The red, white and blue helicopter soared through streaming white clouds and sunny blue sky. Below, tiny Lego-like platforms jutted up from the shimmering Cabinda Bay. But as we neared the Takula oilfield, dozens of towering flares breathed huge swirls of fire. The tides of the Congo surged into the waves of the Atlantic, and the ethereal cloud formations were engulfed by a yellow-brown haze.
This is the heart of Angola. Although separated from the rest of the country by the Congo River and a strip of land that’s part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Portugal only incorporated the province of Cabinda into Angola in 1956), the twenty-four-hour oil operations that suck coffee-colored crude off the coast of Cabinda are the country’s economic engine. They are what financed the government’s army during a civil war that ended just two years ago. And they’re the most obvious sign of the West’s relentless tentacles reaching into Angola today.
The constant cough of noxious black fumes is the least of their consequences. Twenty-seven years of civil war fueled by a lethal mix of oil, diamonds and cold war enemies have left one of Africa’s potentially richest countries a shambles. Although its own kleptocratic leaders and homegrown revolutionaries deserve much of the blame, it’s impossible to divorce what’s happened from the constant manipulation of outsiders–from the Portuguese, who kept Angola under the thumb of colonial rule for 500 years, to the United States and white-led South Africa, which bankrolled Angola’s rebels during the cold war, to the multinationals draining the country of its natural resources today.
I went to Angola to try to understand how a country so rich in the most coveted resource of our time–oil–can fall to the bottom of almost every scale of human development. Angola pumps almost a million barrels a day; the United States imports more oil from Angola than from Kuwait. But 70 percent of Angolans live in poverty. Eighty percent have no access to basic medical care. Average life expectancy is only forty years, and three in ten children will die before reaching their fifth birthday.
It’s no secret that Angola’s leaders are siphoning off huge amounts of state money. But lurking beneath the sinister statistics and corrosive corruption is the murky involvement of Western governments and multinational oil companies. What role are they playing in the postwar transformation of Angola?
Luanda’s Hotel Tropico, a favorite among oilmen and World Bank and IMF officials, offers a clue. When I arrived in Angola’s capital bleary-eyed early one morning in mid-October, the slick new lobby was packed. While the Angolan staff scrambled to confirm reservations on malfunctioning computers, middle-aged white men elbowed their way to the long mahogany counter demanding to know why their rooms weren’t ready. Others dozed in overstuffed armchairs among stacks of suitcases, waking intermittently to drink espresso or whiskey and smoke cigarettes. It was 5 am, and although Angola has no tourist industry, the hotel was full and our rooms wouldn’t be ready before noon. Until then, no one seemed to be leaving the building.