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Burning Embers

After more than 20 years and thousands of deaths, America's "freedom fighters" in Angola are still wreaking havoc.
 
 
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You can bet that when the toll is taken in the war against terrorism, there will be no marker for several of the United States' longtime most favored terrorists. Angola's Jonas Savimbi, the veteran leader of UNITA (The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), has been delivering massive human rights abuses and major destruction to his homeland for more than two decades.

It's rare to see anything about Angola in the news. Every once in a while a little snippet appears -- and the reports are always grim. According to an early-September news story in the San Francisco Chronicle, a band of gunmen attacked a convoy of passenger buses and a minivan on a rural road, killing 38 people and injuring 52 others. Although no group took credit for the attack, the article said that it was believed to be the work of the UNITA rebels.

The story also points out that UNITA carried out at least two separate raids in August that killed about 250 people in a refugee train ambush and at least 50 in an attack on a passenger bus. The Chronicle also notes that during the course of "an almost nonstop civil war since 1975," more than 500,000 people have been killed and almost 4 million, out of a population of 12 million, have fled the country.

During the course of the bombing of Afghanistan, how many of you have thought about Angola and the incredibly bloody war still being waged there? It is one of the lesser-publicized legacies of President Ronald Reagan's Administration. His support for "low-intensity" conflicts left hundreds of thousands dead and wounded in Central America and Africa. He turned the term "freedom fighters," on its head by applying it to the Contras in Nicaragua. America's conservative movement later extended it to include Angola's murderous Jonas Savimbi.

In a search for up-to-date information about the current situation in Angola, I recently visited several conservative Web sites. In the 1980s, the conservative movement, then called the New Right, was Savimbi's mentor and hosted him regularly in Washington, DC.

First, I logged on to Richard Viguerie's ConservativeHQ.com -- "Your Conservative Headquarters on the Web." Viguerie was the direct-mail king of the 1980s who relentlessly peppered the mailboxes of conservatives across the country with letters, mailgrams, issue alerts and petitions, aimed at building the conservative movement. He raised loads of money for conservative causes and he helped build a network of hundreds of thousands of staunch right-wing soldiers. ConservativeHQ.com provides links to "The Riight Links" a project of the Conservative Caucus, another long-time right-wing entity. Included amongst the many sites listed is one called "Angola Freedom Fighters" (UNITA). There you find KWACHA UNITA Press, a news service providing updates in English, French and Portuguese. Unfortunately, the July and August 2001 updates from its "UNITA News & Review" weren't in English. However, going back to May of this year, I discovered a letter dated May 13 sent by "His Excellency" Jonas Savimbi to the Representatives of the Catholic Church. Savimbi tells Church officials off his tireless efforts at making a lasting peace in Angola.

Jonas Savimbi: The Toast of the Town

In November 1984, Ronald Reagan handily won re-election. According to a November 20, 1984 report in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Heritage Foundation, then in its toddler stage, "urged the Reagan administration to adopt a broad new policy of underwriting anticommunist insurgencies, including the use of paramilitary forces to undermine governments that threaten U.S. interests."

In the mid-eighties, UNITA's Savimbi was the darling of the New Right. The conservative elite shepherded him around the nation's capitol - to dinners and banquets in his honor. He met President Reagan and appeared on many television programs.

Consolidation of the worldwide anticommunist movement was in the air at the "rebel stronghold" of Jamba, Angola. Lew Lehrman, the chairman of the pro-Reagan Citizens for America and the unsuccessful New York gubernatorial candidate, convened a meeting of counter-revolutionaries from Afghanistan Nicaragua, Laos and Angola. Their mission, said a June 1985 Newsweek report, was to form an alliance known as the Democratic International. Lehrman and his conservative colleagues called Savimbi a "guerrilla role model."

By November 1985, the Wall Street Journal reported that "President Reagan endorsed covert aid for the insurgents [UNITA], a move welcomed by right-wing groups." Among the stalwart supporters of UNITA were the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation, the American Republic Foundation, a group established by the College Republican National Committee, the American Angolan Public Affairs Council, an offshoot of Free the Eagle, a group also supporting Afghan "freedom fighters," and the Conservative Caucus. Savimbi worked the lobbyist front, hiring the well-connected Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, Inc., a firm focusing on polishing Savimbi's image.

In February 1986, Savimbi attended a $5,000-a-plate dinner sponsored by Howard Phillips' Conservative Caucus Research, Analysis and Education Foundation. Savimbi was consecrated as a true "freedom fighter," and received more US arms and money. In 1989, the International Freedom Foundation and the Angola Freedom Foundation sponsored "A Salute to Jonas Savimbi," co-sponsored by more than a dozen conservative organizations.

(The Rev. Jerry Falwell was also making the news. He had recently returned from a visit with the Philippines' dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In November 1985, Falwell told the Washington Times that the United States should "stop bellyaching" about reforms, and "put its money where its mouth is" to help the Philippines fight against the communist insurgency. Falwell's remarks came about a month after his trip to South Africa where he spoke out against the idea of the U.S. imposing sanctions against the apartheid regime. The Los Angeles Times reported that Falwell capped off his visit to South Africa by saying, "if Bishop Tutu maintains that he speaks for the black people of South Africa, he is a phony." The Rev. Falwell later apologized for his intemperate remarks.)

That Was Then, and This Is Then

After more than fifteen years and hundreds of thousands dead, the killing in Angola continues. Human Rights Watch's World Report 2001 on Angola confirms that "there was little sign of greater respect for human rights as the violations of the laws of war for which this conflict has been notable continued."

HRW points out that while the violence has been caused by both government forces and UNITA rebels, late in the year UNITA switched its tactics and dramatically ratcheted up the incidents of terrorism. There were a number of reports about UNITA-sponsored mutilations, assassinations. And, there was a large increase in the forcible recruitment of children and adults to support UNITA's war effort. HRW also reports that while "a series of United Nations embargoes on UNITA remained in force," the UN's Security Council's Sanctions Committee on Angola produced a fifty-four-page document in March that detailed UNITA sanctions-busting.

That was then, and, in terms of the current ongoing situation, then is now. These days, however, there won't be any $5,000-a-plate dinners or major awards handed out to UNITA's Jonas Savimbi. However, in an e-mail exchange, Fran Griffin, president of the Vienna, Va-based Griffin Communications, wrote workingforchange that UNITA still maintains a presence in the nation's capital, through the offices of the Conservative Caucus.

Revisiting Angola is a solemn reminder of one of this country's major foreign policy failures -- resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, a devastated countryside and too many still being maimed and killed. It is also sobering to think that many of the same government officials responsible for the ongoing tragedy in Angola are leading the Bush Administration's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Finally, it would be foolish to forget that a major source of the terrorism leveling Angola was nurtured by the Reagan administration.

Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering right-wing movements.