Dictator and Diplomat
Why is this man smiling? Here's a hint: It has something to do with oil
MALABO, EQUATORIAL GUINEA-It was what Washington insiders call a grip 'n' grin. A beaming President Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea shook hands with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who welcomed him warmly to Washington as a "good friend" of the United States. If Rice had any qualms that April day, she didn't let them show. Obiang may head a corrupt and repressive regime, according to the State Department's own human-rights reports, but Equatorial Guinea is a growing oil producer-now No. 3 in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria and Angola-and an oil-needy America can't afford to be too picky about choosing its petro pals.
But half a world away, in this nation's dusty, ramshackle capital, Rice's diplomatic pragmatism doesn't cut it for two political dissidents who show their torture scars from their four years confined in the notorious Black Beach prison. "We are offended," one of them says. "For a Third World country to call a dictator a good friend is one thing, but for the United States to do it is something else."
Equatorial Guinea is one of those places-and there are others, to be sure-where Washington chooses not to be preachy when the competition for oil reserves is against countries such as China, unencumbered by concerns about human rights and corruption. And even Obiang's opponents seem resigned to that reality. "There will be no democracy here because the president of Equatorial Guinea does not want to democratize the country," the dissident asserts. "Equatorial Guinea's oil resources are in the hands of Obiang and his family. The people are living in a state of misery."
Nouveau riche. A former Spanish colony in West Africa, Equatorial Guinea was a forlorn, forgotten place eking out a living on coca and tobacco exports until oil was struck in the early 1990s. Today, it is quickly becoming a petrostate, its agriculture abandoned and its economy almost entirely dependent on rising revenues from oil and natural gas. Equatorial Guinea's offshore wells pump some 350,000 barrels a day, providing the government with a $3.8 billion windfall this year alone.
The country of roughly 1 million people-nearly double the official population estimate-is finally getting some respect. It has drawn attention from energy-hungry China, which is providing military training as well as locking up oil rights. In February, China National Offshore Oil Co. signed an oil production deal with Equatorial Guinea, following a strategic partnership between the two countries announced by Obiang during his visit to Beijing last October.
The United States, which closed its embassy in 1995, reopened a diplomatic mission in 2003. The Senate is expected to soon confirm career diplomat Donald C. Johnson to serve as the first resident ambassador here in over a decade. As part of the increased contacts, the Bush administration says it is pressing Obiang and his government for progress on issues such as political reform, anticorruption measures, and human-rights protections. "Human rights are violated systematically and on a daily basis," says Jesus Ela Abeme, a leader of the Convergence Party for Social Democracy, the country's only truly independent opposition force. "Torture is practiced daily. It is the only method of investigation and punishment."