The Poverty of Debate: Washington, UNITA, and the American Press

August 30, 2014   ·   0 Comments

Fidel Castro and Agostinho Neto

Above: Poster of President Agostinho Neto and Fidel Castro after Angolan independence celebration (Source: Wilson Center Cold War International History Project)

Excerpts from Piero Gleijeses' Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013)

Introductory Remarks

by Stephen Roblin

In the concluding chapter of Piero Gleijeses' pioneering transnational history of the conflict in southern Africa during the 1970s and 1980s, Visions of Freedom, he reflects on a minor event that occurred over a decade after the timeframe of his study. In February 2002, president George W. Bush received the Angolan president José Eduardo dos Santos at the White House. During the reception, Bush did what American presidents have commonly done when interacting with leaders of the historically dominated regions of the world: behave paternalistically.[1] Specifically, he urged dos Santos to bring peace to his country, which had been devastated by a quarter century of civil war that had just come to a close. Reflecting on the American media's treatment of the diplomatic meeting, Gleijeses writes, “The U.S. press failed to note the irony of the situation. Instead of lecturing dos Santos, Bush should have asked his forgiveness for the crimes perpetrated by the United States against the people of Angola.”

Though the irony went unobserved in the United States at the time, there can be little doubt that in southern Africa – the scene of the crimes – many took notice. Such divergences in perspectives occur when there is no common “historical memory.” In this case, there are historical facts that are well-known and regarded as morally significant by those inhabiting the former crime scene, but they have never penetrated the popular consciousness of American society. This is the factual domain from which Gleijeses draws for reason why Bush should have asked for forgiveness; hence, the unseen irony.

Gleijeses gives two reasons why Angola is, for starters, due an official apology: First, because the United States connived with the apartheid government of South Africa in 1975 when it invaded the newly-independent Angola, and for the next eighteen years had provided critical support to South Africa, as it waged a relentless campaign of military aggression and terror against the country. And, second, because four U.S. administrations (Ford, Carter, Reagan, and Bush I) had assisted Jonas Savimbi, the leader of an insurgent group called the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which had fought to overthrow Angola's internationally-recognized government and place himself at the helm. That this outcome would have been disastrous for Angolans was well understood by the Western states intimately involved in this Cold War “battleground.” In fact, a former British ambassador to Angola referred to the South African and American proxy as “a monster whose lust for power had brought appalling misery to his people,” a description that closely approximates views held within the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Savimbi's “solid reputation for brutality and deceit,” as a former U.S. official called it,[2] was no deterrent for Washington given the nature of his strategic utility. One Congressional aide captured it succinctly when he said, “we wanted to help people who wanted to hurt Cuba. . . . Savimbi had one redeeming quality: he killed Cubans.”[3] For killing Cubans, the U.S. had provided Savimbi with lethal aid, much of which was given in violation of domestic law. Arming a “monster” was sound policy given both the Carter and Reagan administrations' top priority for southern Africa: to reverse the strategic loss of 1975. Both administrations decided that this required compelling Angola, led by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), to send the thousands of Cuban troops back to their island, despite being aware that Cuba's presence was saving the government from the apartheid menace, which they had refused to restrain. (The Reagan administration went further than its predecessor by demanding that the thousands of Cuban aid workers providing critical assistance to Angolans also be repatriated.)

From the nature of these events, it is evident why they are regarded as historically and morally significant in southern Africa. Though evident, it is perhaps worthwhile to take a moment and help solidify the idea, for purposes of empathy—a psychological requisite for closing the historical memory gap. Let us then briefly reflect on a crime that “we will never forget.” These were president Obama's solemn words given at New York's Ground Zero a few days after the U.S. assassinated Osama Bin Laden, in a clear violation of international law. There can be no doubt that president Obama is correct that the United States will not allow the 9/11 terrorist attacks to fade into historical oblivion. As he said when reporting to the world the success of the assassination, “The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory.” Needless to say, the crimes that Gleijeses says the U.S. should apologize for also “seared” gruesome images into Angola's “national memory.” And we should bear in mind that the juxtaposition made here is weak in at least one respect: The scale of savagery committed on American soil comes nowhere close to what the people of Angola experienced. Thus, Obama's remark that “the worst images are those that were unseen to the world” is true also in the context of Angola.

Fortunately, what cannot be forgotten in southern Africa is not all dark. In Pretoria's Freedom Park there is a memorial honoring those who died struggling to free South Africa from white supremacist rule. Only one foreign country is represented, the one the United States “wanted to hurt.” Inscribed on the wall are the names of over 2,000 Cubans who died defending Angola from U.S.-backed South African aggression. Indeed, the reason why South Africa's 1975 invasion did not succeed in creating a client-state, led by Savimbi, was because of Fidel Castro: At the invitation of the MPLA government, he sent up to 36,000 troops to Angola and repelled the onslaught. Defying Washington's demands and threats, Havana refused to repatriate its thousands of Cuban troops and aid until 1988, only after the threat of South African aggression and terror had been overcome.

