How does an African country with Soviet advisers and Cuban troops make friends with Washington? This is the challenge Angola's government has tackled with renewed energy in the past two months. While thankful for East-bloc military and economic help - and not yet able to do without it - Luanda officials are also uneasy over their heavy dependence on Moscow and Havana. They sense, too, that only by ending a 12-year war with US- and South African-backed insurgents, and by enlisting Western aid, can they resolve the country's deepening economic crisis.
``We Angolans,'' says Deputy Foreign Minister Venancio de Moura, ``did not throw off Portuguese colonialism in order to fall under another form of colonialism.'' The Cubans and Soviets ``are indeed our friends. ... But we do not want to be part of the so-called East-West conflict.''
Still, neither East nor West seems ready to back Angola's avowed push for what one official terms ``African nonalignment.'' The Soviets and Cubans, having poured money and blood into Angola, are not about to smile forebearingly as Luanda courts the United States. Holding Angolan debt papers worth an estimated $2 billion dollars - and aware of Luanda's continuing need for East-bloc assistance, at least for the near future - Moscow and Havana have considerable leverage to press their case.
When the Angolans, in a declared gesture of ``goodwill'' toward Washington, released a captured US pilot last week at a special session of parliament, Western countries were represented by ambassadors. The Soviets sent only an embassy counselor.
The White House, for its part, is continuing to insist on a formal, explicit pledge that all Cuban troops will be sent home before reciprocating Angola's overture. Luanda officials are trying to convince Washington - and visiting US reporters - that a general, yet genuine, assurance of an eventual Cuban pullout should suffice.
Whether the Americans will find common ground with this position may become clearer when Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, goes to Luanda later this month to resume bilateral talks.
But, says a US official privately, ``The Angolans have got to choose. We know that American companies are developing Angolan oil, and that much of this oil goes to the US. But in terms of overall US requirements, this is a drop in the bucket.''
Since Angola gained independence in 1975, the US alone among Western powers has refused to recognize its government, and there have been no diplomatic relations between the two countries. But Angola is one of the US's largest trading partners on the African continent.
If Angola is ready to take up a longstanding US proposal to link a total Cuban pullout to an end to South Africa's dominance - and military presence - in neighboring Namibia (South-West Africa), the US official says, then the road will be open for improved Luanda-Washington ties. Otherwise, it will not. ``Angola,'' he says, ``needs the United States much more than the United States needs Angola.''
Angola, meanwhile, seems to need the Soviet bloc considerably more than it wants it. The Soviets and Cubans help run schools, train factory managers, and oversee rural health clinics and public facilities and services.
A lanky, tanned man - who offers a trio of hitch-hiking US journalists a ride back to their hotel - provides a hint of the complexity of Angola's controversial ties with the East bloc. It turns out that he is Cuba's chief civil engineer in Angola. ``The thing is,'' he says, ``it is very difficult for an engineer to get anything done here. If you have American dollars, anything is possible! Otherwise, nothing!''
For the Cubans, Angola has become the most important and durable of its periodic exercises in Marxist ``internationalism.'' (The chief engineer genially reels off his own previous postings: Vietnam, Libya, Grenada.)
During their 12 years here, Castro's envoys have repaired roads, built barracks, set up schools, run health clinics. They have also fought and died. But Angolan officials and Luanda-based Western diplomats reject as ``very high'' a recent estimate by a defecting Havana officer that the Cubans have lost 10,000 men in Angola's civil war. But, says one Luanda official, ``Of course Cubans have died. When there is fighting, people die.''
Generally, the troops and advisers shun social contacts with the Angolans - a rule applied with new rigidity because of their fears about the spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). ``I was struck, on going to a beach outside Luanda, by the sad sight of Cubans standing disciplined and aloof as the young Angolan women splashed around on the beach,'' comments a diplomat.
The Soviets seem equally aloof, though very present, chattering in Russian in Luanda's prime tourist hotel. The Soviets lack the Spanish-speaking Cubans' linguistic affinity with the Portuguese-speaking Angolans, and sometimes seem resented.
One Western ambassador recalls an encounter with an angry Angolan government official, just back from an attempt at a morning jog on the seashore. ``The Soviets, as a security precaution, had sealed off the area, and the Angolan was barred entry. He was furious! He told me that he'd sought out the Russian in charge and said, dripping with sarcasm, `How dare this blond sentry of yours try to stop me in my own country! You're lucky I didn't take him for a South African and shoot him!'''
Still, the Angolans remain equally aware of the very real assistance the Soviets and Cubans have provided. ``When no one else would help us, they did,'' says one official. He says that he hopes, and trusts, that in the next several years the need for the East-bloc visitors will have been overcome. ``We, ourselves, are getting stronger. Obviously, when we are strong enough, the Cubans will head home.''
But that time has not yet come - in the anti-aircraft units, in rural health clinics, or in Luanda. ``And until it does, I feel the Americans, who did not help us when needed, are presumptuous to `demand' that the Cubans go.''
Last in a four-part series. Previous articles appeared July 6, 7, and 8.
A photo yesterday accompanying a story on Angola identified a uniformed man as a member of the rebel movement. It should have said the man was a member of Angola's government troops.