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Congo discovers it can't live by Marx alone

Coca-Cola signs are gradually replacing the posters of Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara that used to line the sandy streets of Brazzaville, capital of the People's Republic of the Congo (formerly French Equatorial Africa). This small, oil-rich Central African country of 1.7 million people turned Marxist in 1963, three years after it gained independence from France.

While Marxist rhetoric continues, oilmen report they have better relations with the Congolese government than with several avowedly pro-Western countries. This past year two major United States oil companies have signed exploration agreements: Conoco and Amoco.

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The government in Brazzaville became an ally of the Soviet Union, allowing its territory to be used as a staging post for Cuban troops flying into Angola. But in 1977, President Marien Ngouabi was assassinated after he threatened to destroy ``foreign opportunists'' blocking development of the country's oil industry.

Col. Denis Sassou-Nguesso took over in 1979 and called for closer cooperation with international oil companies. Oil output has tripled -- to 6 million tons in 1984, making the Congo black Africa's fifth largest producer.

The US buys 80 percent of Congolese oil exports and has become one of its main trading partners but provides little aid for the Congo, which has an annual individual income of $1,180.

Lack of aid was one reason the Congo turned back toward the West. ``The Soviets were unable to match economic aid with ideological and military support,'' a Western diplomat remarked. ``After 16 years of scientific socialism the economy was a stagnant mess,'' he added.

When Sassou-Nguesso took over, the country enjoyed an oil boom. Since 1983, growth has slumped as a depressed world oil market combined with high production costs to restrict government revenue. Expenditures continued to rise and the debt burden swelled. Payments to foreign creditors are four months late and there is growing pressure to reschedule.

The government is implementing an austerity program and trying to restructure its debt.

But with debt of only $1.5 billion and an economy that grew 3 percent last year, it qualifies, as one banker remarked, as ``one of Africa's more solvent economies.''

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