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.
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