very morning, the people the government calls "biches" can be seen making their livelihood along the littered streets of this once-bustling city. The biches' job is line-waiting. Despite official discouragement, they plod through long queues outside the few open shops, buying scarce food for private resale at a profit.
Around these curious entrepreneurs, amid the shells of half-finished buildings with their stilled cranes, the shuttered stores and the abandoned autos, is all the evidence of a devastated nation.
In the harbor, supplies are stalled while dozens of ships wait to be unloaded. In the banks and offices, work backs up behind endless paperwork and absenteeism.
At the airport, the runways are decorated with hulks that 20 years ago were prop planes, before they were left to rust.
Six years after gaining its independence from Portugal in a bloody war, Angola is an economic disaster area. Food is scarce, economic production has plummeted 10 percent in a decade, and the $2 billion in annual oil revenues is being ploughed into the military budget, to pay for an estimated 15,000 Cuban troops and the two wars Angola is fighting.
"I've never seen any place remotely comparable to Angola," a Western diplomat said. "Every part of the economy needs rehabilitation."
With its vast natural resources, Angola has the potential to be one of the two economic success stories in southern Africa, along with Zimbabwe, analysts say. Its rich oil stores should place it second to Nigeria in production within black Africa next year, and the country has enormous agricultural potential. Its ports and railways could be a key to the development of southern Africa, giving the region long-sought economic independence from white-ruled South Africa.
But before that kind of economic power can even be approached, the country's Marxist rulers will have to overcome a plethora of maladies that have emaciated Angola ever since the Portuguese abandoned the country in 1975. Some of the problems are rooted in the centuries of colonial exploitation; others have been created by Angola's strange relationships with East and West and its constant wars.
The government's convoluted bureaucracy, meanwhile, appears only to be aggravating the situation, and most observers here see little prospect in the near future of improvement for the country's food problems or economic underdevelopment.
If anything, with East-West tensions growing in the region, the country's economic woes could only grow worse. For Angola depends on Western investment, despite its Cuban troops and friendship pact with the Soviet Union. Ironically, the United States, which refuses to recognize Angola because of the Soviet-Cuban military presence, is the country's largest trade partner, receiving most of Angola's $100 million in annual exports of oil, diamonds, and coffee.
Overall, about 70 percent of Angola's trade is with the West and only 7 percent with the East Bloc.
For now, even though the government holds controlling interest in most business operations, officials of foreign firms say they have experienced no unusual difficulties. Gulf Oil, the largest American investor, has sunk $416 million into its facilities and has just agreed to another $116 million. Texaco, Mobil and General Tire also have long-standing investments in the country, and Boeing has sold Angolan Airways 9 jetliners over the past 5 years.
The Western investment, largely a legacy of the Portuguese rule, is perhaps the only benefit Angola gained from 500 years of colonial domination. Possibly more than any other African colony, Angola was exploited by its European master, developed and used entirely for the benefit of a nation that was itself economically weak.
The result was that in 1960, Angola remained so backward that it had the lowest life expectancy in the world, 33 years. By 1978 the rate had moved up to 41 years, putting Angola ahead of only two nations, Ethiopia and Yemen. The child mortality rate was 49 percent, and is still one of the world's highest at 39 percent.
"We didn't prepare these people for independence," a Portuguese resident admitted.
Indeed, after filling the country's work force with its own surplus labor, filling positions that ranged from top-level executives to cabdrivers, Portugal took 300,000 settlers back when it gave up the country, leaving the Angolans with little training in operating their own economy. Luis da Almeida, Angolan Ambassador to France, estimated that there were only about 200 trained people, many whites or of mixed race, within the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola when it won power in 1975.
In addition, the departing Portuguese stripped the country of their own equipment, and reportedly engaged in some sabotage of what was left. Many vehicles were taken out of the country and others were immobolized, plaguing Angola with a transportation problem that has yet to be alleviated. Telephones were ripped out and small but vital equipment parts were removed. Instruction manuals disappeared with Portuguese technicians.
After defending his country's rule briefly, one long-time Portuguese resident here sighed and conceded, "There are good guys and bad guys. We had a lot of bad guys in Angola."
Perhaps inevitably, Angola's woes have only grown worse since independence. The exodus of the Portuguese meant that more than 60 percent of the industries in the country were abandoned. And while the country was a food exporter under a Portuguese forced labor system, now food is Angola's second largest import, after the arms for its continuing wars.
