Angola: Can a Guerrilla Become a Democratic Politician?

April 12, 1992|By GERALD J. BENDER

The Bush administration has taken steps in Angola to expunge one of the last vestiges of Cold War thinking from its foreign policy. Secretary of State James A. Baker III wrote to Jonas Savimbi, leader of the Angolan opposition movement UNITA, which has been U.S.-supported for years, demanding an explanation for charges of human rights violations and murder. That action moved the United States, for the first time in three decades of covert intervention in Angola, into a position of neutrality.

Mr. Savimbi wrote a seven-page response to Mr. Baker in which he confirmed that the two most prominent UNITA leaders of the younger generation, Tito Chingunji and Wilson dos Santos, and their wives and children were murdered by UNITA members. While he acknowledged that, as UNITA leader, he bears a "moral responsibility," Mr. Savimbi claimed that he had no hand in the deaths and did not even know about them until many months after they occurred. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Herman Cohen will meet Mr. Savimbi in Luanda to convey the administration's "deep distress" over the acknowledged deaths.

During the Reagan administration, congressional and public support for supplying several hundred million dollars of covert aid to UNITA was obtained by portraying Mr. Savimbi as a champion of freedom and democracy. The recent defection of two of UNITA's top leaders, along with the party's admission of the murders and human rights violations, have suddenly altered Washington's view of Angola's political landscape.

Relations between Washington and UNITA are now at an all-time low. Even many of the party's most staunch supporters are calling for an independent investigation of the reported killings and human rights violations. Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican whose performance during a hearing last month prompted an Angolan diplomat to characterize him as a "ventriloquist for UNITA in Congress," is in the forefront of those demanding an investigation. Similar demands have been raised in the Senate by Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, who has been among UNITA's strongest Democratic supporters in Congress. And the State Department, a strong defender of UNITA in the past, is demanding "a full investigation and public disclosure . . . and confirmation that those found responsible will be held accountable." It is as though Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall, and nobody is offering to help put him back together again.

The general reaction to the revelations about internatal UNITA activities is one of total surprise. How could so many people have been so naive? What we are witnessing is the correction of Cold War images and policies which were based more on hyperbole than reality. Not all UNITA supporters went as far as Howard Phillips, chairman of the Conservative Caucus, who wrote in 1989 that "if he were constitutionally eligible, Jonas Savimbi would be my candidate for president of the United States." But Mr. Savimbi and UNITA were painted larger than life to justify American covert support.

The United States has been involved, off and on, in covert military activities in Angola for more than three decades. The recipients of its aid have embarrassed the United States through their behavior on and off the battlefield: first the Portuguese, then the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola, another guerrilla movement), then UNITA. The State Department has received credible reports on murder, torture and other human rights violations within UNITA for years. The standard response was to raise questions about the charges because of the lack of corroborating evidence.

One main reason for the lack of evidence is that most of what the U.S. government knows about UNITA comes from UNITA itself.

If it was not convenient to acknowledge human rights problems in UNITA while the United States was supplying it with covert military aid, the situation changed dramatically last May when UNITA and the governing MPLA (from the Portuguese initials for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) signed a peace treaty in Lisbon that established a cease-fire and procedures for a democratic election this fall. The Unites States still maintained a partisan pro-UNITA posture following the peace accord on the grounds that it was necessary to help "level the playing field." Given the Angolan government's access to money and media, the justification for the policy was cogent, but the policy was poorly executed. Most of the "electoral aid" was channeled through a covert program, opening up much speculation on the amount and nature of the support.

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