The United States is shifting into high gear in talks with Angola over how to secure the independence of Namibia and establish diplomatic relations between Luanda and Washington.
But US negotiators are in for a difficult time. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Frank Wisner, who met over the weekend in Luanda with Angolan Foreign Minister Paulo Jorge, will have to overcome deep suspicion and bitter resentment on the part of Angola's Marxist leadership.
Both key issues in the talks - Namibian independence and Angola-US relations - are linked to the presence of a huge Cuban military contingent in the West African state. The Cuban troops ensure that oil fields in northeast Angola pump peacefully.
Luanda is suspicious of the US in part because former CIA operatives have revealed that the agency invested about $50 million in covert operations under President Ford to stop the ruling Marxist Party from coming to power in 1975.
Despite these suspicions, senior Western diplomats who are in contact with Angola's leaders report that in private the Luanda regime is far more flexible than its hard-line public statements would let it appear.
The Angolans have for some time been desperately trying to break out of their diplomatic isolation and make new friends outside the narrow confines of the Soviet bloc.
They need investments and technology only the West can provide, and they have long been clamoring for Washington to recognize the Luanda government.
But if the price is to be the Cuban troop withdrawal - or at least a substantial reduction in their numbers - the United States must be seen to be able to deliver its side of the bargain.
That means that what is under scrutiny is Washington's ability to restrain a country that has staged countless invasions of Angola across the Namibian border and that finances, arms, and trains a huge army of Angolan rebels. That country is South Africa.
Several US presidents have placed heavy pressure on the Luanda regime to end the Cuban military presence, which has been in Angola since the former Portuguese colony's independence in 1975.
In the current talks, Angola clearly wants to know what it would get in return for dispatching the Cubans home. It will seek this answer even though a complete Cuban withdrawal seems out of the question at this time. It is doubtful whether Angola would risk replacing reliable Cuban guards in the oil fields with relatively undisciplined conscripts from its own army.
Angola is particularly suspicious because it was at US insistence that the Gulf Oil Corporation suspended offshore oil operations in the northern enclave of Cabinda in 1975, cutting off Angola's main source of revenue. Now that the fields are pumping well again and relations with Gulf are rosy, Angola does not want to run any risks with its most reliable revenue raiser.
The current talks may be trying for Mr. Wisner, because the Angolans suspect that he double-crossed them in Luanda last August. At that time he told the Angolan media that the US no longer linked the future of Namibia with a Cuban exit from Angola. His statement then appears to have been premature.
Angolan media recently began carrying long articles in praise of noncombat Cuban units such as the Army Medical Corps. It is also true that Angola would be hard pressed to replace the 300 Cuban medics now in the provinces.