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Namibia and the Cuban connection

The Namibia conflict will not soon be concluded. Despite recent widely promoted expectations that an internationally validated resolution of this bitter problem was imminent, it will be next year, at least, before Namibia can be deleted from the list of serious global problems.

Namibia, a land of desert bounded north and south by rivers, is the size of two Californias. Its population is about 1.1 million, of whom about 900,000 are African, 100,000 white, and 100,000 of mixed descent.

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South Africa has controlled Namibia, formerly called South-West Africa, since World War I. From 1946 this control was exercised in defiance of the United Nations. In 1977 South Africa, under pressure from the Carter administration, agreed to negotiate Namibia's future. In particular, South Africa agreed with the ''contact group'' (the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, France, and Canada) to let the United Nations oversee a ceasefire between South Africa and the guerrilla army of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO). After the ending of the war along Namibia's northern border with Angola, South Africa promised to permit free, national elections supervised by the UN. Following the elections to a constituent assembly, and the drawing up of a constitution by a two-thirds majority, Namibia would become independent.

This is the general plan, but South Africa, SWAPO, the contact group (led vigorously by the US), and the leading nations of black Africa have since 1978 been arguing over the precise implementation of the plan. In 1982, after reaching basic understandings about the number and disposition of UN troops and UN responsibilities, and about how the election could be arranged, the negotiating initiative has stalled over the question of Cuba.

About 20,000 Cuban troops and technicians have bolstered the fortunes of the ruling government of Angola since late 1975. They helped combat a South African invasion of Angola in 1975. Since then they have helped the government counter the effectiveness of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), a South African-backed antigovernment guerrilla group which dominates southern Angola.

Since the late 1970s, too, the South Africans have carried their anti-SWAPO activities into Angola. Their air force and army oversee a swath of territory 160 miles deep into Angola; South Africa's might has clearly overpowered SWAPO in the region.

Although there is little evidence of hostile contact between South African troops and Cuban soldiers in Angola, the Reagan administration has been attempting for most of this year to couple a Namibian settlement with the withdrawal of Cubans from Angola. South Africa has also been insisting, and that insistence has been more pronounced lately, that a Cuban departure is a precondition for a settlement. The South Africans say that Cubans might assist a Marxist-oriented independent Namibia in ways detrimental to South Africa.

For their part the Angolans have for long said that a Namibian settlement would both trigger and ensure a Cuban exodus. But the Angolan government naturally worries that the removal of Cuban troops would leave itself vulnerable both to UNITA and to South Africa.

There is a current stalemate. The Reagan administration hopes that the Angolan government, which it has refused to recognize, will begin to send Cubans home in exchange for American assurances that the South Africans cease occupying and harassing southern Angola. But the Angolan government remains appropriately suspicious and skeptical. It also wonders what will become of UNITA, a yet-to-be-resolved question.

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The South Africans could, admittedly, drop their insistence on a Cuban withdrawal. They could argue that the cost of the war and of Namibia (at least $ 1 billion annually) is too heavy at a time of recession. Prime Minister P. W. Botha of South Africa could also decide to take such domestically unpleasant political consequences as may follow a Namibian settlement now, and not later. Very conservative forces among whites are menacing his control of South Africa from the right, and turning Namibia loose later might be much more difficult the longer he delays.

The Reagan administration also tells the South Africans that they will obtain no better treatment from subsequent American and Western governments. This is the time to make arrangements firm.

But fear that a black government in Namibia would have adverse political consequences among whites in South Africa, a desire to prosecute South Africa's wars 1,000 miles or more from its own territory, and the usefulness for South Africa of retaining Namibia as a bargaining element with the West, all militate against a sure solution to the Namibian problem soon. So long as a Namibia settlement and a Cuban withdrawal are linked, too, progress will be very slow.

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