Cuba and South African liberation: The unknown story
By ISAAC SANEY*
Cuba's involvement in Angola began in the 1960s when relations were established with the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The MPLA was the principal organization in the struggle to liberate Angola from Portuguese colonialism. In 1975, the Portuguese withdrew from Angola. However, in order to stop the MPLA from coming to power, the US government had already been funding various groups, in particular the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by the notorious Jonas Savimbi.
In August 1975, South African Defence Forces (SADF), with the support of Washington, invaded Angola. This was followed by a much larger invasion in October. On November 5, in response to a request from the Angolan government, the Cuban government initiated the deployment of combat troops in Operation Carlota, named after the leader of a revolt against slavery that took place in Cuba on November 5, 1843. It must be emphasized that all military service in Angola was on a voluntary basis. Cuban military assistance was decisive in not only stopping the South African drive to Luanda, the capital, but pushing out of Angola. The defeat of the South African forces was a major development in the African anti-colonial struggle. The significance was underscored by The World, the foremost Black South African newspaper, which declared: "Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola. Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of realizing the dream of 'total liberation'."
1) the Cuban government - as it had repeatedly asserted - decided to dispatch combat troops to Angola only after the Angolan government had requested Cuba's military assistance to repel the South Africans, refuting Washington's assertion that South African forces intervened in Angola only after the arrival of the Cuban forces; and
2) the Soviet Union had no role in Cuba's decision and wa not even informed prior to deployment.
In short, Cuba was not the puppet of the USSR. Even the The Economist magazine, in a 2002 article, acknowledges that the Cuban government acted on its "own initiative."
In 1987, the FAPLA, the Angolan armed forces, launched an offensive against UNITA. The Cubans had advised against this operation because it would create the opportunity for a significant South African invasion, which is what transpired. The South Africans invaded, stopped and threw back the Angolan forces. The fighting became centred on the town and strategic military base of Cuito Cuanavale, which was important as a forward air base to patrol and defend southern Angola. Pretoria committed its best troops and most sophisticated military hardware to its capture.
As the situation for the besieged Angolan troops became critical, Havana was asked by the Angolan government to intervene. On November 15, 1987 Cuba decided to reinforce its forces by sending fresh detachments, arms and equipment, including tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons and aircraft. Eventually Cuban troop strength would rise to more than 50,000, with 40,000 deployed in the south where the major engagements were occurring. Cuba was also able to achieve air supremacy, which was a critical factor in repelling the South Africans. It must be emphasised that for a small country such as Cuba the deployment of 50,000 troops would be the equivalent of the US deploying 1.25-million soldiers.
This was further compounded by another South African debacle, when on June 27, 1988 at the south western Angolan town of Tchipa a major South African offensive was resoundingly routed when the SADF was encircled. The defeat was described in South Africa as "a crushing humiliation."
This defeat on the ground forced South Africa to the negotiating table, resulting in Namibian independence and dramatically hastening the end of apartheid.
Nelson Mandela underscored Cuba's vital role in a July 1991 speech delivered in Havana:
Cuba's role in Angola illustrates the division between those who fight for the cause of freedom, liberation and justice, to repel invaders and colonialists, and those who fight against just causes, those who wage war to occupy, colonise and oppress.
A more detailed article is available: Isaac Saney, "African Stalingrad: The Cuban Revolution, Internationalism and the End of Apartheid," Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 33, No. 5 (September 2006): pp. 81-117.
Some recommended additional reading:
Nelson Mandela & Fidel Castro, How Far We Slaves Have Come! (New York:Pathfinder Press, 1991)
Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959?
1976 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001)
Anthony G.Pazzanita, ?The Conflict Resolution Process in Angola." The Journal of Modern African Studies Vol. 29 No 1(March 1991): pp. 83-114.
John Stockwell, In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story (New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1978)
Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report: Volume Two: Repression and Resistance
(London: Macmillan Reference Limited, 1999).
*Isaac Saney is a historian, on faculty at Dalhousie University and editor of Shunpiking Magazine's Black History Supplement. He is author of the book Cuba: A Revolution in Motion, 2004, published by Zed Books (available from www.cubaconnect.co.uk). For a review see http://www.canadiannetworkoncuba.ca/Documents/Saney2003.shtml
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