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SPAIN-EQUATORIAL GUINEA: More Trade, Little Pressure

Tito Drago

MADRID, Jul 9 2009 (IPS) - Trade between Spain and Equatorial Guinea is flourishing, amidst calls by activists for the government of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to push for democracy in this tiny country on the Atlantic coast of Africa, still under the yoke of dictatorship.

Exports from Spain to its former colony grew by 11.09 percent in the first four months of the year compared to the same period in 2008, reaching a total of 52 billion euros (73 billion dollars), and involving mainly vehicles, machinery, beverages and electrical materials.

Spanish imports of oil from this African country which has been ruled by dictators almost from the moment it became independent in 1968 have remained steady, although payments are down because of the fall in international crude prices.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos is visiting Equatorial Guinea from Thursday to Saturday, accompanied by a multi-party group of lawmakers, journalists and representatives of different business sectors, especially oil, infrastructure and agrifood industries and commercial distributors.

Mauricio Valiente, a lawyer and chief lobbyist with the non-governmental Spanish Refugee Council (CEAR), told IPS that the Zapatero administration should demonstrate real support for democratisation in Equatorial Guinea by requiring certification of respect for human rights and democracy, instead of putting economic and commercial interests first.

“We are asking the government to take a firm position on this,” he emphasised.

He did praise the fact that some 40 asylum-seekers from Equatorial Guinea who arrived in Spain over the last year “have enjoyed a high degree of protection by the Spanish authorities.”

Spanish government sources who requested anonymity told IPS that progress is occurring in Equatorial Guinea, although there is still a great deal to be done. The most important thing, they added, is that talks with the African country’s authorities about human rights, described as educational, two-way and critical, are under way.

They also said that presidential elections may be held in December, although the Equatorial Guinean regime has not yet made an official announcement. Furthermore, it is not clear whether these would be open to all candidates, or only to authorised political parties.

At the invitation of the regime, representatives of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention visited Equatorial Guinea in November 2008, as did a delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) which came to monitor the treatment and living conditions of prisoners, including the large proportion of political prisoners, and found that several had been pardoned.

The U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak, stated in a preliminary report on his mission that he “found that torture is used systematically by the police against persons who refuse to ‘cooperate,’ such as persons suspected of political as well as ordinary crimes.”

Those travelling with Moratinos this week will certainly be able to see for themselves the wretched living standards of the people of Equatorial Guinea.

A report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), presented in Madrid on Thursday, says that infant mortality rose from 103 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 124 per 1,000 in 2007, while the under-five mortality rate increased from 170 per 1,000 to 206 per 1,000 over the same period.

“The government’s failure to provide basic social services violates its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights,” the report says.

Arvind Ganesan, director of HRW’s Business and Human Rights programme, said Equatorial Guinea has a per capita GDP close to that of Spain or Italy, but its people “live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad,” two of the least developed countries on the planet which have been afflicted by destructive wars.

HRW also says that a United States Senate investigation in 2004 uncovered details of how Equatorial Guinean dictator President Teodoro Obiang Nguema used revenues from oil exports to finance personal transactions, including the purchase of two mansions in the Washington DC suburbs for 3.8 million dollars.

His son, Teodorín, has also spent huge sums: 35 million dollars on properties in California and 8.45 million dollars on mansions and luxury cars in South Africa.

Exiled Equatorial Guineans continue to battle for democracy in their country, led by Severo Moto, who spent time in prison there, and later in Spain on arms trafficking charges, until a Supreme Court ruling freed him for lack of evidence.

Moto has been president of the Equatorial Guinean government-in-exile in Spain since it was established by his Progress Party in 2003. One of its members predicted there will soon be changes in their homeland, and that Moto will be elected to power “if there are really democratic elections.”

A week ago, Obiang Nguema called on everyone over 18 to register to vote.

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