Relations between Washington and oil-rich Equatorial Guinea may cool now that U.S. authorities say they intend to seize property in California allegedly bought with money looted by the heir-apparent to Africa's longest-serving dictator.
In the strongest signal yet sent to corrupt leaders, the United States said it would seize a luxury mansion, jet and sports cars belonging to President Teodoro Obiang Nguema's favorite son. U.S. authorities charge he bought them with $70 million looted from a country where thousands have no access to electricity or clean water.
"We are sending the message loud and clear: The United States will not be a hiding place for the ill-gotten riches of the world's corrupt leaders," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said Wednesday.
U.S. authorities say Teodorin Obiang Mangue used his position to siphon millions of dollars for his personal use, according to two civil forfeiture complaints filed in the District Court in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
The cases against Obiang's son come as the strongman of 32 years grooms him to take over as Equatorial Guinea's leader. A series of constitutional reforms being voted on in a referendum next month would all but ensure his son would succeed him.
While Obiang, his family and a tight circle of friends have become fabulously wealthy _ the country now has a per capita income higher than its former colonizer, Spain _ life for the vast majority of the country's 680,000 people remains a struggle.
Earlier this year, Global Witness reported that Teodorin Obiang had commissioned plans to build a super-yacht costing $380 million _ nearly three times what the country spends on health and education each year.
Human rights groups have urged the U.S. government to deny visas to members of the Obiang family and to seize their property under U.S. laws that forbid illicit enrichment.
The U.S. State Department has consistently condemned Obiang's government in its annual human rights reports, including torture, abductions, executions and repressive rule that "led to the death or exile of up to one-third of the country's population."
Still, the timing of this week's announcement raises questions as the United States has known about such plunder since at least 2004, when a U.S. Senate Committee investigated a bank for holding deposits of some $700 million belonging to Equatorial Guinea government entities, senior officials and Obiang family members.
The committee said Riggs Bank had "turned a blind eye" to evidence it was handling proceeds of foreign corruption. One bank official gave evidence that more than $1 million was brought to the bank, and in one case the cash was bundled in plastic wrap.
Obiang went on to visit the White House in 2006, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice welcomed him on an official state visit as "our good friend." And President Obama and his wife also have been photographed with Obiang in New York.
Relations were not always so cordial: In 1994, Washington closed its embassy in Equatorial Guinea after the government accused the U.S. ambassador of performing witchcraft when he attended a cemetery service honoring British airmen who crashed there during World War II. Bennett received a death threat.
The same year Exxon Mobil discovered oil, ending Equatorial Guinea's status as a backwater. Pressure from U.S. oil companies and Obiang, during a 2006 official visit where he had breakfast with President George W. Bush, led to the U.S. embassy reopening.
Because wealth is concentrated in a tiny clique, the embassy pays rent to one of Obiang's ministers. But the U.S. Senate drew the line at renting or buying land from Obiang himself to build a new embassy.
In a 2009 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, ranking U.S. diplomat Anton K. Smith described Equatorial Guinea as a country beset by foreign and homegrown predators, "sharks ... buccaneers and adventurers," but called Obiang one of the good guys.
"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," wrote Smith, now the U.S. consul general in Halifax.