Nelson Mandela articulated well the significance of Cuba's involvement in southern Africa. After an impressive Cuban military victory against South African forces in 1988, he credited Cubans with shattering “the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor,” which centuries of savage violence and domination by the hands of Europeans had drilled into the minds of Africa's native populations. Mandela elaborated on the psychological impact, saying that Cuba “inspired the fighting masses of South Africa” and generated a “turning point for the liberation of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge of apartheid.” Also critical was the message sent to white South Africans that their government would not be able to securely and quietly impose its will on the region.

Among the nations that Cuba had helped free from the scourge of apartheid is Namibia, the country positioned in between Angola and South Africa. Since the close of World War I, Namibia had been under South African military occupation. Decades later, in 1971, the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council ruled the occupation illegal and demanded South Africa to withdraw. Five years after the ruling, the Security Council passed a resolution demanding UN-supervised elections in Namibia, as a pathway to its independence. However, Pretoria had done what rogue states do and had simply disregarded international law. Thanks to the sanctions “shield” provided by Washington at the Security Council, Pretoria had been able to maintain its illegal occupation without penalty. The shield was also used to protect South African crimes committed in Angola against sanctions. This is what Chester Crocker, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa in the Reagan administration, called keeping resolutions “within bounds.”

For Pretoria, Namibia was essential to its southern Africa strategy. The country had functioned as a military outpost, greatly enhancing South Africa's capacity to use military force in pursuit of its goals of carrying out regime change in Angola and eradicating the black liberation forces fighting apartheid rule at home and abroad, namely South Africa's ANC and Namibia's SWAPO. Meanwhile, Pretoria had pursued an “internal settlement” inside Namibia, with the objectives of creating a puppet regime and maintaining control of Walvis Bay, the only deep-water port in the country and the site of a critical South African military base.

South Africa's regional ambitions however came crashing down in 1988. Late that year, it ended its policy of aggression against Angola and support for UNITA, and agreed to stop blocking free elections in Namibia. (However, in a futile attempt to prevent SWAPO's electoral victory, South Africa employed subversive tactics, such as bribery, wiretapping, and assassination.) One of the most important findings in Gleijeses' inquiry is what caused South Africa to abandon its ambitions: It was the combination of the Cuban military presence, specifically Castro's decision in 1987 to enhance it and pursue a more aggressive military strategy, black ANC militants, and the threat of sanctions that forced Pretoria to drop its regional plans. It was not, Gleijeses demonstrates, U.S. leadership and diplomatic skill, as the American press proclaimed at the time—a view that has since become accepted dogma. In fact, Reagan's policies “made it easier for South Africa to continue to occupy Namibia and to use it as a springboard to wreak havoc in Angola,” he writes.

As Gleijeses' findings suggest, Cuba's role in southern Africa is another area where “our” historical memory is woefully flawed. Visions of Freedom, which draws primarily from U.S., South African, and Cuban archives, shines critical light on the flaws. Chief among them are the claims that Cuba invaded Angola first, which then drew in the South Africans, and that Cuba had been acting as a proxy of the Soviet Union. Regarding the first allegation, Gleijeses has already proven in his previous book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, that it was South Africa, with U.S. encouragement, who invaded Angola, prompting Cuba to send troops to repel the aggressor. As for the second allegation, his latest study clearly demonstrates that Cuba was by no means a “Soviet puppet.” From day one, when it intervened on the MPLA government's behalf, Havana had determined the terms of its engagement in southern Africa, at times defying its Soviet ally's wishes. Gleijeses goes further, asserting that Cuba's southern Africa policy is unparalleled for its independence. “There is no other instance in modern history,” he writes, “in which a small underdeveloped country has shaped the course of events in a distant region—humiliating one superpower and repeatedly defying the other.”

And why had Cuba taken such an extraordinary course of action? Gleijeses shows that Cuban policy cannot be explained on narrow strategic interests, as the thirteen-year long engagement had been very costly in political, economic, and human terms. Rather, from his unique access to Cuban documents, Gleijeses discovers that the explanation lies in the regime's commitment to internationalism and, in particular, Castro's desire to contribute to what he saw as “the most beautiful cause,” the struggle against apartheid.

A far cry from America's standard Cold War dogmas, the reality of these events reveals a great deal about the cynical nature of Washington's pretenses during this era, as well as the intellectual culture that had given credence to them. Furthermore, the fact that Gleijeses' study has received scant attention in the United States tells us something about the current intellectual and moral culture. That I found virtually no mention of Visions of Freedom in the mainstream press is not surprising, in light of the nature of its findings: There's nothing redeeming in it for us. And, worse still, Castro's Cuba – the object of extreme and enduring American hatred – is without a doubt the humanitarian in this tale. Quite clearly, there are compelling ideological reasons for the pitiful state of our historical memory of southern Africa.

