Angola matters to U.S. So what’s the problem?
May 17th, 2013
09:42 AM ET

Angola matters to U.S. So what’s the problem?

By Alex Vines, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Alex Vines is director of Area Studies and International Law and heads the Angola Forum at Chatham House. He is also a senior lecturer at Coventry University. The views expressed are his own.

Twenty years ago this Sunday, the United States belatedly recognized Angola. Today, Angola is the second-largest trading partner of the U.S. in sub-Saharan Africa, a country at peace and enjoying one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the world. It is the second largest producer of oil in sub-Saharan Africa and an OPEC member that has allowed major U.S. oil companies to prosper. But all is not well in the relationship.

Angola achieved independence from Portugal in 1975 and immediately became a major battle ground of the Cold War. The U.S. refused to recognize the pro-Soviet and Cuban backed MPLA government, encouraged apartheid South African military incursions and trained and supplied the rebel UNITA forces. At one point, Angola became the second largest recipient of U.S. covert aid after the Afghan Mujahedeen.

Fast forward to today, and the MPLA is still the ruling party, with President José Eduardo dos Santos having been in power since 1979. And, despite the many global suitors, dos Santos said recently that Angola has only four strategic partners: Brazil, China, Portugal and the United States.

China’s relationship with the country is blossoming – more than 258,000 Chinese received work visas for Angola in 2011. Portugal does well, too, with more than 100,000 nationals working in Angola; one in five liters of exported Portuguese wine is now consumed in Angola. Trade and cultural ties with Brazil, meanwhile, are very close and the South American giant was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with Luanda, in 1975.

But what of the United States? There was certainly a honeymoon period after President Clinton recognized Angola. U.S. oil companies prospered, including negotiating a multiple entry visa regime for U.S. workers to Angola, a privilege that few other countries have emulated. In 1994, Clinton also successfully obtained dos Santos’ agreement to sign up to the short-lived Lusaka peace accords with UNITA. President George W. Bush likewise was able to push successfully for transparency of oil rents when he met dos Santos at the White House.

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The Obama administration has for its part identified three “strategic partners” on the African continent: South Africa, Nigeria and Angola. After Angola was identified as a partner in 2009, a U.S.-Angola Strategic Partnership Dialogue has been set up. So what’s the problem?

In practice, the dialogue has achieved little and the government-to-government relationship today is prickly and pedestrian – so much so that at the last moment the Angolan foreign minister reportedly postponed a trip to the United States scheduled for this month that was meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of U.S.-Angola relations.

Two key issues seem to be at the root of the problems. First, with a changing global order, Angola’s policy makers enjoy choice and have become less-enamored with the United States as other suitors have stepped in. Second, Angola represents a major challenge for U.S. diplomats and business as it throws up the challenge of U.S. values versus interests. This January, Forbes named Isabel, the eldest daughter of President dos Santos, Africa’s first female billionaire. Not long after, Transparency International ranked Angola 168th out of 178 countries in its corruption perception index.

The reality is that the perception of corruption and rent-seeking is a barrier for U.S. investors, and despite the best efforts of the U.S. Embassy in Luanda and the U.S.-Angola Chamber of Commerce in Washington DC, the last couple of years have been tough, not helped by U.S. probes into the bank accounts of Angolan diplomatic missions, or the seizure of a U.S. flagged ship and crew in Angola.

Yet Angola is not all that dissimilar to some other African markets that U.S. companies invest in, and the United States has much to offer Angola – in business, skills transfer and know how – all of which could help Angola become the regional power it aspires to be. Angola’s opposition parties also see how important the U.S. is, underscored by the visit to Washington recently of the leader of UNITA; the leader of Angola’s newest successful opposition party, CASA, is about to visit Washington.

Angola’s strategic partnerships are a four legged stool, but the U.S. leg is undoubtedly the weakest. Some major U.S. companies are investing in Angola: General Electric for example has recently invested some $2 billion in health and infrastructure. But increased U.S. investment to Angola will require greater openness because requirements such as the Dodd-Frank rule requiring that oil companies disclose payments to foreign governments won’t be going away.

