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Angola Celebrates 40 Years of Independence, Resilience
The Washington Diplomat / December 2015

By Larry Luxner

Once adversaries, the United States and Angola today enjoy a warm friendship and strong bilateral ties — both of which were on display last month as the Portuguese-speaking country celebrated its 40th anniversary of independence.

And despite current economic difficulties sparked by falling world oil prices, petroleum-rich Angola — home to about 23 million people — still hopes to one day become the Saudi Arabia of Africa.

At a colorful Nov. 12 reception at the Willard InterContinental Washington hotel, Angola’s top diplomat to the United States praised “the brave Angolan fighters who sacrificed their lives for independence and freedom” four decades earlier.

“Angola went through a long period of civil war. The route was difficult, with many ups and downs, but we have never forgotten the tremendous help of our brothers from Africa,” said Ambassador Agostinho Tavares da Silva Neto, singling out Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia for special recognition. “These countries all got independence before Angola, and they helped us in our struggle, as well as Cuba, which in the most difficult moments fought side by side with the Angolan people.”

Some 250 people crowded the Willard banquet hall as dancers and musicians in traditional costume marked 40 years since Angola declared its independence from Portugal on Nov. 11, 1975, following the overthrow of Portugal’s military dictatorship. The country then underwent a brutal 27-year civil war that lasted until 2002. Since then, it has adopted a new Constitution and enjoyed steady economic growth in recent years as it works to rebuild the infrastructure and social institutions that were ravaged by years of fighting.

“Today, we can joyfully say our efforts were not in vain, and the persistence of our people for the cause of independence and the defense of national sovereignty dignifies the entire nation,” said the ambassador, paying homage to President José Eduardo dos Santos, who has ruled Angola since 1979. “Of course we have many challenges, but we are on track, and we have a great story to tell the world.”

Tavares, 61, has represented Angola in Washington for just over a year. The career diplomat was previously ambassador to Canada and has also served his country in various positions in Brazil, India and Spain.

He said that for the past 13 years, Angola has been at peace — an achievement he calls “one of the most important events of our recent history.”

“We have had 22 years of official relations with the United States, and recently we have seen the emergence of a promising economic and security partnership,” he said. “The U.S. and Angola have entered into a formal Strategic Partnership Dialogue, which actively works to implement our Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), broaden bilateral trade and investment cooperation, pursue technology transfer and healthcare initiatives, and address global and regional issues. Today, we can absolutely say that Angola is a success story.”

With proven oil reserves of 8.4 billion barrels, Texas-size Angola — a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) — is now one of this country’s top trading partners in Africa.

Yet its decision to adopt a socialist path scared away investors as far back as the early 1980s. So did then-President Ronald Reagan’s support of Jonas Savimbi and his National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebel group, which sought to overthrow the Marxist government along with help from South Africa’s apartheid regime.

All told, at least 1 million people died in Angola’s civil war, though estimates vary. At one point in the early 1990s, the war was killing more than 1,000 Angolans every day. After Savimbi’s death, the Luena Memorandum of April 2002 brought a formal end to the fighting, and UNITA became an opposition political party within the government headed by dos Santos and his ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).

Between 2003 and 2011, Angola attracted more than $58 billion in foreign direct investment, according to Rosa Pacavira, the country’s minister of trade. Besides oil and gas, the country is rich in other natural resources including diamonds, iron, phosphate, copper, gold, bauxite, uranium and manganese.

In 2013, the most recent year for which complete figures are available, total U.S.-Angola trade came to $10.2 billion. The United States imported $8.7 billion from Angola, nearly all of it in the form of crude oil (with minuscule imports of diamonds, rubber and wood products), while U.S. exports to Angola reached $1.5 billion, led by machinery, poultry, iron and steel products, electrical machinery and medical instruments.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opened an office in Luanda; so did the Department of Commerce, which has assigned a senior commercial service office there to help U.S. companies find partners within the Angolan private sector. And in November 2015, the two countries signed an agreement under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act to combat tax evasion — joining 100 other nations in the fight against money laundering and terrorism financing.