To be sure, the American mainstream media shares significant responsibility. This much is obvious from the press' failure to report on the irony of an American president lecturing an African leader, whose country had been devastated because of our complicity in heinous crimes committed against it by our allies.

The media's responsibility is further brought to life in Visions of Freedom. In the following excerpts from Gleijeses' important study, he recounts the debate that had occurred within Washington and the press in late-1985 over whether the United States should (continue to) provide lethal aid to Savimbi, the brutal terrorist who was known within the U.S. government and press as a “freedom fighter.” Gleijeses gives special attention to the New York Times' coverage, making it particularly relevant for readers of the NYTimes eXaminer.

His discussion is revealing in multiple respects. As we will see, the debate had taken place within a climate of both extreme ignorance about Angola and extreme Cold War fanaticism. This climate could sustain only a narrow debate, leaving virtually no room for assessing Savimbi's human rights record, or his nationalist credentials for that matter, which were highly dubious given his role as a Portuguese colonial collaborator. Moreover, the debate had occurred as opposition to apartheid in the United States had been growing. In fact, just several months after the debate had tapered off, Congress imposed sanctions on South Africa, overriding Reagan's veto. But, strikingly, the South African government and its client's brutality in Angola had been immune to the moral outrage over the apartheid state's domestic rule. Taken together, it is no surprise that the outcome of the debate was to approve U.S. “covert” and lethal aid to UNITA.

After reading these pages, it should be plain to see that the U.S. government is not the only one that owes an apology to the people of Angola; the American media does too for contributing to ordinary Americans' impoverished understanding of their government's foreign policy towards the region. After all, with proper understanding, we are uniquely positioned to compel our government to pursue a more humane course. Gleijeses' important study provides us with an opportunity to correct our impaired memory, a prerequisite for taking action to ensure that the crimes committed in our names do not remain immune to justice indefinitely.

We should take notice of this past, as others have.


[1] Latin America scholar, Lars Schoultz, has explored how paternalism and ethnocentrism have historically characterized the attitudes and behavior of the U.S. political class towards Latin America, with significant implications on policy. The same patterns, undoubtedly, run through U.S. diplomatic relations towards sub-Saharan Africa and other regions of the global South. See Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[2] Brandon Grove, U.S. ambassador in Zaire from 1984 to 1987, quoted in Visions of Freedom, 299.

[3] Stephen Weissman quoted in Visions of Freedom, 304.


[Editor's Note: Page numbers and endnotes are omitted.]

Chapter 11: The United States, South Africa, and Savimbi

. . . .

Helping Savimbi

In the United States, the same Congress that was imposing sanctions on South Africa against Reagan's wishes had embraced UNITA, Pretoria's protégé. On June 11, 1985, the Senate had repealed the Clark Amendment, which had prohibited covert operations in Angola for almost a decade, by a sixty-three to thirty-four vote, and the House had followed suit on July 10. The repeal would become effective on October 1, 1985, with the beginning of the new fiscal year.

In seeking repeal, the administration and its supporters had argued, disingenuously, that they were not necessarily thinking of helping Savimbi, but wanted to eliminate a cumbersome restraint on the president's ability to conduct foreign policy.

After repeal, the stage was set for the next act. On October 24, 1985, Reagan set the tone. In his half-hour address to the General Assembly of the United Nations he singled out five countries where, he said, anticommunist movements were fighting against Soviet oppression—Afghanistan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Angola, and Nicaragua—and he demanded that the leaders of these countries agree to “democratic reconciliation with their own people.” He pledged that as long as they refused, “America's support for struggling democratic resistance forces must not and shall not cease.”

The Reagan doctrine was born. “Finally, our game plan,” the Washington Times applauded. “The president has launched an impressive offensive, and the people of the world, slave and free, must pray that America has the nerve to follow through.” In fact, the seeds of the doctrine had already been sown. Aid to the Afghan rebels had begun in 1979 and was sharply increased in 1980 and again in 1984 and 1985; aid to the Nicaraguan Contras had been going on, fitfully, since 1981, and aid to Cambodian rebels since 1982. In the U.S. Congress and in the press, a debate began in late 1985 about whether to provide aid to UNITA.

There were, during the Reagan presidency, two major public debates about whether the United States should support insurgent movements: the first, about aid to the Nicaraguan Contras, raged through most of the Reagan years; the other, about aid to UNITA, flared in late 1985 and was over, for all practice purposes, by early 1986.

The intensity of the debate on aid to the Contras was due to Nicaragua's location in the American backyard and to the fear that Reagan might send U.S. troops to overthrow the Sandinistas. Furthermore, thousands of Americans traveled to Nicaragua and acquired a firsthand impression about the country: it was easy to obtain a visa (and after July 1985 none was needed), Nicaragua was not too distant, travel was not too expensive, and U.S. churches and grass-roots organizations developed a keen interest in the country. Sandinista and Contra spokesmen appeared often on American television.

