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Oil brings promise of change
to troubled Equatorial Guinea

May 29, 1997
Web posted at: 5:12 p.m. EDT (2112 GMT)

From Correspondent Gary Strieker rig

MALABO, Equatorial Guinea (CNN) -- In 29 years of independence, Equatorial Guinea has gained a reputation of being a shabby tyranny decayed by neglect and plundered by corruption, its people brutalized by despotic leaders.

But the fortunes of this tiny country are changing. Last year, Mobil Corp. started pumping oil from the first of its offshore wells. By the end of this year, total production from 17 projected wells should double to 80,000 barrels a day.

It's not much by the standards of big producers, but for a poor country like this, the fledgling operation is a giant step in the direction of prosperity.

obiang

"We drill a lot of dry holes to find a discovery, but I'm hopeful we'll find some more discoveries and we'll continue to grow here," said Mobil's Art Green.

Mobil is working in only one concession area. The government energy minister says he is looking for other oil companies to explore in new areas, and the positive outlook for new investment is boosting the local economy.

"There's more businesses, there's more cars in the street, more buildings going up, and there's more people working," Green said.

The country's president of 18 years, Teodoro Obiang, says his country is now a democracy, and that a national conference will soon be held to decide how to spend the oil money.

Sick

But the country's troubles loom large. For example, life expectancy in this country is just 48 years; the statistic could be changed with major investments in medical care, schools and public works.

Critics say there is no democracy in Equatorial Guinea. They maintain that the government is not accountable to its people, and that Obiang and his party have stayed in power through rigged elections and violence against the opposition.

On the streets, after years of living in a climate of fear, people hesitate to talk to reporters.

But even skeptics say Obiang has changed. "He has shown more of an interest in protecting human rights. He has shown more of an interest in getting a better image for Equatorial Guinea and his ruling party," said Amnesty International's Mark Ogle.

The oil fields here are promising, but the government's promises to spend oil money wisely and without corruption fail to convince many skeptics. Obiang may rise to the cause, skeptics admit. But neighboring countries have set a poor example, becoming notorious for squandering their oil wealth. The question now is whether Equatorial Guinea will follow their example.

 
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