Oil boom in Angola: In a poor land, an exploration of the trickle-down effect

Oil rig
Atop the towering offshore oil rig, the U.S., Angola, and ChevronTexaco flags waved wildly in the ocean breeze

Oil sparks talk of rebellion, Americans living behind barbed-wire fences, and the George Bush factor

Many Cabindans with whom I spoke believed that the violence and repression employed to secure control of the enclave's oil reserves and hardwood forests had negatively impacted their lives and they were eager to relate their experiences. Open Society, the NGO created by George Soros, had announced that it would be holding a conference to discuss the direction of Cabindan civil society and would be offering the opportunity for Cabindans to express their opinions at the conference. I was delighted to have the opportunity to attend.

  People attending conference
Emotions ran high at the meeting. Many conference attendees demonstrated their desire for independence. At bottom, two displayed a FLEC-FAC flag - their faces have been obscured to protect their identities.

The conference hall was designed for 300, but over 500 people attended each of the two days. And we knew by the roars sweeping in through the windows that a large crowd had gathered in attendance outside. Inside, every space was filled - seats, aisles, exits, and balconies. Some sat two to a chair; others leaned against one another cross-legged on the floor. The audience murmured, sputtered, ranted and cheered. There were cries of support and flags waved for the FLEC-FAC (Liberation Front for the Enclave of Cabinda – Cabindan Armed Forces coalition) independence movement. Separatists sang out, "Separar, separar, separar. Angola e Cabinda, nós queremos independência total" – "Separate, separate, separate Angola and Cabinda, we want total independence." Some speakers roused the audience with call and response chants in the fiote language. The Mães Cabindesas (Cabindan Mothers organization) spoke of the challenges of raising children in poverty, only to have them systematically stolen to fill the ranks of the Angolan army. Activist priests from the Catholic Church rallied the crowd with speeches on social justice that were more of diatribes than sermons.

One man offered to exchange the whole of Cabinda's oil reserves for peace. Many speakers implored George W. Bush to take a stand in helping Cabinda find peace. Cabindans recognize the U.S. role in the exploitation of their oil reserves: some 80 percent or more of Cabinda's oil is shipped to the U.S. and ChevronTexaco produces the bulk of it. Yet, many Cabindans see the U.S. as having made a Faustian pact with the Angolan government to obtain the oil and complicit in smothering the Cabindan right to self-determination. Indeed, the hulking offshore platforms fly the flags of this oil triumvirate: Angola, the U.S. and ChevronTexaco.

As the only American in attendance at the conference, many Cabindans spoke up about my presence. One related how the Americans with whom she was familiar, i.e. ChevronTexaco employees, were afraid to come into the city, opting to take a 10-minute helicopter flight from the airport to the base, rather than pass through by car. Instead, she said, they hid behind the barbed-wire fences and mine-studded boundaries of the Malongo base and created an enclave within the geographical Cabindan enclave. If so, I confided to her, they were missing an opportunity to meet a remarkably warm and inspiringly strong community.

As I stood waiting to board the plane to Luanda, I reflected on the role of the U.S. in Angola. President George W. Bush was touring Africa, but Angola had not been part of his itinerary. He was in South Africa at the time. The plane was buzzing with the news that Nelson Mandela had snubbed Bush and many chuckled with delight. The man next to me said something to the effect that Bush was getting what he deserved for ignoring the voice of the international community concerning the war on Iraq.

Having observed the action of President Bush in Iraq, many Angolans were worried that the U.S. might create a pretense to install troops to secure oil interests in the Gulf of Guinea oil region as well. Angolans were displeased that despite the Bush Administration's keen interest in their oil reserves, the President did not express interest in knowing the country personally. They worried that a purely economic relationship devoid of personal ties was more inclined to deteriorate to de facto or de jure forms of control.

I remembered the words of the young Cabindan woman who had told me about fearful Americans hiding behind barbed wire. I hoped that over the past two months my presence in Angola, complete with broken Portuguese, had demonstrated that there are Americans who care about the people of Angola, not just their resources. I smiled, knowing that my friends, some who had been here long before me and others who would remain long after I left, shared this devotion.

— Kristin