Nevertheless, as Reagan wrote in his diary in April 1983, “it was astonishing how few people even knew where El Salvador & Nicaragua are.” Their knowledge of Angola was even worse. The quality of the debate about aid to Savimbi was aptly characterized by Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.), who chaired the subcommittee on Africa of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Most Americans and members of Congress didn't know what Angola was or much less care about it,” he said. “Most of my colleagues in Congress didn't have a clue.” There was little incentive to learn. No one thought that giving aid to Savimbi would lead to U.S. military intervention. Very few Americans visited Angola. It was far away, it was expensive to get to, and the Angolan government rarely granted visas to Americans, including journalists. Whereas there was a steady flow of members of Congress and their staffs to Nicaragua, hardly any went to Luanda. However, a trickle of journalists and congressional staff journeyed to Jamba, Savimbi's headquarters, via South Africa and South African military bases in Namibia; the reception in Jamba was friendly and increasingly well organized. The head of an Angolan government delegation that visited the United States in the fall of 1985 noted: “UNITA, in cahoots with the South African government, often invites the major newspapers of the United States to visit alleged 'liberated regions.' While journalists told us that they would prefer 'to enter [Angola] through Luanda,' they had a great deal of difficulty getting entry visas. . . . Therefore, their view of Angola has been shaped by UNITA and its supporters.”

It was not only the U.S. press and Congress that were in the dark about Angola. So too was U.S. intelligence. Its reports in the 1980s about the domestic situation in South Africa were of high quality, and even those on Namibia were reasonably good, but those on Angola were poor. And for good reason. “We had few, if any, sources on Angola,” recalls Daniel Fenton, who was the principal CIA analyst covering Angola through the 1980s. “We didn't have human sources [in Angola], we didn't have the kind of thing you have when you have an embassy and consulates. We relied on foreign embassies—on the British, but they knew very little.” Fenton explains that the Portuguese also were ill-informed; the Brazilians were sympathetic to the MPLA; and the French, although they may have been knowledgeable, did not share. “Our major sources of information were South Africa, Savimbi and Zaire, but they all had their own agenda. The Gulf Oil people were very cooperative with us [CIA],” Fenton muses, “but they didn't know anything. Their only interest was to get the oil shipped from the fields. We talked with Gulf. All I got out of them was atmospherics, what it was like to work in Angola. They were happy in their separate world [Cabinda].” They also had no interest in doing anything that might threaten their company's profitable relationship with the MPLA government. “We had overhead photographs,” Fenton adds, “that could give a rough idea of troop movements”—very approximate, when it came to small units. Sometimes Crocker and his team were the best available source of information. For an intelligence office, it was a desolate picture. CIA, DIA, INR—their analyses might differ, but all were milking the same spare and skewed data. “We really had so little information,” Fenton concludes, “We didn't know!” Doug Smith, who was the CIA station chief in Kinshasa from 1983 to 1986, emphatically agrees. “The intelligence on Angola was very poor. We didn't have anyone there!” The picture did not significantly improve when it came UNITA. “You had to take what the South Africans said with a huge grain of salt,” Fenton remarks, “and you were not going to get anything from Savimbi's people. He controlled the contacts of his people with us very closely.” As for the Zaireans, Smith adds, “they knew very little. Their intelligence service was focused on keeping Mobutu in power, not on what happened elsewhere.”

Savimbi's champions—in the press and in Congress—did not care. They knew what mattered to them: there were thousands of Cuban soldiers in Angola, and Savimbi had promised to defeat them. In Representative Wolpe's words, Savimbi “had succeeded in posturing himself as a strong anti-communist: 'I am your friend, anti-communist, fighting the Cubans.' In those days this was the frame.” It crossed party lines, stretching to include people who were considered moderate and liberal. Many were motivated by deep hostility to Cuba and by the blandishments of powerful Cuban American groups.

The pro-Savimbi forces seized the high ground: they argued in terms of both U.S. interests and morality. For them, Savimbi was a heroic freedom fighter who sought national reconciliation and democracy in Angola. His nationalist credentials were, in their view, impeccable. “For years he fought for independence against Portugal,” William Buckley explained in the National Review, “pursuing democratic government and civil liberties. And then, at the moment of victory in 1975, the coup d'etat happened. This was a Marxist-Leninist operation made possible by Cuban soldiers.” Since then, Buckley asserted, Savimbi had been fighting against Cuban-Soviet colonialism. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) eloquently summed up the case for the UNITA chieftain. “I have had the privilege of meeting Mr. Savimbi and have been extremely impressed by his honesty, integrity, religious commitment,” he wrote in the Washington Times. Savimbi had been fighting for twenty years “to liberate Angola, first from Portuguese control and later from the MPLA. . . . Mr. Savimbi's goal is to pressure the MPLA into negotiations with UNITA, leading to free elections with a guarantee that the winner of the elections will govern Angola. . . . The battle for Angola is not a 'civil war.' It is a battle over ideologies: Soviet totalitarianism vs. freedom, self-determination and democracy. U.S. aid to UNITA will send a strong signal to the world that the Reagan doctrine is not mere words, that we are determined to help freedom fighters resist Communist hegemony.” Peter Worthington, a journalist who had visited Jamba, added a stirring detail: “Savimbi has 'political officers' throughout his army,” he wrote in the National Review. “I found this disquieting until I sat in on lectures. . . . Lectures concentrated on the virtues of democracy, of multiple political choice, of free movement, of self-reliance, individual initiative, private property, free enterprise, fiscal accountability, balanced budgets, democracy, human rights, a humane and just judicial system, democratic institutions, rule by law and constitution, and other motherhood issues.”

