Bipolar Policy on Equatorial Guinea

The Justice Department turns up the heat against a resource-rich dictatorship as the State Department helps its leader buff his image.

The minister of forestry of Equatorial Guinea, a tiny West African country, refused to offer foreign companies timber export licenses unless they bribed him. He took payment in personal checks or suitcases filled with cash. Companies that paid him off could log wherever they liked, including in national forest reserves allegedly protected under the country's laws. Companies that refused to pay bribes got kicked out of the country and had their property and equipment stolen.

These allegations are contained in an amended civil forfeiture complaint filed on Monday, June 11, by the U.S. Justice Department that seeks tens of millions of dollars in assets belonging to Teodorin Obiang, the notoriously corrupt son of Equatorial Guinea's long-ruling dictator. The U.S. government charges that the assets -- which include a lavish estate in Malibu, California, and more than $1 million in Michael Jackson memorabilia, including a "white crystal-covered 'Bad Tour' glove" -- were bought with corrupt money laundered in the United States.

The Justice Department filed its original complaint last October. Obiang's attorneys argued that the complaint be dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence of corruption; on April 12, U.S. District Judge George Wu said he would dismiss the case unless the Justice Department provided more evidence within 60 days.

June 11's filing was the government's reply. While there has long been overwhelming common-sense evidence of Teodorin's corruption, the complaint filed June 11 added substantial previously undisclosed details.

Teodorin's father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, has ruled Equatorial Guinea since he took power in a 1979 coup. The country is rich in oil and has a per capita annual income of $19,300, on par with Hungary, but most of the population lives in dire poverty. That hasn't stopped President Obiang from lining his pockets: He somehow managed to place eighth on a 2006 list by Forbes of the world's richest leaders, with a fortune estimated at $600 million.

Obiang recently appointed son Teodorin as the country's vice president and clearly intends to turn power over to him when he decides to retire. The Obiang family is being investigated for massive corruption in France and Spain, as well as in the United States. In Spain, a court is investigating a complaint that alleges that 11 of the president's relatives and associates bought properties in Madrid and the Canary Islands with $26.5 million in laundered money. Teodorin is at the center of the French case. Last September, police seized 11 luxury vehicles outside his Paris residence, near the Champs-Élysées.

According to the Justice Department, Obiang in 1993 awarded Teodorin -- then 24 years old -- logging concessions on nearly 90,000 acres of rain forest. The following year, Teodorin was named minister of agriculture and forestry. As minister, Teodorin receives a modest salary of about $5,000 per month, which the Justice Department says is "inconsistent" with his lavish spending habits. In addition to his Malibu mansion, Teodorin owns a $38.5 million Gulfstream V jet and a small fleet of luxury cars, including Ferraris, Bugattis, Maseratis, and Porsches.

The Justice Department's updated complaint contains astonishing details of Teodorin's corrupt stewardship of his country's national forests. It says that he demanded companies pay him $27 per log exported and that these "personal fees were calculated by technicians" on his ministerial staff. The complaint alleges that a Malaysian company called Shimmer paid him especially high bribes and in return was "provided unfettered access" to the country's forests, including protected reserves.

All timber companies in Equatorial Guinea are required by law to provide for forest regeneration and invest in community health facilities, churches, and schools, but according to the complaint, Teodorin did not require companies owned by himself or his mother, "all of whom have substantial forestry concessions in E.G., to comply with these rules." The complain cites an unnamed national of Equatorial Guinea who owned a timber firm as saying that Teodorin's companies "had no function other than to open bank accounts and receive illegal payments."

The complaint also says that Teodorin told one senior executive of a foreign firm that the executive would "suffer" because he refused to pay bribes. The unnamed executive was later arrested and jailed. When he was freed he left the country upon the advice of "an E.G. national familiar with [Teodorin]" who told him he should flee immediately "if he did not want his children in Europe to become orphans."

But even as the Justice Department finally pursues Obiang's ill-begotten American assets, the State Department is participating in a hush-hush roundtable event on June 15 with human rights groups, academics, and Capitol Hill staff, with none other than President Obiang as the star attraction. The media are barred from the event, and the Wilson Center, which is hosting the dialogue, has told participants not to talk to reporters about it. (Full disclosure: Among the invited NGOs is the Open Society Foundations, where I am a fellow.) But the guest list and agenda are secret.

The invitation reads:

The Wilson Center's Africa Program invites you to participate in a unique event, "Differing Perspectives on Equatorial Guinea -- A Dialogue with H. E. President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo." This will be a small, private, invitation-only conversation on Friday, June 15, at 11am in the 6th Floor Boardroom with a select group of academic, NGO, Hill and opinion leaders. We will begin with remarks from the U.S. Department of State's Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Ambassador Johnnie Carson, followed by a short presentation from the President and an open exchange will ensue. The event will be closed to the press and will observe the Chatham House Rule. Please note that this invitation is not transferable.

Asked about the event, Steve McDonald of the Wilson Center said that it was "hosting this meeting at the request of the State Department as a small, private, invitation-only conversation between Obiang and Carson, plus a few opinion leaders from NGOs, the Hill and academia.… We are not telling anyone not to say the meeting is taking place. It is just private.… We have received no financial or other incentives to do this, but do it in a continuing commitment to facilitate dialogue that can lead to democratic and peaceful change in countries where those ideals are not being met."

Meanwhile, another Washington institution, the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, is planning a more direct PR job for the Obiang clan. It is hosting a summit this August in Equatorial Guinea "to promote open dialog and ground-up communication between the people of Africa, local and international organizations and government institutions." The foundation is offering an all-inclusive travel package with the reasonable -- and cute -- price of $2012.

