LONDON — London.-- The Angolans are hastening to wrap up their 16-year-old civil war -- a cease-fire is announced for next Wednesday -- and the Cubans are rushing toward their last African exit. Fidel Castro's long military adventure in Africa appears to be over.
It was part of Mr. Castro's revolutionary ethos that Cuba's cultural heritage owed much to Africa. This is in the same league as Mr. Castro's new assertion, on the eve of the great celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas, that he is no longer Hispanic but Indian. No Caribbean island, in fact, is whiter than Cuba, and no one paler than Che Guevara, who, as Castro's closest revolutionary comrade, first rushed off to Zaire way back in the Sixties to interfere in its civil war. But he didn't take to Africa, nor Africa to him, and he went off to Bolivia to die in an abortive rising.
Nevertheless, a series of crass mistakes in American policy introduced the Cubans in large numbers into Angola in 1975, and kept them in place ever since. Left to American policy alone, they might still be there. In the end, in 1988, Mr. Castro played his big card. In one of the most unreported military campaigns of recent history, he went eyeball to eyeball with the South African army and air force -- and scared the daylights out of them.
Even today, after all that's happened, there's still a widespread notion that Cuba went into Angola as the Soviets went into Afghanistan, unprovoked and in a situation where American hands were totally clean.
But we have the eyewitness account of the former chief of the CIA's Angola task force, John Stockwell, whose book on the origins of the conflict has never been satisfactorily rebutted. Far from seeking a peaceful solution, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were instrumental in touching off the big round of fighting in 1975 that led to 30,000 Cuban soldiers being speedily shipped to Angola.
The Angolan civil war has its origins in the war of liberation against Portuguese colonial rule. Three rival movements contested for influence. One was Jonas Savimbi's, bankrolled by the South Africans but not then by the U.S., which at first preferred a rival, Holden Roberto. The third faction, led by the Marxist intellectual Agostinho Neto, backed by Moscow, won the first round in the civil war and formed the first African-led government in the capital, Luanda.
In late 1974, when Portugal finally decided to wash its hands of Angola, it persuaded the three groups to share power in a tripartite transitional government, to be followed by elections. Perversely and foolishly, the U.S., refused to throw its weight behind the accord. The CIA kept stirring the rivalry, sending Roberto $300,000 in covert aid. Two weeks later Roberto launched an attack on Neto.
Continuously rebuffed by Kissinger, Neto accepted new arms from Moscow and some 230 advisers from Cuba. In turn, the CIA sharply stepped up its clandestine aid for Roberto -- and then also to Jonas Savimbi.
A few months later, South Africa, acting, it believed, with Washington's support, sent helicopter gun-ships and armored units sweeping toward Luanda. Neto felt cornered. He appealed to Havana, and the Cubans began a rapid airlift of supporting troops. At the battle of Quifangondo, they managed to turn back both Roberto and the South Africans. The war then see-sawed for another 12 years.
The Carter administration tried to ameliorate the tensions, but by then the South Africans were so deeply involved that despite some promising negotiating efforts, no real progress toward peace was made.
The Reagan administration thought the answer was to wind back the clock, send Mr. Savimbi more and better weapons, and give the Luanda government an even harder time. The consequence of this was to repeat the process that occurred under Ford -- more Cubans, up to over 50,000, and more fighting.
Nearly three years ago, in a final throw of the dice and in an effort to break the stalemate, Mr. Castro beefed up the resources of his army and air force, and engaged the South Africans in a direct showdown, fighting them to a standstill.
That and the profound changes of direction from within South Africa, together with the winding down of the Cold War, led in 1989 to successful American-sponsored, Soviet-supported, negotiations in which the Cubans offered to pull out. The immediate quid pro quo was independence from South Africa for neighboring Namibia. But the final prize was reached only last week -- a negotiated peace to Angola's own civil war by Portuguese mediators, an agreement uncannily resembling the one the Portuguese parlayed in 1975.
Thus Angola's tragedy -- a land wasted by an unnecessary war. A recent UNICEF report describes it as a country where nothing mechanical works, except war planes and tanks. When will we learn that military intervention almost invariably makes a complicated situation worse? We have fewer excuses now that the Cold War is over, yet Panama and Iraq show that this impulse is still lively.
*Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.