A U.S. diplomat called Equatorial Guinea's dictator of 31 years one of "the good guys" in leaked diplomatic cables and urged Washington to engage with its third-largest oil supplier or risk endangering energy security.
In 2009 cables published by WikiLeaks, Anton Smith, the ranking U.S. diplomat in Equatorial Guinea at the time, described a country beset by foreign and homegrown predators, "sharks … buccaneers and adventurers," since U.S. wildcatters discovered oil in 1994.
"There are good guys and bad guys here. We need to strengthen the good guys — for all his faults, President Obiang among them — and undercut the bad guys," Smith wrote in a May 9, 2009, cable.
President Teodoro Obiang is accused of making his family and a small group of people fabulously wealthy off oil, while U.N. figures show child mortality has increased and a third of children do not finish primary school.
In the space of less than a generation, oil wealth transformed the West African nation of 600,000 from one of the world's poorest to one of its richest.
The per capita income is listed at $31,000 a year, but the average citizen is unlikely to live beyond 50. Yet someone in Brazil — with an average income of less than $10,000 — can expect to live to 72.
The U.S. State Department's annual country report enumerated multiple human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea, including torture, arbitrary arrest, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and forced child labor.
It has said that Obiang's regime has either killed or forced into exile a third of the country's population.
But Smith called Obiang's a "mellowing, benign leadership" maligned by journalists and human rights activists, with exaggerated claims about the levels of corruption and brutality.
The International Monetary Fund reported last year that two-thirds of the people live below the poverty line, but Smith said it was "implausible" that half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
Smith absolved Obiang of responsibility in the most publicized example of corruption from Equatorial Guinea: the scandal that brought down Washington's venerable Riggs Bank when it was found stashing some $700 million in accounts in the name of Obiang, his family and clan. Bankers told a U.S. Senate investigation that some of the money was carried to the bank, a million dollars at a time, in shrink-wrapped bundles.
Riggs was fined $41 million and subsequently collapsed.
Smith, who is now U.S. consul general in Halifax, Canada, did not respond to phone messages. A State Department spokesman later called the Associated Press to say the department could not and would not authenticate anything found in WikiLeaks.
In a March 9, 2009, report to the newly installed administration of President Barack Obama, Smith said: "It is time to abandon a moral narrative that has left us with a retrospective bias and an ambivalent approach to one of the most-promising success stories in the region.
"U.S. involvement is needed to shape EG's future," the cable continued, using an acronym for the country's name. "Relatively minor U.S. technical assistance and advice in key areas … will be effective in giving EG the future we want it to have."
The alternative, he said, could be "a revolution that brings sudden, uncertain change … (with) potentially dire consequences for our interests, most notably our energy security."