Lisbon — Angola may finally have started speaking to its archenemy, South Africa, after seven years of undeclared war. But the Angolan leadership still vigorously maintains that it has no intention of cutting its Cuban lifeline.
President Jose Eduardo dos Santos indicated late last week that his regime did not plan to share the fate of Chad's former Libyan-backed government, which this year fell after Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi withdrew his troops.
''We do not want to see repeated here what happened to another African country recently when the legal government fell soon after the withdrawal of troops sent by one of its neighbors to guarantee internal stability and territorial integrity,'' the President told a rally in Angola's capital.
South African Foreign Minister Roelof Botha said on his return from his recent Washington talks with US Secretary of State George Shultz that Pretoria would only start reducing its military presence in Namibia (South-West Africa) once Cuban soldiers had left neighboring Angola.
The South Africans - who have not forgotten how Fidel Castro's airlift of troops to Angola in 1975 forced its own army to withdraw - have made the independence of Namibia conditional on a full Cuban retreat.
What the Angolan President's speech spelled out more clearly than ever before was that he could not accept such a condition because his government may not be able to survive without some sort of Cuban military support.
In other words, the future of the dialogue between Angola and South Africa begun in the Cape Verde islands last week will depend on Pretoria allowing the Luanda government to find some sort of face-saving formula.
Observers say the most the Angolans could hope for is that a scaling down of the Cuban presence and a pullback of Havana's forces to a line well north of the Namibian frontier will be enough to get the South Africans to give up Namibia.
This would still leave enough Cubans to guard the main cities of Angola and the vital oil industry installations operated by Western companies, including Gulf Oil, on which the government depends for most of its income.
It would not solve the problem of the increasingly effective guerrilla war being fought deep inside by Jonas Savimbi's UNITA, but the rebels' main source of supplies would dry up once the South Africans were no longer in Namibia.
During a seven-nation African tour last month, US Vice-President George Bush said the US aim was to get all foreign troops out of Africa. What France, with some 20,000 troops scattered in former colonies throughout the continent, thinks of the US plan is not known.
In the eyes of American policymakers, the Soviet and Cuban intervention in Angola after Portugal's withdrawal was Moscow's first betrayal of the spirit of detente. This partly explains what Angolan Foreign Minister Paulo Jorge calls US ''paranoia'' about the Cubans in Angola.
In a rare show of unity, Angola's ruling MPLA party last week gave President dos Santos a free hand to solve the country's most pressing problems immediately after the first direct talks between Luanda and Pretoria.
The only thing the party's central committee said it could not agree to was any move to link Namibia independence with Cuban troop withdrawal from Angola.
One alternative to the Cuban presence is the possibility of a multinational peacekeeping force on Angola's southern frontier to prevent raids or arms-running from Namibia.
The Cubans have tended not to get involved in the fighting but they remain a deterrent because they would defend the Luanda regime in a coup or revolution.
The Cuban question in the Namibia talks in fact boils down to this: whether South Africa and the West are willing to let a Soviet-protected government remain in power in Luanda after Namibia's independence.