Under Fidel Castro, Cuba backed independence movements across the Third World. This support was decisive in battling South African apartheid, thwarting US covert operations, and securing self-rule across southern Africa.
In the 1970s, hope for southern Africa seemed bleak. Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau were under Portuguese control. After the collapse of Portuguese rule, the United States collaborated with South Africa to crush Angolan guerrilla movements. In South Africa, the apartheid regime was firmly in place and extended control over Namibia.
Cuban intervention in the region was decisive in changing the course of liberation movements against the United States and South Africa. For the Jacobin Radio podcast The Dig, Daniel Denvir spoke with Piero Gleijeses, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976–1991, to learn the story of Cuba’s military defense of the Angolan government and its impacts on the course of South African apartheid. You can listen to the episode here.
Strangely, what changed was the strength of guerrillas in tiny Guinea-Bissau. The Portuguese began losing the colonial war in Guinea-Bissau because it had the best organized and strongest guerrilla movement in Africa at the time.
The movement enjoyed the support of Cuba and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union provided sophisticated weapons. Cuba provided military instructors and medical professionals. The Cuban military mission in Conakry trained the Guinea-Conakry rear guard and helped guerrillas operate the most sophisticated weapons. Until the Cubans arrived in 1966, there were no doctors with these guerrillas. Later, the Cubans also sent ground-to-air missiles, which allowed guerrillas to shoot down Portuguese planes and helicopters.
In 1974, the Portuguese military decided that the war in Guinea-Bissau was unwinnable and it was time to end it. In April 1975, there was a military coup in Lisbon, and the Portuguese dictatorship collapsed. After this, the Portuguese military decided to decolonize Guinea-Bissau and its other colonies.
Kissinger’s problem was that he needed a victory. He lost a lot of prestige at home when South Vietnam collapsed. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Kissinger’s great rival in the [Gerald] Ford administration, said during a meeting of the National Security Council and the cabinet, “Kissinger’s politics are failing.” Kissinger was under attack in the United States.
The covert operation in Angola seemed to be an easy victory because South Africa was also considering a covert operation to destroy the MPLA. The MPLA had difficult relationships with Congo-Brazzaville, which bordered Angola toward the north, and Zambia too, which supported a different guerrilla movement in 1975. The MPLA was completely isolated.
In 1975, the United States and South Africa had parallel covert operations. South African intelligence services and the CIA consulted and informed each other. The United States and South Africa both began sending weapons to UNITA [National Union for the Total Independence of Angola] and the FNLA [National Front for the Liberation of Angola]. But it soon became clear that it made no sense to send weapons to people who did not know how to use them. So both sides escalated. The United States and South Africa sent people to train guerrillas. But it was also not enough to send weapons or military instructors.
On November 4, Fidel decided to send troops to Angola. The Soviet Union was miffed, because it didn’t want the Cubans to intervene. It showed its annoyance by not assisting in the dispatch of Cuban troops to Angola. Until 1975 or 1976, the Cubans arrived by ship and old transport planes.
The South Africans were willing to escalate, but they wanted things in return from the Ford administration. First, if the Soviet Union intervened, they wanted the United States to intervene. Their second demand was that the United States openly and fully endorse the South African invasion in Angola. Kissinger and Ford decided that they could not afford to do that because of the racial situation in the United States and the United States’ prestige.
South Africa could have crushed the Cubans by sending 30,000 soldiers into Angola against approximately 2,000 Cubans in late November. But it was only willing to do it if the United States publicly gave the stamp of approval — which the Ford administration did not dare to do.
Then, South Africa became increasingly aggressive. The South African government decided to overthrow the MPLA government, because Agostinho Neto opened Angola to guerrilla movements in southern Africa. In memoirs, the commander of the South African army and armed forces notes that the guerrilla struggle in Namibia began because it all of a sudden had Angola as a rear guard. Meanwhile, in Angola, Jonas Savimbi led one of the two guerrilla movements that were defeated in 1975.
