There are either a hundred Angolans floating through these four or five adjoining hotel rooms, or there's no one at all, just the weatherman on the television, talking about the terrible cold in Washington. That's the feeling.
Maybe it's the way these guys move, which is very economically, as if they're waiting to see if something happens; or as if some disaster has hit and they're doing their best to carry on; or as if they're either very suspicious or very confident of something.
"This weathah is very hahd for Ahfrican man," says one of them, an aide who has been with Jonas Savimbi for the last 12 days of his visit to America. Savimbi is the leader of an insurgent Angolan force called UNITA, for National Union for Total Independence of Angola. UNITA is fighting the current Marxist government of Angola.
If the world were as simple as politicians say it is, UNITA would be getting massive American support, or at least understanding. But that's why Savimbi is here, of course, having smuggled himself out of the bush in southern Angola to this row of rooms in Washington.
"There are eight of us with Dr. Savimbi," says another aide, settling the question of just how many UNITAns are here. This is Savimbi's second trip to America. In 1979, no government official would see him, and he went away able to boast only that "President Carter and Mr. Brzezinski gave me the visa, didn't they?"
This visit has been better. The aides' room -- Savimbi is down the hall -- is littered with the detritus of press attention -- tape cassette packages, film cans, newspaper clippings pointing out that a State Department spokesman sees Savimbi and UNITA as a "legitimate political force in Angola which must be taken into account. Taking the opportunity of Mr. Savimbi's private visit to exchange views is consistent with this policy."
He has met with Secretary of State Alexander Haig, this time. He has met with senators, representatives, and State Department officials. Now, down the hall, he is seeing the press, who seem to be waiting in separate rooms, doctor's-office style, to judge from the trench coats lying on chairs in this room.
Fifteen years he's been leading UNITA, fighting first the Portuguese, and now the MPLA (Popular Liberation Movement of Angola) who are supported by thousands of Cuban troops and Soviet advisers. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of Lausanne. He got his guerrilla warfare training in China. Nevertheless, he is fighting the Cubans and the Russians, and the right wing in this country loves him. (He is a guest of a group called Freedom House.) They love him despite the fact that Savimbi says he is not a capitalist -- "I have no capital. No one in Angola has any capital. So I am not a capitalist." And he finds himself on the other side of the fence from Gulf Oil, one of whose subsidiary presidents testified against repeal of the Clark Amendment, which forbids American aid to the fight against the Marxists.
Some conservatives feel that Gulf Oil, though known to be a capitalist organization, is being opportunistic, since it pumps a lot of oil out of Angola.
With credentials like this, why isn't Savimbi a cult hero for all sides? Why aren't American college boys trying to join his fight the way they sought out Castro when he was in the Sierra Maestre? Why does he have to move through this murky atmosphere of exile?
It is all very complicated. It gets worse when you add in Namibia, a neighbor of Angola, specifically of Savimbi's chunk of Angola -- he claims to hold about half the country, but the MPLA says this is nonsense and dismisses him as a mere nuisance. Anyhow, Namibia: The MPLA says it needs the Cubans to defend against the South Africans, who've been attacking Namibia's SWAPO guerrillas, who sometimes take refuge in Angola. Savimbi denies he's opposed to SWAPO, despite earlier reports to the contrary. Being opposed to SWAPO would put him on the same side as South Africa, which is where many of his opponents, here and abroad, say he is. And he says he isn't.
An aide enters the room, lifts a hand, and turns it in a gesture that conveys that Dr. Savimbi is waiting, the moment has come.
In the living room at the end of the hall, Savimbi is already standing, and his handshake is very firm indeed.
"Please," he says, pointing to the couch. It is very clear who is in charge here.
He is puzzled by a question about his lack of support in America.
"When I come here, everybody is interested to see me."
In an intensely modest way, he is something to see. He is 47, a vigorous mesomorph with the sort of bulging forehead one associates with the farsighted statuary of liberation. He achieves total Third World legitimacy with his clothes. Unlike his aides, he does not wear coat and tie. Instead, it's a gray suit with pleated patch pockets on the jacket to give a hint of the military, the struggle. A collarless shirt evokes the proletariat. The black zippered boots are modernity. The fat multi-dial watch is science. The steel link bracelet is industry. The ring bearing a miniature African mask is nationalism and roots. And the thin black cane he always carries in public is authority.
