"I'm glad you have come. Maybe you can clear up some misconcpetions about us."
"Well, that we are bloody Communists and that we are a complete satellite of some countries."
Those were the opening words to a recent visitor by a senior official in an island nation where Western journalists were not welcome a year ago. It was another sign that Madagascar -- closely associated with the Soviet Union since President Didier Ratsiraka, a Marxist, came to power six years ago -- is making a cautious attempt to improve its relations with the West, especially the United States, without damaging its friendship with the Soviets.
In recent months the Malagasy Republic on the island of Madagascar has gone up a notch or two in the geopolitical appreciation of both Moscow and Washington as the two superpowers reinforce their naval presences in the Indian Ocean.
Sometimes called "the great aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean," the Texas-sized island with a population of 7.5 million also has one of the world's biggest and best natural harbors, at Diego-Suarez on its northern tip.
Between there and the African coastline 250 miles away, supertankers ply the Mozambique Channel on their way from the Persian Gulf to Europe and the United States.
When Ratsiraka emerged from a coup as the country's strongman in 1975 he borrowed a page from the volumes of his former colonial master, Charles de ygaulle, and initiated an "all-points" foreign policy. For the first time, Madagascar opened its doors to the Soviet Union and its allies.
Simultaneously, relations with the United States deteriorated. The American ambassador left and was not replaced for five years, a U.S. satellite tracking station was closed and in 1976 three U.S. Embassy officials were expelled, charged with inciting student demonstrations.
But last year, Antananarivo sent out signals that the strained relations could be eased. The two governments resolved the impasse over the satellite station. Ratsiraka indicated he would welcome a U.S. ambassador and one was sent in October. American companies were invited to bid for oil exploration rights and some did. An American citizen serving a five-year sentence in a Malagasy prison for illegal entry into the country was freed in October as a gesture of "good will," Ratsiraka said recently in an interview.
Some analysts say Madagascar's motive in improving relations is to get help for its ailing economy. Although the United States is the largest customer of the island's agricultural and mineral exports, few U.S. companies have invested here, deterred by a requirement that the government have 51 percent control.
The government would like more investment. "The U.S. does a lot of business with socialist countries, why not with us?" asked one Malagasy official.
"If it's help with no strings attached, I don't see why I would refuse it. I need money to develop the country," Ratsiraka said when asked if he wanted U.S. financial aid.
The tentative rapprochement with Washington may also be an effort on Ratsiraka's part to reinforce his nonaligned status and to counterbalance the Soviet presence in Madagascar, according to some observers.
There are 300 Soviet military personnel on Madagascar, according to Pentagon estimates. Some North Koreans and Cubans are also here helping train the national Army. The Soviets have sold tanks, helicopters and 12 Mig21s to the armed forces and extended a $22 million loan for development projects. A thousand students from Madagascar are studying in the Soviet Union.
Ratsiraka views global affairs through Soviet-tinted glasses. For example he is calling for the Indian Ocean to be declared a "zone of pece," a concept Moscow is pushing and Washington calls "premature." Madagascar refused to join a U.N. majority in condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
"For me, it's not an invasion. I speak only of an entry of troops," Ratsiraka said. "There is a military treaty of assistance between Afghanistan and Russia. What is the use of a treaty if, when you need the help, you cannot utilize it?"
Jabbing at an atlas opened to a map of the world that he had laid on his desk, Ratsiraka argued that the Soviets feel "encircled" by pro-Western countries and went into Afghanistan, with whom they share a long common border, because they believed the West was trying to destabilize it.
Despite this spirited defense, there are hints that Madagascar's position on this issue is more a result of a sense of duty and "socialist solidarity" than of aproval. One Madagascan close to the government and familiary with its thinking acknowledged, "We don't think [the invasion] was a good way to advance socialism."
For all his sympathy with Soviet foreign policy positions, however, Ratsiraka has not allowed the Soviet Navy to use Diego-Suarez, a situation he says will continue.
"I have said in all my speeches that Madagascar is probably the only really nonaligned country. No military battleships can come here . . . Theoretically I am ideologically closer to the Soviet Union than to the Americans, I admit it. But this question is a strategic question not an ideological one."
Ratsiraka, who is proud of the fact that he is an honorary citgizen of New Orleans, still appears wary of the United States despite the recent improvement in relations.
He insinuated that the Central Intelligence Agency had a hand in recent rioting in his country and when asked if he thought relations with Washington had improved, he replied, "Well, the American ambassador is trying to improve them. The Americans had an anti-Madagascar policy. They voted against us in all international forums. The Russians voted for us, so why do you want me to vote for the U.S. on Afghanistan? "I have done all I can now," he added. "The ball is in the Americans' court."