The independence of Angola (was US/UN/East Timor/Portugal)

João Paulo Monteiro jpmonteiro at
Thu Oct 21 19:00:01 MDT 1999

Jose G. Perez wrote:

> Rabble was Holden Roberto's force, racists were the south Africans and
> psychopaths some of the mercenaries the CIA signed on for the effort. Those
> were Stockwell's descriptions.

I haven't read Stockwell's book but it is beyond dispute that the CIA supported
the FNLA in the angolan civil war of 1974-76. They have recruited english,
american, portuguese, dutch, french and belgian mercenaries. Badly organized and
with lax discipline, about 100 of them died. This effort had connexions in
Portugal, among the right-wing terrorist network operating here, which
collaborated in the shipment of weapons. The point is: how far were the
americans willing to go? Congress had barred direct armed involvement. In June
1975, Kissinger secured 16 million dollars for covert actions in Angola, plus 32
million in funds for FNLA. In December, the Senate refused a request for 100
million in further funding and, in January 1976, the House of Representatives
passed the Clark Amendment, forbidding any further involvement in angolan
affairs (this was only to be revoked 10 years later by Reagan). The cubans - who
arrived in force early in November 1975, when the MPLA was completely cornered
in Luanda - were allowed to rout FNLA on the North and repeal the south-africans
and UNITA to the southern border. Of course, the U.S. just had no way of
defeating the cubans short of a direct military invasion. But they made no
efforts to destabilize the country at that time either, when they had ample
means and people at their disposal for it. They even had some legal
legitimization, for the MPLA had simply teared down the tri-partite accords
signed with the other movements, expelled them from Luanda and took power
single-handedly manu militari.

The U.S. was kicked in the ass by the cubans in Angola and have let it stand
quietly. Now, even in those immediate post-Vietnam times, this is rather
mysterious. Apparently they were in no mood for a confrontation with the USSR at
the price of an overt, thoroughly exposed and long-term alliance with the
south-africans, which could be very damaging to its relations with most of black
Africa (not to mention the european liberals and the civil rights movement at
home). Was there a deal? With the angolans surely. They have secured with them
the interests of Gulf and Texaco in the oil extraction facilities of Cabinda. I
have no proof of any larger deal concluded with the soviets, but this doesn't
seem too far-fetched. The MPLA unilateral declaration of angolan independence
was on November 11. On November 25, a right-wing military coup has effectively
put an end to the portuguese revolution. (Coincidentally or not, the
american-blessed indonesian invasion of East-Timor was on December 7.)

But lets make a bit of History.

The interest of the US in Angola goes back to 1960. Their man has always been
Holden Roberto and his tribalist bakongo organizations. The bakongos spread to
both sides of the Congo river, in Zaire and the north-west of Angola. The
origins of the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) go back to a
ludicrous question regarding the succession to the throne in the kingdom of
Congo, a traditional but politically meaningless post. The fact remains,
however, that the armed struggle in Angola was initiated in 1961 by UPA (Union
of the Peoples of Angola), Roberto's strictly bakongo party, later to be renamed
FNLA after fusioning with another minor organization. UPA's actions that year
consisted of a series of massacres of portuguese ranchers (and many mulattos and
black servants) in the North of Angola, carried out by throngs of fanatical
gangs armed with nothing but machetes and magical spells. UPA/FNLA has always
been a tribal organization of peasants with absolutely no political education.
The portuguese repression that ensued was nothing short of genocidal. It was
condemned in the UN Security Council by both the US and the USSR. Lisboa and
Luanda were full of anti-american patriotic furor those days. The americans
have, of course, changed course later (particularly the Nixon administrations
were very close to the portuguese fascists), but they have remained in contact
with FNLA. After the seizure of power of Mobutu (Roberto's brother-in-law) on
Zaire, in 1964, the FNLA has been nothing more than a tool of his. Military
activity against the portuguese colonialist army has all but ceased. The FNLA
served more as a buffer against penetration by the MPLA.

