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Cuba’s intervention in Africa during the Cold War

When Nelson Mandela visited Havana in 1991, he declared: “We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba. What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”

In all the reflections upon the death of Fidel Castro, his contribution to Africa has been neglectedbecause most Americans are unaware that Castro’s Cuba changed the course of southern African history. While Americans celebrated the peaceful transition of apartheid South Africa to majority rule and the long-delayed independence of Namibia, they had no idea that CubaCastro’s Cubaplayed an essential role in these historic events.

During the Cold War, thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers, and construction workers went to Africa, while almost 30,000 Africans studied in Cuba on full scholarships funded by the Cuban government.

US officials tolerated Cuba’s humanitarian assistance, but not the dispatch of Cuban soldiers to Africa. There had been small Cuban covert operations in Africa in the 1960s in support of liberation movements, but the trickle became a flood in late 1975, engulfing Angola.

That Portuguese colony was slated for independence in November 1975, but civil war broke out several months earlier among the country’s three liberation movementsthe MPLA, the FNLA, and UNITA. American officials were alarmed by the communist proclivities of the MPLA, but even they admitted that it “stood head and shoulders above the other two groups” which were led by corrupt men.

South African officials were also alarmed by the MPLA because of its implacable hostility to apartheid and promise to assist the liberation movements of southern Africa (UNITA and FNLA had proffered Pretoria their friendship).

By September 1975, the MPLA was winning the civil war. Therefore, Pretoria invaded Angola, encouraged by Washington. Secretary of State Kissinger hoped that success in Angoladefeating a pro-communist regimewould boost US prestige and his own reputation, pummeled by the fall of South Vietnam in April 1975.

The South Africans were on the verge of crushing the MPLA when 36,000 Cuban soldiers poured into Angola.

Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), Eege Foto (1989) vum user ernmuhl. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The intervention, the CIA concluded years later, had been “a unilateral Cuban operation designed in great haste.” The Agency was correct: Castro dispatched the soldiers without consulting the Kremlin. Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev, who was focused on detente with the United States, opposed Castro’s policy, and refusedfor two monthsto help transport the Cuban troops.

Castro’s decision also derailed his secret negotiations with Washington to normalize relations. Had Castro been pursuing Cuba’s narrow self-interest, he would not have sent troops to Angola.

What, then, motivated Castro’s bold move? The answer is provided by Kissinger. Castro, he wrote in his memoirs, “was probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power.”

The victory of the Pretoria-Washington axis, the installation of a regime in Luanda beholden to the apartheid regime, would have tightened the grip of white domination over the people of Southern Africa. Castro sent his soldiers to join the struggle against apartheid, a fight he deemed “the most beautiful cause.”

The Cuban troops turned the tide of the war, pushing the South Africans back into neighboring Namibia, which Pretoria illegally occupied.

“Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola,” exulted The World, South Africa’s major black newspaper. “Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of realizing the dream of total liberation.”

In Angola, the Cuban-backed MPLA government welcomed guerrillas from Namibia, South Africa, and Rhodesia. It became a tripartite effort: the Cubans provided most of the instructors, the Soviets the weapons, and the Angolans the land.

For apartheid South Africa it was a deadly threat. Therefore, for over a decade, Pretoria continued to battle the MPLA, attempting to install in its place the leader of UNITA, Jonas Savimbi, a man whom the British ambassador in Luanda labeled “a monster.”

The Angolan army was weak. Even the CIA conceded that the Cuban troops were “necessary to preserve Angolan independence,” but for the United Statesunder Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reaganthe Cubans were an affront.

Reagan joined Pretoria in supporting Savimbi. He tightened the embargo against Cuba and demanded that the Cuban soldiers leave Angola. Castro refused. It was a stalemate.

Until 1988. It was the Iran-Contra scandal that broke the logjam. Before that imbroglio weakened Reagan, the Cubans had feared a US attack on their island. But in its wake, Castro decided it would be safe to send Cuba’s best planes, pilots, anti-aircraft systems and tanks to Angola to push the South Africans out of the country, once and for all. “We’ll manage without underpants in Cuba if we have to,” Raul Castro told a Soviet general. “We will send everything to Angola.”

Once again, Fidel had defied the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, bent on detente with the United States, opposed escalation in Angola. “The news of Cuba’s decision … was for us, I say it bluntly, a real surprise,” he told Castro. “I find it hard to understand how such decision could be taken without us.”

In early 1988 the Cuban troops gained the upper hand in Angola. They were strong enough to cross the Namibian border, seize South African bases, “and drive South African forces further south,” the Pentagon noted. The situation was “one of the most serious that has ever confronted South Africa,” the country’s president lamented.

Pretoria gave up. In December 1988, it agreed to Castro’s demands: allow UN supervised elections in Namibia and terminate aid to Savimbi. Pretoria’s capitulation reverberated beyond Angola and Namibia.

In Mandela’s words, the Cuban victory over the South African army “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor … [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa. [It] was the turning point for the liberation of our continentand of my peoplefrom the scourge of apartheid.”