U.S. officials understood that the myth these men were praising bore little relation to the real Jonas Savimbi. “Everybody knew that Savimbi had a dark side!” remarks Larry Napper, the deputy director of the office of Southern African Affairs at the State Department from 1986 to 1988. Savimbi had “a solid reputation for brutality and deceit,” writes Brandon Grove, the U.S. ambassador in Zaire from 1984 to 1987. “Nobody on the U.S. side was duped about it,” he adds. “Chester Crocker and his aides were under no illusion about the true nature of Savimbi as a ruthless man.” Crocker's special assistant, Robert Cabelly, was the member of the Africa bureau who had the most frequent contact with Savimbi. “He was one of the most impressive men I have ever met,” Cabelly recalls. “Ruthless. When you first met him he came across as very reasonable and a capitalist. But he was neither. He was very smooth, really a good speaker to any audience. But he was an extremely ruthless guy.” Jeff Davidow, the director of the Office of Southern African Affairs from 1984 to 1986, is emphatic: “We all saw Savimbi as a charismatic figure who was extremely brutal.”

Charisma and ruthlessness were the attributes U.S. officials most often used to describe Savimbi. They captured the essence of the man. Anthony Hodges, arguably the foremost authority on independent Angola, painted a rounded portrait of the rebel leader: “A messianic sense of destiny drove him on in a quest for absolute power for more than three decades, whatever the setbacks or hurdles. Within UNITA he wielded absolute power, holding sway over his lieutenants in the manner of a cult leader. This was a product partly of his personal charisma and genuine leadership qualities, but it was reinforced by a fearsome security apparatus, a culture of zero tolerance of dissent and a personality cult that had parallels with those of Mao Tse-Tung and Kin Il-Sung.” Savimbi's biographer and erstwhile admirer wrote in 1995,

in 1979-80, Savimbi began to execute those within UNITA who dared to question him, whatever the subject: politics, economics, or his unacceptable sexual behavior, or his right to tell his close aides whether they should get married or divorced. The leaders of the Chingunji clan . . . and the courteous foreign affairs secretary of UNITA . . . were among the first people in the leadership of the movement to challenge Savimbi in the late 1970s. They paid with their lives. As others dared say that the emperor had no clothes, the executions, tortures, and imprisonment in underground cells multiplied. The wives and children of the dissidents were burned alive in public displays to teach the others.

Savimbi's Critics

Whereas Savimbi's champions waxed eloquent about morality, those who opposed aid to UNITA argued in terms of U.S. narrow interests. This was true in the press and in Congress. I have examined seven newspapers that opposed aid to Savimbi: New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, Atlanta Constitution, and Cleveland Plain Dealer. Their opposition was based on two propositions. They feared, as the Washington Post explained, that “An aid connection with him would make the United States a working partner of South Africa, his leading sponsor, and would torpedo the administration's attempt to convey the idea that it is serious about wanting to end apartheid.” And they also believed, as the Los Angeles Times said, that aid to Savimbi would make the Luanda government more dependent on Cuban-Soviet assistance and provide Angola “with justification for the prolongation of the Cuban expeditionary forces.”

