Maputo, Mozambique — ``Why must you Americans insist on attaching political labels to us?'' the young Mozambican official asked. ``Why does every newspaper story begin: `Marxist Mozambique . . . ?' We are first and foremost Mozambicans. Next, Africans. Third, members of the `nonaligned' movement. Only then, are we Marxists!''
The remark was politically self-serving but mostly accurate.
Mozambican President Samora Machel, who was killed in a plane crash Oct. 19, was from the start as much a nationalist as a Marxist. He sought arms and advisers from Moscow and Havana. Yet Mr. Machel never signed on to the kind of large-scale East-bloc troop presence welcomed by fellow ex-Portuguese colony, Angola. And since mid-1983, he had been retreating from textbook socialism, encouraging private initiative at home and aid or investment from the West.
One reason for his retreat was the disastrous state of the Mozambican economy. The country needs all the outside help it can get now: from East or West. The economy is staggering under the cumulative effect of a 1981-84 drought, a decade of Soviet-style central management, and attacks by antigovernment rebels in the countryside.
Referring to Mozambique's links with the Soviet Union, one Maputo pedestrian said, ``We are grateful to the Soviets. They have helped us.''
But the youth, recently back from schooling in Cuba, added: ``We are a people that is grateful to all those who help us. . . . We wish that the Americans would come to understand us better, and provide assistance.''
The roots of Mozambique's crisis run deep and tangled. The guerrilla insurgency is only one.
Portugal was unlike Africa's other European imperial powers. Although the Portuguese intermarried with black Africans to a much greater extent than those from other colonial powers, in every other sense, they built colonies of, by, and for the white man. In the cities, virtually all trained labor -- setting bricks, driving taxis, running banks -- was performed by the Portuguese. They staffed and, almost exclusively, used the schools and other facilities.
In 1975, the Portuguese left. Spurred by the military's overthrow of the right-wing Portuguese government back in Lisbon, their retreat was sudden, bitter, and nearly total.
Independent Mozambique became an engine without fuel or lubricants. Its economy coughed, sputtered, virtually died. Even by official figures, 1981 was the last year of economic growth. Since then, production has fallen off by roughly 50 percent.
Machel had vowed to build a truly socialist, raceless, literate, and productive Mozambique. With Soviet help, he launched literacy programs; set up cooperative farms and factories; and sought to probe mineral resources the Portuguese had largely ignored. Signs of the Soviet connection are everywhere. His troops tote AK-47 assault rifles. Many of the customers at Maputo's hotels are Russians. ``We have different sorts of advisers here,'' one of them said. ``Economic, agricultural, military. . . . It is our duty to help.''
Still, the majority of Mozambicans are illiterate. Farm and factory production is slow -- deliveries made chaotic by rebel attacks and the demise of a rail and road infrastructure. Much of the country's exportable goods has gone to the Soviets, bartered for technical aid or weapons.
Mozambique's foreign debt is nearly $3 billion. But its hard-currency earnings last year were less than $200 million.
Against this background Machel began, in 1983, to reorient the country's economy. He loosened state controls on some food prices. He liberalized foreign-investment rules, allowing Western companies to compete with inefficient state firms and repatriate profits. He turned fallow factories over to private management. He lured Japan and the West to send aid or invest.
In 1984, he stunned many in Africa and beyond by signing an accord with South Africa, aimed at ending Pretoria's backing for Mozambique's rebels.
Yet the guerrilla pressure has survived and, recently, escalated. As Maputo buried Machel this week, its shops remained nearly empty of consumer goods. The transportation network is badly crippled. Production is uneven. The most bullish business is the black market, where the Mozambican currency goes at the rate of 1,200 to $1. The official rate is roughly 40.
``I fear,'' shrugs a vendor at Maputo's central market, ``that no recovery is possible as long as there are [the antigovernment] armed bandits.''
First in a series. Next: The people speak -- an afternoon at Maputo market.