Much of Obiang's efforts focus on the U.S. Obiang has
the services of high-powered consultant Lanny Davis as
well as a Washington, D.C.-based PR firm. Arrianna Coleman, an activist who
the conference, estimated that one third of her fellow delegates were American.
When I attempted to reach the Equatoguinean embassy in Washington, D.C., for
comment on August 27, I was told that officials were unavailable, as they would
be attending the Democratic and Republic National Conventions.• • • • •
Seales told me that she didn't struggle with the decision to
reject the invitation. "You don't get the luxury of being frivolous in your
choices [as a public figure], especially when it has to do with something like
this, where it's affecting other human beings," she told me.
By attending the conference, Seales argued, she would be
complicit in Obiang's outreach efforts and, by extension, the country's
continued misery. "I can't sit on a beach knowing there's an entire country of
people that have a complete lack of resources, etcetera," she told me, "while
we're being treated like princes and princesses for the purpose of further
mistreatment of the people." She feared her presence would be manipulated to
give the appearance of supporting Obiang's political program, no matter what
she said in the panels or talks she was scheduled to participate in. "Really
it's a political and diplomatic exchange between America and Equatorial Guinea,
and I don't want any part of that."
Coleman, the activist who attended, said by email that the
event was "propaganda," and mostly consisted of "African heads of state giving
speeches praising [dictator Tedoro] Obiang [Sullivan Foundation CEO Hope
Sullivan] Masters while paying lip service to 'democracy, 'human rights,'
'development.'" Meanwhile, "none of the planned panels happened," and "the
Youth Summit was censored by EG gov't officials." According to the Equatoguinean government's own
press releases, only a quarter of the anticipated
4000 delegates ended up coming.
In a response to criticism
leveled at the Sullivan Foundation for holding its conference in Equatorial
Guinea, Hope Masters Sullivan has publicly defended not just the decision, but Obiang himself. "President
Obiang has modernized his country and has implemented major political reforms,"
she wrote in an August 6 statement. "It
appears the entire country is a worksite in which capital and technology from
around the world participate without discrimination." The Sullivan Foundation
didn't return my requests for comment.• • • • •
Seales' case shows the potential pitfalls of Obiang-style
PR. Celebrities by their nature bring media and public attention with them,
and that attention doesn't always focus where the host might like.
If the glitzy Sullivan Foundation event was intended to
distract from Obiang's dismal human rights and development record, then it was
a failure for its hosts, according to Thor Halvorssen, who as director of the New
York -based Human Rights Foundation had lobbied some invitees (including Seales) against
attending. The summit, he says, only drew
attention to Equatorial Guinea's problems. "If I were to say Equatorial
Guinea is bad, people would say yeah, but what else is new," he told me. "[The summit]
offers us a perfect light to shine in a way that isn't otherwise possible...in
the same way that Hilary Swank did an enormous service for human rights for
taking money from [Chechen president] Ramzan Kadyrov."
Seales says that few
people outside of her inner circle have talked to her about her decision, and
that she had nothing other than her own individual principles in mind when she
opted to stay home from Malabo. "I wouldn't
consider myself a revolutionary in the way of an Angela Davis of a Huey P.
[Newton]," she said. "But everyone should seek to be a revolutionary within
their own means."