Now There’s a Surprise
Admit it. The last time you thought about Angola, you were wondering what possible interest Cuba had in their civil war. Some may still be wondering. But somehow, since those days of the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002), Luanda has become the world’s most expensive city! How did THAT happen?
Portugal played only a peripheral role but since they were the first European colonizers, let’s start there. “Colonizers” is even a bit of an overstatement as the first Portuguese to arrive in the 1500s were content to establish a few coastal outposts used to transit slaves to their vastly more important colonies in Brazil. These unlucky souls were rounded up in the interior by cooperating African tribes, then traded to the Portuguese on the coast in exchange for western manufactured goods. Brazilian independence in 1822 abolished slavery in 1836 and ended the slave trade from Angola.
The Portuguese didn’t venture into the interior significantly until the late 1800s in search of other resources to replace the slave trade. Portuguese companies led the development of peanut and palm oil, timber, ivory, cotton, and eventually diamonds, minerals and petroleum for export. As the various tribal groups in Angola became more aware of the wealth being plundered from under their feet, a number of competing armed political groups began agitating for inclusion. Portugal’s superior military and technological prowess kept these groups at bay for about a century, but in 1974, a sudden change in Portugal’s government took everyone by surprise.
Independence And Civil War
The Carnation Revolution began as a military coup to overthrow the authoritarian dictatorship known as Estado Novo that had ruled Portugal since the 1930s. The coup was led by the young officers of the Portuguese military who had been fighting the country’s unpopular colonial wars in Angola, Mozambique, Portuguese Guinea, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Principe, and East Timor. The coup found surprising popular support and the result was a democratic government that immediately withdrew Portuguese armed forces from all their colonies.
This brought a swift end to the Angolan War of Independence that had raged since 1961, but left the three major nationalist movements unprepared to govern. Their attempts to form a coalition inevitably broke into an armed struggle for control of the new country, which wore on with few breaks until 2002. The conflict, coming in the midst of the Cold War, eventually drew all the world’s superpowers into what would have appeared to be a less than global conflict.
Though the competing belligerents had united in their desire to end colonial occupation, their politics were mutually exclusive. One billed itself as “Marxist-Leninist”, the other “anti-communist”. As such, the Angolan Civil War was seen as another skirmish on the global battlefield of the Cold War. The United States and Russian, via surrogates such as Zaire and South Africa, became deeply involved in the outcome while maintaining “plausible deniability” by operating more or less covertly.
Cuba’s involvement was originally believed to be as a stand-in for Russia. In later years, however, it was revealed that Che Guevara had visited the leader of the Marxist-Leninist faction as early as 1963, and Cuban forces in Algiers trained some of his guerilla fighters.
Fidel Castro considered it his responsibility as an “internationalist” to help out like-minded leaders in other parts of the world even though intervention in Angola held no strategic interest for Cuba. In fact, Castro became a long-distance military commander, monitoring battlefield events and controlling the movements of his forces from Havana. Cuba’s presence in the fight ultimately proved decisive and Angola today is ruled by a decidedly socialist government.
The World’s Most Expensive City
One of the unfortunate outcomes of the protracted civil war was the physical destruction of the country. When the war ended in 2002, there was virtually no infrastructure left undamaged. But Angola is a country with many valuable resources and the revenue from oil and diamonds has afforded an aggressive rebuilding process. The upper town, cidade alta, features glittery new high rises, government buildings and shopping centers. Upscale housing and western amenities, however, are still in short supply and brutally expensive, resulting in the sky-high expat cost of living that has earned the city it’s “most expensive” designation.
Many of the historic buildings and areas have been and are being restored. Among them San Miguel Fort, the church of Dos Remedios, and Palacio de Ferro (built by Gustave Eiffel of tower fame). The Palacio has a past shrouded in mystery as no record of it exists. The consensus seems to be that it was built in France for shipment to Madagascar but the ship was intercepted by pirates and set adrift. Rulers of the Portuguese colony then claimed the ship and its contents and reassembled the building in Luanda.
To their credit, the current government is not trying to hide the capital’s past and have established the National Museum of Slavery which, in a stroke of irony, sits on property formerly owned by one of the colony’s biggest slave traders, Alvaro de Carvalho Matoso.
Finally, a daytime stroll on the promenade along Marginal Bay will offer time to reflect on the turbulent past thrust upon this city, this country, and much of West Africa.