Sunday, June 17, 2012

Investing in Corruption

Having recently restructured the family business--the limited partnership known as Equatorial Guinea--Teodoro Obiang came to the United States seeking investors willing to funnel more money into his private bank accounts.  According to a government press release, "The government of Equatorial Guinea laid out the welcome mat in Houston Monday [June 11] for U.S. investments in information technology, telecommunications, fisheries, construction, agriculture and agroindustry, mining and hydrocarbons."

If, as the press release indicates, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) was indeed present at the event (along with Rep. Al Green [D-TX]), then an explanation is necessary.  On May 10, 2007, the Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights, and Oversight, together with the Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health, held a hearing under the heading, "Is There a Human Rights Double Standard?  U.S. Policy Toward Equatorial Guinea and Ethiopia."  In a statement prepared for the hearing  (see page 62), Rep. Jackson-Lee made the following comments:
     Mr. Chairman, I believe it is crucial that we practice what we preach.  In this country, we struggled to achieve democracy, fought for our own human rights, and we now call for the observance of these same values around the world.  Yet we persist in providing support to non-democratic regimes in exchange for their cooperation on strategic issues.
     Citizens of Equatorial Guinea do not enjoy the freedoms that we as Americans would believe to be crucial.  According to a Freedom House report, "the country has never held a credible election," and freedom of the press, as well as the rights of association, assembly, collective bargaining, and travel abroad are all limited.  Coupled with a lack of an independent judiciary, the nation's citizens have little constitutional or legal protection or recourse.
Rep. Jackson Lee should know that there have been no significant changes in Equatorial Guinea that would negate the validity of her statement since it was presented five years ago.  On the contrary, there has been another sham presidential election since then and members of the Obiang family are now subjects of corruption investigations in the United States, France, and Spain.  President Obiang may believe that Equatorial Guinea is "now considered a model country in African development," but this is true only if by "model country" he means one that illustrates what not to do to promote freedom and prosperity for ordinary citizens.

On Friday, Obiang met with representatives of four civil society groups that have been critical of his regime's record on human rights and corruption:  Human Rights Watch, Global Society, the Open Society Foundation, and Oxfam America.  The meeting was arranged by the State Department and the Woodrow Wilson Center.  The meeting was off the record, but going into it the four organizations had promised to "press Obiang to take concrete steps to increase public transparency, combat corruption, prioritize anti-poverty spending, cease political repression, enact judicial reforms, and permit domestic and foreign civil society activists and journalists to operate freely."  It is worth asking whether Rep. Jackson Lee and Rep. Green pressed Obiang in the same way on Monday.

In all likelihood, Obiang received some advice on how to handle human rights NGOs the night before his meeting.  Josh Rogin reports that Carlton Masters, the CEO of a firm called GoodWorks International (not, as its name might suggest, a non-profit), hosted a dinner party in Obiang's honor Thursday night.  Masters, a former banking executive, founded GoodWorks International with Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to represent American companies seeking to do business in Africa and the Caribbean.  The company was particularly successful in parlaying personal ties with former Nigerian dictator Olusegun Obasanjo into lucrative contracts for American oil companies.  (See this interesting story dated April 18, 2007, in the New York Times.)  In short, Masters' interest in Obiang is more pragmatic (read "profit-oriented") than principled.

No doubt the same can be said of Rep. Jackson Lee and Rep. Green, whose interest in potential contracts for Houston-based firms caused them to overlook the abysmal human rights record of the Obiang regime.