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. A former U.S. government official told Art Levine of Spy in 1992, “Black, Manafort played an important part in keeping the Angolan war going.” Hundred of thousands died over its course.
Many details of Washington’s support for UNITA were kept hidden from Americans during the conflict. Likewise, few Angolans had much sense of who was pulling strings in D.C. “I’ve never heard the name Manafort uttered by an Angolan,” says Justin Pearce, a lecturer at Cambridge University who studied how the Cold War conflict played out in Angola. And yet Manafort was busy influencing decisions that had vast consequences for the Africans who had never heard of him.
Jonas Savimbi was the ideologically flexible rebel leader Manafort helped position as the man who could beat back Communism. Until he was assassinated in 2002, the charismatic Savimbi used all tools at his disposal to keep the fight going. That included casting himself, with Manafort’s help, as a strident anti-Communist to win support from Washington. “Savimbi was not the sole cause of Angola's civil war, but he was probably the most important reason why it has lasted so long,” The Economist wrote in its obituary. “When one casus belli disappeared, he always found another.”
For Savimbi, Manafort was a conduit to the American elite. According to Levine, he managed to forge “a coalition of ultraconservative Republicans, anti-Castro Cuban Americans, and moderate Democrats who wanted to appear tough on Communism.” At a decisive moment in the Angolan conflict, for instance, President-elect George H.W. Bush sent a letter to Savimbi promising military support to Savimbi’s rebels. The letter, Levine reported, was drafted by a former Manafort employee who had gone to work for UNITA’s PR team.
The war made for strange bedfellows. Washington’s intervention on behalf of UNITA put it on the same side as the apartheid government in South Africa, which was fighting the region’s independence movements. And in one of the most unusual twists of the Cold War, it set the American government in direct opposition to American oil companies—first Gulf Oil, then Chevron—which continued to work with the Angolan government throughout the war.
Tom Mitro, an former American oil executive, recalled flying into Angola in the 1980s. America’s intervention had prompted Cuba to send troops to back the Marxist government, including protecting its oil operations. This meant American oil workers in Angola had to rely on soldiers from Communist Cuba for protection. Meanwhile, the very rebels they had to be protected from were being supported in part by the American government. “It was a very strange feeling,” Mitro said.
Despite the American support and Manafort’s work, however, Savimbi did not beat back the tide of Marxism. His UNITA rebels never dislodged their opponents in the MPLA. Under Bill Clinton, the United States switched sides, recognizing the MPLA government, which remains in power to this day. UNITA still contests elections, but it is diminished as a political force.
And the MPLA government, which has allowed corruption to flourish, used American opposition to entrench itself. Pearce explained, “Where or if the U.S. backing for UNITA is recalled, it’s by government—MPLA—people of a certain generation who will evoke that period as evidence of that fact that the MPLA government was the victim of imperialist aggression by the United States. And this historical narrative is used to bolster the legitimacy of the MPLA.”
With hundreds of thousands of Angolans dead in a bungled Cold War intervention, you might think Angolans would bear lasting ill-will toward the United States. And while some older Angolans certainly feel that way, many do not. The University of Indiana historian Marissa Moorman recalled traveling to Angola for the first time in 1997. As an American, she wondered, “Will people talk to me?” But the people she met, she said, “were quite able to make a distinction between the government of a place and the people of a place.” With many having lived through more than a generation of war, Angolans “are not naïve about the ways in which governments operate.”
In the United States, memory of the intervention is fading into Cold War history, but in Angola, the scars of that conflict remain—including in the form of the land mines both sides used liberally. That legacy remains significant, even as the emotional force of the proxy conflict fades for younger Angolans. Americans’ forgetting of the conflict is a testament to the ways in which the effects of Washington’s petty dealings ripple out across others’ lives, uncared for by the agents in pursuit of pay or power. Angolans may not be able to see Manafort’s furtive work on behalf of well-heeled foreign actors, but they have to live with the effect.
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