With little fanfare and no formal announcement, the United States has re-opened its embassy in the tiny West African country of Equatorial Guinea. Long viewed as a police state run by a corrupt dictator, Equatorial Guinea has emerged as a major oil producer that is now receiving heavy American investment.
When the original U.S. embassy closed in 1995, budgetary considerations were cited. But privately, officials acknowledged the real reason involved Equatorial Guinea's poor human rights record.
Since then, however, more than 1,000 American citizens have flocked to the small West African country, most of them oil workers.
Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Walter Kansteiner, who stepped down this past week, says those Americans need services that can only be provided by an embassy. Mr. Kansteiner joined Equatorial Guinea's president, Teodoro Obiang, at low-key ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the new embassy in mid-October. He says he is pleased with the re-opening decision.
"We closed that embassy some seven or eight years ago," he said. "So we cut the ribbon, and we were glad to do it. You know, on any given day, we have up to one thousand 500 American citizens in Equatorial Guinea... And so we have, obviously, a huge obligation to consular affairs issues for all those Amcits [American citizens]."
Admittedly, it will be a small embassy, with only a single American diplomat who doesn't hold ambassadorial rank, working out of a rented home. But some human rights groups say even this sends the wrong signal to Equatorial Guinea's President Obiang, who seized power in a coup and won election last year in a vote that the State Department says was marred by extensive fraud and intimidation.
"On paper, Equatorial Guinea has the fastest GDP growth in the world and according to the World Bank its oil revenues may reach $700 million this year," said Sarah Wykes, who is with Global Witness, which campaigns for greater openness in the management of oil, gas and mining revenues worldwide. "However you have to put that in the context of a country, again according to the World Bank, in which 65 percent of the population live in extreme poverty and all the oil wealth is concentrated in the hands of a mere five percent of the population. There have also been numerous reports of serious and persistent human rights violations by the Obiang regime and that's according to the U.S.'s own State Department. There is also very strong evidence of government misappropriation of oil revenues and that's according to the U.S.'s own Energy Information Agency."
Still, the State Department hopes that by re-opening the mission, it will enable the United States to engage Equatorial Guinea's leaders. The goal will be to ensure the country's oil revenues are used to improve not only the human rights situation in the country but also the standard of living for its estimated population of about half a million.
But U.S. authorities are taking a cautious approach. Because of its human rights problems and corruption, Equatorial Guinea has not been made eligible for trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act.
As for possible U.S. military assistance, only some $50,000 has been set aside this year for a possible training program but even that tiny amount is contingent on progress in the human rights area. U.S. officials have also declined to sanction a private American security company's $10 million plan to revamp Equatorial Guinea's entire security structure.
Equatorial Guinea is split into two main parts, the island of Bioko, where the capital Malabo is located, and a stretch of the African mainland called Rio Muni, bordered by Cameroon and Gabon. It is the only Spanish-speaking country in sub-Saharan Africa, having gained independence from Spain in 1968. President Obiang came to power in a 1979 coup in which he overthrew his uncle, the country's first leader.