Thursday, March 8, 2012

This Ad Drives Me Crazy


This Ad Drives Me Crazy

No, the above graphic is not an ad, nor does it make me homicidally psychotic.  It’s simply a graphic I found while drilling the internet for oil images. a graphic that made me laugh (probably because I have a new car that gets 39 mpg on the highway. Yea!).  What doesn’t make me laugh – indeed, it makes me seriously angry – is a seemingly innocuous Chevron ad, part of the company’s ‘We Agree’ campaign.  This campaign purports to show how Chevron cooperates with and contributes to the communities in which its operations are located.

[I don’t know how to swipe videos, so here’s a link to the ad:
The ad in question is the second down (We Agree—Community) in the left-hand column under ‘Television Ads.’]

Oil companies run a lot of these sorts of ads, evidently to support positive branding efforts. (I’m not sure why:  I really don’t think that we patronize gas stations because advertising tells us to.  We surrender our fuel money because [1] the station is convenient;  [2] it has marginally lower prices than the station across the street;  [3] we have a credit card for that brand of gas; or [4] we own stock in that oil consortium.)  Usually I pay little attention to these ads, other than indulging in desultory eye rolling when BP touts its stewardship of the Gulf Coast.  But this particular ad makes me want to punch out the TV screen and vow never, ever to buy Chevron (aka Texaco) gasoline.

The ad features Angolans talking elliptically about how Chevron is helping their country.  One Angolan is an engineer (for Chevron?  The ad suggests but doesn’t say), the other a student (supported by Chevron?  The ad suggests but doesn’t say). They both speak about hope for their country, their community.  The ad leaves the impression that Chevron-in-Angola acts as a responsible steward of the nation’s natural resources and is helping Angolans achieve a better, more fulfilling, more upwardly mobile life.

What the ad covers up is the troubling back-story of Angolan oil.

            First:  Angola has some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves on the continent.  It also has been one of the most war-torn and under-reported (in the West) African countries.  Its fight for independence was followed by a bloody, 27-year-long civil war (which also served as a Cold War Proxy, the U.S and ‘friendly’ African nations on one side, the Soviet Union and Cuba on the other).  The discovery of significant offshore oil fields (and the collapse of the USSR) contributed to a hiatus; eventually, the formerly Soviet-backed forces took power.  Once there was ‘stability,’ multi-national oil companies – particularly Chevron, which had discovered the first Angolan oil deposits fifty years earlier – moved in big-time.  They had to support the ruling powers in order to advance their business interests (this means, ironically, that U.S. and European companies [BP as well as Chevron] now back an initially Marxist regime).  By ‘back,’ I mean contribute substantially to governance racked by corruption, human-rights abuses, and ethnic cleansing practices.

            Second:  Most of Angola’s oil resources are located in Cabinda province.  This is a northern exclave that only became ‘Angolan’ because, in the 1880s, it applied to Portugal (colonial overlords of Angola) for protection from Belgian rule and its deprecations.  (Heart of Darkness alert for my fellow English Lit. geeks.)  In general, Central African colonial and neo-colonial history is driven by colonial extraction (of gold, ivory, slaves, rubber, diamonds, uranium, oil, coltran). Methods to attain such extractive goals have included coercion, bribery, torture, kidnapping, amputations, ‘strategic’ rapes, and summary executions.  Alas for Angola and, specifically, Cabinda, these methods have not been abandoned. 

            Cabinda people are ethnically and linguistically different from the rest of Angolans, who dominate the big-oil-supported national government.  Not surprisingly, everything from oil-profit allocations to on-site hiring practices is weighted against Cabindans.  And even more not surprisingly, there’s a robust Cabindan independence movement.  And even, even more not surprisingly, this movement is being ruthlessly suppressed by Angola’s central government . . . with significant help from Chevron and its big-oil brothers. 

            [Cabinda has applied to The Hague to try the Angolan President for war crimes.  The petition, which implicates Chevron as well, can be accessed here:
The Case for Trial of the MPLA Regime and of the Dictator Jose Eduardo Dos Santos in the Hague.  (filed 7 February 2011, International Criminal Court, the Hague, Netherlands)]

            Third:  Angola’s ‘oil miracle’ [a phrase promoted by Angola’s oil ‘partners’] resembles other ‘oil miracles’ on the African continent.  Take Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, and one of its richest in natural and human resources.  Nigeria is now a complete disaster.  The Biafran war (in the late 1960s) was largely an oil war, as the oil-rich southeast tried to declare independence in order to secure a reasonable share of oil-related revenues (and to have some say in protecting its ecology and traditional economies, like fishing.)  Nigeria’s subsequent political chaos is significantly grounded in the allocation of oil-industry profits, which also undergirds the present atrocities of the Islamic North against the Christian/Animist South (where the oil is).  Thank you, big oil! (In Nigeria, Shell Oil and Royal Dutch Petroleum have been the major players.)

Because this is a blog and not an article in Foreign Affairs, I’ll refrain from talking about Libya, Sudan, Algeria, Equatorial Guinea, even Somalia (hint:  oil interests).  My point is this:  Western-based big oil has had a far-reaching, systemically corruptive, ecologically irresponsible, and geopolitically devastating effect in African countries. Making such a claim is not absolving local governments from responsibility – you can’t be corrupted if you’re not corruptible; you can’t turn guns or machetes on fellow citizens if you don’t believe that violent repression is a logical response to dissent, inherited ethnic animosity, and threats to your Swiss bank accounts.  

That said, the sheer amount of money (and in many cases, material support ranging from arms to mercenaries) provided by big oil to African nations is staggering.  And for a good bottom-line cause:  without a pesky Strait of Hormuz to block a clear shot to historically vetted Atlantic trade routes, unimpeded movement of oil, from a source you more or less control, is a winning business proposition.  Also historically vetted: it’s a sorry fact that continuing mayhem inflicted on African polities doesn’t make waves internationally. 

The Chevron ad in question probably is not dishonest on its face.  I’ve no doubt that big oil has contributed to Angola’s infrastructure, including its educational facilities.  But the ad is, at the very least, disingenuous and misleading.   Up to now, oil has been a curse rather than a blessing to African countries possessing this valuable resource. 

Neither is the Angolan government’s position simple.  An astoundingly high percentage of its GNP comes from oil, and most of that oil comes from Cabinda.  To cede Cabindan oil to Cabinda, and to allow that province’s succession, would literally bankrupt the country – and plunge it yet again into the maelstrom of civil war.

In the future, oil could be transformative in positive ways, rather like the diamond industry has been in Botswana (largely because diamonds were not discovered there until after independence).  In Angola’s case, an aggressive program to help Cabinda benefit from a fair share of oil profits would be a good first step, as would judicial reforms that would promote greater transparency about where petro-dollars{Petro-kwanzas? [yes, that’s the Angolan currency]) end up (yet another hint:  they usually don’t end up  in places where they  could benefit large numbers of Angolan  and Cabindan people). 

But until multi-national business  ‘partners’ stop masking their histories of exploitation, and until they stop supporting repressive, kleptocratic, even genocidal regimes, their ads will continue to drive me insane.  

1 comment: