Equatorial Guinea, a tiny country that sits on Africa's west coast, sent just four athletes to the Summer Olympics in 1984, including 16-year-old sprinter Gustavo Envela. He did not medal in any events, and he may have been forgotten if he hadn't won over the media during his time on the track.
Envela, a citizen of Equatorial Guinea and permanent resident of the U.S., became simply "Gus," and made such an impression that NBC's Connie Chung believed he was the only member of the country's team that year. A voice-over in a piece on Envela intones: "gifted... blessed... got so much talent."
"I remember watching him run that year. Everyone was talking about him," recalls Salvatore Williams, who worked merchandising at the Los Angeles games and today counts himself among Envela's closest friends.
The four-time Olympian is now 44, less sinewy but with the same movie star looks and broad smile. Over the course of his career, he became the best sprinter in the state of Oregon, graduated from Stanford University, won bit parts in Hollywood, such as in the movie Sgt. Bilko, consulted for an Africa-focused NGO, got married, and had children.
And after all that was finished, Envela set his sights on a race that may be as much of a long shot as winning the 100-meter dash in 1984. Envela is running for the presidency of Equatorial Guinea.
Confident, articulate but slightly manic when he speaks, Envela has been running his campaign, managed by longtime friend Williams, for more than a decade. Like other Equatorial Guinea presidential candidates, it is a campaign-in-exile, which Envela runs from the United States, where he has lived ever since his father, Equatorial Guinea's second ambassador to the United Nations, fled their homeland in 1970.
Envela has not been back to his home country since before the government revoked his passport seven years ago.
His father was pushed out of Equatorial Guinea because of disagreements with the government over free speech and human rights. The ambassador before Envela Sr. was executed after serving in his position for just over a month.
"It's a sinking titanic," Envela says of Equatorial Guinea's current government, which has been ruled for 33 years by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, commonly known as President Obiang.
Obiang's reign has run the gamut from the bizarre to the tyrannical. As Africa's longest ruling leader, Obiang won 96.7 percent of the vote for president in 2009, in an election widely believed to be fraudulent. In a previous election, an opposition candidate said he was afraid to campaign within Equatorial Guinea, out of fear Obiang would eat his testicles.
Photos of Obiang adorn the wall of nearly every shop in the country, which could be law or merely a strong suggestion. Foreign reporters are not welcomed in Equatorial Guinea, and a study of the most censored countries by the Committee to Protect Journalists put Equatorial Guinea near the top. A reporter working for The Guardian that managed to gain access to the country last year described his experience visiting a luxury spa in the capital of Malabo as "like something out of The Truman Show, one of many illusions in a land of artifice."
The U.S. State Department's reports on the country are more chilling. A short list of human rights abuses under Obiang's rule include: "abridgement of citizens' right to change their government; instances of physical abuse of prisoners and detainees by security forces; arbitrary arrest, detention, and incommunicado detention; harassment and deportation of foreign residents with limited due process; government corruption; violence and discrimination against women; suspected trafficking in persons; discrimination against ethnic minorities, and restrictions on labor rights."
Human Rights Watch calls Obiang's rule a "dictatorship."
By law, the next presidential elections are to be held in 2016. But Envela—in a view not shared by many others who follow the political situation in Equatorial Guinea—thinks Obiang could be removed before then.
"The time has come for him to step aside," Envela said, "and to usher in the 21st century of African democracy."
The 21st century for Equatorial Guinea has been a time largely shaped by the discovery of oil, which happened in 1996. Since the discovery, the tiny republic the size of Maryland has become the third-largest oil producer in Sub-Saharan Africa. With a population of 650,000, the country's income per capita has risen to one of the highest in the continent.
Much of the oil wealth, however, is concentrated in the hands of only a few people, namely Obiang, his family, and his associates, according to a 2005 Senate investigation, which found that Obiang had funneled millions of dollars into offshore accounts.
Riggs Bank, the D.C.-based bank that allowed Obiang to put through a $35 million transaction from the country's oil revenues, was forced to close in the wake of the investigation.
A Department of Justice investigation in 2011 found that Obiang's son, Teodorín, spent millions that he could not possibly have made as the country's Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, including the purchase of a Malibu, California home, a Michael Jackson glove, and extravagant cars. He mused about buying a yacht for $300 million, three times the amount of Equatorial Guinea's health and education budget, according to anti-corruption group Global Witness.
(Teodorín also reportedly plied his girlfriend, American rapper Eve, with a number of gifts. She was later named in the DOJ investigation, and believed to have broken up with Teodorin over reports his father was a cannibal.)
As a result of Teodorin's shopping sprees, he is wanted for international arrest. He is also Obiang's likely successor.
Envela acknowledges that "taking on a multibillion dollar dictator" has been "difficult." Complicating the story is that Envela has a criminal past of his own.
In 2000, Envela was convicted of battery after lashing out against his wife. "I overreacted to a situation and I accept full responsibility for it,” Envela says of the conviction, sounding instantly remorseful. “My two daughters have taught me the importance of respecting women and this is something that I deeply regret.”
