Paulo Lara and Angola’s anticolonial war archive
The death of Paulo Lara warrants an appreciation of his and his family’s contribution to preserving the documented history of Angola’s liberation struggle.
Paulo Lara, Angolan liberation fighter, military general, filmmaker and archivist died on March 22 at the age of 65 in the Portuguese city of Porto where he had gone for medical treatment. As the son of Lúcio Lara, the co-founder and foremost political thinker in the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and born in 1956, the year that the MPLA claimed to have been established, Paulo’s life was always going to be enmeshed with the politics of Angolan liberation—and was in many ways a product of the socialist internationalism of the third quarter of the 20th century. He once told me that given his parentage—with a half-Portuguese father and a mother of German Jewish origin—he could have claimed at least German, Israeli and Portuguese nationality. Angolan, however, was all he ever wanted to be.
His childhood was spent largely in Congo-Brazzaville, where his parents were based in exile. (His Congolese adoptive brother, Jean-Michel Mabeko-Tali, would go on to write a challenging history of the MPLA’s exile politics, and is now a professor at Howard University.) During his teenage years, Paulo accompanied his father in the liberated zones established by the MPLA in the forests of Cabinda and the remote bushveld of eastern Angola. In 1975 he saw service in the MPLA’s army, FAPLA, as it halted the advance by its rival movement, the FNLA, in the days before independence. His military career continued until after the peace accord with UNITA in 2002.
To those of us who study Angola, however, Paulo Lara had become known and admired for his more recent civilian role in documenting history. He and his sister Wanda established the Associação Tchiweka de Documentação (Tchiweka Documentation Center) (Tchiweka being his father’s nom de guerre) to preserve the history of the Angolan anticolonial struggle. An important part of this has involved the curation of papers left by Lúcio Lara, which form the nearest thing we have to a primary paper record of the MPLA’s years in exile and in the Angolan bush before independence.
Equally ambitious was a project called Angola nos trilhos da independência (Angola on the tracks to independence), established to preserve the memories of the dying generation that had fought for independence. Paulo returned to the remote lands of eastern Angola, this time with a team of researchers and filmmakers (many from generations born after independence), to record life histories. Of the thousands of hours of footage that remain available, Paulo and his colleagues produced a film in which guerrillas not only from the MPLA, but also from the FNLA and UNITA speak in their own voices about their experience of the liberation struggle. This is remarkable in a country where the past is deeply politicized, and where the MPLA for a long time based its legitimacy on a claim to have been the country’s only liberator while casting its rivals as imperialist puppets and enemies of the people.
It may seem surprising that the son of the MPLA’s premier ideologue should be the one to challenge this narrative. As the government led by José Eduardo dos Santos sank into decadence and corruption from the 1990s onwards, and some MPLA intellectuals of his generation became part of a critical civil society, Paulo’s status as a military man allowed him to remain inside the system but outside an increasingly dirty politics. His friend, the Angolan cartoonist Sérgio Piçarra, recalled that while reading the eulogy during his father’s funeral in 2016, Paulo had “reminded everyone present of what he had learned from his father: that the duty of a militant is to serve the party and not to serve himself”—a remark that Piçarra understood to be a rebuke to Dos Santos, who was present at the funeral.
One of my own memories of Paulo involves a dinner during a conference in Évora, the Portuguese university town where Professor Helder Fonseca has attracted a procession of Angolan scholars, including several former soldiers, to do research on the country’s past. The laughter grew loud as Paulo exchanged anecdotes about the war with UNITA generals who had been on the other side of the same military engagements. Angola is a country where generals blame the 27-year war on self-serving politicians and take pride in the apolitical soldiers’ truce that ended it. It was Paulo’s status as a soldier rather than a politician that allowed him to find common ground with adversaries.
Independência, the film, ends its story shortly before independence, thus not needing to confront the fact that the fighters who have spoken of their various struggles against colonial rule would end up at war against one another. Similarly, the paper record kept by Lúcio Lara and curated by his heirs ends before 1975, while the post-independence records of the MPLA and the government it controlled remain locked in official archives. Much remains unknown about the rivalries between liberation movements in the run-up to independence, and the MPLA’s relationship with the Portuguese revolutionary government after 1974, and with its later Cuban and Soviet-bloc allies. Although discussion of the uprising of May 27, 1977 and subsequent retaliatory massacres is no longer the taboo that it was 20 years ago, little is certain about the internal politics that led to the protest and the decisions that were taken to suppress it. These differences, coming as they did from within the fractious family that is the MPLA, may prove harder to resolve than the divided history of the civil war itself.