Lúcio Lara: The First and Last Stalwart of the MPLA

When I was told my dear friend Lúcio Lara passed away my immediate response was to have a catharsis – to recall with Lúcio a few highlights from our past. I finished in less than half an hour (the fastest I think that I have ever written anything) and posted it on Facebook. Within minutes of posting it I felt frustrated that there are so many things that I didn’t include. A few days latter I was contacted by Maka Angola [or Rafael Marques…you choose]. They asked if I had more to say about Lúcio. What follows is a result of that conversation:


One person whom I was anxious to meet after Angolan independence, on November 11, 1975, was Lúcio Lara who was the MPLA and President Neto’s perennial number two for decades.  He was always described as the most radical “Marxist,” if not “Communist,” in the MPLA government.  American “intelligence” always listed him as the most dangerous person in Angola. I had to meet this “dangerous” person and, fortunately, I had the opportunity a couple of years after Angolan independence.  Our first meeting was in his home which was more like a library than a home – filled with books (including mine) in many languages. He began our conversation (like President Neto) by thanking me for stopping the CIA intervention in Angola.  I responded by noting that many Americans (including in the CIA, State Department, and even the White House opposed the American intervention in Angola) to which he responded “yes, I am aware of that, but you stopped it.” This was the first of what seems like a hundred conversations that I had with Lúcio in his home/library.

Lúcio opened my eyes to so many realities that I felt I was a student at the foot of a famous professor.  I had been warned about him not only by Americans but by a number of people on the Central Committee of his own party (that he headed)!  I discovered that the people in the leadership, thanks to decades of clandestinity, did not really know each other. One of the moments in this initial conversation that shocked me was when he said that “I can never forgive the Soviets for many things including trying to force us into a coalition government before independence and, especially, for their role in the coup attempt on May 27 1977.”  I thought to myself how was it possible for him to feel so strongly about the Soviets when he was considered by so many – including a number in his own party – to be the “Soviet’s man in Angola.”  Soon after our first encounter he invited me to dinner at his home and then to attend a lecture on Chokwe art.  The dinner conversation was so animated that by time we left we were already late for the lecture.  I asked him on the way if he were concerned about arriving late for this public lecture with an American to which he responded “it depends on who is the American.”  When we arrived the lecture stopped, the lights came on, and hundreds of people in the audience stood up and clapped.  I knew that the applause was not for me as we were seated in two empty chairs in the front row.

One night at his home after dinner I asked him about the new task he had been given to resuscitate Angolan coffee production.  Angola had been the third leading coffee producer in the world during colonial times and the main provider of American instant coffee. The anti-colonial war and the internal wars devastated coffee production to almost zero.  I asked him about his plan to breathe new life into coffee production and he responded by highlighting economic incentives for the coffee growers.  I commented that “in other parts of the world this is called capitalism” to which he responded “I don’t care what they call it, this is what will work and,” he added, “our bible has failed us.”  Lúcio was clearly a pragmatist and nationalist who wanted to devote himself to developing his country and people but few, inside and outside of Angola, ever understood this.

In an interview with The New York Times (8 February 1981), which the reporter (Anthony Lewis) characterized as “remarkable” he was asked if he saw a contradiction between a Marxist regime working with Gulf oil and other capitalists to which he responded that Gulf respects the agreements it has with the Government therefore it is “ok – no problem.”  He then went on to say that “we make big plans and we don’t know enough to be realistic about our actual problems.  For example, we made some plans with the Bulgarians and Russians to grow cotton, and we bought their machines.  But the machines turned out not to work here; they’re not suitable for Angola.  Again, I saw a giant machine for pineapple cultivation.  It had never been used.  You see that kind of thing everywhere.  We need to do things our own way.”