Jonas Malheiro Savimbi has always been a very special case in the angolan
nationalist movement. He started as the man in charge of foreign affairs for
UPA. He was kicked out and applied for acceptance in the MPLA but found no
takers. So he founded his own movement, UNITA (National Union for the Total
Independence of Angola), in 1966, based on his Ovimbundu tribe of the angolan
central plateau. UNITA has only three small armed actions against the portuguese
army in its curriculum prior to 1974. Savimbi has managed to grant some chinese
support and sometimes poses as maoist (he has done so even recently). But in
fact he has had lots of very warm correspondence with the colonialist
authorities, culminating in a formal peace signed with them in 1971. From then
on UNITA has functioned as a shield against the incursions of the MPLA from the
East. He was also in contact with the CIA.

The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) is the movement of the
detribalized urban masses and the intellectual and politicized section of the
angolan nationalists. It was founded in 1956, gathering a series of
organizations, one of which was the Communist Party of Angola. Armed action
begun in 1961. In spite of its operational difficulties, it has been by far the
most effective military challenge to the portuguese (particularly in the period
1966-72). The problems of the MPLA were its difficulties in having military
access to angolan territory and its perennial internal dissensions. Access to
Angola was barred by Zaire and, naturally, by Namibia (under south-african
administration). The MPLA was in good terms with the government of the Republic
of Congo (Brazzaville), which granted them access only to the small enclave of
Cabinda. After the independence of Zambia, it was able to launch a second front
from the East. But the terrain there was not the most favorable and there were
immense logistical difficulties. Then there were the problems at the level of
political direction. MPLA has lived in a state of almost permanent rebellion
against its president dr. Agostinho Neto, a great poet and accomplished marxist
but also an egocentrical and autocratic man. In 1973, a rebellion occurred in
the eastern front led by Daniel Chipenda, completely paralyzing it. On the
political front, there was also the "active revolt" of Mario de Andrade in 1974.

And this was the situation on April 1974, when the fascist regime fell in
Portugal. A situation of relative calm with extreme weakness and division on the
angolan nationalist movement.

The first months of the new regime were times of extreme political indefinition.
The president of the republic was the proto-fascist and neo-colonialist general
Spinola, but the democratic movement of the armed forces (MFA) was vigilant on
the background, supported by the awakened popular masses. Until the summer of
1975, the popular tide has been in permanent ascent, defeating the successive
coups and machinations led by Spinola. Autumn was again a time of indecision,
until the final thermidorian coup of November 25, 1975. From then on, bourgeois
rule (now in western, liberal and "democratic" garb) was no more to be
challenged in Portugal.

Due to its exceptional richness, the importance of the portuguese colony
(600.000 people) and the favorable military situation, Spinola was particularly
interested in securing a neo-colonialist solution for Angola. For him "the loss
of Guinea-Bissau was regrettable, the loss of Mozambique a tragedy that could
and should be avoided, but the abandon of Angola was unthinkable". He nominated
the notorious fascist general Silvino Silvério Marques as governor. He devised
plans for decolonization that would take up to 4 years to conclude. He tried to
associate Zaire's president Mobutu to the process, in a meeting held in Cabo
Verde whose content has remained secret and subject to intense speculation. Then
he tried to promote all sorts of "living forces" and independent thinkers as
alternatives to the liberation movements, particularly the MPLA that he
abhorred. At first, the colonial establishment - very assured of its strength -
saw no reasons to be worried.

The problem for Spinola was that things were moving fast. With the introduction
of democratic freedoms of organization and manifestation, powerful social forces
were unleashed, both in Portugal and in Angola. In June and August, violent
racial confrontations surged in Luanda. The white colonial community grew
increasingly alarmed and begun a terrorist campaign. Some sectors of it have
devised a rodhesian style white independence, but there was no sufficient
cohesiveness and maturity in the movement. After the failure of the spinolist
coup of September 28 in Portugal, the neo-colonialist solution was impossible
and the whites begun to support either UNITA or FNLA.

The portuguese armed forces organized themselves democratically under the MFA
flag and demanded the departure of Silvino Marques. For his substitution, was
nominated admiral Rosa Coutinho a discrete officer who nobody knew very well at
the time. He was a marxist, a firm supporter of MPLA and did not try to conceal
his options. The position of the portuguese governments at that time was also
generally towards recognizing the MPLA a certain hegemony in the nationalist
field. In fact, even the U.S. council in Luanda was favorable to the MPLA, on
the grounds that it had the best men to constitute an able administration. The
MFA/Angola and the administration have helped the MPLA organize itself
(including the solution of its grave internal problems) and offered some
armament. When the african soldiers of the portuguese army were demobilized,
most of them were integrated in the MPLA forces, including the katanguese
gendarmes and the fearsome hit-men "flechas".

