have been aggressively seeking out new suppliers of oil.

There´s just one problem: Equatorial Guinea is headed by an embarrassingly
corrupt government with a notorious human rights record.

That´s made it difficult for the Bush administration to openly embrace its
president, Brig. Gen. Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, so he and his oil industry
supporters have lined up Beltway lobbyists and assorted hangers-on to press
Washington for improved ties. Equatorial Guinea doesn´t need foreign aid --
thanks to oil, the long-impoverished nation could become the world´s richest
country in per capita terms within the decade -- but it does want to be treated
with respect by the U.S. and shed its pariah status.

Meanwhile, the regime´s opponents, some with political handlers of their own,
have been parading through town to offer themselves to the State Department and
other agencies as more palatable alternatives to Obiang. ¨There´s a recognition
on the part of opposition leaders that Washington is now paying much closer
attention to Equatorial Guinea and it will serve them well if they keep people
here informed,¨ said Christopher Fomunyoh of the National Democratic Institute,
the foreign policy arm of the Democratic Party.

The backdrop for all this maneuvering is Equatorial Guinea´s Dec. 15
presidential election. It´s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Obiang, who
took power in a 1979 coup against his uncle, will rack up an overwhelming if
questionable victory at the polls. In 1996, the only time he faced voters,
Obiang won with 99.2% of the vote in this country of 500,000 people.

U.S. relations with Equatorial Guinea have long ranged from cool to outright
chilly. In 1993, U.S. Ambassador John Bennett received a death threat in an
anonymous note sent, he believed, by a high-ranking official in Obiang´s
government. Two years later the Clinton administration closed the U.S. Embassy
in Malabo, the capital.

There has been little ground for improved ties since then. The country´s
human rights record is still considered abysmal and much of Equatorial Guinea´s
new oil wealth appears to be finding its way into the pockets of the president
and his cronies. In 2000, Obiang bought two mansions in the Maryland suburbs
outside of Washington. The bigger estate cost $2.6 million and has 10
seven fireplaces and a 3,500-square-foot club room.

But by last year U.S. firms -- led by Exxon Mobil Corp., ChevronTexaco Corp.
and Triton Energy -- had a substantial stake in Equatorial Guinea. They have
invested a collective $5 billion in the country and have been lobbying for
strengthened relations with the United States.

That effort was coordinated by Dallas-based Triton, a firm with close ties to
the Bush administration. When Triton´s chairman, Tom Hicks, bought the Texas
Rangers from George W. Bush in 1998 when the latter was Texas governor, Bush
made a substantial profit. Federal Election Commission records show that Hicks
has personally contributed more than $125,000 to Bush and the Republican
national committees during the last three years.

In mid-2001, a Triton lobbyist sent a memo to President Bush urging the
administration to take a new look at Equatorial Guinea. ¨It is important to
underscore that most of the oil and gas concessions awarded in Equatorial
to date, have been awarded to U.S. firms,¨ the memo said. ¨This is in stark
contrast to neighboring countries in the region, where the United States has
consistently lost out to French and other European and Asian competitors.¨

A few months later, the administration quietly decided to reopen the American
Embassy. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it had
been closed in 1995 because of human rights and budget concerns. But since the
discovery of oil, U.S. investment and the number of U.S. citizens living and
working there have increased steadily.

¨There are over 1,500 Americans there and that number is expected to increase
as the oil companies increase their involvement,¨ the official said. The U.S.
government continues to have human rights concerns, and given the growing
American presence it was deemed prudent to reopen the embassy, the official

Even as Triton was heading the lobbying campaign, company officials were
negotiating the firm´s sale to Amerada Hess for $2.7 billion. The new owner´s
bottom line is closely tied to its operations in Equatorial Guinea.

Amerada Hess produces 39,000 barrels a day there, more than it does anywhere
else except for the U.S. and Britain. Chief Executive John Hess recently said
that a majority of the company´s production growth over the next three years
will come from Equatorial Guinea.

Not surprisingly, Amerada Hess continues to be at the forefront of the
corporate lobbying for Obiang. To handle that task, the company retains
Washington lobbyist Riva Levinson of BKSH & Associates, whose clients have
ranged from an Angolan rebel group and Iraqi opponents of Saddam Hussein to an
association of medical colleges and PBS.

Obiang´s regime has its own hired help as well. For several years, it has
paid for the services of Bruce McColm, head of a nonprofit group called the
Institute for Democratic Strategies. According to its nonprofit tax filings,
Institute received $212,442 from the Obiang government in 2000.

