COLUMN

Birth of a Soviet satellite

Barbara Amiel August 17 1987
COLUMN

Birth of a Soviet satellite

Barbara Amiel August 17 1987

Birth of a Soviet satellite

COLUMN

Barbara Amiel

Last week, in a small screening room in Toronto, I sat confronted on three different television monitors by the smiling face of the notorious “Red Admiral” of Angola. I had been invited to preview a Canadian documentary, titled Angola, which will be shown to American viewers on PBS television this autumn. As I watched, out spilled Admiral Rosa Coutinho’s arrogant contempt for the niceties of democracy. “I think I fixed the decolonialization process in an irreversible way,” said Coutinho to the camera, inhaling on a cigarette.

I took my notes and grimaced, wishing that the program might be made compulsory viewing for the Canadian government and the media. The interview with Coutinho, who now lives in Lisbon, is a coup for Stornoway Productions, the independent Torontobased producers of Angola. The admiral has never before publicly discussed his role in the transition of Angola from Portuguese colony to Soviet client state. And in recounting the story of Angola, the documentary illustrates how Canada’s intellectual and media communities seem to have swallowed the Big Lie of the 20th century.

That lie has many dimensions. First, it dismisses Soviet interference in the affairs of Third World countries as either benign or prompted by U.S. mischief. Last week, for example, viewers who watched the CBC TV Journal's “Battleground Nicaragua” might well have come away from it thinking that the Soviet and Cuban presence in postrevolutionary Nicaragua was the result of warmongering by Ronald Reagan. There was virtually no mention in the program of the prerevolutionary Soviet and Cuban training of senior Nicaraguan officials. Nor was there any reference to the support that the United States Initially gave Nicaragua, before the Sandinistas made clear their totalitarian aims by suspending free elections.

A second dimension of the Big Lie is the concept that free elections are either a luxury in Third World countries or not really a part of their culture. This has been used to excuse the lack of genuine elections in every independent African country. It is, of course, armchair racism of the most vile kind. Third World people are not a breed of human beings distinct from

the rest of us, with no interest in saying how their countries should be run. This indifference to the vote does not apply, of course, to South Africa, where Joe Clark vehemently condemns the lack of black citizens enjoying “the fundamental democratic right to vote.”

Why the West perpetuates the Big Lie is a mystery: my own view is that it reflects the essential cowardice of our times. It requires some moral backbone to stand up to Soviet might. It is more comfortable to pretend that the Soviets are nice decent people and that contemptible Third World leaders of Marxist orientation are simply liberals in a hurry who want nothing but day care centres and land reform. That obviates the need for action and allows us to concentrate the fine blue flame of our moral intensity on safe targets—such as South Africa—that are certain not to attack us.

It is easy to pretend that Marxist Third World leaders are liberals in a hurry who want day care and land reform

The Big Lie, however, does require some historical amnesia. An example of this technique was seen in six articles last year on Angola by Globe and Mail correspondent Michael Valpy. The tone of the series can be summed up with Valpy’s opening statement: “The United States and South Africa are financing an increasingly dirty war of insurgency in Angola that shows no evidence of being the struggle for Western-style liberty and democracy its supporters claim it to be.” Nothing illustrates the falsity of such dangerous half-truths more clearly than the documentary I saw last week.

Present-day Angola, a recipient of Canadian aid, was a Portuguese colony that became independent after a 1974 coup overthrew Portugal’s rightwing dictatorship. The transitional Portuguese government appointed armed forces strong man Coutinho— known as the Red Admiral for his political leanings—as governor general of Angola. In January, 1975, Coutinho negotiated the Alvor agreement, under which the Marxist-Leninist MPLA

and Angola’s two other rival guerrilla groups, which had all been fighting the Portuguese for independence, agreed to free elections. Angolans were euphoric. But Coutinho was busy ensuring that it could never be fulfilled: in June, 1975, Coutinho visited Havana and met with the Cuban military chiefs of staff.

“I knew very well that elections could not be held in the territory,” boasts Coutinho in the film. “It would be a fantasy.” Had the fantasy ever taken place, Angola today would probably not be a country under de facto Cuban and Soviet occupation. In 1975 the 50-member-country Organization of African Unity went on a fact-finding tour and concluded that of the three Angolan liberation groups, Dr. Jonas Savimbi’s tribally strong UNITA group—which was committed to government through co-operation with the other two groups—had the popular support to win a free election. But the West was demoralized and weary after the American failure in Vietnam and stood by as Soviet and Cuban troops rolled into Angola and Coutinho handed the country over to the MPLA. Savimbi retreated to southeast Angola, which he now largely controls, to fight Cuban and Soviet occupation.

To Canada’s external affairs minister, Joe Clark, and most of our press, Jonas Savimbi has become branded by the funding he receives from the CIA and South Africa—which conventional wisdom now credits with causing the civil war. Savimbi’s acceptance of South African aid has saved UNITA, but caused him obvious problems. His explanation, that he would take aid from the devil if it would rid his land of foreign occupants, is logical but unfashionable. But he maintains that it is the Soviets, not the South Africans, who are attempting to export their system of government to Angola.

To the astonishment of the Soviets, the West—including Canada—has stood by indifferently as Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Somalia and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen have yielded to Soviet influence, with increasingly dire strategic consequences. Perhaps if Canadians knew a little more history we might resist the Big Lie more vigorously. One can only hope that the Angola documentary will also be broadcast here in Canada—and that our newspapers, teachers and governments will just once tune in, rather than tuning out.