It is just after midnight: curfew time. To gaze from a seventh-floor apartment balcony - onto the perfect crescent of Luanda's palm-fringed bay - is to travel back in time. It is to understand how the Portuguese made this city the jewel of an empire, and why they often called it, simply, ``the Rio of Africa.'' Twelve years after independence, the Angolan capital's once chic stores are either shut or nearly empty. A mid-level official in the avowedly ``Marxist'' government, invited for a chat at a bay-side caf'e, smiles apologetically. ``The caf'es aren't working,'' he explains. ``We are in a very acute social and economic situation.''
The country's coffee plantations, once the richest on the continent, are limping under the bundled burden of general economic chaos, antigovernment guerrilla sabotage, and - confides one official - the need to earmark ``a good portion'' of the yield to pay for Soviet development and arms aid. The hardwood forests of northern Angola are being ``developed'' by the Cubans, who are allowed to export most of the timber to help foot the bill for their some 30,000 troops here.
Angola's oil - pumped by Americans, who are guarded by the Cuban military umbrella - alone saves the country from utter bankruptcy.
Only by traveling back in time, far back, is the decline understandable.
The Portuguese helped enormously. While the English and French were co-opting colonized Africans to help run colonies, Portugal created out of Angola - and Mozambique - new and separate Portugals. The Portuguese did virtually everything in their colonies: ran hotels, drove cabs, swabbed floors. They not only grew coffee, but also served it at sidewalk caf'es.
Angola, the Portuguese boasted quite accurately, had the natural resources to make it among the world's richest colonies.
Many of Angola's blacks became fodder for the Africa's most active slave-export center. The rest became the most menial of laborers in Luanda or near-feudal farm laborers in the countryside. A few - a very few - were educated by the Portuguese here. Even fewer - among them, the eventual leaders of a 15-year guerrilla battle for independence - were sent to Europe for schooling.
Then, in 1974, a coup by left-leaning Army officers toppled Portugal's own government. Independence for its African colonies became only a matter of time. And when that time came in 1975, virtually all of Angola's some 300,000 Portuguese settlers simply left.
The idea, as negotiated by the new government in Lisbon, was that the three main Angolan guerrilla groups would share power. But as the most powerful of them, the Marxist Popular Liberation Movement of Angola (MPLA), settled down to begin the arrangement, United States and South African policymakers backed rival guerrillas in a bid for power. The bid failed, not least because the MPLA solicited Soviet arms and Cuban troops. But the war continued in the countryside - indeed, it still does. The US, alone among world powers, has withheld diplomatic recognition of the MPLA.
MPLA officials insist that it was only US and South African intervention that forced Luanda to turn to Moscow and Havana for military help. Such remarks can hardly be taken at face value. By 1975, MPLA leader and post-independence President Agostinho Neto had built up good ties with the East bloc, and an admiration for Marxism, during the 15-year fight against colonial rule.
Still, a veteran Western diplomat here says, ``I think the West still fails to understand the driving nationalistic force behind the MPLA's view of the world. We fail to take account of the Angolans' inevitable Portuguese antecedents, and of Angola's uneasiness over the extent of its dependence on the Soviets and the Cubans.''
In fact, Dr. Neto wasted no time in ``nationalizing'' farms and factories. But, argues one veteran Western economic expert here, ``the term is meaningless. The fact is that the Portuguese went immediately. There was literally no one here to run factories - or anything else. Well over 90 percent of the local population was illiterate. The government had to take over.''
And since even the government could not run the economy - especially while under pressure from US and South Africa-backed rebels - it was not surprising that the MPLA signed on for East-bloc help to do so. That help survives. Without it, says a Soviet journalist, ``Almost nothing would work.''
On the oil rigs, the Americans stayed put. The MPLA made no move at all to chase them out. Indeed, it has spent 12 years making sure the American remained.
The Americans have stayed. So, in Luanda, has the MPLA. So have Cuban troops, in the countryside. So have Soviet advisers, in the city. Although the surviving antigovernment guerrilla force - Jonas Savimbi's Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) - seems unable to unseat the MPLA government, the rebels have managed to keep much of the countryside's economy in tatters. More than 600,000 people huddle in makeshift villages or refugee camps as a direct result of the guerrilla war, says a UN official here. Some 1 million other Angolans have poured into Luanda, a city utterly incapable of providing them jobs or even adequate nutrition.
Against this background, the government has sent gradually more explicit signals in the past two years of its desire to normalize ties with Washington. According to diplomats, businessmen, and relief workers here, officials have also stressed a determination to dilute central economic control and attract Western investment. A Western banker on good terms with Luanda says it also wants ``to try to join the International Monetary Fund.''
Miguel de Carvalho, director of Angola's ``press center,'' makes the point over lunch at Luanda's Hotel Presidente, an island of glassy efficiency on the city's disheveled waterfront. ``I'm a government official,'' he says. He rarely eats at the Presidente. ``I have only local currency, and without dollars, I can't pay for anything.
``People say we're pro-Soviet. But we turned to Moscow because we couldn't turn to the West. ... We see West European countries that the US helped. The reason these countries are politically strong, independent, is because they are economically strong. This is my dream ... to use our country's riches to be truly independent.''
Next: Why Angola hasn't capitalized on vast resources.