However, the situation on the ground was still difficult. Particularly the FNLA
was a very considerable force and had strong backing, not only from the U.S. but
from many african countries as well. It managed to occupy the northern districts
and made a push to Luanda in August, stopped by the portuguese parachutists. The
three movements started to occupy positions on the ground and this reality could
not be ignored.

Under the mediation of Portugal and the Organization of African States, the
angolan nationalist movements were pressed to find a agreement on a transition
to independence, which they did in a conference in Mombassa (Kenya), attended by
Neto, Roberto and Savimbi. Based on this prior agreement, they signed a formal
accord with the portuguese government in Alvor (Algarve, Portugal), on January
15, 1975.

The Alvor accord called for the immediate formation of a transitional government
with the participation of Portugal and all the three movements. A joint army was
to be formed also. Elections for a Constituent Assembly were to be held in
October. The whites would be recognized full angolan citizenship. Later, the
date for formal recognition of independence was set for November 11, 1975.

Most probably neither of the movements believed a word of what they were
signing. They just wanted to see the portuguese administration leave as soon as
possible. Probably the portuguese government just feigned it was arbitrating a
serious agreement. The fact is that as soon as the three nationalist movements
gained access to the capital, armed confrontations between them were

In Luanda, the MPLA was at ease. It started a policy of arming its civilian
supporters. In February 13, the MPLA attacked the barracks of its dissident
Chipenda. Chipenda with his 2.000 men joined FNLA and later fought alongside
UNITA and the south-africans. In March 15, the FNLA tried to make some
commemorative military marches in Luanda. And this was really the beginning of
the angolan civil war. A violent battle with heavy weapons begun. It lasted,
with brief periods of cease-fire, until the expulsion of the FNLA from the
capital in July. The portuguese army and the transitional government were
powerless to stop the violence. The white residents begun to flee in droves for
Portugal. In August, it was UNITA's turn to be expelled from Luanda. The Alvor
accords were dead and the MPLA again proclaimed itself the sole representative
of the angolan people.

The south-africans invaded from the South, in October. They were joined by UNITA
and Chipenda's men. In the North, the FNLA was reorganizing its forces in
Ambriz, 100 km from Luanda, with white mercenaries and regular troops from
Zaire. This was the effort Stockwell must have referred to. The two columns were
on the move early in November and their goal was to attack Luanda jointly on the
11th, the date the remains of the portuguese army were supposed to leave and
independence be proclaimed. The MPLA destroyed two bridges but that was not
enough to stop them.

The south-africans were ordered to stop, in order not to compromise their
allies. And the northern column also stopped, within sight of Luanda. Says
portuguese general Diogo Neto: "I was in Luanda until the 8th. On the eve of my
departure, the two columns were very near the capital but were forced to stop by
diplomatic pressure of the U.S.. The american consulate in Luanda closed on the
2 or 3 and one of its members, which I suppose was from the CIA, told me before
leaving that everything had been arranged." What is certain is that a deal had
indeed been reached with the MPLA over the Cabinda oil. But was that all?

The 8th of November was also the date the first 650 cubans of "Operation
Carlota" (in honor of the leader of a slave rebellion of the XIX century)
arrived in Luanda, by air. The airport was controlled by the portuguese.
According to Gabriel Garcia Marquez ("The Cuban Mission to Angola", 'New Left
Review', nºs 101-102, February/April 1977), Fidel Castro had only decided on the
mission three days earlier. But the idea was much older and preparations have
certainly been going on for some time. The operation was supposed to be secret
("a secret jealously kept by eight million cubans"), but it seems at least
Julius Nyerere (of Tanzania), Samora Machel (of Mozambique) and portuguese
leftist firebrand lieutenant-colonel Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho have had previous
knowledge of it. And the portuguese high-commissioner in Luanda (member of the
"military left") gave permission to land. I don't have access to Garcia
Marquez's article but, according to my source, it doesn't say the soviets were
taken by surprise by the action (which I think very unlikely). It only says "it
was a sovereign and independent act of Cuba; the Soviet Union was not informed
beforehand but only AFTER THE DECISION WAS TAKEN" (my emphasis). If the
americans were taken by surprise is anybody's guess at this point.