He received a year of counseling and served three years probation for the conviction, which numerous media reports about Envela list as his only crime. But a U.S. News & World Report investigation found that Envela has more on his record. In 2011, Envela was charged with forgery, theft by unlawful taking, and access device fraud outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
According to a police criminal complaint, Envela took a man's credit card from a FedEx copier in Pittsburgh after it was left there. Envela then used the card to pay for items at Wal-Mart, as well as charges at gas stations in Pennsylvania and Maryland, according to the complaint. Envela will soon finish a year-long stint in a Pennsylvania "Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition" program, which seeks to divert first-time offenders from the criminal justice program.
"I had unfortunately used a credit card that I wasn't authorized to use," Enevela says. "I started a process of restitution, which will be over soon. I accept full responsibility for that error."
But a shady history of crime doesn't end with Envela.
Williams, his longtime friend and campaign manager, is a member of one of Pittsburgh's most notorious crime families. In the 1990s, Williams' father ran a multi-million-dollar gambling empire in the city with his family. When he was caught in 1997, the younger Williams pled guilty to his role in the ring, and served six months probation.
"I ran numbers. It was an illegal gambling operation. That was it," Williams says. "My whole family was in it. They made a federal case out of it. It's nothing that I'm ashamed of, to be quite frank. My past is my past. There is nothing in my past that I am ashamed of to talk about."
Williams, who now owns eight parking lots in the Pittsburgh area, is listed as Envela's official campaign manager on his Foreign Agents Registration Unit (FARA) documents.
Envela says that he has learned from his mistakes, and will use those lessons learned as president. But it is hard to deny the irony of Envela's watchdog-styled E-mails, which warn of "greedy lobbyists," and praise "the spirit of transparency," as "guided by the law."
A number of influential people in Washington are familiar with Envela's political musings because of his verbose and regular letter campaigns, which detail the problems in Equatorial Guinea.
Envela splits time between Washington and Pittsburgh, where he is the president of Voice of Democracy, an Africa-focused consultancy.
He is infamous in Washington for his mailing lists, which target senior officials in the White House, political operatives, oil executives, media moguls, officials at the Departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security, and anyone else in Washington Envela thinks could have a say in what happens in Equatorial Guinea. Many of these people receive E-mails from Envela in their private E-mail inboxes.
Envela has tenuous connections to some in his E-mail list. He says he dined with Democratic strategist James Carville, during which time he said they discussed solutions for Africa. He says he consulted for an NGO called Africa Global with Warren Weinstein, the American contractor who went missing in Pakistan and appeared in a video pleading for his life in May. And he says he met with the office of late California Rep. Tom Lantos, a proponent of human rights, about the abuses in Equatorial Guinea. (Carville did not respond to request for comment.)
"I want to say that... I did everything I could to sound the alarm," says Envela of his prolific E-mailing. "And that I did it even before there was oil, when no one cared about Equatorial Guinea."
Envela sounded the alarm to his E-mail list on Teodorin's mansion, on the Riggs Bank transaction, and on American lobbyists such as Lanny Davis who were employed by Obiang. It is unclear whether any action was taken as a result of his letters.
"There can only be good things coming from disseminating truthful information," says Tutu Alicante, executive director of human rights group Equatorial Guinea Justice. "And to the extent that [Envela] has been able to forward truthful reports, to the influential people in his E-mail list, that is helpful."
Even if Obiang did fall out of power, and Teodorin did not succeed him, Envela would have to beat several other more well-known opposition candidates.
Severo Moto Nsá, for one, is more organized than Envela. As head of the Equatorial Guinea's Progress Party, Moto has an entire government-in-exile that is simply waiting for regime change in Madrid. Moto says he cannot return to Equatorial Guinea because Obiang will "eat his testicles."
Plácido Micó Abogo, who founded the opposition party the Convergence for Social Democracy, is the only well-known opposition candidate actually living in Equatorial Guinea, a choice he has paid for with multiple arrests and alleged torture. Micó is sharply critical of the political situation in Equatorial Guinea, and believes Obiang has retained power with the help of the U.S. because of oil interests.
Joseph Kraus, the program and development director at Equatorial Guinea Justice, says "it is hard to know how popular anyone who runs against Obiang is... because the elections are regularly marred by fraud."
Kraus says it also appears that Obiang has been working to further solidifying his position. "He has recently forged relationships with other African leaders, made trade contacts," said Kraus. "So it's unlikely any coup attempt would be recognized."
Gregory Simpkins, a member of the House of Representatives' sub-committee on African & Global Health, blames Obiang's strong position on the opposition's inability to organize—be it Envela, Moto or Mico.
"The opposition always does poorly because they never concentrate on building parties, just plotting to overthrow the government," Simpkins says.
Envela, however, is content to stay in his lane.
"Obiang is crazy, but he is also a coward," he says, excited over the prospect of his own campaign. "With the recent conviction of Charles Taylor at the Hague, the arrest of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast, the coup in Mali, and the Arab Spring... President Obiang knows his time is up."
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