A U.S. Visa, Shouts of Corruption, and Barrels of Oil
Several times every year, Teodoro Nguema Obiang arrives at the doorstep of the United States from his home in Equatorial Guinea, on his way to his $35 million estate in Malibu, Calif., his fleet of luxury cars, his speedboats and private jet. And he is always let into the country.
The nation’s doors are open to Obiang, the forest and agriculture minister of Equatorial Guinea and the son of its president, even though federal law enforcement officials believe that “most if not all” of his wealth comes from corruption related to the extensive oil and gas reserves discovered more than a decade and a half ago off the coast of his tiny West African country, according to internal Justice Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement documents.
And they are open despite a federal law and a presidential proclamation that prohibit corrupt foreign officials and their families from receiving U.S. visas. The measures require only credible evidence of corruption, not a conviction of it.
Susan Pittman, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement in the State Department, said she was prohibited from discussing specific visa decisions. But other former and current State Department officials said Equatorial Guinea’s close ties to the American oil industry were the reason for the lax enforcement of the law. Production of the country’s nearly 400,000 barrels of oil a day is dominated by American companies like ExxonMobil, Hess and Marathon.
“Of course it’s because of oil,” said John Bennett, U.S. ambassador to Equatorial Guinea from 1991 to 1994, adding that Washington has turned a blind eye to the Obiangs’ corruption and repression because of its dependence on the country for natural resources. He noted that officials of Zimbabwe are barred from the United States.
“Both countries are severely repressive,” said Bennett, who is a senior foreign affairs officer for the State Department in Baghdad. “But if Zimbabwe had Equatorial Guinea’s oil, Zimbabwean officials wouldn’t still be blocked from the U.S.”
Daniel Whitman, who retired in September as the deputy director of the Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department, agreed that the law should be used more forcefully.
“We just seem to lack the backbone to use this prohibition,” Whitman said. “In the rare cases it is used, no one at State was willing to talk about it.”
When asked how many times the laws have been used to bar corrupt foreign officials from entering the country, State Department officials declined to answer, citing privacy reasons, though Pittman said thousands of visas had been denied to corrupt officials using other legal means. A 2007 State Department report said the presidential proclamation, signed by President George W. Bush in 2004, had been used “dozens” of times.
A State Department official who handles corruption investigations said that while the measures were important tools, the department as a matter of policy did not want to reveal the number of times they had been used because it would show that the number was actually quite small.