Cuba in Africa: A Forgotten History

During the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, members of the United States press were surprised when President Obama was photographed shaking the hand of Cuba’s President Raul Castro. The handshake, which was purely formal and ceremonial, did not have any meaning beyond what the protocol for such occasions demands. In 2000 President Bill Clinton shook the hand of President Fidel Castro which also led to all sorts of idle speculation about the meaning of that gesture. Unfortunately, there is a blind spot in the U.S. media and a terrible lack of understanding of the context of the historical relationship between the United States and Cuba.

Recently, the premier Cuba-American historian Louis Perez, from the  University of Carolina, Chapel Hill penned an essay entitled “Cuba as An Obsessive Compulsive Disorder” in order to explain why, after 55 years, very little rapprochement has been achieved between the United States empire and a small nation like Cuba. During eleven presidential administrations, both Democrats and Republicans have maintained tense relations with a small neighbor which is 90 miles from Key West, Florida. Perez says “New York Times foreign affairs editor Thomas Friedman was correct to suggest in 1999 that the U.S. position on Cuba was “not really a policy. It’s an attitude–a blind hunger for revenge against Mr. Castro.” But in addition to the social psychological reasons for the attitude and the never-ending efforts to punish a country for its brash leadership. It is a policy that is rooted in the political lobbying of the Cuban exile community in the backdrop of a nation that is uninformed about its conflictive, longstanding historical relationship with Cuba. Cuba is like the child whose parents have placed high hopes in but who then turned away from its parents and chose a different path in life that has scandalized the parents.

One of those historical stages where the self-image of the United States as the embodiment of what is moral and just was challenged, unbeknownst to the United States public, was the war in South Africa in the 1970s. This war was the platform for the rise of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela into the global stage and which propelled the independence of Namibia and secured Angola’s sovereignty. Given our mythology that the United States is always on the side of truth and justice, the “shining city on the hill,” this counter narrative does not fit the self-image of the U.S. so it is ignored, and worse, erased.

It may be for this reason that sometimes the best critical reflections about the culture and history of the United States have been provided by foreigners. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville and Society in America by Harriet Martineau are probably two of the best social analysis of the society being developed during the first decades of the 19th century. One French and the other British provided insights into that contradictory democratic society that was developing and whose basic features continue, albeit in different form, even today. Piero Gleijeses’ book, Visions of Freedom, provides a mirror that allows Americans, Cubans (and Russians) to see another reflection of their true self in the context of their foreign policy tussle in Africa.  Gleijeses, who with his previous book Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 has written probably the most comprehensive, well researched work on the role of Cubans in the liberation wars in South Africa. He also provides an in-depth look at the twists and turns of Cuban-US-Russian foreign policy in the context of Africa’s anti-colonial and later anti-imperialist struggle. In this book, we not only learn about the U.S. and the Soviet Union through their foreign policy. We also learn something about Cuba, its leadership and values.

indexThe nuances that Gleijeses provides of this period are informed by his unique access to Cuban archives, for the first time (although not all the information was available), to Russian archives and U.S. declassified information. He also was able to interview, or include interviews, from other sources of many of the principal actors involved in the war in South Africa. He describes with details the politics and negotiations that resulted in the creation of Namibia as a sovereign nation, the establishment of Angola and the weakening of the apartheid forces in South Africa. This process led to the consequent victory of the African National Council and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black African president of the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Gleijeses had access to 15,400 documents from the Cuban archives (the only foreign scholar given access to these archives) and notes of conversations that Fidel Castro had with political leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, and Angolan Presidents Agostinho Neto and José Eduardo dos Santos. He also interviewed 150 participants in this history. In addition, he used documents he was able to access from South African archives, Yugoslavia, the former German Democratic Republic (GDR), the former Soviet Union, Poland, Britain, France, Italy, Zambia, Angola and Canada. This is probably the most extensive investigation of this period and its revelations challenge many myths about the official role of the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba.

In U.S. popular culture, the surprise and shock that the presence of President Raul Castro (who was the Chief of the Cuban Revolutionary Army during the war) had in the U.S. media was an outcome of how hidden this history was from most Americans, including many historians. The U.S. intelligence community, however, knew very well what was going on but was also mindful of public opinion in the ways that it shared public information and managed its policy in the midst of the wars in Africa. One of the most important myths that is shattered by this work is the pervasive and long-held idea that the U.S. media has perpetuated is that Cuba was a complete subordinate of Russian foreign policy. In fact, Cuba’s independent role in Africa began early in the 1960s without the support (sometimes against the advice) of the Soviet Union. Raul Castro is quoted by Gleijeses “…if they (URSS) gave us advice, they would be intervening in our internal affairs.” This sense of independence was reinforced during the 1962 missile crisis when the Soviet Union negotiated behind the back of Cuba and agreed to withdraw its nuclear missiles. These missiles had been requested by both Fidel and Raul and were not an imposition of the USSR. This determination to build an independent foreign policy was clear when Angola was preparing itself to build a sovereign nation after the collapse of the Portuguese fascist dictatorship and its African empire in the 1970s.