Part of the misperception of Lúcio resulted from the language used in the anti-colonial struggle.  Any student studying the colonial situation in the 1950s with a modicum of empathy and a desire to understand how the world appeared to operate with respect to the persistence of colonialism had to conclude that there was some kind conspiracy or cabal among the capitalist nations.  It wasn’t just Lúcio who arrived at this conclusion but others like Leopold Senghor and Felix Houphouet- Boigny (both later labeled as “conservatives”).  Most used the language of Marxism – not because they wanted to install Soviet-style regimes in their countries but because it was a convenient tool to describe the reality of the world as it was – not as they preferred it.  If they had been studying three decades later they would probably called it “Realism.”  Being anti-American in this period didn’t make you a treacherous Marxist — it made you a realistic analyst of the world!

The shocking lack of appreciation of nationalism afflicted all of the European powers and the US.  Salazar proclaimed on numerous occasions that nationalism did not exist in Angola “it was invented by the Americans” he said.  Salazar was not alone he had good company with the French in Algeria, the Belgians in the Congo, the Americans in Vietnam, and later the Soviets in Afghanistan.  Robert McNamara (the architect of the American policy in Vietnam) wrote a fascinating (mea culpa) book criticizing himself (and many others) for not understanding nationalism and especially the fact that Ho Chi Min was never a puppet of the Chinese or Soviets but a true patriotic nationalist.  Some day, others will arrive at the same understanding and reach the same conclusion about Lúcio Lara.

Lúcio spent much of his time during the struggle in the bush or attending meetings in distant capitals — not places frequented by the overwhelming majority of people who joined the MPLA after 1974.  Most of the money he spent to attend those meetings was furnished by his father in law, Hermann Pfluger, not by Moscow.  Moreover, he is a very private person whom you won’t find at night in restaurants and bars socializing.  The result is that only a small circle of family and friends really “knew” (or know) him.  This left a void open to be filled by anybody.

The rumour mill

Gerald Bender (left) with Lúcio Lara at his 76th birthday in Luanda, in 2005.

There are rumors in all societies but they have a special weight and importance where there is no free and competitive media. Personally I hear about five plausible rumors a day in Luanda and the challenge for all observers or authors is to decide which, if any, of the rumors is true.

At the time of independence and for decades after there was only one newspaper – the official newspaper of the party.  One of the editors of the Jornal de Angola  once asked me “how can I put out a respectable newspaper when I have no real journalists?” When Angolans were finally sent abroad to train most went to Eastern Europe, hardly famous for their open and competitive journalism.  I vividly recall being present many times when Lúcio gave interviews to Angolan journalists and reporters at the end of which I wanted to cry.  His answers were so profound and full of nuance but the reporters never really grasped that and when they repeated what they understood his answers to mean it was clear that most of what he said went over their heads – the answers were wasted.  Lost in all of this was the projection of Lúcio as a complex, sophisticated, nuanced, patriot and it was replaced instead by false rumors.

Finally, one subject I could never get him to discuss was his removal from the Central Committee in 1985. It has also been difficult to get any of the members of the MPLA politburo to discuss it. While Lúcio spent decades moving around the world (each of his children was born in a different country) trying to organize and attract members for the new MPLA party, José Eduardo dos Santos (JES) was still studying at the Liceu Salvador Correira. Almost always at his side during those early years was Agostino Neto.  Following Neto’s death Lúcio turned down the offer to be Angola’s second President and instead led the delegation to offer the position to Dos Santos.  What is puzzling is why, six years later, did JES organize Lúcio’s ouster from the Politburo?  The President has never provided an explanation for Lúcio’s removal.  As I noted above, when there is an absence of concrete facts in Angola one gets rumors.

As I noted above, when there is an absence of concrete facts in Angola one gets rumors.  Two commonly held rumors have been: 1) JES felt very insecure around such a great man; 2) the Soviets – who did not trust Lúcio — urged Dos Santos to remove him.  He was not only removed from the Politburo  but was committed to a kind of internal exile for the next three decades. A number of world leaders  (e.g. Raul Castro and Aristides Pereira) visited Lúcio after 1985, but Dos Santos was not among them nor did he say even one word at his funeral, on March 2, giving strong credence to the first rumor above.