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March 2011

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This is the second of two “Letters” from Praia, capital of Cape Verde.  The author's initial impressions are made more nuanced and deepened by an additional year of experience with the former Portuguese colony off the west coast of Africa.–Ed.


 Letter from Praia, 1978

No single term comes to mind to describe 1979 in Cape Verde; it was a year of drift in some respects with the continuation of existing trends and the occurrence of a number of contradictory events.

imageThe eleven-year drought is, of course, the dominant consideration, affecting not only Government policies but seriously draining both public and official morale.    The international community continues to be generous and both emergency food assistance and development aid ran at a high level throughout the year.   Whether or not development assistance, largely devoted to agriculture, is in fact a meaningful development strategy in Cape Verde remains an open argument but the GOCV, loath like any less developed country to refuse aid, persists in pursuing it.  Unfortunately, few of the development projects have yet produced much in the way of visible progress, and there are growing signs of impatience, both within the leadership elite and the general public, with the Government's development record.

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Courtesy of Lonely Planet.org

On the political side, the Government of Cape Verde increasingly shows signs of institutional insecurity.  Both government bureaucratic procedures and security controls continue to expand. The undercurrent of competition between Prime Minister Pedro Pires and Minister of Defense Silvino da Luz continues, with Pires having further consolidated his position as the President's man, and da Luz having had a bad year in a number of ways. The Soviet Union continued an intensified effort to expand its influence during 1979, with only mixed results.  Its military assistance program to the new Cape Verde Armed Forces moved smoothly ahead, but all efforts to build on that program met with sharp rebuffs.   Indeed, negative reaction among the Cape Verdean political elite contributed much to Silvino da Luz's problems during the year.

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Pedro Pires
Cape Verde relations with Senegal blossomed, under the stimulus of a deepening personal relationship between the two respective Presidents. Meanwhile the formal commitment to unification between Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau continues to be honored largely in the breach but certainly the special relationship between them remains alive.

The year, therefore, was a mixed one: the important long-term trend internationally was the growing intimacy with Senegal, while internally the persistent rivalry between Pedro Pires and Silvino da Luz, intermingled with a growing sense of insecurity and tension and combined with vague feelings of impatience with the lack of progress in a now independent country, dominates the scene.

No ready or simple term comes to mind to characterize the year- 1979 in Cape Verde.   A number of trends continued and a number of events - some of them quite dramatic — occurred, but contradictions abounded and the year is without a specific direction. In other words, life went on in Cape Verde without any dramatic turning point.

The general population continued to adjust itself to the rule of the PAIGC, although without any marked enthusiasm. The leadership continues to struggle with the problems of development, bureaucracy and government, finding them difficult and probably insoluble in the short run. Ideologically, the Party and the Government continue to modify their revolutionary ideology while pursuing efforts to obtain greater control over, and instill greater discipline in, the country. Most importantly, the rains failed again and the drought continued for another year. Continued drought, now into its eleventh year, remains the major preoccupation in Cape Verde. 1979 was especially disappointing as the rains came early and in quantity and the corn crop promised to the best in years, almost a return to "normal." Then, in October, the rains failed to return and the corn withered and died. Net corn production for the year was zero, although some minor crops such as beans turned out fairly well.

The continued drought is taking an increasing toll on Cape Verde’s morale. Fatigue appears to afflict the whole society and glimpses of frustration appear in the attitude of the most senior Government officials.  What to do? Numerous development projects designed to lessen Cape Verde’s dependence on fickle rain are underway — from digging wells for underground water through reforestation to water desalination — but all of these will take time and a heavy commitment. Cape Verde’s goal is to duplicate somehow the Las Palmas success, by a combination of techniques to restructure the microclimate of the islands, build a water reservoir system, and utilize underground and mountain caverns, and thereby produce relative stability in water supply and therefore crop production.

These various projects are being financed and conducted by foreign donors, the United States, Holland, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, the United Nations Development Fund, plus a few others on smaller projects. Like most governments of underdeveloped countries, the Government of Cape Verde is loath to refuse any offers of assistance and is therefore by virtue of both conviction and opportunity launched into this ambitious development scheme. Doubts persist, however, about this development, among Government officials and foreign experts.  Can in fact these methods bring about a meaningful result and if so, when?  

The visitor to the Island of Fogo is impressed by the West German sponsored show farm, with its rows of vegetables and fruit flourishing in the middle of desert-like land. The project is, however, dependent on a sophisticated and expensive dam and irrigation system, completely subsidized by the Germans. It is doubtful whether any crops produced could actually cover the costs involved, much of which requires hard currency.  Due to inadequate planning and transportation, much of the produce is beyond the means of the local population. Similar questions are asked about the other projects. With money, almost anything can be done, but is it worthwhile or are we, with the best of intentions, merely playing development games for our own satisfaction, while preparing further disillusionment for Cape Verdeans when the foreign subsidies cease and the project proves not viable? Other doubts exist. Some question whether the agricultural production could ever prove truly significant given the amount of arable land in these small islands, available water not withstanding. These critics argue that it is a fundamental error to orient Cape Verde development towards agriculture, which can never feed and provide sufficient income for the country.

