REPORTS of renewed clashes between pro- and antigovernment forces in Angola this week highlight the political fragility of a nation that has been at war for all its 14 years of independence. Rebel leader Jonas Savimbi said Tuesday that Cuban soldiers were battling his guerrillas in southern Angola. Only a few days earlier, the Angolan government said its soldiers had clashed with rebels and South African forces who had penetrated 30 miles into the country.
If true, the incidents violate a widely hailed United States-brokered peace accord signed by Angola, Cuba, and South Africa. Under the Dec. 22 deal, South Africa agreed to end its occupation of Namibia (Southwest Africa) and pull out of southern Angola. In exchange, 50,000 Cuban troops are to leave Angola. Amid great fanfare, the first group of 450 Cubans left last month. South Africa has similarly been withdrawing from the south.
Still, Angolans are not assured of the war's end.
``Agreements have been signed, but that does not mean that peace is at the other side of the door,'' says Gabriella Antunes, a prominent member of the writer's union here. ``We still have internal problems.''
Although ordinary Angolans had initially been suspicious of the Cubans - called in 13 years ago to help fend off direct South African incursions - they had come to be seen as a stabilizing factor, according to Ms. Antunes.
The rebel National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) is set to pose a continuing challenge to the government. UNITA - earlier funded by South Africa, and believed to have received $15 million worth of US support last year - was not party to the complex peace negotiations.
Many Angolans and other observers say the 25,000-strong guerrilla force is not as marginal a factor as it was made out to be during those talks.
``To say UNITA's impact is negligible is ridiculous - when you can barely drive out of Luanda,'' says a diplomat.
The rebels are headquartered in Jamba, a desolate patch of land in the southeast. But UNITA is also strong in the central part of the country - from where its guerrillas can continue to sabotage the economically crucial Benguela railway line. In addition, the rebels are able to launch attacks from the north.
Few here believe that UNITA could win the war outright, but they also question the Angolan Army's ability to completely root out the rebels.
``The real problem is not one of numbers, but rather the type of war,'' says a relief worker here. ``[The Army] can't destroy UNITA altogether, because they are everywhere and nowhere all at once.''
Analysts here acknowledge that in anticipation of future negotiations, it is in UNITA's interests to fight hard. This would improve its bargaining position.
In addition, suspicion of South African intentions runs high. Theoretically, once Namibia becomes independent, and a government is installed in Windhoek, that should create a buffer between Angola and South Africa. But several newspaper reports have alleged that South Africa is giving Namibian citizenship to UNITA members, who could then be used as a force to destabilize both countries.
More significant, analysts say, are the decisions Washington will take in the coming year. President George Bush has pledged to continue support for UNITA.
But Western diplomats here say the US is only temporarily caught in a quandary over what to do with an old friend, Savimbi. With Angola increasingly accepting free-market policies, and even applying to join the IMF, they say, there is little ideological reason left to support UNITA. US participation in a conference here to open the Benguela railway line is the latest suggestion that a policy change may be on the way.
Ironically, the US is Angola's largest trade partner, because of this nation's oil.
On the outskirts of Luanda, the Houston-based Continental Oil Company (Conoco) has struck oil in two of the four wells it has drilled since 1986. From his palatial offices overlooking a panoramic bay, general manager Jack Blackshear talks enthusiastically of Conoco's good relations with Angola, and hopes political interests can be matched with commercial interests.
Blackshear takes pride in a small project where Conoco, as part of its contract with the Angolan government, is helping fishermen store and sell their produce more efficiently.
``Wouldn't it make just a little more sense,'' he asks rhetorically, ``to relate to the Angolan people this way instead?''