These newspapers did not, however, challenge the heroic portrait of Savimbi drawn by his admirers, or they did so only fleetingly. They did not question his human rights record even though, in the words of Marrack Goulding, who was the British ambassador in Luanda in 1983-85, “UNITA's atrocities provided sufficient cause to oppose Savimbi's ambitions.” Granted, the Angolan government's policy of allowing very few Western journalists to enter the country was partly to blame for the U.S. press's ignorance, but UNITA's acts of terrorism were no secret. Indeed, UNITA itself often boasted of them. As the London Times noted, in July 1980 UNITA had taken credit for the bombing campaign in Angola's main cities. “Bombs were planted in the capital,” Savimbi's biographer explains, “in the East German embassy, in the offices of Aeroflot, the Labor Ministry and the Luanda terminal of the Luanda-Malanje Railway.” Amnesty International reminded its readers in 1983 and again in 1984: “In 1978 [UNITA] started an urban guerrilla campaign in Luanda, Huambo and other cities. Bombs exploded in public places, such as markets, and targets such as embassies or the commercial offices of East European countries were also bombed.” And when Michael Hornsby, the London Times' southern Africa correspondent, visited Jamba in May 1984, Colonel Isidro Wambu Kasitu, one of Savimbi's senior intelligence officers, “had no hesitation in claiming responsibility for a bomb explosion in the central town of Huambo last month, which may have killed between 100 and 200 people. He also justified the blowing up of a Boeing 737 earlier this year on the grounds that 'we had good intelligence that MPLA . . . representatives were aboard.” In April 1984 the New York Times reported in passing that UNITA had claimed responsibility for the explosion in Huambo and had said that “the bombing killed 200 people, including 3 Soviet and 37 Cuban officers.” And the Washington Times wrote, “Recently UNITA claimed responsibility for a car bombing outside Cuban airline offices in Luanda.”

The New York Times overlooked Savimbi's human rights violations until December 1984, when James Brooke, its correspondent covering Angola, reported from Huambo that “interviews here and in Luanda with health workers, religious leaders, military officials and international aid workers indicate that Mr. Savimbi's guerrilla campaign has wrecked the economy of the central highlands and is causing enormous hardship for the people of Mr. Savimbi's tribe, the Ovimbundu. These sources also assert that Savimbi has little control over units operating hundreds of miles from headquarters and that they often turn into freelance banditry.” During that same trip to Angola, Brooke wrote two more articles that referred to acts of terror perpetrated by UNITA: in one, datelined Luanda, he wrote that UNITA had “targeted Cuban workers for kidnapping and assassination” and that “UNITA's terror campaign has left the Cubans edgy,” leaving readers the impression that the terror campaign was aimed only at Cubans. Brooke's only other reference to UNITA human right violations, in an article datelined Huambo, noted that the local MPLA military commander “charged that . . . [UNITA] burned crops, terrorized peasants and were trying to strangle the city.” The fact that Brooke's only source was an MPLA official robbed the report of impact.

The New York Times offered the most in-depth coverage of Angola of any American newspaper. (Its closest competitor was the Washington Times, a fervent champion of Savimbi.) It devoted the most ink to the debate that began in late 1985 about aid to Savimbi, but with the exception of a handful of columns by Anthony Lewis and the occasional op-ed, its reportage was shallow. It mentioned UNITA's human rights violations only twice, in passing. The other newspapers that opposed aid said even less. Just as they failed to convey UNITA's human rights violations, those U.S. newspapers that opposed aid to Savimbi did not probe his commitment to national reconciliation. Nor did they investigate his nationalist credentials, even though his collusion with the Portuguese during the Angolan war of independence had been extensively and publicly documented in Portugal. The mainstream Lisbon weekly Expresso had written in 1979: “The fact that Savimbi collaborated with the Portuguese colonial authorities has been so amply proved that no one can question it in good faith.” It was as if an iron curtain separated the West European press from the United States. The Washington Post wrote, “Mr. Savimbi has personal and nationalist credentials no less worthy, and by some lights perhaps more so than those of the Marxist-oriented president now sitting in Luanda.” Alan Cowell, the New York Times South African correspondent, never referred to Savimbi's cooperation with the Portuguese colonial authority beyond one pithy statement: in April 1984, he noted that “Luanda propaganda” claimed that Savimbi had been “a sellout to the former Portuguese colonialists.” Cowell did not elaborate.

This is as far as the investigative drive of the U.S. press went—with one lone exception: in December 1985 Christopher Hitchens (a Briton) noted in the Nation that “we have it on the evidence” of General Costa Gomes, a former commander of the Portuguese troops in Angola, “that UNITA was a wholly owned subsidiary of the settler government [the Portuguese] in Angola and Jonas Savimbi was on the payroll.” The evidence that Savimbi had cooperated with the colonial authorities went well beyond Costa Gomes's words. Nevertheless, compared to everything else in the U.S., Hitchens had a scoop.

It may have been simple ignorance. Or perhaps journalists and editors did not think Savimbi's past cooperation with the Portuguese colonial authorities was important, not as important, for example, as the constantly repeated (and wrong) claim that he had received a Ph.D. from the University of Lausanne. (In fact, the highest degree that Savimbi had received was a licence [Master of Arts] in political and legal sciences at the University of Lausanne in July 1965.) Apparently the idea of a black African guerrilla leader holding a Ph.D. from a respected European university was more newsworthy than the fact that he had cooperated with the white colonial authorities or that his organization perpetrated atrocities against the population.

