Angola signals `good will' to US. Release of US pilot and push to resume talks are first steps, but hitches to better ties remain
Armed by the Soviets and guarded by the Cubans, war-ravaged Angola is embarking on a push for friendship with the United States. The latest signal from the Angolans - in some ways, the most pro-Western ``Marxists'' in the world - came yesterday. They freed an American civilian pilot detained since straying into Angolan airspace in April.
In what was officially termed a sign of ``good will toward the people of the [US],'' the clearly relieved youth was released at a ceremony in parliament. The government provided unusually speedy visas and other help to allow American reporters to cover the event.
Economically, Angola's key alliance is already American. It is US companies that are pumping the country's oil, which provides almost all of Angola's annual $2 billion of foreign exchange.
The hope here is that talks with Washington, due to resume in July, will bring a political trade-off: The US would be expected to stop backing Angola's antigovernment UNITA guerrillas, and press South Africa to do the same; Luanda, in return, would gradually phase out the estimated 35,000 Cuban troops.
The obstacles to such a deal are huge. There are domestic political complications on both sides. For the US, any rapprochement with Luanda would require a climb down from President Reagan's personal commitment to UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi.
The Angolan government, say foreign diplomats here, faces potential domestic hitches as well. At least some officials are understood to oppose a concerted push for US friendship as too risky. They feel that Angola must hold on tight to its Cuban-Soviet ``bird in the hand'' until it has real reason to expect that an American bird can be enticed from Washington's bushes.
Still, there is little doubt of a top-level consensus here that Washington's friendship is desirable. The most important sign of this is that Luanda has pushed for resuming political talks with the Reagan administration. Early last year, the Angolans broke off the talks, which centered on ways to reconcile Angola's battle against the UNITA-South Africa alliance with US demands that the Cubans leave. Luanda's move was in protest against Mr. Reagan's decision to meet Mr. Savimbi, and Congress's move to give UNITA Stinger antiaircraft missiles.
On the US side, nothing has changed. But, said Deputy Foreign Minister Venancio de Moura in an interview, ``We have decided to resume the talks. Maybe,'' he added almost wistfully, ``they will produce something positive.''
In a small, comfortably furnished home in Luanda, a senior Angolan Army officer helps explain the move to resume talks. For one thing, he says, the Army feels it has begun to turn the tide against UNITA.
He acknowledges that despite relative calm in southern Angola, long the main area of UNITA operations, there remains intermittent antigovernment violence in the north. But he says that in the past few years, the Angolans have managed to phase out the need for Cuban ground support on the front lines. The hope, he adds, is to achieve much the same thing with regard to the Cubans' still-essential role in balancing South African air power.
``But the main thing,'' he says, switching off a Russian-language TV show in favor of a video of a Cary Grant film, ``is that in our culture, values, and [in] other respects, we feel much closer to the West than to the East.
``We were colonized by the Portuguese for centuries. We like things such as nice clothes. We want to develop economically, and we value Western technology. Yes, we are socialists. But by this we don't mean a rigid socialism. We just mean that after centuries of exploitation ... we feel everybody must have a peice of our country's enormous potential wealth. I may have a cleaning lady - I do. I have a house in the country, which other Angolans may not.... But everyone could have something!''
In fact, 12 years after independence, many Angolans have close to nothing. The local currency is worthless; low world oil prices have helped strip shops of all but the most basic commodities; UNITA attacks in rural areas have reaped havoc on food production.
``I can't understand the American government's reasoning,'' the Army officer says. ``This country has enormous natural wealth. We seek [the] Americans' help.
``They are losing an enormous opportunity here by backing Savimbi - especially because Savimbi, no matter what the Americans or South Africa or anyone else may do, is a losing cause.''