Mozambique tones down Marxist rhetoric, turns 'practical' on economy

Guerrilla war. Sagging infrastructure. Lack of skills. Marxist Mozambique has faced these problems since the nation's independence in 1975. But observers say President Samora Machel is taking new steps to do something about them.

In the process, they say, Mozambique's Marxist leader has become more ''practical'' - out of necessity - and less preoccupied with socialist ideology.

Western officials are watching for fresh signs of such shifts as the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) meets this week to chart a new five-year plan at its first party congress since 1977.

It is in the economic field that diplomatic sources say Mozambique is showing the most pragmatism. The government is placing more emphasis on the family farm sector, for example. In the past, large state-run farms received top priority in allocations of fertilizer and machinery. But now there is recognition that the family sector, which produces some 80 percent of the country's food, needs more attention, say Maputo observers. Diplomatic sources say Mozambique also is trying to expand its relations with the West, although it does not intend to veer away from socialism and plans to keep close links to the Soviet bloc. They suggest Mozambique now sees that stronger relations with the West might stir up some foreign investment and economic aid, which the country badly needs.

Steadily improving relations with the United States have been particularly pleasing to Mozambique, analysts say. One apparent result was the US State Department's comment in ''Africa Report'' magazine in January that the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR), which has staged guerrilla raids in almost every part of the country, receives ''the bulk of its support from South Africa.''

Mozambique claims the MNR is a thinly disguised destabilization effort by South Africa. Pretoria denies the charge, but a wide array of analysts say the MNR probably could not operate without at least the cooperation of South Africa.

These sources say diplomacy - a mix of appeals to the West and threats to South Africa - may be paying off in the government's anti-MNR campaign. Security, in fact, is President Machel's top concern. The MNR, which opposes the government's leftist policies, is not at the moment scoring the success it did last year. But its presence is still very much felt, sources say.

''The security situation is very grave and the government is preoccupied with it,'' observes a Western diplomat in Maputo. He adds, ''It is causing a large drain of resources badly needed elsewhere.'' The country's economic problems are severe. In the capital of Maputo, kerosene, sugar, cooking oil, and salt are being rationed. There is a lack of foreign exchange.

And the ongoing severe drought, which sharply reduced last year's grain crop, forced Mozambique in January to plead for food donations from the international community. The US and members of the European Community have responded with food aid.

The threat posed by the MNR, mostly in the south and central parts of Mozambique, is better contained than it was last year, partly because of improved government counterin- surgency efforts, analysts say.

Last year, the situation deteriorated sharply when it appeared Mozambique might call on Cuban troops for defense. South Africa responded swiftly, saying, ''Such an eventuality will not be tolerated.'' But the alarm over Cuban troops led to a meeting between the foreign ministers of South Africa and Mozambique in December. It is difficult to pinpoint what the talks achieved, but diplomatic observers were encouraged by the dialogue.

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