Angola had been fighting the Portuguese since 1961.  It was the richest Portuguese colony and had the enclave of Cabinda with large oil resources. It had a population of six million; 320,000 were white. When the left wing Movement of the Armed Forces (MFA) in Portugal overthrew dictators Marcelo Caetano in the Carnation Revolution, the Portuguese African Empire began to collapse. When the Portuguese troops abandoned Angola in 1975 a civil war ensued between three liberation movements that had been fighting against the Portuguese colonial forces. The Forces for National Liberation of Angola (FNLA) led by Robert Holden, financed in part by the U.S.; the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi and financed both by South Africa and the U.S.; and the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), led by Agostinho Neto, financed by the Soviet Union and later supported by Cuba. Each grouping represented different ethnic groups within Angola but the MPLA was the broader organization because it focused on Marxism and classes not ethnicity, and also included whites in its ranks. Its cadres also included a good number of college educated members.

South Africa began to provide material support and troops to both UNITA and FNLA against the MPLA because the MPLA had a clear strategy that supported the dismantling of apartheid. Also, the MPLA was providing training and other logistical support to Nelson Mandela’s ANC and Sam Nujoma’s SWAPO in Namibia. Both the FNLA and UNITA had reached coexistence agreements with South Africa so they did not represent a threat to South Africa’s system of apartheid. The United Nations had reached an agreement that instructed South Africa to conduct elections in Namibia which was a protectorate of South Africa. The former German colony (South West Africa) had been annexed by South Africa after defeating the German forces occupying the territory. The League of Nations in 1915 granted the South African Union a mandate over the territory. But the agreement with the United Nations, which entailed elections for a free Namibia, was ignored by South Africa. In the meantime, the forces of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) under Sam Nujoma fought to liberate Namibia. Angola and Cuba also supported SWAPO with training and some resources.

Because of the Cold War, Secretary Henry Kissinger’s foreign policy under President Ronald Reagan was focused on placing obstacles to the MPLA, although they did not constitute any challenge to U.S. economic or political interests in Angola or South Africa. In the archives Gleijeses found a document where the General Consul of the United States in Luanda, Angola, termed the FNLA as a corrupt organization. They also described Jonas Savimbi of UNITA as a charismatic leader but one whose thirst for power led him to sacrifice his own people in order to achieve his objectives. The British ambassador in Luanda described Savimbi as “a monster whose lust for power had brought appalling misery to his people.”

The Soviet Union and Angola

In 1975, the first Cuban military instructors arrived in Angola. The Soviets just offered tepid support to the Angolans because the USSR was involved in arms reduction negotiations with the U.S. (SALT II) and they also distrusted Agostinho Neto, the MPLA leader. Neto, contrasted with the other Angolan leaders, was an intellectual, a poet and very independent. He also was very authoritarian. In September 1975, Washington was worried because the MPLA was winning the civil war. Their strong position was not due to the Cuban support (which still had few troops in Angola) or to the strength of its forces. In fact, the FNLA and UNITA, had better equipment thanks to South Africa and the United States. But, according to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station director in Luanda. the MPLA was more “effective, better educated, and better trained and more motivated…” than the others.

The United States was concerned with the effectiveness of the MPLA and urged Pretoria to intervene in the Civil War on behalf of the FNLA and UNITA.  On October 13, 1975, the South African Defense Forces (SADF) invaded Angola from their bases in Namibia. On their way to the Angolan capital Luanda the MPLA forces were unable to detain the better equipped and powerful SADF.  In addition to the military and economic support of the United States, South Africa had a very close relationship with the state of Israel who provided military equipment (some evidence indicates they may have provided nuclear technology) and logistical and political support from Israel congressional supporters in the U.S. Neto, concerned with military developments, requested help from Cuba besides military instructors. Contrary to myths perpetuated by the U.S. media the SADF intervened first prompting and expanding the Cuban military support. On November 4, 1975 Fidel Castro sent Cuban troops to Angola.

The transportation of Cuban troops to Angola was an epic since they could not count with Soviet naval transports for the long haul across the Atlantic Ocean. Although the Cuban troops were inferior in numbers (36,000) or equipment to the SADF they were able to stop the South African offensive. According to the official South African war historian, Professor F.J. du Toit Spies “the Cuban soldiers rarely surrender, they struggle happily until they die.”  The U.S. concerned with the developments in the civil war began to distance themselves from South African actions and condemned the invasion they themselves had provoked. Pretoria, finding itself isolated internationally, its defense minister criticized the U.S. for having urged them to invade and then abandoning them to face on their own the international public opinion. On March 26, pushed by the Cuban troops and being isolated internationally. the SADF retreated back into Namibia.  In Angola this led to the election of Agostinho Neto as the first president of Angola, now a sovereign nation.