Featured image credit: guards at the tomb of José Marti in Santiago, Cuba by PRA. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Plain

    If one reads this story from the side of the Cubans and Angolans a whole new perspective begins to show. Che Guevara had convinced Fidel to take on a strategy of bringing Communism to Africa. The strategy failed in the Congo and when they saw failure brewing in Angola, Fidel invested over 10,000 troops to reverse the tide. The South Africans reacted to early Cuban and Communist intervention (in 1974) knowing full well that Angola would be used as a staging for attacks into Namibia and South Africa. SA engaged in Angola and later turned the war into a guerrilla war that sapped both sides of economic resources. Angolans in the meantime got to see Cubans act like yet another coloniser. The entire war became complicated. The result – the war became yet another drain on the Cubans and Soviets, contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire, led directly to Cuba’s own economic demise of the 90’s and contributed to the fall of apartheid. The Cubans were politely kicked out of Angola after having pillaged Angolan assets and today South African business are the biggest investors in Angola.

  2. Richard Bennett

    Little known? It is precisely these types of subtle digs at the awareness of the average man that cause the media to carry poor repute. I would understand it more if there was advertising directly tied to the site.

  3. Eleanor

    I wonder how the communists see this! Also how the history of both states Cuba and Africa talks about it!

  4. Royce

    Piero Gleijeses is basically a Castro-ist, an apologist for Castro the man, and his regime. If you read this article, Castro and the Cubans can do no wrong. Yes, Fidel could seem a true believer as a revolutionary Communist (dictator)– despite his hypocrisies– by unilaterally sending troops to Angola to help fight UNITA, the FNLA and the SADF, however, how much of that was driven by ego and narcissism? Castro was an egotistical narcissist by all accounts. Note that some dictators actually believe in the ideology they claim to embrace, as long as they’re the ones self-righteously in power, e.g. Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Mao Tse Tung…

    Gleijeses mentions nothing of the atrocities Cubans committed in Angola, such as strafing villages; or that the MPLA President, Agostinho Neto, was a brutal dictator– I’ve called him a mini-Stalin—who after the 1977 Nito Alves coup attempt on himself and his government, purged the country for about 2 years of suspected Nitistas, where the MPLA AND CUBANS maybe killed as many as 70,000 Angolans suspected of being Nitistas. Nor does Gleijeses mention the invasion of Cabinda and how the Cubans led the way in taking that (oil rich) enclave colony for the MPLA, and robbing the locals of independence, by usurping and forcing out the governing rebel movement, FLEC, which had fought the Portuguese for independence… Now oil rich Cabinda belongs to Angola. The MPLA/Cuban invasion was a sort of Communist colonisation or commie imperialism. FLEC today is still at war with the MPLA for independence but things are quiet.

    I could go on, like how many of these Cuban backed rebel movements were brutal and terrorized the local populations. And what happened in Ethiopia is another topic… but Gleijeses is disingenuous, and he needs to be honest about Cuba’s little known history in Africa.

  5. Realist

    During the fight for Angola’s independence, the mpla was on the verge of defeat, the fnla was practically defeated and unita was hardly a threat. What led the Portuguese to so hastily hand power to the liberation movements was the communist inspired military coup which overthrew the dictatorship in Portugal. The timing is suspicious and the fact that the Cuban “liberators” who had come to make sure their mpla comrades gained control of the country through the barrel of the gun, began arriving even before the last Portuguese soldiers had departed, makes it even more suspicious, especially when considering that the new ‘socialist’ Government in Portugal and it’s military went to great lengths to ensure the handover of all other former Portuguese colonies to the marxist liberation movements.

  6. Will Coles

    The U.S. will only ever accept their version of history. You have to wonder when it will be rewritten in a more unbiased form, closer to this article & possibly quite a long way from what children are taught in America.

  7. Rollin'Thunder

    All wars are brutal, and it is the failure of domestic politics to breed its own statesmanlike politicians which results in internal turmoil. In Africa it was different and the wars there were towards its indigenous populations claiming what is rightfully theirs. Such wars of independence tend to be without mercy, and human rights take a back seat. Tragic, but true.

  8. Anti lies brigade

    The truth about Cuba’s disastrous little military adventure into Angola is that they had come to protect the marxist Mpla party and to entrench communism in Angola after they (Mpla) had usurped power through violence. With equipment from Russia and troops from Cuba, the Mpla shunned democratic elections and then turned against the pro-democracy liberation movements (Fnla and Unita). Had it not been for South Africa’s intervention, Unita was facing annihilation, just like the Fnla. However, Unita survived, thanks to the South Africans, and became a serious threat to Mpla forces throughout Angola, which is proof to all but an idiot that Cuba’s so-called victory at Cuito Cuanavale was, in reality, a mythical one.

  9. Gerhard Meyer

    I guess my comments are subjective, but I was there in April/March 1978 as part of the SANDF Operation Hooper. The Cubans had about 37,000 soldiers in Angola, at the most, we had 2000. That is the biggest secret of this war that never was. Even so, we could have beaten them, but that was not the plan. With two superpowers involved and an ongoing civil war the Nationalist apartheid Government in Pretoria was singing to the tune of the Americans via the CIA, and got stubbed in the back for it, once the Pretoria government had done their bidding, and that was to stop the Cubans in their tracks. It is not surprising that their is very little information about this war…

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