Equatorial Guinea’s Unhealthy Attractions

Sir Mark Thatcher, son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, has just been arrested on charges of conspiring to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea. Equatorial where? “The United States has not posted an ambassador to Equatorial Guinea since 1994, a year after the last one, John E. Bennet, was accused of practicing witchcraft.” – The Washington Post, May 2001. Equatorial Guinea is one of those rare cases in which the discovery of oil has not made the country’s politics worse. Because that would have been all but impossible. Equatorial Guinea’s government already existed in a state of near-total dysfunction. The country’s paralyzed bureaucracy, ridden with corruption, fails to provide basic health and sanitation services to most of the population. To such an extent that average life expectancy, in what is now one of Africa’s richer nations, is about 55 years. Worse than Cambodia and Sudan; about on par with Laos. As colonies go, Equatorial Guinea was fairly well-off as of the 1950s, under Spanish rule. It was an unlikely country, though. A collection of islands, the largest of which, Bioko, is actually off the coast of Cameroon – plus a random patch of West African coastline. All located due south of Nigeria. The first post-independence president, Francisco Macias Nguema, afflicted by madness or ignorance, unleashed a campaign of terror that led to the death or exile of an estimated third of the population. Under his misrule the capacity of the state to do anything – much less maintain infrastructure or provide health care – diminished nearly to nothing. Macias was overthrown and executed by his nephew, Obiang,...

Venezuela’s Sea of Unhappiness

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has survived a recall referendum and may well serve out the remainder of his term. Global oil prices dropped a bit on the prospect of stability. So all’s well in Venezuela? “Venezuela…is heading in the same direction, toward the same sea to which the Cuban people are heading: a sea of happiness.” – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. There was a time when one reasonably might have expected never again to hear Cuba, with its authoritarian politics and dysfunctional economy, invoked as a model for anything. But Chavez is not as lunatic as he sounds. There is a logic to his rhetoric, a logic dictated by politics. And it bodes ill for Venezuela. Chavez’s politics are above all the politics of charismatic populism. They are the politics of popular protest – the only kind of politics that worked in 1990s Venezuela. Chavez’s problem was something called the “Punto Fijo system.” This system was born in 1958, in the town of Punto Fijo, when Venezuela’s two leading political parties inked an agreement to share power no matter what the results of the 1959 election. It started as a compromise to stave off civil war; but it fostered unhealthy collusion. The two parties, always sharing power, grew fat on decades of uncontested control of state spending. By the early 1990s, the Punto Fijo patronage network was so vast that more Venezuelan towns had party branch offices than had Catholic churches. The only political candidates with any chance of success were Punto Fijo candidates. Chavez changed that. He found the beast’s soft underbelly. To defeat the professional politicians, propel...

Maintaining Singapore’s Miracle

In a single generation, Singapore has leapt from dire poverty to become one of the richest countries on earth. This month Singapore has a new prime minister – only the third in its history. Can the miracle continue? 1 / Very Low / 0 – 10 percent 2 / Low / 10 – 25 percent 3 / Moderate / 25 – 35 percent 4 / High / 35 – 45 percent 5 / Very High / 45 percent or more – The Heritage Foundation’s scale for rating the severity of government intervention in the economy, based on the percentage of national output produced by state-owned firms. The idea of state ownership triggers an almost physical revulsion in some economists. Each year the conservative Heritage Foundation releases their Index of Economic Freedom, invariably accompanied by research showing that countries with highly interventionist governments suffer dire economic consequences. Of course, they can do this only by fiddling the data for Singapore. This was most pronounced in 2001. By the Heritage Foundation’s own scale, the country should have rated a five – “very high” intervention. As much as 60 percent of Singapore’s national output, Heritage noted, came from partially state-owned companies. Instead, Heritage scored Singapore at three – “moderate intervention.” Which was at least more realistic than the year before, when they rated the country, bizarrely, at two – “low intervention.” But forgive the Heritage analysts a bit of ideologically-induced blindness. Singapore is a spectacular outlier. In 1959 it was a swamp plagued by tuberculosis and race riots and dotted by slums. Today it is richer than much of Europe. Not only...

Qatar Punches above its Weight

“Qatar” is no household name. But that is changing. The current round of world trade talks is named for Qatar’s capital, Doha. The Al Jazeera television network is based there; so is the US military’s Middle Eastern command. Why is Qatar suddenly so hot? “…drivers glide about…fueled by petrol that’s cheaper than water.” – The official magazine of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society describes life in Qatar, March 2004. To say that in Qatar gasoline is cheaper than water is not technically accurate. For Qataris, water is free – so are electricity and health care, and there are no taxes – while gasoline is highly subsidized but still costs a few pennies per gallon. Yet the Royal Geographic Society’s claim captures the flavor of the place rather well. A country of such extremes that the immutable laws of political economy bend and bend and finally begin to run in reverse. Start with the extremes of population and provenance. Qatar – bordering Saudi Arabia, and pronounced, roughly, “cutter” – has only 150,000 citizens and yet possesses sufficient natural gas reserves to heat every home in America for the next 100 years. And that is before the oil reserves – also large – are even counted. Which makes Qataris, before they lift a finger, some of the richest people on earth. (In 2000, according to United Nations statistics, they were, in fact, the richest – it depends on oil prices.) With only 150,000 people, this is more a family than a country. And that is not far from the literal truth. An estimated one-fifth to one-half of Qatari citizens have royal blood....

What’s the Matter with Pakistan?

The 9/11 Commission Report identified three countries as the top concerns in the war on terror: Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In theory, nuclear-armed Pakistan has been a US ally for decades. What’s the matter with Pakistan? “It is hard to overstate the importance of Pakistan in the struggle against Islamic terrorism.” – Report of the 9/11 Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. When the 9/11 Commission consulted counter-terrorism experts on where they most feared terrorists would today establish bases, “western Pakistan” topped the list. The Commission also raised the alarm about Pakistan’s madrassahs, Islamic schools where many of Al Qaeda’s footsoldiers were indoctrinated. And decried the fact that a leading Pakistani nuclear scientist had run a nuclear smuggling ring, selling atomic secrets to Iran and North Korea, among others. As to why Pakistan – the recipient of close to $50 billion in foreign aid, and for decades a US ally – should be such a threat, the Commission had this to say: “poverty, widespread corruption, and an often ineffective government.” But surely there is more to it than that. Those labels fit many countries, few of which are distributing nuclear secrets or educating terrorists. To understand what makes Pakistan the hardest of the hard cases, recall an obscure tragedy that took place in the province of Punjab many decades ago. There, well-meaning politicians, noting the huge numbers of impoverished peasants, decided it would be a good idea to redistribute some of the unused landholdings of the province’s wealthiest landlords to peasant families. The landlords did not think much of the idea. The politicians insisted. The landlords...