Did you hear about the time American oil workers overseas had to turn to Communist Cuban troops for protection from U.S.-government-funded rebels? No?
That fact is just one of many surprising insights that’s come out of our two-week long investigation of corruption that started with our conversation with Franklin Foer. Corruption often feels intangible, so we’ve been reporting on what it actually entails and how it’s done. In the process, we’ve come across two big questions.
How Did Paul Manafort Influence the Media?
Caroline Kitchener talked to journalists who covered Paul Manafort in his heyday.
When Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi visited D.C. in the late 1980s, the Washington press corps swooned. Savimbi, shuttled around in a stretch limo and decked out in a Nehru suit, was hailed as the “charismatic, swashbuckling general” who “stopped Soviet imperialism dead in its tracks in Angola.” Introducing Savimbi at the National Press Club, the Scripps Washington bureau chief said that, in areas under Savimbi’s control, “songs glorify his wisdom and valor.” Meanwhile, back in Angola, Savimbi’s rebel forces were massacring hundreds of people.
It’s easy to pinpoint when all this positive press coverage started. In 1985, Savimbi hired Paul Manafort’s political lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone, and Kelly, shelling out $600,000 a year for its services. In return, the firm positioned Savimbi as a “freedom fighter”—a hero poised to root out Communism in a country American officials saw as an important battleground in the Cold War. While a handful of American news outlets called out Savimbi for the “gross human rights violations” that UNITA, Savimbi’s rebel group, was committing in Angola, most gave Manafort what he wanted: the portrait of a leader worthy of millions of dollars of U.S. aid.
I spoke to several Washington journalists who covered Savimbi in the late 1980s. Most of them said they’d known about his terrible human rights record. “One look at this guy, and you knew he was a complete fraud,” said Howard Fineman, former chief political correspondent for Newsweek.
So why did so many national media outlets—The Washington Post, The National Review, Reader’s Digest, 60 Minutes—have good things to say about him?
How Did a Lobbyist Get America into a Cold War Tangle?
I dug into the legacy of America’s convoluted intervention in Angola.
The cover story of the March Atlantic is titled “The Plot Against America.” But the culture of lobbying and corruption that the story describes—with its tiny universe of players who schmooze with one another at lavish estates and make deals in D.C. restaurants—has vast consequences for ordinary people, not only in America, but across the world. Paul Manafort’s work, for example, played a role in prolonging the civil war in Angola. The effects of that war—and Manafort’s legacy—continue to be felt by Angolans decades later.
Angola was one of many countries that played host to hugely damaging proxy wars during the Cold War, as America, the Soviet Union, and their allies intervened in conflicts around the world to serve their own opposing aims. Angola’s brush with the Cold War began after Portugal suddenly granted its southern African colony independence in 1975. The Marxist-Leninist MPLA party retained control of the capital, Luanda—and the country’s oil industry—and drew support from other Communist states, while the U.S. backed a rebel force called UNITA.
And behind the scenes was Manafort’s lobbying firm, Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, which was cashing in.
How did that dealing in Washington—work done behind closed doors, for pay—play out for millions of Angolans who have never heard the name Manafort? How did Washington wind up backed into a corner, supporting a rebel group whose other closest ally was apartheid South Africa?
To Be Continued
This is Part I. Over the holiday weekend in the U.S., we’ll be working hard on putting the finishing touches on these stories. On Tuesday, we’ll be back with the answers—including that story about Cuba and the American oilworkers. See you then.
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