Luanda's Capitalist Revolution...Is A Distant Dream In The Boondocks

It looks like Luanda's version of a Dickensian slum: 30,000 decrepit shacks fanning across a vast, sun-scorched field brimming with thieves, gambling dens, and hungry street children. But it's a vital lifeline for an economy shattered by two decades of civil war. Named after a popular Brazilian soap opera, Roque Santeira claims to be Africa's largest flea market. Unofficial estimates place the bazaar's average monthly turnover at $3 million--a lot of money for a nation whose blue-collar workers typically earn less than $20 a month. "Anything can be bought here," promises one of the market's eight managers. "And what can't be bought can easily be arranged."

He's right. Scrawny chickens, penicillin, French perfumes, Sony TVs, rat poison, cold beer, and lollipops exchange hands. AK-47 rifles, drugs, and diamonds can be discreetly ordered, too. In one stall stands Lucas Benge, a 43-year-old biology teacher turned lottery operator. "Here I make money every week," says Benge. "As a teacher, I got paid once a month. If ever."

Welcome to Angola, where for the first time since independence from Portugal in 1975 there are signs of an enduring economic revival. The interminable civil war pitted the ruling former Marxist party, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), against the guerrilla forces of Jonas M. Savimbi's UNITA--the Portuguese acronym for the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola. The war claimed more than 500,000 lives and displaced some 3 million out of a population of 10.6 million. In November, 1994, the two factions signed a cease-fire pact, paving the way for the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission. For now, a fragile peace prevails--allowing a ray of economic hope.

Take a drive through Luanda's snaking streets. Along avenues named after Lenin and other Marxists, there's a capitalist revolution in the making. Ubiquitous American and European logos--Volvo, Chanel, Polaroid--dot the cityscape. In many sectors, the government has taken laissez-faire to heart, which is one reason why technical services company Halliburton Co. recently sank $200 million into Angola's oil sector. Chevron Corp. is in the midst of a $680 million investment. Motorola Inc. has plunged into telecommunications, and experts say foreign companies are looking to invest in fisheries, power generation, and transport. The capital, however, still has a long road ahead. "Yes, there's a boom happening," observes a Western diplomat, "but it's not yet at the level of 30-story skyscrapers."

It may get there--if the peace holds. Before the war, Angola was the world's second-largest producer of coffee and fourth-largest diamond producer. Today, it provides 7% of U.S. oil consumption, and it generated $3.5 billion in 1995 oil revenues. That may account for the concerted Western drive to create a lasting peace. In recent weeks, diplomat after diplomat has landed on Angolan soil. On Feb. 19, it was the head of Britain's foreign aid agency, Lady Lynda Chalker. Next in line: South African President Nelson Mandela in mid-March.

Compared with Luanda, rural towns like Cuito and Malange face a Herculean recovery effort. In Cuito, once beautiful pink colonial-era homes are riddled with bullet holes. Hundreds of men aimlessly walk the streets during working hours. "I didn't think anything could be worse than Sarajevo," said Brian Atwood, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, on a visit in early February. "But this place is just incredible."


One roadblock to recovery is lingering mistrust. In Malange, more than 250 people a day died during the height of the war. Today, it's like an island in a sea of UNITA-controlled territory. "Everyone is armed to prevent UNITA from taking the city," says Ben Campbell of World Visions, a nongovernmental organization that distributes food. "Every last house has an AK-47." In Cuito and elsewhere, farmlands are still planted with mines, the main reason Angola has the world's largest number of amputees. Observers say a growing number of rural Angolans are moving to urban centers like Luanda. The odds of dying, after all, are much lower in Roque Santeira.

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