Luanda, Angola — Luanda, once considered the Nice of Africa, is decaying. Its Mediterranean-style pink stucco buildings along the palm-lined harbor are crumbling.
Two-thirds of the stores in the Angolan capital have closed shop for lack of supplies. Those few boutiques to remain open sport largely bare shelves and exaggerated prices.
With construction a low priority, the skeletons of half-finished high-rises begun under the Portuguese colonial administration hover on city outskirts. Since Angola's Army has first dibs on any available spare parts, broken-down cars, trucks, and even public buses rust at roadside or en masse in abandoned city lots.
Some view the condition of the capital as a metaphor for what has happened to the country as a whole in recent years.
''It makes you very sad to see what has happened when you first come here,'' sighed one returning Portuguese, ''but you get used to it. You just hope that someday life for people here will improve.''
Indeed, the hunt for food has become the principal occupation for many people. ''Angola used to be a food-exporting nation,'' says one senior Western diplomat. ''Now it imports more than 90 percent of its basic needs - everything from tinned Dutch margarine to frozen chicken from France.''
But severe shortages persist, so a black market and barter system have all but supplanted the official economy. Kwanzas, the local currency, yield $1 at bank rates - and 30 times that much with the appropriate quick-change artist.
But for most people, money is worthless. ''What counts,'' says one Belgian aid worker, ''is if you have something interesting to swap.''
Outwardly, Luandans seem to have taken it in stride. ''Sure, people are dissatisfied,'' says a senior West European official. ''But things will have to get a lot worse before anything happens. The Angolans are not like Marxist, Soviet, or Cuban apparatchiks. They are very patient people.''
Not everything is downbeat, however. The city's bus system runs surprisingly well. And the port of Luanda - a legend earlier on for keeping as many as 76 boats waiting eight months for a berth - ''is one of the only Angolan enterprises which works,'' says one diplomat.
But Angola seems to face a continual uphill struggle. Since independence from Portugal in 1979 - won after a war with the help of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers - the ruling Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA) has been engaged in war. This means battling the South African Army in border areas and fighting the rapidly advancing rebel Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which gets some support from South Africa.
Though MPLA authorities refuse to confirm it, Western diplomatic sources figure 25 percent of the national budget is spent on defense. Between 40 and 50 percent of the Angolans' estimated $1 billion in foreign currency earnings (mostly oil revenues) are said to go toward footing the regime's military bills.
This, in addition to the departure of 350,000-400,000 Portuguese after independence, is widely viewed as having crippled the country's chances for economic recovery anytime soon. An exodus of experts in every field left Angola bereft of technical and administrative personnel. The absence of qualified officials is apparent in the even smallest ways: The most recent telephone book in Luanda dates from 1975.
The MPLA government relies heavily on some 25,000 Cuban troops (by Western estimates) and 1,500 Soviet advisers to keep going, most analysts say. The regime is loosely based on a Marxist-Leninist model.
Before his death in Moscow in 1979, Angolan leader Augustinho Neto had begun to make overtures to the West. But current President Jose Eduardo dos Santos seems wedged between the need to attract Western investment dollars and a ufmrk, 45lcommitment to communism.
Mammoth oil multinationals - such as Gulf, Shell, Petrofina, and Elf Aquitane - figure importantly in the government's ability to fund the wars against rebel forces. The revenues from oil, produced largely in the Cabinda enclave to the north, account for roughly 82 percent of foreign currency earnings.
Despite the country's grim economic outlook, diplomatic sources say Western countries, including Japan, are eager to tap Angola's potential wealth.
''Nobody's here to play a missionary role anymore,'' said one commercial attache, gesturing out his office window. ''Not even the Swedes who are usually taken as a flagship of humanitarianism. They're out there selling everything from Volvos to Scanias (heavy trucks).''
But the regime's outward commitment to Marxism remains strong. Signs of a ''second colonialism'' under the Soviet Union and Cuba are everywhere.
Where the Portuguese erected a statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, Cuban troops blew it up. On the same pedestal, Cuban troops soldered the steel hulk of a Soviet-made Angolan Army tank ''eating'' a South African one.
Portraits of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro decorate the outskirts of Luanda. The town theater is called the ''Karl Marx Cinema.'' Among the young, ''hey comarade'' is the standard greeting.
The presence of Cuban troops is far less conspicuous. Truckloads of boisterous soldiers in olive green fatigues regularly roll along the outskirts of Luanda, but seldom venture in.
But the Soviets, sources say, have worn thin their welcome. Local fishermen complain the Soviet fishing fleet is taking more than its fair share of fish from area waters.