In many Third World states, the president was the paramount leader, and in this regard Angola was no exception. Its president, José Eduardo dos Santos, combined strong party loyalty with political pragmatism. This loyalty had political and personal bases. Dos Santos owed much of his success to the MPLA, which he had joined in 1962 at the age of nineteen. The party sponsored his study at Baku University in the Soviet Union from 1963 to 1970. In 1974 MPLA leader Neto appointed dos Santos to the Central Committee, which elected him to its elite Political Bureau; this group elected him to succeed Neto, who died in 1979. Dos Santos traveled to the Soviet Union a few weeks later to confirm his revolutionary agenda as president.
Dos Santos's loyalty to Marxism-Leninism was founded in his student years in the Soviet Union, where he also married a Soviet citizen (who later returned to her homeland). There, he developed his belief in the vanguard party as the best strategy for mobilizing Angola's largely rural population. At the same time, however, he professed belief in a mixed economy, some degree of decentralization, an expanded private sector, and Western investment. Like many African leaders, he did not equate political eclecticism with internal contradiction, nor did he view Angola's political posture as an invitation to Soviet domination.
Dos Santos did not embrace Marxism for its utopian appeal; his view of Angolan society after the envisioned socialist transformation did not lack internal conflict. Rather, he viewed Marxist-Leninist organizational tenets as the most practical basis for mobilizing a society in which the majority lacked economic and educational opportunities. A small vanguard leadership, with proper motivation and training, could guide the population through the early stages of national development, in his view, and this approach could improve the lives of more people than capitalist investment and profit making by a small minority. During the 1980s, because trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe failed to develop and because Western technical expertise appeared vital to Angola's development, dos Santos favored improved political relations with the West as a step toward peace and greater prosperity. Although he had scorned his predecessor's shift in the same direction in the late 1970s, dos Santos denied that his move signaled a weakening commitment to Marxism.
Despite his strong party loyalty, in the late 1980s dos Santos was known as a political pragmatist. He sometimes spoke out against the MPLA-PT's most extreme ideologues and took steps to limit their influence. He openly criticized the results of the rectification campaign of the late 1970s, which, in his view, had removed too many loyal members from the party's rolls. He also recognized that the campaign had alienated much of the nation's peasant majority, that they remained indifferent toward party programs in the late 1980s, and that they had not benefited from many MPLA-PT policies.
Political pragmatism was not to be confused with a liberal style of governing. In response to security crises and public criticism, dos Santos ordered arrests, detentions without trial, and occasional executions. He concentrated power in his office and narrowed his circle of close advisers. He enlarged the executive branch of government by appointing new ministers of state to coordinate executive branch activity and convinced the MPLA-PT Central Committee to entrust him with emergency powers. Dos Santos also persuaded party leaders to empower him to appoint regional military councils that had sweeping authority over civilian and military affairs in unstable regions of the country and that were answerable only to the president.
Dos Santos further consolidated his hold on executive authority in April 1984 by establishing the Defense and Security Council. In 1985 he enlarged the party Central Committee from sixty to ninety members and alternates, thus diluting the strength of its staunch ideological faction.
Undermining potential opponents was not dos Santos's only motivation for consolidating power within the executive branch of government. He was also impatient with bureaucratic "red tape," even when justified in the name of party discipline. Accordingly, the primary qualification for his trusted advisers was a balance of competence, efficiency, and loyalty. Rhetorical skills, which he generally lacked, were not given particular priority; ideological purity was even less important. His advice for economic recovery was summed up as "produce, repair, and rehabilitate." The direct, relatively nonideological governing style exemplified by this approach earned dos Santos substantial respect and a few strong critics.
Economic and security crises worsened during the first nine years of dos Santos's presidency, draining resources that might have been used to improve living standards and education. The president rejected advice from party ideologues, whose primary aim was to develop a sophisticated Marxist-Leninist party apparatus. Rather than emphasize centralized control and party discipline, dos Santos embraced a plan to decentralize economic decision making in 1988. He then appointed Minister of Planning Lopo do Nascimento to serve as commissioner of Huíla Province in order to implement this plan in a crucial region of the country.
The 1985 Second Party Congress assented to the president's growing power by approving several of his choices for top government office as party officials. Among these was Roberto de Almeida, a member of the Defense and Security Council in his capacity as the MPLA-PT secretary for ideology, information, and culture and one of dos Santos' close advisers. Party leaders elected Almeida, a mestiço, to both the MPLA-PT Central Committee and the Political Bureau.
Demoted from the top ranks of the party were the leading ideologue, Lúcio Lára, and veteran mestiço leaders Paulo Jorge and Henrique Carreira (nom de guerre Iko). The split between ideologues and political moderates did not render the party immobile, in part because of dos Santos's skill at using Angola's internal and external threats to unite MPLA-PT factions. The everpresent UNITA insurgency provided a constant reminder of the frailty of the nation's security.
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