These doubts are easy to voice, but in fact are not based on any more sober analysis than the most optimistic agricultural plans.   In any case, the GOCV is committed to agriculture — the foreign donors are available and the projects are moving ahead.   Certainly the USAID financed project of rural works construction of small dams and catchments in the mountainous center of Santiago has already proved of value as the increase in bean and other food crop production in 1979 — despite the failure of the rains — proved. Perhaps the argument about this aspect of Cape Verde’s development is a false one, between those who believe agriculture must do everything and those who doubt it can do anything.  After all, in a country the size of Cape Verde even the assured production of several thousand tons of green beans, a dietary staple, is of importance both to the economy and the well being of the population.

1979 was also a year of' heavy inflation, perhaps thirty percent, with no relief in sight.  Though the GOCV granted a 25-33% salary increase to government workers (including those on public works projects), public grumbling over the inflation rate continued, with the GOCV virtually power-less to control this imported inflation.

Another development during the past year was the slow but constant growth in bureaucracy and in bureaucratic procedures. The necessity of presenting properly completed, stamped and approved official forms for any activity is on the rise in the country. The Government has even reinstituted the old colonial passport check system and registration at hotels.   While the Government likes to call itself a socialist regime (small  "s", and definitely not Marxist-Leninist) this increase in bureaucratic machinery/procedures probably is motivated more by traditional Cape Verdean (read provincial Portuguese) mores than by any new ideology or approach to Government administration. Cape Verde society and culture retains a strong sense of 19th century formality and this is reflected in the operational style of the independent Cape Verde Government, just as it was in the colonial Portuguese regime.

This increase in bureaucracy nevertheless probably also reflects a basic insecurity in the Government. As we have discussed elsewhere, the ruling party  (PAIGC) assumed control of Cape Verde following the Portuguese Revolution in 1975 under very special conditions.  The Portuguese military officers who assumed control in Cape Verde immediately after the revolution were, like their colleagues in Portugal, Angola and Mozambique, fervently radical. They consciously abetted the assumption of authority by the comparatively small band of PAIGC leaders (possibly less than 100) who flew over from Guinea-Bissau accompanied by slightly more than 1,000 Guinea-Bissau soldiers of the PAIGC. Many observers, and not only those opposed to independence for Cape Verde, seriously doubted whether the PAIGC could have won an election or independence from Portugal. In any case, no such elections were held and the PAIGC established itself in power. That the leadership is aware of its fragile hold on public support is clear, although they would perish before admitting it, and this understanding is a partial explanation for the Government's persistent sense of unease and insecurity, and overreaction to transient civil unrest.

This concern of Government leaders is also at least partially responsible for the Government's ambiguous attitude towards the expatriate Cape Verde communities; particularly the largest located in the United States.  Essentially the Government does not trust these communities and thereby alternates attempts to woo with flashes of mistrust.

The Soviet Union continued its full-court press in Cape Verde during 1979, actively implementing and expanding its military assistance program initiated in 1977.   All indications are that the Soviet effort, which began well, has begun to run into obstacles and is being limited to equipment supplies to the army and navy, training and the provision of some military advisors. The Soviet desire to provide airplanes and possibly aircrews has been turned down. A subsequent offer to provide air surveillance for Cape Verde’s national waters was deflected and the most recent proposal, made last December to build an Aeroflot aircrew hotel at the international airport on Sal Island, was also rejected. There are reliable reports that a Soviet Admiral showed up unannounced last August and made a strong pitch for some form of basing rights; the Admiral was sent packing.

The Soviet effort appears to have run into natural resistance — reinforced, it must be admitted, by discreet action by Senegal and a number of Western Countries  (the United States included).  Certainly one of the most interesting developments of the year was the opening of a large Senegalese Embassy, staffed by seven diplomatic officers and headed by an active, political Ambassador close to President Senghor. This was followed by a neat finesse, whereby the Senegalese and the French offered to watch over Cape Verde's territorial waters by extending the  French Air Force patrols out of Dakar. Whoever thought up this idea, it neatly precluded any further pressure by the Soviets to provide the same service.

These events marked an ever-closer relationship between Praia and Dakar, as President Senghor actively pursued his policy of regional cooperation, with special emphasis on Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau. A growing personal relationship between Senghor and Aristides Pereira is playing no small role in this rapprochement. Senghor seems to be encouraging the GOCV to establish its distance and options from the Soviets, while the Cape Verdeans are encouraging Senghor to accept the MPLA Government in Angola.

