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As Angola Will Learn, the Political Polluter Rarely Pays


London. -- Dear Angola:

Now prepare yourself to be forgotten. There may be 1,000 international observers monitoring your first general election this week, but once the votes are counted and they go home, it will be time for you, like all the other African countries that played host to the Cold War, to be put in the bottom drawer.

Don't expect even a hundredth of the resources that the superpowers (and France and Saudi Arabia) allocated to guns during your civil war to be spent on your rehabilitation. Your hospitals are closed, roads destroyed, earth scorched, children wasted; but, frankly, the big powers do not expect to pay clean-up costs. After all, wasn't communism defeated? Let them eat capitalism.

You have every right to be bitter, given what's happened. You wanted to live in peace, but outsiders had different ideas. In 1975 Portugal washed its hands of its rebellious African colonies. It agreed to negotiate a hand-over to three rival independence movements, which had consented to abide by elections. (Forgive me spelling it all out, but others may come to read this letter.) If democracy had been allowed to prevail then, a million lives might have been saved, and the course of history in the whole of southern Africa been far less violent than it turned out to be.

But the U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, believed he knew better. He was obsessed with the ideological bias of one of the factions, the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) toward Moscow and Havana, and he talked President Gerald Ford into a clandestine adventure that was to lead Angola away from the ballot to the bullet.

Only days after the peace agreement with Portugal was signed, establishing a transitional power-sharing government, the CIA intervened and sent $300,000 in cash to a rival faction, the CIA's long-term client, the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola), which used the money to launch an all-out military attack on the MPLA.

The CIA payment, although made without the knowledge of the U.S. Congress or public, was soon known to Moscow. It quickly resumed large-scale arms shipments to the MPLA and in March, 1975, Cuba sent in 230 advisers. The ratchet of superpower competition began. The United States dispatched $28 million in covert aid to the FNLA and the third faction, Jonas Savimbi's UNITA, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.

South Africa watched closely. Then, believing it had a wink and a nod from Kissinger, it invaded Angola on August 9. The MPLA, besieged, called in the Cubans.

President Ford hit the roof. He announced that Cuba had committed a "flagrant act of aggression." Fortunately wiser heads prevailed in Congress, and Senator Dick Clark of Iowa piloted through an amendment outlawing any more clandestine aid to Angola.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan got the amendment overturned and picked up where Messrs. Ford and Kissinger had left off, aborting Jimmy Carter's diplomatic efforts to resolve the Angolan imbroglio and the linked issue of independence from South Africa for its neighbor, Namibia. Mr. Reagan resumed military aid to UNITA and South African reverted to total intransigence on Namibian independence. The war went through another savage cycle until a massive onslaught by newly arrived Cuban tanks and MIG fighters in June 1988 routed the South African forces and demoralized its troops.

South Africa announced it was prepared to agree both to a timetable for Namibian independence and to pull out of Angola. The Cubans, likewise, agreed to go home.

It was hardly a triumph against communism; indeed, rather the opposite. But Mikhail Gorbachev seized the chance to call it a day in Angola and wind down Moscow's support. Mr. Reagan, too, was finally amenable to a negotiated settlement in Angola and Namibia. Four years later, the negotiations, not easy, not fast, given the carnage and distrust of war, have brought Angola full circle. Elections.

Dear Angola, try to resist bitterness. It is human nature to think that those who laid you low might help build you up. But the political polluter rarely pays, and anyway Russia and Cuba are broke, so that only leaves Uncle Sam. You don't need me to tell you that you're not exactly on George Bush's list of priorities.

Still, if the electoral peace holds in Angola and you do the wise thing and opt for a government of national unity, then Bill Clinton, if elected, might give you a hand. There are enough old Carter types around the Clinton camp who remember the rough deal the Republicans gave you. They know America owes you something.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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