The Second Stage of the Cuban War of Liberation, 1976-1988

Although the SADF retreated from Angola, the forces of Jonas Savimbi continued their guerrilla attacks on the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) of Agostinho Neto. The bulk of the Cuban troops had returned to Cuba and only military instructors and medical brigades were left to aid Angola. While Cuban military advisers trained the FAPLA they avoided becoming involved in the Civil War. While there were exceptions to this rule the Cubans resisted the MPLA’s pressure to have its forces engage with the Savimbi forces. They felt they should not intervene in internal struggles. They were, however, more ready to engage the South African forces whenever they attempted against the integrity of Angola.

The US was embarrassed by the defeat of the South African Defense Forces.  This led to the spokespersons of the Department of Defense to use the Cold War myth that Cuba was a puppet of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy. By arguing the subaltern role of Cuba the defeat was not a product of a small country against a super power but the outcome of another superpower’s role. But, like the Central Intelligence Agency revealed in 1981, the Cuban operation was a unilateral effort and one that was accomplished very fast. Later, Henry Kissinger had to acknowledge that the internationalist support for Angola by Cuba was not forced by the Soviets, nor was it as a way of paying the Soviets for their financial and material support.  What motivated the Cubans, and particularly Fidel Castro, was the self-defense of Cuba and a sense of a revolutionary mission which led to the need to support anti-imperialist wars of liberation. Cuba did not receive any economic benefits from this mission. It received prestige and the appreciation of the African countries they supported.

In the documentation accessed by Gleijeses it was clear that the Cubans were not a mercenary army as the US spokespersons and the Cuban exiles in Miami were alleging. William Safire, New York Times columnist, had alleged that “Castro’s Cuba desperately needs to continue to rent out its troops.” Havana “had been receiving up to $1,000 per month from the MPLA government for each soldier it sent to Angola.” This was so widely accepted that a similar statement by J.E. Davies in a 2007 book published by Ohio University Press did not indicate the source. The reality is that Angola was being subsidized by Cuba. Cuba offered on many occasions to retire its troops from Angola whenever the Angolans so desired. On one occasion, Fidel Castro said that a merchant ship with a six months’ supply of food for the Cuban troops only lasted three months. He was informed that, in fact, the Cubans had been feeding their troops, 25,000 FAPLA soldiers and part of the population of the enclave of Cabinda.

This final stage of the war took place from 1987 until 1988. The Cuban forces again defeated the SADF who had again invaded Angola in support of the UNITA forces. This final defeat of South Africa and UNITA was preceded by large strategic differences between the Cubans and the Soviets. In 1985, the FAPLA led a large offensive against Cuito Cuanavale all the way into a small village called Mavinga in the eastern part of Angola close to the border with Namibia. The SADF had its principal military bases in northern Angola where they could support the forces of Jonas Savimbi who had his headquarters in Jamba in the same region. The Angolan offensive was hoping to reach Jamba which was the central headquarters of UNITA, a tactical move that was promoted by the Soviet military advisors. It was a very tempting proposition for the Angolans to be able to mortally defeat the UNITA forces. The Cubans did not agree with this strategy but the Angolans took the soviet Coronel General Konstantin Kurochkin very seriously because he had had a leading role in the war in Afghanistan. The Cuban general, Polo Cintra Frias, chief of the Cuban armed forces was in complete disagreement with that tactic. The SADF had a superior air power and the region was close to the South African air force bases in northern Namibia. The FAPLA also did not have any robust anti-aircraft batteries or an air force. Konstantin was steeped in WWII military tactics but was not a guerrilla war strategist. He wanted to fight a conventional war without the resources to face the SADF. Konstantin, in fact, complained to Fidel Castro about Polo Cintra Frias, but Fidel Castro trusted his general and he remained as the chief of the Cuban armed forces in Angola.  Things became complicated by Agostinho Neto’s death in 1979 and the rise of the new leader of Angola Eduardo Dos Santos.  He was more reckless and began to engage in negotiations with Washington and Pretoria behind Cuba’s back.

The FAPLA followed the advice of the Soviets and tried to reach Jamba.  As the Cubans predicted, they were thoroughly defeated. The FAPLA retreated to Cuito Cuanavale. The Soviets did not allow its air force to provide air support to the Angolans but did send helicopters to retrieve their military advisors. Close to 2,000 of the 6,000 FAPLA troops were killed. The reason for their defeat was not the UNITA troops but the SADF air force. In a visit of Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to Havana Fidel Castro explained to him that it was precisely the South African air force who had defeated the Angolans, not UNITA. Fidel Castro requested MIGs 25 and 29s from the Soviet Union to change the correlation of power in the area. But Fidel Castro did not wait for the arrival of the Soviet aircraft.