Last December, Obiang received the "Beacon for Africa" award at a Sullivan Foundation dinner in Washington. The foundation "empowers underprivileged people worldwide," according to its website.

Mike DeGeurin, Teodorin's attorney, did not reply to a request for comment.

The State Department has promised a reply to a request for comment, but has not sent it as of publication time.

Update: The State Department responds:

"The idea for the meeting arose from a discussion between President Obiang and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson. The State Department has worked with Wilson Center on the meeting and Assistant Secretary Carson will participate in the meeting.

An open and frank exchange between a government and representatives of civil society organizations and other groups interested in and knowledgeable about Equatorial Guinea and Africa overall can provide valuable insights to all participants."



The Bolivarian Legacy

Hugo Chávez and his leftist allies will leave little behind other than failed economic policies, massive corruption, and shrinking political freedoms.

Last week, Bolivia's leading opposition figure took the unusual step of seeking political asylum in the Brazilian embassy in La Paz, accusing Evo Morales's government of political persecution and death threats. Just as surprisingly, in a stinging rebuke to the Morales government, the Brazilians granted his request, saying his fears were well-founded.

Last month, a prominent Supreme Court judge in Venezuela fled his country into the custody of the Drug Enforcement Administration, fearing that what he knows of narco corruption at the upper levels of Hugo Chávez's government had placed his life in jeopardy. In Ecuador, judges who refuse to follow President Rafael Correa's orders have been forced to resign and several now live in exile. A leading opposition figure is also being hounded by government lawsuits to silence him.

These recent incidents underscore the success of the most pernicious and effective legacy of the Chávez-led Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America -- tightening the grip on power of increasingly corrupt governments while gutting the judiciaries, silencing independent media, and criminalizing all political opposition.

Of course, the judiciaries in most of Latin America have long been hobbled by corruption, cronyism, and antiquated legal structures. But the courts are now completely politicized with the express purpose of furthering authoritarian political projects.

Fidel Castro counseled both Hugo Chávez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, by their own accounts in interviews in 2006, to eschew armed revolution in favor of using the electoral process to gain power and then changing the constitutions and legal structures of their countries to ensure they could govern in perpetuity.

It is an effective strategy followed in lockstep by Chávez and his allies Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, espousing what they call "21st Century Socialism." Take the case of Bolivian senator Roger Pinto, against whom the Morales government has lodged more than 20 criminal cases before he sought asylum.

Earlier this year, the Bolivian government filed charges of homicide against Pinto, but didn't bother to present a body or any other evidence of the alleged crime. Yet he could be subject to arrest and indefinite detention without trial if arrested. There are multiple examples of such arrests, including that of Leopoldo Fernández, the prominent opposition governor of Pando province, who has been held illegally and without charges or trial for more than three years.

Pinto, who leads the opposition and was president of the Senate until 2008, has been outspoken in his denunciations of official corruption, the lack of transparency in the Morales government's dealings with Iran, and the growing presence of Mexican drug cartels in Bolivia.

He publicly presented information from internal police intelligence reports, written by Morales loyalists who view the massive criminalization of the state as a betrayal of the revolution Morales promised.

The allegations of internal corruption centered on those officials connected to the case of Gen. René Sanabria, who served as the head of the elite anti-narcotics police and senior intelligence adviser to Morales. Sanabria was convicted last year in Miami for smuggling 144 kilos of cocaine. The information presented by Pinto detailed the involvement of other senior officials in the drug trade with official protection.

Senior police officials publicly acknowledged the reports were authentic. Sanabria confirmed many of the allegations from prison, and Pinto personally turned over copies of the papers at the presidential palace. Morales immediately filed charges of sedition, slander, and disrespect against Pinto, rather than investigating why reports naming senior officials such as "super minister" Juan Ramón Quintana as complicit in illicit trafficking were never acted upon.

When that did not silence Pinto, the homicide charges were filed, along with other spurious cases. The falsification of the evidence in one case was so blatant that the Morales-appointed judge refused to prosecute, according to lawyers in Bolivia. When the death threats started and it became clear the harassment was going to continue until he was silenced, Pinto sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy. It took the Brazilian government, usually reluctant to get involved in such cases, just 10 days to find there were "irregularities" in the cases against Pinto and grant his request.

In Venezuela, Eladio Aponte, the former Supreme Court justice, has detailed how senior Venezuelan officials from the presidential palace called him to order specific judicial opinions in drug trafficking cases. Knowing his fate if he spoke out at home, he traveled to Costa Rica, where he requested DEA protection to enter the United States and tell what he knows.

In Ecuador, the judge who was handling the criminal libel cases brought by Correa against journalists was forced to resign when he did not support the president with sufficient speed. The hand-picked judge named as a replacement handed down a guilty verdict in short order, supposedly having read through almost 1,000 pages of evidence and written a decision in that time. Another leading opposition figure, retired Col. Mario Pazmiño, has been hit with a criminal lawsuit for discussing the increasing drug trafficking and Ecuador's lack of control of its air space.

In all three countries, the government has arbitrarily shut down independent media. Journalists have been threatened and attacked with impunity by government loyalists and publicly vilified by the presidents.

This destruction of the democratic freedoms is perhaps the biggest betrayal of the Bolivarian revolution. It had promised a new democratic beginning, and an end to decades of corruption, judicial incompetence and authoritarian abuses. In reality, the Bolivarians have subverted struggling, flawed, democratic processes by imposing legal structures designed to empower new authoritarian regimes, underpinned by state-sanctioned intimidation and organized crime.

Today, democracy is slowly but steadily being suffocated in parts of Latin America, particularly those allied with Chávez's authoritarian government. The situation is deteriorating as Chávez's health declines and jockeying for the leadership mantle of the revolution intensifies. It will likely get worse before it gets better.