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Talk examines political, societal consequences of oil

Lecture stresses complex role of U.S. government in oil trade, countries’ economic disparities

For the problems caused by oil, “We can’t just blame African countries and oil companies, we must also examine the actions of our own government and lifestyles,” said Kairn Klieman, associate professor of history at the University of Houston in a lecture entitled “The Politics of Oil Dependence.”

Addressing a small group gathered in the Science Center, Klieman’s talk — the last in the six-part “Carbon Nations” series — presented her research on how America’s dependence on oil has caused political corruption. The lecture was sponsored by the Department of History, the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions and the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Klieman opened the lecture by describing the “oil curse” — the concept that the discovery of oil in a country leads to poverty, turmoil and government corruption. Though oil revenues bring wealth to a country, the money usually only goes to the few in power, instead of to average citizens, she said. Nigeria is one country that has been plagued by this “curse” and has been led by 15 different governments since 1960. The percentage of Nigerians living under the poverty line, defined as making $1.25 U.S. dollars per day, has risen from 27 percent in 1981 to 70 percent in 2010, Klieman said.

Most historians cast blame on these problems using the “evil oil company trope,” Klieman said. But this approach oversimplifies the situation, as it is also necessary to examine the U.S. government’s actions in relation to the oil industry, she added. During World War II, a plan for a trans-African resupply route was created due to a need for oil. President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the plan even though U.S. involvement in this route violated the 1939 Neutrality Act. Since this involvement was illegal, Roosevelt did not seek Congress’ approval and instead used emergency presidential funds to finance the project.

Klieman then described Equatorial Guinea’s “oil curse.” With just 700,000 inhabitants, Guinea is one of the wealthiest nations. But instead of being distributed among all citizens, this wealth remains concentrated within the family in power. This money is currently in the hands of President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, known as Obiang, who rose to power by murdering his uncle. The President’s son, known as Teodorin, spends millions of dollars on mansions in foreign countries while more than 70 percent of the country’s population earns less than a dollar a day, Klieman said.

Klieman said she once attended a lecture in Houston, Texas during which the Texas secretary of state declared an “Equatorial Guinea Day,” shocking her and inspiring her to complete her research. Klieman showed the audience a photo of the Obamas meeting Obiang and his wife, which she said went against Obama’s 2008 promises. 


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