Early in 1979 a dramatic political event occurred with the expulsion from government positions and the Party of a number of young "radicals" categorized as "Trotskyites."     (Those expelled were publicly charged with being "Trotskyites'" disloyal to the PAIGC; privately, government sources informed us that the "radicals" had been in close contact and received funds from the Soviets.  We leave it to others to resolve this interesting ideological tangle.)

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President Aristides Pereira

This event, plus the resistance to further Soviet military influence as well as a number of other issues, appears to have somewhat adversely affected the position of Minister of Defense Sylvan da Luz, isolating him even further from his ministerial colleagues.  Meanwhile, Prime Minister Pedro Pries continued to build his political base, both in the Party and in the government bureaucracy.   President Pereira, of course, remains unchallenged, and internal political maneuvering is concentrated on the question of his succession.  With respect to that matter, rumors surfaced again at the end of the year that Pereira was considering retirement within the next few years. His health continues to bother him and he has a fatigued air in the opinion of several observers. Any hint, of course, that President Pereira is ill or may retire in the near future only heightens interest in the smoldering struggle between Pedro Pries and Silvino da Luz. The present Government pursues policies largely in compliance with Pereira's — and Pries' — ideas and wishes but there is equally obviously a noticeable lack of enthusiasm and even opposition among some other members of the Party-Government elite. At the same time, many members of the elite and of the general public share (often from different perspectives) a sense of impatience with the Government's lack of apparent progress in developing the country.

Numerous critical political questions, e.g., Party-Government relations, succession to President Pereira, desirable degree of public discipline, relations between Party faithful and technicians, are therefore now open and burning questions for internal maneuver and debate. There is a growing feeling of insecurity and tension in Cape Verde, which is in marked contrast to the relaxed atmosphere prevailing in its sister country of Guinea-Bissau.

Nevertheless, nuances do strike the outside observer. The expulsion of the radicals plus the continued rise in the importance of non-Party senior officials  (bureaucrats and technocrats) when added to the steady drive of Pedro Pires to build a strong solid political base, and the hesitant but nevertheless significant internal reaction to Soviet pressure, leads one to the conclusion that the CCCV is continuing along the path of relative moderation which has been evident since soon after independence. With respect to foreign affairs as well, the same ambiguous character persists. The use of Sal International Airport as the major transit point for Cuban traffic to and from Angola continues, and may even have been significantly expanded during the latter part of the year.  As many as three flights a day have been counted transiting Sal on route between Cuba and Angola. President Pereira was deeply saddened by the death of his old friend and colleague, Agostinho Neto of Angola. Aware that his influence — and the influence of the PAIGC— with Angola’s ruling party, the MPLA, is on a steady decline, hastened by the death of Neto, Pereira has occupied himself with a last effort to influence developments in Angola. This effort is directed towards insuring the continuation of Neto’s policies by a unified MPLA. Pereira is obviously concerned about the dangers of dissension as various Angolan leaders struggle for power. In short,  Cape Verde’s leadership is deeply concerned about Angola.

As mentioned previously, Pereira and Senegal's President Leopold Senghor have struck it off well personally, and are deliberately building institutional links between their two countries. The amount of travel between Praia and Dakar by officials of the two countries is becoming impressive.  (Cape Verdeans were always traveling to Dakar anyway, if only to visit family, but the traffic is more official and more two-way now.)

Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau continue their public adherence to eventual unity of the two countries. However, outside observers continue to believe that the effort lacks substance and the appointment of two well-known but ineffectual Guinea-Bissau personalities — one a minister known as the town drunk and the other the Aunt Jane of the women’s movement — to head a newly-created unity organization only confirmed that skepticism. Nevertheless, the special relationship, which does exist, based on family, history and war comradeship among the leaders, continues.

Meanwhile, the international community continues to look favorably on Cape Verde, and the Government’s request for food aid following the failure of the corn crop was quickly met. But what is the long-term effect on the morale of a people and a government — particularly a new and ticklishly proud one — of annual reminders that it is on the public dole. Although the country has a balance of payments equilibrium (if not a surplus) due to immigrants’ remittances, it has since independence fed its people largely on international charity. While other countries are in the same boat, such a situation can lead to the demoralization of the society leadership as often seen in those other nations.

Maybe, however, the rains will be better in 1980 and the development projects will show impressive progress and the overseas Cape Verde communities will expand their support to the old country.  Those factors, plus international aid, could produce a better mood in 1980.blue star

The Letter from Praia, 1978 appeared in an earlier issue of American Diplomacy.


imageEd Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.

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