LUANDA, ANGOLA - Lusia Bento Xicuba is one of thousands of street vendors in Praça da Madeira, an unlicensed market about a half-hour's drive from downtown Luanda.
Xicuba's construction materials business has been struggling since the price of oil, Angola's biggest export, dropped four years ago.
Angola has since faced a shortage of foreign currency, which has discouraged banks from lending to businesses like Xicuba's.
The government of President Joao Lourenco has been seeking to inject money into the country with an amnesty for those who repatriate suspect funds.
Aid to business owners
But Xicuba doubts the program will help — at least for businesses like hers. If the money is returned, she said, it would be useful if the government helped more business owners with loans to refinance and develop.
Lourenco, who was elected in 2017, says decades of corruption under former President José Eduardo dos Santos left billions missing from state coffers.
The former president denies any looting during his 38 years in power. He fell out with Lourenco after the president's much-lauded anti-corruption drive targeted members of dos Santos' family.
Angolan lawmakers last year backed Lourenco on giving amnesty to those who bring illegally transferred funds back into the country.
But so far, there has been no announcement on returned money, despite some high-profile arrests and prosecutions.
Critics like opposition UNITA party lawmaker Adalberto Costa Júnior say that raises doubts about the anti-corruption drive.
He said this seemed to be a selective struggle. It is not a universal fight against corruption, Junior said; it appears that there are protected people and very calculated goals being pursued. A fight like this, Junior said, is not efficient.
The Angolan Central Bank has said billions of dollars have been illegally sent abroad over the years, while tens of billions in government funds linked to Angola's state oil company, Sonangol, have disappeared.
Lourenco sacked dos Santos' daughter, who was running Sonangol, and streamlined operations and regulations to encourage foreign investors.
Lawyer António Ventura, who is with the watchdog group Associação Paz, Justiça e Democracia, noted that it won't be easy to eliminate systemic corruption and recover stolen funds after decades of exploitation. A lot of the stolen money was put into financial assets, Ventura said, many of which are earning interest in foreign banks.
U.S. officials on Tuesday praised Lourenco's anti-corruption efforts ahead of a visit at the end of the week by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
Tibor Nagy, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said U.S. officials have been delightfully surprised by the Angolan government under Lourenco.
"We absolutely support his efforts to fight corruption," Nagy said. "We know that there's a long way to go, because that's been one of the perennial complaints from American investors. And as you know, one of our top-line goals in Africa is to increase American trade and investment so there's not just a few investors going there."
Sullivan will meet with the Angolan president to discuss global security issues. He'll also meet with members of the business community to underscore the importance of expanding economic and trade ties between the U.S. and Angola.