Cape Verde: staying afloat. Known at home and abroad as honest and efficient, nation's people survive with the help of many donors

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Cape Verde may be the only nation in Africa that is cutting its military budget by 30 percent this year. Across the continent to the east, border disputes, coups, and rebel insurgencies keep many governments allotting 20 to 50 percent of their national budgets to weapons and soldiers. The archipelago 280 miles off the coast of West Africa has good relations with its continental African neighbors and with both superpowers, and its official policy of tolerating political dissent keeps opposition moderate and peaceful. Thus, when the government was looking for ways to cut expenditures, the ax fell on the Army. ``We can't afford it,'' explained an aide to the President.

Moderate, civilian government is rare enough in West Africa, where many current heads of state are also the authors of successful military coups. What makes Cape Verde's tolerant politics even more unusual is that they are practiced in a single-party state.

In 1975, a single party took control of both Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde after the 14-year colonial war with Portugal. The Cape Verdeans left the party in 1980 and formed their own government party, the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV). Mass nationalizations and vindictive politics that were common in other former Portuguese colonies did not materialize in Cape Verde.

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Party leaders here opted instead for a policy of political moderation and a mixed economy.

Cape Verde has no known political prisoners, and the presence of the security police is rarely felt. Public criticism of the government is generally uninhibited. A group of Roman Catholic priests and activists publishes a monthly newspaper highly critical of the PAICV government. Although the paper has been challenged in court four times, there is little prospect of it being banned. And bookstore clerks say that it sells much more briskly than the country's stiff official newspaper.

Even the PAICV's most vocal critics, including members of a small opposition party based in Lisbon, are encouraged by signs of the regime's political abertura -- ``opening up.'' These signs include efforts to reinvigorate the party's image and involve nonparty members in the political process. And, last December, unpopular members were removed from the single list of candidates for office reviewed in public meetings before a ``yes-no'' legislative vote.

In addition, more than 25 percent of the members of the People's National Assembly do not belong to the PAICV. More private businessmen and fewer left-wing ideologues are represented on the Assembly's working committees, according to committee sources.

Quiet conciliatory gestures are increasingly common. Busts of popular figures deemed ``reactionary'' are being restored. Philanthropists and educators, rejected because of their association with the colonial government, are being rehabilitated. And a moderate land-reform program that led to riots by angry property owners on the island of Santo Antao in 1981 has been scaled back.

But even as it attempts to satisfy popular sentiment for broader political liberties, the Cape Verdean government's tentative experiment in ``single-party pluralism'' continues to encourage greater public expectations.

This is largely because Cape Verde's political culture is different from that found on the African continent. Traditionally, the islands' poverty has driven Cape Verdeans to areas of greater economic opportunity where they often absorb lively, factious democratic values. Upon returning, many of them want a multiparty democracy similar to what they experienced outside the islands. ``As long as this is [a] single-party [state],'' said a carpenter who lived two years in Lisbon, ``things won't go well.''

Symptoms of disaffection are not uncommon. There is no university in Cape Verde, and some graduating high school students complain that members of the official youth movement are favored for the most desirable higher education scholarships -- those for studying in Western countries.

A spontaneous demonstration earlier this year sparked by an interisland dispute over the composition of the national soccer team quickly took on political overtones hostile to the central government.

And at Cidade Velha, near the capital, residents speak resentfully about indifferent bureaucrats and arrogant party officials.

Some government ministers favor the introduction of multiparty democracy along European lines; more do not want to cede the party's comfortable monopoly on political power.

Many, however, are clearly concerned that the contentious nature of democratic politics will destabilize the nation's fragile economy, frightening away precious capital from abroad. The equivalent of about two-thirds of Cape Verde's gross domestic product comes from foreign aid and emigrant remittances, both of which could stop flowing if donors or investors felt their funds might be in jeopardy.

After 17 consecutive years of drought, Cape Verde cannot afford to lose these funds. In 1968, the last year of plentiful rain, the country produced 80 percent of its food needs. Today it produces less than 10 percent.

Despite the dispiriting agricultural statistics of 1985, however, one sees no victims of famine, no refugee camps, and no obvious black market. The shop windows are full of goods, and neither rationing nor any of the shortages associated with the hardship of drought are evident. Through an efficiently run program of emergency food aid, soil and water conservation, and economic diversification, Cape Verde has survived.

Instead of being handed out free of charge, food aid from a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) program is used to pay otherwise unemployed peasants to work on public works projects. The workers then use their income to purchase the US food aid.

The most needy do receive free assistance, says Minister of Rural Development Joao Pereira da Silva, but as a rule ``we've refused to distribute free food. . . . Jobs keep the normal economic circuits functioning, and people have the feeling they're earning by their own labor.''

The public-works project include mostly programs to improve infrastructure, and agricultural and environmental conditions. Under the former colonial government, for example, there was no active reforestation program and the landscape was gradually denuded. Since independence, however, more than 9 million trees have been planted.

Cape Verde's widely dispersed emigrant community has gained a reputation as being pragmatic and hardworking, according to one foreign businessman.

This has helped raise the nation's economic profile abroad, and new efforts are under way to use Cape Verde as a springboard for trade with the western African nations. Most sources interviewed agreed that, despite isolated cases of abuse of privilege, the nation's public servants are honest and industrious.

Much of Cape Verde's esteem abroad is a result of good management at home. According to Tom Ball, director of a very successful USAID program here, foreign donors are attracted to Cape Verde because ``few countries make the good use of their aid that the Cape Verdeans do.''

In an era when many foreign aid programs are under fire for inefficiency, waste, and inappropriateness to local circumstances, USAID's Watershed Development Project provides a welcome contrast.

The project will cost $5.6 million over the course of four years.

Under the direction of four US specialists and four Cape Verdeans, the project employs more than 6,000 workers who would otherwise have no means of livelihood.

The project has begun to bear fruit. Formerly irrigated lands that succumbed to the drought have been replaced with newly watered areas at the bottoms of the dammed-up ravines.

Most important, the project has kept thousands of rural families on the land. Otherwise the rural economy on Santiago would long since have collapsed, and the government would be facing masses of starving shanty dwellers in the cities.

Success such as this keeps Cape Verde's list of donor nations unusually long and broad for so small a recipient country -- including everyone from the superpowers to Iceland and Egypt.

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