It was not only the press that was blinkered. A 1985 CIA analysis of the MPLA and UNITA noted, “Each side has accused the other of selling out its rival to the Portuguese during the anticolonial struggle (we suspect both charges may be accurate).” The State Department saw even less clearly. A 1987 study asserted that “UNITA has longstanding nationalist credentials . . . [and] is a credible nationalist force, with charismatic leadership and a heritage of anti-colonial struggle over decades.” These reports reflected the poor intelligence with which U.S. officials were saddled. Daniel Fenton, the only CIA analyst who worked full-time on Angola, had been a Soviet expert until 1981, when he joined the Southern Africa Branch. He received no detailed briefing, and he could neither read nor speak Portuguese. Perhaps, somewhere in the CIA archives there was a memo about Savimbi's connivance with the Portuguese colonial authorities, but if so, Fenton never saw it.

Arguably, knowledge of Savimbi's collusion with the Portuguese would not have changed a single vote in the U.S. Congress, but it might have helped some Americans understand why the MPLA loathed him. A few years earlier, the diplomatic adviser of Portuguese president António Ramalho Eanes had bluntly explained to Crocker's senior deputy that “reconciliation with Savimbi was impossible. The MPLA reluctance to accept him was not just political, but psychological and related to what Savimbi represents in Angola. He had been linked to the colonial regime, including its secret policy, . . . and had been ready to deal with South Africans even before independence to 'cut his piece of the cake'.” These words seem not to have registered with U.S. officials. When I mentioned Savimbi's collusion with the Portuguese to Crocker—a former professor of African Studies—he replied, “It was not very high on my radar. I had heard rumors, reports about in the far left Portuguese press.”

The poverty of the debate in the U.S. press was matched by the poverty of the debate in the U.S. Congress. With few exceptions, those members of Congress who opposed aid to Savimbi failed to question his human rights record, his nationalist credentials, or his commitment to political democracy. When I asked Representative Wolpe whether he knew about Savimbi's collaboration with the Portuguese during Angola's war of independence, he replied, “I was more familiar with the fact that he had worked with the Chinese.” (UNITA had received some military aid from Beijing in the late 1960s, and Savimbi had spouted pro-Chinese rhetoric.) “I was less familiar with the fact that he had worked with the Portuguese.” This was a disappointing reply from someone who had been an associate professor of African affairs at Western Michigan University and, in 1985, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa. Steve Weissman, a respected scholar who was a staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Africa, knew about Savimbi's collaboration with the Portuguese “but,” he said, “I don't that the anti-colonial issue was considered important by the members of Congress. And when you are briefing people you are constrained by what they want to know.” Weissman and his colleagues sought to check Savimbi's human rights record. “We tried. We asked the CIA, the State Department [about human rights violations by UNITA]. They said there were none.” Perhaps Weissman and his colleagues failed to dig deeper because they knew that Savimbi's nationalist credentials and human rights record were not relevant for most members of Congress. The letter that Wolpe and 100 other members of Congress sent Reagan on November 25, 1985, opposing aid to Savimbi did not mention either.

Probably few members of Congress read Savimbi's bombastic statement in Policy Review: “Do not underestimate the importance of your decision [on aid to UNITA]. For Angola is the Munich of Africa. Hesitation, the refusal to aid UNITA in its fight against the Cubans and the Soviets, will be taken as a signal by all the countries in the region that the United States has abandoned them to the Soviets as the West abandoned Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe to Hitler in 1938.” But in a way, Savimbi hit the nail on the head: the vote in Congress about aid to UNITA was all about the U.S. fight against Cuba. This was why the truth—the sordid facts—about Savimbi was of no interest. “For Congress, Angola was of very minor importance, except as a way to hurt the Cubans,” Weissman remarked as he explained why Congress approved aid to Savimbi. “We wanted to hurt Cuba, and we wanted to help people who wanted to hurt Cuba. When Savimbi said that he was 'fighting for freedom against Cuba'—this was his trump card. It was impossible to counter it. Savimbi had one redeeming quality: he killed Cubans.”

What Kind of Aid?

A few hours after the repeal of the Clark Amendment had become effective on October 1, 1985, Representative Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) introduced a bill providing $27 million in humanitarian aid for UNITA. Pepper was a respected liberal. He also represented a Miami district that included a large number of Cuban Americans. He frankly told Congress that “a few months ago I was not any more aware of what was going in Angola except in a general way that one is aware of other parts of the world that pass in a kaleidoscopic review from time to time before our mental and hindsight vision. But I was approached about this matter by the Cuban-American [National] Foundation, which is in Miami, basically, although they have an office here. . . . They told me something about conditions in Angola. . . . I said I don't know anything about Savimbi . . . but I am for helping anybody that is fighting communism in Angola.”

Pepper's bill, which was cosponsored by presidential hopeful Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), provoked a sharp reply from Secretary Shultz, who wrote to House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.) urging him to “use his influence to discourage the proposed legislation.” The bill was “ill-timed” and “will not contribute to the settlement we seek.” Michel replied that aid to UNITA was “not only a geo-strategic, but a moral necessity.” Not to be outdone, Kemp vowed to complain directly to Reagan about Shultz's outrageous behavior. “I plan to take it to the Oval Office,” he said.