The Angolan government concedes that the country must reduce its dependence on oil, which accounts for half the country’s GDP of $125 billion, about 80 percent of tax revenues and more than 90 percent of export earnings.

Dos Santos warned his fellow Angolans last December that 2015 would be “difficult economically” and that public spending would have to be dramatically slashed. Angola’s budget had been predicated on world petroleum prices at $81 a barrel, as opposed to current prices of around $40 to $45 per barrel.

Efforts to diversify away from oil focus on promoting a strong small and medium-enterprise sector that generates wealth and employment for Angolans; stimulating investment in infrastructure, and improving Angola’s economic competitiveness.

The country’s 2013-17 National Development Plan commits to the rehabilitation and modernization of Angola’s transport, energy, water and ICT infrastructure, while its National Logistics Platform Network prioritizes commercial zones near Angola’s borders to reinforce its position as a key logistics hub for central and southern Africa.

“We invite foreign partners to participate in Angola’s many public and private investment opportunities with an aim towards increasing local production, reducing imports, growing non-oil exports and creating jobs” in such sectors as cement, textiles, beverages, sugar, grains, poultry, eggs, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture.

Even so, Angola remains a leading beneficiary of preferential access to the U.S. market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), which has been extended until 2025. Within the last decade, Angolan exports to the U.S. through AGOA have exceeded $115 billion.

“The United States has become a major investor in Angola, but has also helped to build various government institutions,” said Dr. Georges Rebelo Pinto Chikoti, Angola’s minister of external relations, speaking Nov. 16 at Washington’s Atlantic Council.

“Over the last 40 years, we’ve gone through many difficulties as Angolans: a war from 1975 to 1992, then a civil war from 1992 to 2002,” said Chikoti, who’s been Angola’s foreign minister for the past five years and is one of the country’s longest-serving senior officials.

Chikoti said his visit to Washington reflects vastly improved bilateral ties, as well as the urgency of tackling a variety of economic and political crises plaguing the region. “Africa is still a very unstable continent. We have major issues that affect regional stability,” he said, naming the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and the Central African Republic as major flashpoints. “Recently we had a national conference on security and energy in a global context, which has produced very important results. We believe this kind of relationship is helpful to build peace around the world.”

Todd Haskell, deputy assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, echoed those sentiments during Angola’s 40th birthday bash at the Willard, noting that more than 6,000 Angolan product categories enjoy tariff-free access to the United States thanks to AGOA. The country now ranks as Washington’s third-largest trading partner in sub-Sahara Africa, after South Africa and Nigeria.

“Forty years of independence is worth celebrating,” Haskell told his guests. “The road to independence has not been easy, but the people of Angola have persevered. After two decades of civil war, Angola has now developed an economy that ranks among the largest in Africa. It is one of only three partners on the continent with which the United States has developed a framework agreement, initiated by [then-Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton in 2010 and reinforced by John Kerry in 2014.”

Since establishing ties in 1993, the relationship “has been forged through strong trade, regional peace and security. Angola has taken a strong leadership position as chair of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and as chair of the Kimberley Process [which seeks to stop the trade in so-called blood diamonds],” he said. Haskell added that Angola’s selection to the United Nations Security Council for 2015 and to SADC — the 15-member Southern African Development Community, based in Botswana — has been critical.

“And most recently, Angola collaborated with Africom [the Pentagon’s Africa Command] in the first-ever maritime and security conference held in Luanda, which brought together 30 countries,” Haskell said. “Angola took the lead in seeking a comprehensive approach to Gulf of Guinea concerns.”

In his speech, Haskell stressed that as strategic partners, Washington and Luanda are not limited just to commercial opportunities.

“We’ve tackled important social and economic challenges with projects in infrastructure, education and health — and we stood together when the HIV scourge shocked the world,” he said, noting that the U.S. government has also supported efforts to clear unexploded and potentially lethal land mines left over from Angola’s civil war.

“Angola has made tremendous progress over the last 40 years,” Haskell said, “but it must continue to pursue economic equality, human rights and democratic principles. As you celebrate this special day, we stand with you and look forward to the next 40.”

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