Sometimes the Angola civil war that formally ended on Friday took bizarre turns. I remember one in particular that sums up what a strange war it was: Several times during the fighting, Cuban soldiers paid by the Soviet Union were sent to guard an American-owned Gulf Oil Co. refinery project against repeated attacks by rebels who were paid by the United States. The Americans managing the refinery construction project weren't sure who they were supposed to root for.
Once you sort through the confusion, it becomes clear that the fighting in Angola was one of those "proxy wars" between the Soviets and Americans that were so popular in the remoter regions of the planet before Moscow and Washington decided to become friends. This one was more complicated than most, but the basic drill was standard enough _ the superpowers provide the guns and money and the locals provide the people to fight and get killed. In Angola's case, about 300,000 of them got killed.
Even though we were deeply involved in the Angola fighting through our support of Jonas Savimbi and his UNITA guerrillas, the 16-year civil war in the southern African nation never really made a big claim on the American public's imagination. Every once in a while Savimbi would trade in his camouflage fatigues for a Saville Row suit and show up in Washington to get his picture taken chatting with the president. But most people I know didn't give Angola or what we were doing there a second thought.
Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the things you don't want to think about go away on their own and you never have to think about them again. That may be what happened in Lisbon, Portugal on Friday when Savimbi and Jose Eduardo dos Santos, a reformed hard-line Marxist who is president of Angola, signed the peace treaty to end the civil war.
Watching over the ceremony were the smiling representatives of their two patrons, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Alexander Bessmertnykh.
The reason both men were smiling is that once the peace treaty was signed, their governments cut off aid to their former clients. For the United States, that means a savings of $60-million a year that was going to UNITA. The Soviets stand to save $1-billion a year they were spending to keep up to 50,000 Cuban troops in Angola along with East German and Soviet advisers.
Also attending Friday's ceremony was Javier Perez de Cuellar, the U.N. secretary-general, whose organization is sending a peacekeeping force to help monitor the truce.
Besides ending the civil war, the 66-page peace treaty also provides for Angola's first ever multiparty legislative and presidential elections. They will be held _ barring unforeseen circumstances _ between September and November of next year.
The U.N. peacekeepers will be on hand to prevent the unforeseen circumstances. They will be helped by a commission made up of the two Angolan parties and representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union and Portugal, the former colonial master of Angola that helped negotiate the peace treaty. In addition, Britain and France will be helping to train a new 50,000-member army that will replace the old armed forces and be made up of soldiers from the Savimbi and dos Santos factions on a 50-50 basis.
After signing the peace treaty, Savimbi put his finger on what's likely to be the biggest problem over the coming year when he said, "Our most important task is making the Angolan people believe in peace. There is no more reason for war." Persuading the Angolans of this won't be easy because the country has been torn apart by non-stop war for the past three decades _ first, 14 years of guerrilla fighting for independence against Portugal, then beginning in 1975, 16 years of battling between the Savimbi and dos Santos factions.
The fighting has left the country of 10-million in a shambles despite its diamond mines, rich deposits of oil and once-thriving agriculture. Along with the war, widespread drought in recent years has caused a famine in a large part of the country. Though the United States has now cut off military assistance to UNITA, it plans to increase humanitarian aid to the famine-stricken regions.
Despite the joy that greeted the peace treaty ceremony, the mess in Angola is far from over. Both Savimbi and dos Santos are tough fighters accustomed to getting their way. Their followers still have a lot of weapons and could haul them out again at the slightest provocation. Maintaining the cease-fire until elections are held next year isn't going to be easy.
Besides the prospect of peace in one of the most violent regions of the world, Friday's signing ceremony also was yet another sign that Soviet-American cooperation can accomplish a lot more than proxy wars. It also finally put paid to more than 400 years of misguided and brutal Portuguese colonialism in Africa.
For all of this, we can be grateful.