Hard-liners, who distrusted Shultz and the State Department, raised their war hatchets. “The State Department wrinkles a patrician nose at the disgusting idea of relying on force rather than negotiations to achieve a foreign-policy objective,” wrote the associate editor of the Dallas Morning News, while Howard Phillips, chair of the Conservative Caucus, mused, “Crocker has stalled for five years. I think he sympathizes with the communist government.” This ridiculous statement reflected the views of an important segment of the Republican establishment.

Contrary to what his critics claimed, Shultz was not trying to block aid to Savimbi. In his memoirs, he notes that in his letter to Michel he had asserted, “I feel strongly about Savimbi's courageous stand against Soviet aggression, but there are better ways to help.” He explains,

The last phrase was a way of reminding Michel of the far greater importance of covert and lethal assistance. The point was that the aid had to be delivered, and to obtain the cooperation of an acceptable neighboring state, delivery had to be deniable. . . .

Conservatives in Congress, always suspicious of me and the State Department, went on a virtual rampage. Congressman Jack Kemp called for my resignation because I opposed open assistance to Savimbi. . . . The conservatives wanted an open vote as a matter of thumping their collective chests.

On November 8, 1985, I had a stinging set-to with Jack Kemp in the Cabinet Room. The president turned pale at our harsh exchange, as Kemp harangued for an open vote for an open program and I tore into him, stating all the reasons why an open program would be a disaster. “Why don't you try thinking, Jack,” I snapped. “How are we going to get aid delivered? Zaire and Zambia cannot openly support insurgents in another African state. And the aid has to go through there! If the aid isn't delivered, it's worthless to Savimbi.

Zambia would not serve as a conduit for U.S. covert aid to what it called “the puppet UNITA movement,” but Zaire would, as long as it was covert. The alternative would have been to provide aid through Namibia, but this would have increased Pretoria's leverage over the United States, and it would have exposed the administration to more charges of collusion with the apartheid regime. Crocker told the South African ambassador that this would not be done.

Reagan's diary confirms Shultz's account of his November 8 clash with Kemp: “A meeting with our Repub. Cong. leadership,” the president jotted on November 8. “Geo. S. [George Shultz] and Bud [McFarlane] reported on their Moscow trip. . . . Jack Kemp kicked up a fuss when he challenged the St. Dept about not supporting $27 mil. aid to Savimbi in Angola. Geo. replied that our objection was to Cong. making the aid overt. We want a covert operation for real help. Our problem is Cong. interference in what should be exec. office management of international diplomacy. Things got hot for awhile.” On November 12, 1985, four days after Shultz's clash with Kemp, Reagan signed a presidential finding authorizing a program of covert and lethal assistance to UNITA. In early 1986 he approved $18 million in covert military aid to UNITA.

The administration was not united on the purpose of the covert aid. Crocker and his aides did not believe that Savimbi would be able to seize power by force; they saw covert aid as a way “to give us leverage,” as a Crocker aide says, in order to force President dos Santos to send the Cubans home. For many in the administration, however, the goal was “to help Savimbi win the war.” This was the view of most within the intelligence services. Daniel Fenton, the senior analyst on Angola, remembers that he believed that “Savimbi had a chance, and people in the clandestine services and DIA were even more sanguine.” Doug Smith, who was the CIA station chief in Kinshasa in 1983-86, agrees. He believed that Savimbi had a chance of winning despite the presence of the Cuban troops in Angola; he thought that “his army would grow big enough and strong enough to push the Cubans out.”

On February 19, 1986, the Washington Times announced the good news: “For the first time yesterday, the Reagan administration openly admitted that it is providing, or will soon provide, 'covert aid' to the rebel forces of Jonas Savimbi.” The admission had been made by Crocker at an open hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Certain decisions have been made to provide both moral and material assistance [to Savimbi] . . . and to do so in ways that are effective and appropriate.” Ronald Reagan had squared the circle: this “covert” assistance was overt. Former assistant secretary for Africa Richard Moose bluntly told the same committee, “It is certainly the most widely advertised and announced in advance program of clandestine, covert assistance that I think we have ever known. . . . I think what 'covert' now means is that everybody knows about it but it is deniable. I think this is one of the ways they talk about it in the Executive Branch.” What remained unspoken was the route through which the weapons reached the rebels, but it too was an open secret. The administration had turned to Mobutu. “Events in Angola are unfolding rapidly,” Reagan wrote the Zairean dictator on February 18, 1986. “We . . . will give Jonas Savimbi effective support. . . . I . . . am determined that the United States make a difference in Angola.”


Readers Comments (0)

Sorry, comments are closed on this post.

Read previous post:
Today’s NYT DIFFS August 30, 2014

The New York Times's invisible but growing corrections glacier: These are corrections that NYT Editors make to articles after they...