WORLD

A step toward peace

WILLIAM LOWTHER July 25 1988
WORLD

A step toward peace

WILLIAM LOWTHER July 25 1988

A step toward peace

ANGOLA

The talks were so sensitive that the U.S. state department held them on isolated Governors Island in New York harbor. Helicopters ferried the U.S., Cuban, South African and Angolan negotiators back and forth between the conference facilities at the is-

land’s coast guard base and their hotels in Manhattan. But last Wednesday, Chester Crocker, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, announced that the talks—the fourth round of discussions aimed at ending the war between the Angolan government and South African-backed rebels—had moved closer to success. The negotiators, Crocker declared, had been “able to reach agreement on a set of principles which constitute the essential elements of a political settlement.” The reason for Crocker’s optimism was a document—still subject to the approval of the governments involved— entitled Principles for a Peaceful Settlement in Southwestern Africa. Maclean’s learned that the agreement calls for the withdrawal of South African troops in Angola—between 5,000 and 8,000—and the removal of the larger force of Cubans supporting the Angolan government. It also links those actions to the granting by Pretoria of independence to neighboring Namibia—occupied by South Africa for more than 70 years. The negotiators agreed as well to

“achieve further progress” in the region—which may indicate a pending ceasefire between Cuban and South African forces. But some experts greeted Crocker’s announcement with skepticism. “It was all smoke and mirrors and very little progress,” said Michael Radu,

a research associate at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Problems still to be resolved are formidable. Following Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, two rival groups began battling for control of the country. One, the Soviet-backed MPLA— an acronym in Portuguese for Popular Movement for the Liberation of Ango-

la—took power in northern Angola. The other group, known as UNITA—the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola—gained strongholds in the southeast and, with intermittent aid from Washington and the backing of South African troops, has pressed its fight for power. The MPLA government is supported by an estimated 50,000 Cubans—a reported increase of about 10,000 during the past six months.

During the summit meeting in Moscow seven weeks ago between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Washington and Moscow set a target date of late September for a firm agreement on Angola and Namibia. But because of the outstanding problems, keeping to that deadline appears unlikely. The United States and South Africa want all Cuban troops withdrawn by the end of the year. The Cubans and Angolans say that withdrawal will take four years—unless all U.S. aid to UNITA ends immediately. None of those issues has yet been discussed at the negotiations.

As well, there are advantages for Cuba in maintaining its forces in Africa, where they have recently made advances against the South Africans. Now, with the aid of Soviet antiaircraft technology and a new airstrip in the south, they are widely acknowledged to control the skies over southern Angola. Some U.S. intelligence sources say that Cuban leader Fidel Castro is reluctant to withdraw from an operation that gives Cuba an international presence and a significant source of revenue in Angola’s payments for the force. At the same time, Cuba’s troubled economy could ill afford the sudden return of 50,000 troops.

Any agreement to withdraw foreign troops will only be a first step toward ending the bloodshed. Still to be resolved will be the conflict between UNITA and the MPLA. The Nov. 8 U.S. presidential election is also expected to affect the negotiations. Declared Radu: “All sides want to see who will be in charge before making commitments.” In Cuba, reaction was also cautious. The newspaper Granma reported the New York agreement as “a positive first step,” but it quoted Alcibiades Hidalgo, a member of the Cuban delegation at the talks, as saying that “there is still a long way to go.” And Cuban television, on three successive nights following Crocker’s announcement, screened a series of documentary programs that showed Cuban forces gaining the upper hand in a war to drive the South Africans out of the country. Still, for all the skepticism, the agreement was the first major step toward easing the dangerous tensions that cloud the future of southern Africa.

-WILLIAM LOWTHER in Washington