DIPLOMATS, with a need to talk formally but inconspicuously, have come to depend on the discreet support of Cape Verdean President Aristides Pereira. Twice, in recent years, Angolan officials have used secluded Cape Verdean sites to hold politically sensitive talks -- once with the US and once with South Africa.
``There's no doubt he has facilitated dialogue,'' said one Western diplomat in Praia, Cape Verde's capital. ``He's been a voice of moderation for years.''
A combination of factors has made Mr. Pereira a highly respected statesman and counselor in African diplomacy. Because he espouses no dogmas -- on a continent where political discourse is often doctrinaire -- he is regarded by many as an ideologically disinterested player. And his longevity on the political scene is an asset in a culture where experience is highly esteemed.
In foreign affairs, Pereira follows a policy of cautious pragmatism. Cape Verde has excellent relations with all its major trade and aid partners, according to sources interviewed.
Pereira's diplomatic activity has not been limited to highly publicized conflicts among continental and other great powers. In 1981, he helped persuade the mutually mistrustful Senegalese and Angolans to establish diplomatic relations. And, in 1983, Pereira intervened to calm national tempers when Senegal and Guinea-Bissau almost went to war over maritime boundaries. ``We've done our maximum to persuade [people] to follow the path of dialogue, which is the only viable way,'' Pereira said in an interview.
Pereira's backers note that he could not be widely respected abroad unless he were also popular at home. The President's personal austerity has won admirers in a country where 17 consecutive years of drought conditions have driven hard-scrabbling peasants off the land and on to public-works projects. Despite some minor abuses, most foreign observers agree that the Cape Verdean government is honest and efficient -- in part, because of Pereira's example.
On a continent where many leaders are known for flamboyant excess and breathtaking larceny, Pereira's reputation at home is impeccable. ``The only rumor about him was that he had a house in Senegal,'' said one supporter, ``and people didn't believe it.''
The Cape Verdean leader has also won cautious praise from some of his most outspoken critics. Some see him as a backer of gradual liberalization of national politics.
Drought and the economic obsolescence of its ports keep Cape Verde heavily dependent on foreign aid. But the President's diplomacy keeps the nation's international visibility high. Otherwise, says Pereira, ``Cape Verde attracts little attention abroad. Often, it doesn't appear on the map!''
Unlike many of his ``president-for-life'' colleagues, Pereira is considering retiring when his term ends in 1990. ``The country needs young and energetic leadership,'' he says. ``It's necessary to prepare continuity. So I won't be an actor anymore, but a spectator.''