On November 11, the portuguese high-commissioner, admiral Leonel Cardoso,
transferred sovereignty to "the angolan people", put the portuguese flag under
his arm-pit and left. The MPLA's Agostinho Neto thanked him and, to a delirious
crowd, proclaimed the Popular Republic of Angola, which Portugal only recognized
in February 1976. Simultaneously, the FNLA proclaimed its republic in Ambriz and
UNITA its own in Huambo (then still called New Lisbon).

When the cubans arrived, the military situation was considered so grave that
they expected, at best, to secure the enclave of Cabinda. But, superiourly
organized and motivated, they have repelled the south-africans back to the
border and routed the northern force. The "second war of liberation" was
concluded in February 1976. But south-african incursions kept occurring until
the battle of Cuito Cuanavale and the accords of New York (December 22, 1988)
between Angola, South-Africa and Cuba, which secured the independence of Namibia
and the cuban withdrawal. In the late 80's there was a real "cuban scare" on
white racist south-african society.

UNITA activity remains strong, this very moment. They have inherited part of the
bakongo constituency of FNLA and kept much of its own original ovimbundu
support. As I write this, the angolan army is trying - with some success - to
dislodge UNITA forces entrenched in some municipalities of the central uplands.

> The attitude of the USSR is an interesting question. In CNN's Cold War
> series, Fidel Castro says the first contingents of Cubans, a few hundred
> "advisors" were sent to Angola without even notifying the Soviets. (Fidel
> does not add this, but I've seen elsewhere that the decision was partly for
> security reasons: Cuba was afraid the planes might be attacked if word got
> out). This tends to be confirmed by contemporary accounts, especially the
> one written by Gabriel García Márquez. The follow-on force, which came by
> boat and took longer to get there, and was explicitly combat units, not just
> advisors and brought the total Cuban force to several thousand, is what got
> the Soviets involved. According to Soviet officials interviewed in the Cold
> War series, it was that larger force that drew them into the Southern Africa
> situation, as they could not refuse to supply the Cuban contingent, and thus
> willy-nilly allowed themselves to get dragged into a conflict where as they
> view it no vital soviet interests were at stake. (Obviously, from the point
> of view of these Soviet functionaries, it was a mistake.)

Former soviet officials interviewed for western TV series or books are not
always the most reliable sources. They all seem strangely eager to say basically
the same thing: "What we have done back them was pure nonsense, as we knew long
ago but, you know, the system was just like that. Thank god, now we have
freedom". This is history retrospectively revisited with the eyes of the
vanquished. It's also their way of searching acceptance in the realm of
contemporary "serious" political discourse.

Of course, the soviet apparatchiks were callous and none too found of socialist
revolutions. But leninist state ideology was still a powerful source of
legitimization of their rule. And they were engaged in a deadly contest for
world hegemony, for which they could only find allies in the struggle of the
rebel third world nations. I don't have much information on how exactly foreign
policy decisions were taken by the brejnevist state apparatus, but is does seem
that certain leaders of the "International Communist Movement" were influent, to
various degrees. Fidel Castro was, of course, very hard to say no to. Alvaro
Cunhal, the leader of the Portuguese Communist Party, was also very influent. He
had very close friendships (going back to the 30's) with key figures in the
Politburo like Boris Ponomariov, Mikhail Suslov and indeed with Brejnev himself.

The middle 70's were bad times for US imperialism. There was the oil crisis,
Watergate, defeat in Indochina. The soviets took positions in Vietnam and Laos
(1975), Angola (1975), Ethiopia (1977), Southern Yemen (1978), Cambodja (1979),
Nicaragua (1979), Afghanistan (1979). Probably this has helped overstretch the
resources of the USSR (which was by then clearly on accelerated decadence), and
some officials may have started to grumble. But their was also confidence,
initiative and even some ideological assertiveness.

The MPLA was supported by the USSR and Chekoslovakia since 1964. Many of its
cadre (including the now angolan president Jose Eduardo dos Santos) were formed
there. In short, for many reasons, the USSR just couldn't failed them in the
hour of truth. And they did give substantial help. According to US government
sources, between 100 and 200 million dollars worth of military aid, between
March and the end of 1975. This included some 170 military advisors, armored
vehicles, planes and the very effective 122 mm rocket, decisive in many

Of course, what really decided the matter were the cubans soldiers.

João Paulo Monteiro

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