CUBANS have been in Angola since November 1975, when the newly independent government of Luanda called for help in turning back South African and Zairian troops. Now it appears they may finally be coming home. How are Cubans reacting to the prospective return of some 40,000 soldiers? Not the way many outside the country would predict, judging from official and unofficial comments here.
Both the Reagan administration in Washington and Cuban exiles in the United States have long insisted that Cubans are tired of the war and opposed to having their sons and husbands risk their lives in an overseas adventure. On the other hand, Cuba watchers in the US have been predicting unemployment and other post-war problems in Cuba if all the troops return.
Both these lines of thought can be heard from the small but vocal group of activists inside Cuba who are openly opposed to the revolution - but from surprisingly few others.
While people often talk about how much they miss their relatives serving overseas, and occasionally express fear for their safety, this is almost always combined with the boast that a son, husband, wife, or daughter is performing his or her ``inter-nationalist duty'' in Angola.
Cubans say they expect no equivalent of a ``post-Vietnam syndrome'' because they never had an ``Angola syndrome'' to start with. In an interview, Deputy Foreign Minister Raul Roa suggested some reasons for the difference. Cuban soldiers don't suffer the psychological stress associated with Vietnam veterans, he contended, ``because the war has not been an unpopular one, as it was in the US,'' and because ``Cubans go to Angola on a voluntary basis - unlike Americans who were drafted and sent to fight a war they didn't understand.''
Roa also claimed there is no economic hardship for families, or fear of massive unemployment among returned military or civilian workers, because the majority of the men and women in Angola are reservists who already finished school and military training and were working when they volunteered. Their jobs are kept open for them when they return by a system of plus-trabajo (one person taking on two jobs) at each workplace. Meanwhile, their families are paid their salaries while they are gone. (In Angola they receive only room and board.)
The most important difference, Roa asserted, is that popular support for Cuban presence in Angola has continued over the years, whereas with Vietnam it did not. ``Cubans serve in Angola because they understand it is an important internationalist duty,'' he said. ``Ever since our 19th-century independence war against Spain we have received help from people of other countries, and we believe that this is one way of doing what we should for other countries who need our help.''
Having an unpopular enemy also helps. ``When our people fight South Africans,'' Roa stated, ``they are also fighting an ally of imperialism, one which has the most terrible system of racial discrimination known to date. ... So there is an absolute conviction that we are fighting for justice in Angola; that it is a just war. And that makes a big difference.''
In general, Roa's analysis was backed up by numerous interviews throughout the island. Most Cubans say that they understand the government's decision to send troops to Angola - and that they are ready to stay there longer if necessary. However, those who are less enthusiastic rarely speak out.
Some say this is due to government repression. Others say the reasons are more complicated. The mother of a 23-year-old medical student said: ``If Arturo had to go to Angola, that would be the worst thing that ever happened in my life. But he signed a pledge when he went to medical school, saying he would use the education that the society gave him to serve the people, anywhere the revolution needed him. How could he go back on that? How could I, a supporter of this revolution, speak out against his going?
A 35-year-old mechanic who recently returned from three years fighting in Angola said, yes, he had volunteered. ``It's not that something would happen to you if you didn't, like losing your job, or anything like that. But there is a certain social pressure. Who wants to be the only one in your school, your workplace, your neighborhood who doesn't raise his hand and step forward when they call for volunteers? Afterward everyone looks at you like you're a coward ... It hurts your self-esteem, your prestige and popularity.''
Going to Angola, on the other hand, can help your career. ``Since it appears on a person's curricula vitae for the rest of his life,'' said a young librarian, ``it certainly helps. It's a plus whenever you are applying for a job or promotion or running for public office. There is also a general popular recognition. It's like saying, `Fulano is an international-ist; he is somebody important, somebody who has fought for freedom of other countries.'''