- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 11, 2002

A quiet advertising campaign in Washington is mixing peace, oil and cassava to put the Republic of Congo on the map for American investors.

Congolese officials are pitching the spin to congressmen and trade leaders this week, hoping Americans will look past the African country's war-torn past and see a chance to team up with a new government that was elected peacefully.

The country is sub-Saharan Africa's fourth-largest oil producer, and it sits in the middle of a petroleum-rich region that many Congolese say is ripe for American investment.

Officials are cashing in on the recent success of their presidential and parliamentary elections to attract American dollars.

"This region is going to be able to be a counterbalance to OPEC," said Jean-Claude Gakosso, a spokesman for the visiting group. "We're looking to open markets."

The challenge is convincing the United States that President Denis Sassou-Nguesso who seized the presidency at gunpoint in 1997 has a vision to pull Congo out of the violence and poverty of the sub-Saharan region. Mr. Sassou-Nguesso won a democratic election in March to retain the presidency.

"We can say that Congo has essentially hit rock bottom, and we can only go up from there," Mr. Gakosso said through an interpreter.

Mr. Sassou-Nguesso took 89 percent of the vote in the election, which was declared fair and free by election observers from the European Union.

The Republic of Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville after the country's capital, in January adopted a new constitution modeled after that of the United States.

It is attempting to distinguish itself from poorly developed neighbors such as the larger Democratic Republic of Congo to the east.

Along with newfound political stability, the country is kindling grass-roots programs to boost exports from small farms of crops such as pineapples and cassava.

Cassava leaves and roots are staples in many tropical diets.

But some observers are waiting to see how much change Mr. Sassou-Nguesso can inspire. Congo's June parliamentary election had a 15 percent turnout, and the presidential election was tainted by opposition fighting in the nation's southern Pool region.

"Obviously, there's going to be a need for all hands on the deck," said Greg Simpkins, vice president of the Foundation for Democracy in Africa and a former staffer for the House International Relations Africa subcommittee. "He's never been known as a visionary leader. He's a military leader."

Critics of the election say that while it appeared fair, Angolan troops in support of Mr. Sassou-Nguesso stood poised at the border should anything have happened.

They criticize the coup d'etat that brought the president to power in 1997, when President Pascal Lissouba fought against a militia loyal to Mr. Sassou-Nguesso.

U.S. officials say America will be willing to look past Congo's rough past if a promising partnership can be established, which bodes well for Mr. Sassou-Nguesso's upcoming visit to Washington in September.

"It was a coup," said one official familiar with ongoing talks with Congo. "That was five years ago they have established a peace. The coup hopefully would have faded into the background" by this time.

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