How the Portuguese govt saw the May 27 1977 Luanda insurrection

Text of cable from US Ambassador in Lisbon, Frank Carlucci, to Washington DC, June 9 1977

Cable from US Ambassador to Portugal, Frank Carlucci, to the Secretary of State, Washington DC, United States of America, Wednesday, June 9 1977





The May 27 Luanda insurrection was the greatest threat to the RPA since independence, according to the Portuguese foreign ministry. Its impact could lead to severe difficulties for the Neto regime or even a Cuban pull-out. All depends, however, on the extent of Nito Alves's influence and popularity.

Cuban forces were probably deeply involved in putting down the coup effort. Events will impact, in a manner as yet unknown, on growing realization even prior to coup effort among RPA officials that the military, agricultural, and industrial situations are growing worse and that the Cubans, contrary to earlier expectations, do not have the capability to pull the RPA through.




Nito Alves was at the heart of the crisis. His confrontation with Neto was foreseen by those who observed his rising power and increasing ideological differences with the president. The basis of Alves's popularity was his militant black racism, his belief that the racial impurity of the government (i.e., its high number of whites and mulattos) corrupted governmental efficiency and impeded military and economic recovery. Alves propagated this message demogogically.

By late may, his charisma, his past prestige as a warrior, and his effective manipulation of his interior ministry had won him a large and growing following among slum dwellers, FAPLA, and the bureaucracy.


Alves is particularly popular with the 500,000 residents of the peripheral slum belt (muceques) surrounding Luanda.

He won a following as a result of his organization of "popular power" units, many armed. His racist ideas took root with the uneducated and susceptible poor eager to find a scapegoat for their falling standard of living. Some, a growing number, came to see the mainly white and mulatto Cubans as their racial oppressors: in one racially inspired incident this year a number of Cuban soldiers fraternizing with black women were murdered.

Harsh Cuban vengeance further inflamed the situation. Some RPA government officials saw Alves as a propagator of anti-Cuban, as well as racist, ideas.


Neto saw the Alves threat and moved to block it. First, Alves was denied a coveted promotion to commander. Later he lost the ministry and was removed from the central committee of MPLA. Finally, he was thrown into Sao Paulo prison along with confederate Jose van Dunen.


The imprisonment of Alves and Van Dunen detonated the May 27 insurrection. Details are still sketchy, but it seemed to have followed the classic coup d'etat pattern: seizure of key points and assassination of governmental leaders. FAPLA political commissar Bakalof (Eduardo Evarista) and FAPLA vice chief of staff Monstro Imortal (Jacob Caetano) probably led coup effort.

Entire FAPLA units, possibly up to company size, sided with the insurgents. Principal objectives were:

(a) Luanda radio -- the station's remote location outside Luanda enabled the pro-Alves forces to approach unobserved. After capture, repeated broadcasts were issued calling for popular support for the insurrection. Sympathizers were urged to take their weapons and head for the rebel objectives, in particular the presidential palace.

(b) Sao Paulo prison -- its location on the outskirts of Luanda also aided the insurgents in maintaining the element of surprise. There was little resistance. Alves and Van Dunen were liberated and all other prisoners given confidential the chance to escape.

All UNITA and FNLA prisoners fled. Portuguese, mercenaries, and "active revolt" prisoners stayed in their cells. High DISA official Helder Neto, who was working in the prison, was shot.

(c) Presidential palace -- located in center city and heavily defended. The guard was not caught napping. It was almost overwhelmed, however, by the weight of Alves forces, which included "hundreds" of armed, pro-Alves civilians who had responded to radio Luanda's call to rebellion. The issue was in doubt until the arrival of loyalist armored cars which killed or wounded hundreds of rebels.


There are few details on the actual course of the fighting. The extent of Cuban involvement is also shadowy. However it is certain that the Cubans were responsible for the recapture of radio Luanda; Cuban voices were overheard on the live microphones as they retook the station. Though there is no proof, there is "an extremely high probability" that Cubans commanded and drove the armored cars that appeared at the presidential palace. Casualties resulting from the insurrection could number "over a thousand."


Hundreds of individuals alleged to have participated in the coup have been arrested. FAPLA units (no Cubans) are combing the slums for Alves and his sympathizers. Gunfire is heard frequently. Several Portuguese radicals, mainly ex-MRPP, were implicated and arrested. Punishment for all is likely to be severe.


It is too early to tell whether the coup strengthened or weakened the Neto government. The extent of Alves's influence in the government, provinces, military, and among the people is not yet known. The insurrection's impact on Cuban thinking is not known. Neto could have been strengthened or weakened as follows:

(a) strengthened: it is conceivable that as a result of extensive purges, and a population whose sympathy for Alves was shallow to begin with or not translated into action, Neto will emerge with a strengthened hand. Thus the coup attempt will be little more than a quickly forgotten incident.

(b) weakened: Neto's MPLA government could have been irreparably damaged given the combination of some factors: -- extensive residual sympathy for Alves, untouched by purges;

-- Alves, in the hills, leading a significant opposition movement;

-- loss of governmental effectiveness and popular confidence; and

-- growing popular resentment against Cuban intervention, particularly among slum dwellers, leading to armed attacks against Cuban soldiers and subsequent Cuban loss of nerve and withdrawal.


To the GOP [Government of Portugal], the May 27 insurrection proved that it is the Cubans that are holding the RPA together. This might be evident to RPA as well, but prior to May 27 it was also becoming evident to RPA the current level of support by Cubans and others was not sufficient. Some examples:

(a) Military: prior to the coup, the Neto government was awakening to the gloomy military situation. Its previous expectation, already shattered, was that the Cubans would readily clean up UNITA, FNLA, and FLEC. It became evident that the Cubans could not handle it. And the situation would get worse: the RPA expected Rhodesian and South African support for FNAL and UNITA to pick up. The "can't win" mentality was growing.

(b) Agricultural: agriculture was in shambles. Coffee had not been harvested; livestock production was almost nil. The large percentage of all food was imported. Rpa leaders were aware of the small prospect for improvement in this sector.

(c) Industry: another disillusion for Neto government was awareness that Cuban technicians would not be sufficient to get industry on track. A Cuban technician recently confided to a Portuguese diplomat in Lobito that Portuguese technicians will be required to bring sugar production to an adequate level.

(d) Cabinda: the RPA was increasingly worried by the new moderation of the Congo-Brazzaville (c-b) government and its possible designs on Cabinda. The RPA was hoping to rebuild its ties to c-b by diplomatic means.



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