Angolan “Freedom Fighter” Stamps

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Angolan “Freedom Fighter” Stamps

By Matin Modarressi

 

Thirty-three years ago, the leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) arrived in Washington, DC, on a precarious mission. Angola was in the middle of a bloody civil war, and both sides—UNITA and the Soviet-backed government—had been accused of targeting civilians. But the leader of the rebel movement, Jonas Savimbi, hoped that by portraying himself as an anti-communist “freedom fighter,” he could convince the US to formally support him. Savimbi sought the services of Republican lobbyist Paul Manafort (the same one who was recently convicted in the Trump-Russia investigation). As described in the Washington Post, he paid Manafort $600,000—almost $1.4 million in today’s money—and in January 1986 was rewarded with a visit to the US to meet with President Reagan and other top government officials.

 

During the visit, a Florida stamp dealer named Marc Rousso announced that he had been commissioned by Savimbi (or more likely, his American PR handlers) to issue “postage stamps” on behalf of UNITA. These would purportedly be valid for use in rebel-held Angolan territory. The stamps, which came out in February of that year and were widely reported on, featured Savimbi in military uniform, a white hand shaking a black hand, and a tiger. (No wild tiger population exists in Angola or anywhere else on the continent; one wonders if this design was chosen because of someone’s preconceived notion of what Africa looks like.) At $15 a set, the stamps were primarily a way of raising funds for UNITA while also seeking postal, and therefore political, legitimacy. “Postage stamps may change the course of history for Angola,” claimed the ads for the stamps. “Dramatically drawn Angola freedom stamps signify the fight of the UNITA against an oppressive Marxist government.”

 

A US congressman who sat on both the committee in charge of postal affairs and the one that helped oversee foreign policy towards Africa—Republican Dan Burton—urged the US Postal Service to accept international mail bearing the UNITA stamps. At the same time, the White House received a letter from the American-Angolan Public Affairs Council lobbying group asking if Reagan could endorse the stamps. But Associate White House Counsel (now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) John Roberts wrote a memo recommending against it: “We have no way of knowing if UNITA could handle postage, and should not encourage others to use UNITA stamps for this purpose.”

 

Reagan received a set of the UNITA stamps as a gift from Rousso at a 1988 Republican Party fundraising dinner. The Washington Post’s weekly stamp columnist, Bill McAllister, later wrote about how Reagan apparently kept the stamps in the Oval Office, noting, “Reagan, however, may be alone in joy. Aside from Rousso, few stamp collectors recognize the ‘freedom fighter’ stamps as anything other than colorful stickers.”

 

While the UNITA stamps may have been useless for trying to mail a letter from Angola, the act of deciding whether to buy the stamps and the debate over the stamps’ postal validity gave some Americans the opportunity to learn about and engage with their country’s role in international affairs. Far from the streets of Angola, their stamp albums became part of the material legacy of the Cold War.

 

UNITA stamps. From the collection of Matin Modarressi.

 

 

Envelopes showing a postmark from the rebel headquarters of Jamba were prepared in time for an international stamp exhibition in Chicago in May 1986. From the collection of Matin Modarressi.

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I would be interested to know whether any other self-styled "freedom fighters" (or terrorist organizations) that were seeking to overthrow the government or establish a separate state issued postage stamps. Might any have established postal services in "liberated zones"?

Thanks, Sarah. Your posts are instructive.