Angola is an emerging African regional power of genuine commercial, political and strategic importance to the U.S. The 20th anniversary of relations between the two countries might be a good opportunity to take an honest look at how the partnership can best work for both.

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Topics: Africa • United States

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soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    Had it not been for the Communists in Portugal reaching high positions in the Lisbon government in the mid-1970's, Angola would probably still be fighting Portugal for it's independence today. Another thing that the right-media never talks about!

    May 17, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  2. Chivucute

    The current Angola president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has been in power since 1979, the same year that I was born in Angola. Angola is not a free state and has poor record in terms of human rights. Since the end of s 27-year civil war in 2002, many activists and journalist have been assassinated simple because they spoke out against the regime. On May 27, 2012, two young activists Isaías Cassule e Alves Kamolingue were kidnapped and never found again: http://www.voaportugues.com/content/vigilia-por-activistas-desaparecidos/1662472.html. A journalist from Guine-Bissau, Milocas Pereira, was arrested and disappear until today:http://globalvoicesonline.org/2013/03/31/angola-luanda-protest-arrested-disappeared/

    Although Angola's economy is growing, this growth does not translate into people live due to corruption and luck of good governance. Most of Angolan's live with less than $ 2 dollars per day. Many do not have access to clean water and electricity. Infant mortality remains high extremely high and the future of many, in particular for the youth is uncertain.

    Despite the country's socio-economic and politic challenges, the Angola's government is investing far more on defense than on education, health...

    May 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  3. Chivucute

    It is also worth to mention that, in addition to the "probes into the bank accounts of Angolan diplomatic missions," corruption and poor human rights, a former Angola vice-president and current president of Angola parliament, Fernando da Piedade Dias dos Santos also know as “Nandó,” was denied to enter US territory in October 19, 2011 due to his connection with three Angola's private companies (Arosfran, Golfrate e Afribelg) accused of financing International terrorist groups like Hezbollah. Clearly, the president of Angola is a dictator.

    For more information about this issue, please find the link below:

    http://www.club-k.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9350:nando-impedido-de-entrar-nos-estados-unidos&catid=11:foco-do-dia&Itemid=564

    May 17, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  4. JAL

    If the Arab Spring is a success, then the extremist will put down their weapons and go to work instead.

    May 18, 2013 at 9:39 am | Reply
  5. j. von hettlingen

    Angola as one of Africa's major oil producers is nonetheless one of the world's poorest countries, where people live on less than $1 a day. If Isabel, the eldest daughter of president dos Santos is Africa's first female billionaire, we can imagine the degree of graft and corruption in this country.
    Much of Angola's oil wealth lies in Cabinda province, which has no border with the rest of Angola. A decades-long separatist conflict simmers and the government has sent thousands of troops to subdue the rebellion in the enclave.

