Africa's Oil Tycoons | The Nation


Africa's Oil Tycoons

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For those willing to leave their homes, Luanda can be fun. Every Friday afternoon the US Embassy hosts a happy hour. Afterward, mostly American and South African embassy workers and businessmen head for the Ilha--a skinny strip of land that juts out into Luanda Bay. There, oceanfront cafes like Miami Beach and Coconuts offer Portuguese wine and South African beer, Brazilian cocktails and a dozen different preparations of prawns, an Angolan delicacy. After a gourmet dinner, expats will hit Bahia, a tasteful open-air Brazilian nightclub, or one of Luanda's all-night dance spots, where middle-aged foreign businessmen have their pick of young Angolan prostitutes.

Daphne Eviatar went to Angola as a Pew fellow in international journalism.

About the Author

Daphne Eviatar
Daphne Eviatar, a Brooklyn-based lawyer and journalist, is a senior reporter for The American Lawyer.

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Much of the fuel for this enclave of opulence comes from California-based ChevronTexaco. Pumping 60 percent of Angola's oil--more than half of which is exported to the United States--the company expects to double its oil production there by 2008. "Angola has been a terrific place to do business," Jim Blackwell, the director of ChevronTexaco's operations in Angola, told me. That's because the horrors of Angola's civil war never really touched ChevronTexaco, which pumps most of its oil from platforms far out in the ocean.

To understand exactly how that works, I went to visit the company's compound, known as Malongo, in Cabinda--the only part of Angola most ChevronTexaco workers ever see. (Although some stay at Malongo, others are ferried by helicopter out to massive steel oil platforms in the ocean, where they spend twenty-eight days before being shuttled back home.) Built in the 1960s, Malongo is a campus of ranch houses, manicured green lawns and smooth paved roads. ChevronTexaco's own well and private filtration system supplies drinkable tap water--a rare luxury in Africa. Spacious dining halls offer a stunning array of fresh seafood, imported meats, salad and dessert bars. The vegetables are all grown in an organic greenhouse on the compound, set up by Norwegians, and bright green Granny Smith apples are flown in from South Africa. For entertainment, there's baseball, basketball, volleyball and tennis, a cricket pitch, horseshoes and a rolling green golf course. Unlike the rest of Angola, where the official language is Portuguese, the language of Malongo is English. If workers still get homesick, they can dial direct from their rooms to the United States--no need for international dialing codes. Indeed, except for the extraordinary bats that hang in ominous clusters from the branches of the compound's mango trees, you'd never know you were in Africa.

ChevronTexaco does everything it can to keep it that way. No one enters or leaves the compound without special permission. And there's no way to avoid the tightly guarded security gates, because the entire compound is surrounded by a double fence of barbed wire that encloses a ring of anti-personnel land mines.

The mines, planted by the government during the war, are just one manifestation of the longstanding relationship between the Angolan government and the oil company. Gulf Oil, as the company was then known, first discovered oil in Angola's waters in the mid-1960s. Although the ascension of the MPLA scared off most Portuguese investors, the oil operations were largely offshore and therefore untouched by the ensuing bloodshed. Despite the new government's Marxist ideology, it signed a contract granting the American corporation drilling rights. (Gulf Oil became Chevron in 1984, which then merged with Texaco in 2001.) The MPLA played its part by guarding the compound, and used Cuban troops to do it. Back in the United States, though, Ronald Reagan was hailing rebel leader Jonas Savimbi as a "freedom fighter" and funneling millions of dollars to UNITA to support its bloody war against the Angolan government. As a result, Chevron in the 1980s was in the unlikely position of being an American oil company allied with a Communist government and guarded by Cuban troops from potential attacks by US-funded rebels. (Mysteriously, the company's compound was never directly attacked, leading to speculation that the United States paid off UNITA to spare the oil operations.)

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