Angola tries to turn to West to meet economic needs. But war and unskilled bureaucracy keep Luanda tied to Soviet, Cuban help
Luanda, Angola — It was not, to say the least, your typical Marxist May Day parade. As President Jos'e Eduardo dos Santos and other officials watched from the reviewing stand, along rumbled a huge, truck-borne model of a restaurant. It was complete with tables, customers, and waiters - complete, indeed, with everything but the one commodity most craved by thousands of destitute Angolans: food.
``This rolling `restaurant,''' says a Western dignitary who attended the May 1 parade, was ``as if to say that after all these years of communist-style industrial planning - and war against the South African-backed guerrillas - it had come time to focus on what really counts: ensuring that the economy can provide ordinary people with the things they most urgently need and want.''
But for Angola's avowedly Marxist government, a mere shift in policy emphasis is likely to make little difference for the foreseeable future. The economy is reeling under a host of problems. Some, like the persistent pressure from the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel movement, are external. Others, like the government's largely unskilled and almost utterly inefficient bureaucracy, are internal.
Angola, says a Western banker here, ``is potentially an immensely rich country. It has everything: oil, diamonds, iron ore, timber, rich agricultural soil.'' But only one of these resources - the oil, developed by the United States companies - can be counted on these days for any substantial amount of hard currency. Oil earnings - although likely to rebound eventually - have been slashed drastically from the 1985 level of some $2 billion by the drop in world oil prices and in the value of the US dollar.
The money from oil production, which has nearly doubled in the last decade, goes to pay for importing basic commodities in an economy that is self-sufficient in no area except oil. Angolan officials say none of this income goes to Moscow or Havana. But one Soviet source notes that ``the government provides the food and other materials for the Cubans here.''
Bit by bit, Angola is trying to turn its economy Westward. In 1985 Luanda joined the Lom'e Convention, a pact that gives developing nations preferential trade status with the European Community. And the Angolans ``now want very much to join the International Monetary Fund,'' says a Western economist here.
Western aid organizations have found government doors suddenly wide open to them. Western diplomats are being told that Angola's priority is not ``communist solidarity,'' but economic growth of a sort that needs Western help and investment.
But the two priorities for the economy - waging war against UNITA and meeting the urgent daily needs of the people - still require the very Soviet and Cuban help that complicates moves westward.
The Soviets and Cubans not only back Angola's Army, they also train factory managers, help run schools, manage rural health clinics, and oversee hopelessly inadequate public service systems.
``No one in the West is ready to provide the kind of things we do here,'' says a Soviet journalist. And he says that as long as UNITA's challenge to the government rumbles on, with South African and US backing, the government can ``not exist without the Cubans.''
UNITA's challenge, thus far incapable of threatening the government's hold on power, has left the agriculture and rural transportation network in tatters. Farmers provide barely half the country's subsistence grain requirement. By September - when yields from May's harvest are used up - the government will need to come up with the balance from overseas.
Luanda has so far imported virtually no grain this year. Already, many Angolans are undernourished. ``I fear,'' says a UN aid official here, ``that with the grain shortage later this year people are actually going to start starving to death.''
But perhaps the most fearsome and complex obstacle to economic revival is Angola's bureaucratic ineptitude. When the Portuguese fled at independence in 1975, they left a country almost devoid of skilled Angolans. Remedying this has been an agonizingly slow process, still far from complete and now overlain with Soviet-style ``planned'' inefficiency.
Some months back, the No. 2 official in the central bank was fired on allegations of corruption. But because he is one of the few Angolans with a keen talent for economics, streams of official and business visitors trek to his doorstep for advice.
Angolan factories, when they run, run at an enormous, subsidized loss. With the local currency all but worthless, few officials bother collecting monthly water or electricity bills. When it comes to managing the economy or administering what Western aid is available, only a handful of senior officials dares to slice through the bureaucracy and make decisions.
The government, which once denied the existence of such trouble, is now publicly committed to battling it. Senior officials have pledged to ``deconcentrate'' central planning and devolve decision-making power to the provincial, municipal, and even farm or factory levels. Three Cabinet-level ``super ministries'' have been created to revamp the economy. Key central-government officials, have been reassigned to priority provinces. Factories and farms, it is said, are to be run on a profit-loss basis.
But such words have yet, in most cases, to translate into action.
Last year, the government contracted with a Western bank and a US businessman to build a fish cannery - to rely on Angola's rich, offshore fish stocks to help feed the nation. The facility is almost ready. But, says a banker, there has been no go-ahead to secure tin with which to can the fish. Meanwhile, Angola is using some $17 million each year of its limited foreign exchange to import canned tuna fish from Japan.
Next: The war that does not stop