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Three Oil Countries Face a Reckoning

As the price of oil roared to ever higher levels in recent years, the leaders of Venezuela, Iran and Russia muscled their way onto the world stage, using checkbook diplomacy and, on occasion, intimidation.

Now, plummeting oil prices are raising questions about whether the countries can sustain their spending — and their bids to challenge U.S. hegemony.

For all three nations, oil money was a means to an ideological end.

President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela used it to jump-start a socialist-inspired revolution in his country and to back a cadre of like-minded leaders in Latin America who were intent on eroding once-dominant American influence.

Iran extended its influence across the Middle East, promoted itself as the leader of the Islamic world and used its petrodollars to help defy the West’s efforts to block its nuclear program.

Russia, which suffered a humiliating economic collapse in the 1990s after the fall of communism, recaptured some of its former standing in the world. It began rebuilding its military, wrested control of oil and gas pipelines and pushed back against Western encroachment in the former Soviet empire.

But such ambitions are harder to finance when oil is at $74.25 a barrel, its closing price Monday in New York, than when it is at $147, its price as recently as three months ago.

That is not to say that any of the countries is facing immediate economic disaster or will abandon long-held political goals. And the price of oil, still double what was considered high just a few years ago, could always shoot back up.

Financial Straits of Boosters Hit College Athletics

Nearly three years ago, the billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens donated $165 million to Oklahoma State’s athletic department so it could remake its facilities into a Shangri-La for Cowboys sports, with an indoor practice center and new facilities for baseball, equestrian, soccer, tennis, and track and field. Pickens even allowed Oklahoma State to take out a $10 million insurance policy on his life.

Those funds, along with $37 million from other donors, were invested in BP Capital Management, a hedge fund controlled by Pickens. At the time, it looked like a windfall that would keep on giving. Pickens recently acknowledged that his investments had lost $1 billion this year amid the financial crisis.

Construction of Oklahoma State’s athletic village has been held up, and the athletic director, Mike Holder, said the project would have to wait until Pickens’ financial situation improved. Holder and a spokesman for BP Capital declined to disclose the current value of the university’s investment in Pickens’ hedge fund.

Oklahoma State is hardly alone in watching its soaring ambitions crash back to earth with the fortunes of some of its biggest benefactors.

Botswana’s Ex-President Wins Leadership Prize

A foundation dedicated to celebrating and encouraging good government in Africa awarded its annual prize on Monday to Botswana’s former president, Festus G. Mogae. He was honored for consolidating his nation’s democracy, ensuring that its diamond wealth enriched its people, and providing bold leadership during the AIDS pandemic.

Mogae, 69, a man with a modest style, will receive $5 million over the next 10 years and $200,000 per year thereafter for the rest of his life. Over the coming decade, the foundation may also grant another $200,000 a year to causes of Mogae’s choice.

The award, the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, is bestowed by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, named after its founder, the Sudanese billionaire. Mogae was selected by a six-member panel led by Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations. The panel also included this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Martti Ahtisaari.

Hispanics Developing Alzheimer’s At Younger Ages

Antonio Vasquez was just 60 when Alzheimer’s disease derailed him.

He lost his job at a Queens, N.Y., bakery because he kept burning chocolate chip cookies, forgetting he had put them in the oven. Then he got lost going to job interviews, walking his neighborhood in circles.

Teresa Mojica of Philadelphia was 59 when she got Alzheimer’s, making her so argumentative and delusional that she sometimes hits her husband. And Ida J. Lawrence was 57 when she started misplacing things and making mistakes in her Boston dental school job.

Besides being young Alzheimer’s patients — most Americans who develop it are at least 65, and it becomes more common among people in their 70s or 80s — the three are Hispanic, a group that Alzheimer’s doctors are increasingly concerned about, and not just because it is the country’s largest, fastest-growing minority.

Studies suggest that many Hispanics may have more risk factors for developing dementia than other groups, and a significant number appear to be getting Alzheimer’s earlier. And surveys indicate that Latinos, less likely to see doctors because of financial and language barriers, more often mistake dementia symptoms for normal aging, delaying diagnosis.

“This is the tip of the iceberg of a huge public health challenge,” said Yanira L. Cruz, president of the National Hispanic Council on Aging. “We really need to do more research in this population to really understand why is it that we’re developing these conditions much earlier.”