A CONVERSATION WITH AMOS HOCHSTEIN Interview by michael grunwald

A CONVERSATION WITH AMOS HOCHSTEIN Interview by michael grunwald

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Amos Hochstein, a former aide to ex-Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) on the House International Affairs Committee, is now an executive vice president of Cassidy & Associates, where he is the lead lobbyist for Equatorial Guinea and its president, Teodoro Obiang Nguema. According to State Department reports, Obiang's regime has committed numerous human rights abuses; his agents, for example, have reportedly urinated on prisoners and sliced off their ears.

Condoleezza Rice called President Obiang "a good friend," and Paul Wolfowitz said he was "very impressed" with Obiang. How did you swing that?

I would love to take credit for all this, but Equatorial Guinea has taken some serious steps that are moving the country in the right direction. They're investing oil wealth in infrastructure and social services -- paving roads, building schools and hospitals. They've made a strategic decision to be an ally of the United States. And now they've got an agreement with USAID where they said: We don't want your charity, just your expertise. We'll pay, but we want you to train us so we can better help our people.

The Post just had an editorial that made it sound like those people aren't getting much help: It said that 400,000 out of 540,000 of them are malnourished.

I don't know where The Post got those numbers. I've seen them on the opposition's Web site, but never anywhere else. USAID recently praised Obiang's "visionary leadership" -- they wouldn't say that unless they believed it.

What about those State Department reports on human rights abuses?

If you look at what the State Department has said this year, compared to last year and the year before, the language has gotten better. I think it will get better again in the future. I'm sorry, but we can't tell developing countries that we expect change, and then when the change happens, say it's unacceptable because it's not 100 percent right away. We can't just criticize. You know, we've turned down clients and governments that we've decided we can't represent in good faith. It's not about the money; I take my personal reputation very seriously. But when this country approached us, they convinced me they really wanted to make changes. And they have.

Well, the money is pretty good. You guys are getting $120,000 a month.

I'm not saying this is charity work. But these aren't the biggest fees that are paid in this town; they're in line with what other governments pay. It sounds corny, perhaps, but I first went to work on the Hill to try to help people. The person who most shaped my thinking [Rep. Gejdenson] was the son of two Holocaust survivors and was born in a DP camp; we dedicated a lot of time to fighting tyrants like Lukashenko in Belarus. And I still believe in the same things now.

But when you meet with Obiang, do you think to yourself: This guy has done awful things?

No, I really don't. Our meetings have all been very businesslike. He's convinced me of his deep care for his people. And I've seen the changes. I know that he sent 120 Equato-Guinean nurses to Israel for training. I've seen the kids going to new schools in their blue pants and white shirts. Yes, he became president in a coup. But people forget that his predecessor [Francisco Macias Nguema] was the worst dictator ever in Africa. . . . Secretary Rice isn't saying these positive things as a favor to me. She's saying it because it's real.

Do your friends give you a hard time about representing this guy?

Sometimes. I guess it's a sport these days to make fun of people in my business, but we're not all cut from the same cloth. I'm proud of all the clients I've represented. I haven't done anything that would make it hard for me to look my daughter in the eye.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company