The Cold War Legacy in Zaire
In These Times magazine, May 1997
In May, 1960, in the newly independent
Belgian Congo-now known as Zaire-Patrice Lumumba and his party
won a plurality in elections for the nation's new parliament.
Lumumba was not only a charismatic leader but also a leftist.
When Katanga province seceded with Belgium's backing, Lumumba
naturally turned to the Soviet Union, the enemy of his country's
former colonial masters, for assistance. It was a fatal error,
one that provided President Dwight Eisenhower with an excuse to
move against him. A month later, carrying out Eisenhower's instructions,
the CIA successfully pulled off a coup. Four months after he was
elected, Lumumba found himself out of office.
But he was still alive-and still a national
hero, now threatening to form a new government. How to prevent
this? For the CIA, the answer was simple: Kill him. The agency
made elaborate plans to do so, but Katanga leader Moishe Tshombe
conveniently solved the problem for them. His troops captured
Lumumba and beat him to death.
Enter Joseph Mobutu, now known as Mobutu
Sese Seko. The CIA recruited him to help displace and then replace
Lumumba. His was a one-man regime from the beginning because the
United States and the former European colonial powers did not
trust the people of Zaire to elect a leader who would let the
West control their country's resources. At a time when national
liberation movements were sweeping the Third World, true democracy
would likely have resulted in socialists of one kind or another
taking control in many places. That would have been bad for business.
The Cold War presented a rationale for
preventing such an outcome. Thus, in the '60s and '70s, dictatorships
became the norm in areas controlled by the West. Such states were
considered more manageable, and the cost of protecting corporate
interests was relatively low-for all except the people living
in those countries. The U.S. government could downplay the brutality
visited on the natives or, if publicized, explain it away as necessary
to prevent the greater evil of Soviet footholds in the contested
areas of a bipolar world.
On the other side of the great Cold War
divide, dictatorships were also the rule. The Communists believed
in a one-party state. In their areas of control or influence,
they some times allowed other token parties to exist, notably
in Europe, where multi-party systems had been well-established
before World War II. But in the Third World, where few of the
newly emerging countries had experience with parliamentary democracy,
and where political parties were weak and the authoritarian traditions
of colonialism strong, one-man rule backed by military force was
a natural outcome of Soviet policy.
These policies on both sides took an enormous
toll both in human suffering and in the disruption-and corruption-of
the process of independence and development. In Zaire and the
new states surrounding it, this was especially true. While Mobutu
and the Western corporations he served made billions, his country
sank deeper and deeper into misery. And beyond Zaire's borders,
at the CIA's urging, Mobutu helped prevent other peoples from
going freely about the business of nation-building.
In Angola, for example, which became independent
after the leaders of Portugal's 1974 socialist revolution decided
to abandon their African colony, Mobutu helped the United States
prevent the left-wing MPLA from consolidating its new government.
Acting as a conduit for the CIA, Mobutu supplied arms both to
his brother-in-law Holden Roberto, who led a group called the
FNLA, and to strongman Jonas Savimbi's UNITA. The FNLA didn't
last long, but Savimbi, who got aid from China and South Africa
as well as the United States, managed to keep that nation in turmoil-
and in poverty-up to the present. Only with Mobutu's imminent
demise has Angola been able to form a coalition government
Now, after the fall of the leader that
the CIA created and kept in power with massive amounts of military
aid, just about everyone in the media acknowledges that Mobutu
was our man. But instead of pointing out the United States' central
role in Zaire's stunted development, the media have bombarded
us with putdowns, usually in the form of laments, of the failure
of the country to modernize peacefully.
The Cold War is over. But as the firestorms
in Zaire and Angola make clear, the Third World is still bearing
the bitter fruits of neo-colonial intervention.