Why, he is asked, has he so far lacked the charisma of a Kenyatta? A Lumumba? A Mugabe?
"Since 1966, when we founded UNITA, we preferred to fight from within. Mugabe was exiled in Mozambique. Neto the deceased leader of the MPLA never entered Angola until the Portuguese left -- he was in Brazzaville, he was in Dar es Salaam. Until independence day, Holden Roberto another former Angolan guerrilla leader was never there. We had to live with our own people to inspire them. If we had stayed abroad, we could not do that."
Staying abroad seems to be the traditional method, however. Think of Khomeini in Paris, Ngo Dinh Diem in New York, Lenin in Switzerland. The leader, it seems, is only supposed to return when the revolution is all but won.
"I said, how can I leave them? People saw me as a young man. They knew me. They saw me go to the university. They have expectations. I stay with them in the bush. After we won over the Portuguese, I saw their feelings frustrated by the Cubans and I knew I had to do something. I cannot stay in a capital and go to parties. I could not stay here another week."
But all these years with little outside support . . .
"We have support. We are supported by Morocco -- we get military training in Morocco. There's Senegal, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Togo . . . We got support from France until Mitterrand came in."
It isn't the pique of his contradictions that is startling, it's the patience with which he expresses them. He is gracefully spoken and confident. He implies that a common interest is being shared. He is easily, albeit modestly, amused by these questions about the peculiar niche he's occupied since the Cubans came into Angola on the side of the MPLA. After all, he claims to be able to move at will through the countryside, with more than 1,600 MPLA dead to prove it.
"After six years, the MPLA has not fielded an army," he says. "There is no morale on the MPLA side. The Cubans are not as good soldiers as the Portuguese, but they have much more equipment -- the helicopters, the Russian trucks . . . UNITA is largely armed with captured Russian equipment. Every time the South Africans have raided Namibia, the Cubans have managed to be a little bit north."
So he doesn't worry that he has been opposed by some black American leaders for his relationship with South Africa. He doesn't mind being opposed by doctrinaire leftists, or ignored by middle of the roaders, or blocked by the Clark amendment, which failed to be repealed in the House of Representatives on Thursday, despite administration backing. The amendment, named for former senator Dick Clark (D-Iowa), prohibits American aid to rebel forces in Angola.
"During the first eight years I was in the bush, they used to call us pro-China, pro-Communist, everything. If you are climbing a mountain, you don't look down," he says. He scales a massive hand upward through the air. "If you look down, all you see is people who can't climb, themselves, and they are calling you to come down."
But his image! Isn't it co-opted by left-wing claims on progress and the future? Doesn't he understand the great blizzard of information and imagery that Westerners bury themselves in daily?
"Don't speak about images. I have been to the Soviet Union, I have been to China. There is no progress there. There is no progress in Angola."
Will there be progress when he wins?
"Oh yes, great progress."
Western leftists, he says, are fond of attacking the bourgeoisie, "then they go home to their televisions."
It is conjectured that there is no television in the bush.
"There is no television in Angola."
He says that "twice a year we get mail from the outside. When the newspapers insult me, I don't care."
Twice a year.
For 15 years Savimbi has been living, he says, in grass huts. He moves every two or three weeks. He has a wife and four children. He is totally confident he will win, that the people want him. He never gets downhearted, "Never. Not once. In 1976, when President Ford sent somebody to talk to me and say I would get no more aid, I said fine, I'm going back to the bush."
All he needs, he says, is for the South Africans to leave Namibia. "Then the Cubans will have no pretext for being there. If they leave, the MPLA will have to negotiate with me."
Simple. Complicated. There continues to be the problem of his associations with the South Africans.
"We get no equipment and no training from them," he says, probably for the 20th time this day. "Since 1978 we have had an open border. We trade with them. We have a market. We sell them diamonds and ivory."
Other leaders in the area trade with South Africa: Mugabe, Machel, Kaunda. They are not censured the way Savimbi is.
His eyes flash with irony or epiphany, or astonishment that the point isn't obvious. "They are in power! When you are in power you are right! When we come in power no one will speak of our relations with South Africa!"