On November 1987, Fidel Castro decided to launch the XXXI Anniversary Offensive in order to change the course of the war in Angola. The Cubans had built an airport in Menongue which was close to the battleground. Although they had not received the weapons and airplanes they had requested Fidel Castro took a risk of sending the most modern equipment they had in Cuba to Angola. Anti-Aircraft batteries, combat airplanes, and the best pilots which eventually gave air supremacy to the Cubans and allowed the provisioning of the trapped Angolan troops in Cuito Cuanavale.  SADF documents indicated that from December the Cubans were in control of the air space in the region. The South Africans had been hoping for a victory in Cuito Cuanavale and its elusiveness impacted the morale of the South African troops. Another demoralizing fact, according to Coronel Fred Rindle, the military attaché of the South African embassy in Washington D.C., the loss of the “white boys” was becoming politically unsustainable.

The morale of the Cuban and Angolan troops was very high. In a London Times interview, an internationalist Cuban combatant Ernesto Garcia is quoted by journalist Jan Raath saying: “I was counting the days for my return to Santiago de Cuba with my wife and two children” but he added “we will be here as long as it is necessary because this is a just cause.” While there was no final and conclusive battle in Cuito Cuanavale the South African defeat had a powerful symbolic value. First, the air supremacy obtained by the Cuban air force and the defensive victory of Cubans and Angolans maintaining the SADF outside of their area of control. The symbolic significance of this victory was described by Nelson Mandela as “the myth of the invincibility of white oppressor was shattered….(And) the African masses were inspired in their struggle in South Africa … Cuito Cuanavale was a turning point in the liberation struggle in our continent … and my people from the plague of Apartheid.” The CIA earlier had reported: “Cuba’s successful use of air power and the apparent weakness of Pretoria’s air defenses … illustrate the dilemma Pretoria faces in confronting the Cuban challenge. South African forces can inflict serious damage on selected Cuban-Angolan units, but Cuba retains advantages, particularly in air defenses and the number of aircraft and troops.” The leading Johannesburg daily Business Day also warned that: “Among South African whites, the SADF’s aura of invincibility was tarnished.” Although the South Africans wanted to time the SADF withdrawal with the Cuban withdrawal, Washington Times said that “the South Africans decided to withdraw from Angola after recognizing that the Cuban buildup had changed the power balance in the southern part of the country, leaving South African troops vulnerable.”

The SADF military chiefs had to admit their defeat. “In South Africa, Defense Minister Malan shared with his generals his grave misgivings … about the erroneous impressions prevalent … among large sectors of South Africa’s population, who thought that, for example, the SADF got a bloody nose at Cuito Cuanavale. The SADF no longer has air superiority and therefore cannot win the war, and the SADF is no longer the strongest armed force in Africa.”

The Cubans also had 40,000 troops in the west part of Angola ready for action if the SADF attacked. Although Ronald Reagan sought to re-write the history of the conflict when he said at the University of Virginia that the “retreat of 50,000 Cuban troops from Angola was the result of United States intervention and was the second defeat of Cuba since the Grenada invasion in 1983.” On May 25. 1991 the last remaining Cuban forces arrived in Havana where they received a hero’s welcome. The legacy of the Cuban effort was the victory of SWAPO with 57.3% against 38.65 by the Turnhalle Alliance in the Namibian elections. The effort also assured the independence of Angola when the UNITA forces were defeated (34.10 %) in the electoral process in Angola and when the U.S. withdrew its support for UNITA. Jonas Savimbi died of natural causes in 2002.

Finally, just like the Central Intelligence Agency’s board of national estimates had said in 1963, “Castro is first of all a revolutionary” and Henry Kissinger added, “Castro had sent the troops because he probably was the most genuine revolutionary in power.” He added that “it is not that there are no contradictions in politics …but in matters of basic importance like the right and duty of supporting nationalist revolutionary movements and friendly governments in the third world, Castro does not negotiate for political or economic advantages.”

Very few know the history of the magnitude of the Cuban effort in Africa, but in the Freedom Mural in South Africa, the only name of foreign combatants are those of the internationalist Cubans who shed their blood for Africa.

• Additional References:

Visions of Freedom: New Documents from the Closed Cuban Archives

Cuba: An African Odyssey” (2007) Jihan El Tahri Producer/Director, Tancrede Ramonet Producer

Cuba South Africa: After the Battle” Estela Bravo (1991)

Victor M. Rodriguez is Professor and former Chair of the Department of Chicano and Latino Studies at California State University of Long Beach. Among his published works is Latino Politics in the United States: Race, Ethnicity, Class and Gender in the Mexican American and Puerto Rican Experience in the United States (Kendall-Hunt, 2012). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Victor, or visit Victor's website.