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The Cuban Catch in Angola Peace Terms

July 24, 1988|Tad Szulc | Correspondent Tad Szulc is the author of "Fidel: A Critical Portrait" (Morrow)

HARBOUR ISLAND, THE BAHAMAS — After a peace agreement "in principle" for southern Africa reached earlier this month, Cuba is believed to be most reluctant to withdraw its troops from Angola. While Moscow wants the Cubans to leave soon as part of the new global Soviet policy of winding down regional conflicts, President Fidel Castro is in no hurry; he is publicly committed to keep forces in Angola until Namibia gains independence and apartheid is abolished in South Africa. Castro's stance, confirmed by diplomats close to the negotiations, creates a backstage confrontation with the Soviet Union, Cuba's most important sponsor.

The departure of Cuban forces from Angola, fighting there on the side of the country's Marxist regime since civil war erupted 14 years ago, is one of the two main issues in the diplomatic process. The other is self-rule for Namibia--a territory adjacent to Angola--to be freed from South African control as mandated by U.N. Resolution 435 in 1978. Namibia's future and the issue of the Cuban expeditionary force in Angola are inextricably linked.

At secret mid-July meetings in New York under U.S. auspices, Cuban, Angolan and South African delegations accepted 14 broad principles. That was encouraging, if only because it was the first time the contending parties were in accord on anything. Last week a document outlining the agreement was issued in Pretoria, Washington, Havana and Luanda. Further talks are scheduled for early August, and September has been set as a target for final agreement.

But no real timetable for implementing the principles has been announced. Timing is key. Castro has been holding out for a four-year troop-withdrawal schedule whereas South Africa, not yet committed to a date for Namibian self-rule, insists on one year or less.

The United States and the Soviet Union want a prompt deal on both Namibia and Cuban troops. South Africa, increasingly tired of human and material losses in fighting Namibian guerrillas and Angolan and Cuban troops, may be ready for a settlement while the Reagan Administration is still in office, hoping for guarantees it might not find later. Angola, devastated by the endless civil war, is open to compromise. If South Africa withholds support for the guerrillas of the rightist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), the Angolan government would be prepared to bid farewell to the Cubans, who first intervened to prevent UNITA from winning.

But Castro suspects that he is facing in Angola a Soviet-American conspiracy to undermine him. For him, this is a situation reminiscent of the Cuban missile crisis 26 years ago, when Washington and Moscow went over Castro's head to agree on the removal of Soviet nuclear weapons from the island. He is determined to resist Soviet pressures, notwithstanding Cuba's total dependence on economic aid from Moscow. He is finding--again--that in a crunch, superpower interests take precedence over small Third World allies.

Castro is said to fear that his importance on the international scene would be vastly reduced if Cuba ceased to play a major role in Africa. This, in turn, would damage his bargaining positions with both the Soviet Union and the United States on other major issues concerning Cuba. The same reasoning applies to the Cuban presence in Nicaragua.

In a speech in May, 1985, Castro recalled that 200,000 Cuban soldiers had already been rotated through Angola, and he vowed to send "200,000 more troops, and more and more--as long as necessary." At a time of ever-deepening economic crises at home, Castro needs to preserve the heroic image of Cuba fighting abroad for the "great causes."

Cuban interests are no longer identical with Soviet interests. Although Moscow was once Cuba's enthusiastic partner in Angola--supplying weapons, logistics and advisers--Soviet policies in southern Africa, as elsewhere, are changing under Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Wanting to improve relations with the United States while pursuing ambitious domestic reforms, Gorbachev has joined Washington in efforts to do away with regional wars.

Angola is the latest example. Gorbachev is already repatriating Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Vietnam is taking its forces out of Cambodia, following friendly Soviet advice. Moscow privately warned Ethiopia President Mengistu Haile Mariam that he had one last chance to defeat Eritrean and Tigre rebels; if he failed, he better negotiate a settlement because Soviet military aid would be cut drastically. Gorbachev has advised the Sandinista regime in Managua that he would not sacrifice Soviet ties with the United States for the sake of Nicaraguan adventures and he has so informed Washington.

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