    May 20, 2013 at 5:39 am | Reply
  6. ANTONIO SELELE

    WE UNDERSTAND, THE REST OF THE WORLD CAN TALK, OR EVEN SPEEK ABOUT THEIR VIEW ON HOW THEY PERCEIVE ABOUT ANGOLA, THERE STILL NOT ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND HOW THIS PEOPLE SUFFERING, SINCE THE EARLIER 1975, ANGOLAN PEOPLE ARE NOT FREE IN THEY OWN COUNTRY, EVERY BODY,S TALKING ABOUT INVESTMENT, THEY STILL HELPING THE SAME GOVERNMENT WITH THE BILLIONS OF DOLLARS FOR TO BUY WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTIONS IN ORDER TO PROTECT THEMSELVES AGAINST THEIR OWN PEOPLE. THIS THE WORLD BEEN TOLERATING BECAUSE OF THEIR OWN INTEREST, BAKING THE SAME GOVERNMENT WITH SUCH NEGATIVE PSYCHOLOGICAL DISFUNCTION, SINGLE MONO POLITICAL BEHAVIOR, THAT TIES WITH RUSSIAN IDEOLOGICAL CONCEPT, AGAINST THIS NATION ANGOLA. CLINTON RECOGNIZED THIS GOVERNMENT,SIMPLE FOR ECONOMIC AFFAIRS THAT SHOULD LIFT THEIR OWN POLITICAL INTEREST, TRYING TO INFLICT MORE PAIN AGAINST GOD,S PEOPLE, WITHOUT EXAMINING THIS TYPE OF GOVERNMENT THAT CAME FROM COMMUNIST BACK GROUND.THIS GOVERNMENT IS NOT FOR PEACE, IT,S JUST BAND OF MOBS THAT SEEK ITS OWN INTEREST. ALSO NOT FOR DEMOCRACY, BECAUSE IT IS INSULT TO THEM. THEY GOT INVOLVED WITH THE UNITED STATES, ONLY FOR THE SINGLE REASON: FIRST IS TO AVOID FUTURE CONFLICT.SECOND FOR THE COLLAPSE OF SOVIET EMPIRE. TIRD FOR THE SALE OF THE OIL. THEY HAVE BUILD A BELT IN HOW TO ELIMINATE EVERY POLITICAL PARTY THAT WILL TRY TO BRING DEMOCRACY. JOSE HE,S A MEMBER OF KGB, HE DOES WHAT PUTNEY SAID. IF TODAY PUTNEY CAME BACK AGAIN IN POWER BECAUSE OF THOSE OPPOSITIONS. THEY TRYING TO BUILD A MONARCHY AS AN DESPOTIC GOVERNMENT, PRIORITIZING THEY OWN MAN MADE AUTHORITY, USING POWER TO INTIMIDATE PEOPLE FOR NOT MAKING THE RIGHT CHOICE FOR DEMOCRATIC PROGRESSIVE CONCEPT. THEY HAVE INCREASED IN MONEY TO BUILD A FUTURE NUCLEAR WEAPON THROUGH RUSSIAN,S HELP AND,THEY ARE NOT FOR THE INTEREST OF ANGOLAN PEOPLE, OR EVEN TO EDUCATE THEM. MOST OF PEOPLE COMING TO SCHOOL HERE IN THE UNITED STATES, ARE THEY OWN PEOPLE, CHOSEN THROUGH THOSE ARE IN CHARGE TO PROTECT THE SYSTEM OF THE UNCHANGEABLE GOVERNMENT, REMEMBER THEY ARE NOT TO STRENGTHEN THIS RELATIONSHIP WITH UNITED STATES OF AMERICA OR EVEN THIS DEMOCRATIC CONCEPT, BECAUSE IT,S INSULT TO THEM.THIS IS STILL COMMUNIST GOVERNMENT AND MAKE NOT MISTAKE. IT,S THE GOVERNMENT THAT WILL NEVER TELL THE TRUTH AND BAKED BY PORTUGUESES IN SUCH WAY THAT YOU CAN,T UNDERSTAND THE REAL OBJECTIVE THAT THEY LONGING FOR. THIS IS JUST 0.1% OF IDEA. WE WILL NEVER BACK DOWN UNTIL THINGS ARE TAKEN THE RIGHT COURSE, THERE ARE STILL OPTIONS TO CONSIDER. THEY TRUST IN WEAPONS, BUT WE WILL TRUST IN OUR GOD,HE WILL REBUKE WEAKED KINGS FOR OUR SAKE.

    May 24, 2013 at 3:45 am | Reply
  7. Prof.Kiluange -New York City

    Let's bare in mind that Mr. Jose' Eduardo dos Santos and Xu Jinghua were classmates in one of the former KGB training academy in late 60's. Interesting enough Mr. Xu Jinghua was the former Chinese counterintelligence operative in Luanda, during the Angola's civil war. And today Mr.Jinghua is the owner of the China Sonangol International Holding Limited, endiama china international holding limited and holds 14 % of share in the Catoca Diamond Mine. Mere coincidence?

    June 1, 2013 at 6:50 am | Reply
  8. Angolano DeAngola

    I won't be surprise to see in Angola a future company of Christopher J. McMullen, realistic that's how the game goes. those closed doors meeting any good player can come out with a piece of the pie...

    June 7, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  9. Angolan autotone

    As an angolan I just say enough Mr José Eduardo dos Santos must leave the power.

    April 29, 2014 at 6:04 pm | Reply

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