McColm, a former director of Freedom House, denied being an advocate for the
Obiang government, saying he is simply helping the country build its democratic
institutions. But two years ago, McColm sent a team of observers to monitor
Equatorial Guinea´s municipal elections, reporting them to be basically free
fair. A United Nations report, on the other hand, found that the campaign ¨was
characterized by the omnipresence of the [ruling] party, voting in public and
the intimidating presence of the armed forces.¨

Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington
watchdog group, said oil is driving U.S. policy. ¨That´s the only reason that
this obscure country has come on the administration´s radar screen,¨ he said.
¨The U.S. gets a new source of oil and some of the president´s friends get

Still, the administration has been reluctant to become too cozy with Obiang.
Because of his government´s poor record on political rights, Equatorial Guinea
remains barred from receiving special trade benefits offered to most African
states under a bill passed by Congress in 2000. So are 12 of the 48 other
sub-Saharan African nations that would be theoretically eligible for the trade

The State Department´s most recent report on worldwide human rights said the
country´s security forces ¨committed numerous, serious human rights abuses,¨
including torture and beatings, and that citizens ¨do not have the ability to
change their government peacefully¨ in fair elections. ¨We are concerned about
the human rights situation in Equatorial Guinea,¨ said Pamela Bellamy, the
Department´s desk officer for the country. ¨It is a real issue for us.¨

Despite requests from Obiang, he has never met with Bush or Secretary of
State Colin L. Powell. ¨Any foreign leader wants to be able to see the
when he comes to Washington,¨ said one former State Department official, who
asked not to be identified. ¨We´re managing the relationship with Equatorial
Guinea at the assistant secretary level, which is a real insult.¨

That distance has encouraged four would-be Guinean presidents to come to
Washington to press their respective cases with the Bush administration. Among
them is Gustavo Envela, whose family fled into exile in 1970 and settled in

Envela now lives in Los Angeles and doesn´t have much of a political history.
His resume boasts cameo roles in movies such as ¨Sgt. Bilko¨ and an appearance
on the TV game show ¨Wheel of Fortune.¨ Envela has only been back to Equatorial
Guinea twice, for a total of less than two weeks, most recently in 1990.

Envela got help scheduling his Washington agenda from Robert Kelley, a
lobbyist and onetime deputy Senate legal counsel. He has also been seeking
advice from ex-Clinton advisor James Carville and has been working with Warren
Weinstein, formerly of the U.S. Agency for International Development and now at
AfricaGlobal, a Washington organization whose past clients include Obiang.

Adolfo Obiang Biko, who lives part-time in Virginia has also been in to see
the State Department. A leader of the national movement that won independence
from Spain, Biko quickly ran afoul of the new government and has lived abroad
for more than three decades.

Biko was accompanied in the capital by his friend Frank Ruddy, who served as
U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea under President Reagan. ¨Obiang is an
absolute thief and he heads a government of thieves,¨ said Ruddy, who said he
was not paid for his help. ¨I´d like to see something good happen over there
Adolfo is someone who is worth listening to.¨

In early November, a third man was making the rounds, Celestino Bacale of the
Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), the country´s only genuine opposition
party (and the only one of the four who lives in Equatorial Guinea). Its
Placido Miko, was one of dozens of people sentenced to prison earlier this year
on charges of coup plotting.

Amnesty International described the court proceedings against Miko and others
as ¨an unfair trial where no evidence was presented against any defendant, many
of whom have been tortured to extract confessions.¨

Bacale, his party´s presidential candidate, said he had productive meetings
here, but suspects that the Bush administration cares more about Equatorial
Guinea´s oil than it does about human rights. ¨None of the oil money is getting
to the people,¨ he said. ¨It just allows the government to live well and to
repress the people.¨

The latest would-be Guinean president to come to town, arriving in late
November, was Severo Moto, a Madrid-based exile. He retained Victoria Butler,
independent consultant, to help him navigate the capital.

In 1996, Moto tried to organize a coup against Obiang from Angola.
Authorities there learned of the plan and detained Moto and a small group of
Guineans, Spaniards and Russians. They also seized a ship donated to the group,
Moto said, by an Italian businessman who had a business deal with Obiang turn

Moto spent a month in jail in Angola and then was allowed to return to Spain.
¨I went to Angola to seek liberty for my people,¨ said Moto. ¨I came to believe
that the only way that Obiang would leave office was by force.¨

Now, Moto is pushing for free and fair elections in Equatorial Guinea,
although he is dubious about that possibility.

The State Department´s Bellamy said there is nothing unusual about all the
meetings with Guinean oppositionists. ¨It´s a country where there is a
considerable amount of U.S. investment and where many U.S. citizens work, so
it´s logical that we would be seeing them [opposition figures],¨ she said.
¨They´re talking to us about what they think about the situation there and what
they have to offer.¨

J. Stephen Morrison, who formerly was responsible for African affairs on the
State Department´s Policy Planning Staff, said talking with the opposition also
serves to put Obiang on notice. ¨It´s a pretty unsavory regime and no one has
any illusions about that,¨ he said. ¨That sort of rule tends to be unstable and
you spread your risks around by talking to different types of people.¨

Fuente: Los Angeles Times

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