The economic malaise pervades Luanda. There are at least 50 ships sitting in the city's port at any time, waiting to unload. A pilot circling the port while waiting to land recently counted 71 ships. It takes the Angolans an average of almost three months to unload and it is estimated that demurrage charges for the ships amount to almost $200,000 a day.
The government is seeking foreign technicians to help run the port, but many of the machines also reportedly lack spare parts.
Inside the city, probably about 60 percent of the stores are closed, and many of those that are open have little to sell.
Every day on the streets of Luanda, people who are not standing in the long lines for meat, other food items, clothing, and cigarettes can be found hunting for subsistence in the black market, where commodities often change hands by crude bartering.
One middle-level business official explained how the system works.
"Supposing somebody works in a cigarette factory where he is allowed to buy the products," he said. "The official price for cigarettes is 21 kwanzas about 70 cents . The black market price is about 150 about $5 . So a man can make more than the average salary about $200 a month by trading cigarettes for other goods. That's the way people survive."
The official, who declined to be identified, makes about $700 a month, more than three times the average salary, but said, "My salary doesn't correspond with the cost of living."
One traditional rule of thumb for gauging the health of an African economy is to examine the difference between the legal and black market rates of exchange. Angola has one of the highest differentials -- the dollar is worth more than 13 times as many kwanzas on the black market as in a bank -- even worse than chaotic Uganda.
As a result, talking about prices of goods is almost meaningless.
A United Nations employe here plays a game of comparing prices of goods in terms of gallons of gas. Fuel costs only about $1.75 a gallon at the legal exchange rate, one of the lowest prices in Africa, but few other products are so cheap.
A recent Saturday tour of the open market showed that two potatoes, or a clove of garlic, or less than a pound of cabbage or tomatoes, or a medium-sized cucumber were all valued at about a gallon of gas.
In the legal market, most of the bins were empty except for cabbage and tomatoes, which sold at about half the price. To get the tomatoes, however, a buyer had to purchase cabbage, the one product that was in plentiful supply.
Not all the shortages are the fault of the distribution system. Fish have been scarce ever since the Soviet Union and Angola signed a fishing agreement. The Angolans complain now that the Soviets take all the fish.
Angola even manages to have a bureaucracy for shopping. There are at least four different kinds of stores depending upon the rank of work and origin of the shopper.
"People's stores" are for ordinary workers, while higher level officials go to "directors' stores." Foreign workers under contract to the government have their own special store, as do diplomats and a few other privileged persons with access to foreign exchange.
The prices are supposed to be the same in the first three stores. The difference lies in the range of goods available and the quantities. The long lines -- complete with the biches -- form at the people's stores.
There are also stores called "supermarkets." The main thing they appear to have is empty shelves.
In the countryside, the problems appear to be equally grim. The disappearance of Portuguese farmers and middleman has led to a return to subsistence farming in some areas; since money will buy very little, farmers are not interested in selling their crops unless it is for barter.
Coffee, Angola's largest agricultural export, was severely hit by the changeover, because production was based on a forced labor system which has now ceased. Output is far below pre-independence levels.
Meanwhile, the problems left by the Portuguese have been aggravated by the new government's inability to extricate itself from war and its bungling bureaucracy.
The hostilities drain scarce funds and manpower from development to the war effort. Vast quantities of weapons have been bought from the Soviet Union and unknown amounts are paid for the support of about 15,000 Cuban troops in the country.
Asked what happens to Angola's oil revenue, Petroleum Minister Jorge Augusto de Morais said: "There is a war. Most of the profit is eaten up by the war."
Despite a policy of reconciliation proclaimed by the late President Antonio Agostinho Neto, there have been difficulties reintegrating hundreds of thousands of Angolans from the north who fled to neighboring Zaire and the Congo 20 years ago when the revolution started.
Meanwhile, a seemingly paralyzing bureaucracy slows any efforts at economic recovery.
A Japanese businessman complained that it takes about six months to open a line of credit. He estimated that his firm had to allow at least 20 percent more time to complete an operation than in Japan.
A sympathetic American aircraft technician told of how Angolan Airways, which after buying Boeing jetliners became one of the largest airlines in black Africa, is "overwhelmed with problems."
Because of the lack of adequate staff, he said, "Everything is high priority. Every day they're just trying to put out a fire." In such circumstances, he said, "they lose heart."
The technician, who had experience elsewhere in the Third World, felt that the problems of the airline were representative of the country in general.
Asked how long it would take for things to change, he said, "I don't think they'll ever get it turned around."