Cuba decided that they were not strong enough to defend the far south of the country. So it decided to create this defensive line about 250 kilometers north of the border. It stopped withdrawing its troops. There were a number of troops in Angola in 1978, a number that gradually increased as the number of South African troops increased. The Cuban troops were necessary to ensure the independence of Angola. They served as a shield. Without the Cuban troops, South Africa would have invaded at once.
This was a key reason why the MPLA was weakened by late 1972 and early 1973. Savimbi was not a puppet of South Africa and the Portuguese — he was carrying out his own interest. He thought he could eliminate his rivals and someday independence would come.
I started reading the World, a major black newspaper in South Africa, in 1975. In February 1976, two articles appeared in the South African press around the same time announcing that, for the first time, South Africa was being defeated by a nonwhite army. Whether the victory was because of the Angolans or the Cubans, the fact was that they were winning. The feeling of superiority that whites had enjoyed was dissipating.
An editorial in the World that said that South Africa was riding the crest of the wave generated by the Cubans in Angola. South Africa was tasting the Haitian wine of total liberation. There was a psychological element that was very important: the defeat of the South African giant. It had been defeated by the British at the end of the nineteenth century, but this was their first defeat at the hand of nonwhite people.
If the Cubans had not intervened, there would have been another South African victory in southern Africa that would have tightened the grip of apartheid over South Africa. The Cuban victory was a blow to apartheid.
I believe that Fidel decided to intervene in Angola not just to help the MPLA but also because he understood that it was the struggle against apartheid, which he called the most beautiful cause of mankind. What was at stake in Angola in late 1975 was not just who would rule Angola — it was southern Africa as a whole. A victory of the proxies of the United States and South Africa, the axes of evil, would have demoralized people in southern Africa.
South Africa’s rule in Namibia was not challenged until the mid-1960s. Ethiopia and Liberia first challenged the right of South Africa to continue occupying Namibia under the League of Nations. South Africa responded that the League of Nations no longer existed and it still had a mandate to remain. There was really no pressure placed on South Africa at that time.
Pressure began to be placed on South Africa in the 1970s. First, the International Court of Justice said that South Africa’s rule over Namibia was illegal. Then, more importantly, armed struggle began in Angola. The Angolan territory between the Cuban defensive line and the Namibian border became a free-fire zone, and the South Africans shot at whatever they saw.
For SWAPO [the South West Africa People’s Organization], the 250 kilometers were like going through enemy territory. It penetrated Namibia and, with extreme courage, maintained its guerrilla struggle. But it was never in a position to present a serious military threat to the approximately 30,000 South African soldiers in Namibia. International pressure also began to grow.
South Africans wanted a political solution that would allow them to retain power. They created a white political party in Namibia: the Democratic Turnhalle Alliance. This party would work with the South African colonial authority to create an “internal solution” — elections controlled by South Africa — and give this party and allied minor parties a majority in an assembly.
Castro had defied Leonid Brezhnev by sending troops to Angola in November 1975, and he defied [Mikhail] Gorbachev in November 1987 when he decided to send important reinforcements to Angola to push the South Africans out of the country once and for all — at the very moment Gorbachev wanted desperately to foster détente with Washington.
Then in 1975, Brezhnev focused on negotiating the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitation Talks] treaty with US president Gerald Ford and only embraced the Cuban intervention “after the fact when the Cubans had won.” Then in 1976, the Soviets encouraged Cuba to withdraw again, and Cuba defied the Soviets.
Why did the United States insist on framing Cubans as mercenaries or proxies, even though they knew this was false?
In 1978, Robert Pastor, the National Security Council’s director of Latin American and Caribbean affairs, wrote in a memoir, “We should stop calling the Cuban ‘proxies.’ It is not true. They lead the Soviet Union more often than the Soviet Union leads them.” But from the position of [Jimmy] Carter or [Zbigniew] Brzeziński, it looked better to be tough. What would they tell the American public? “We don’t like [Castro], but he is independent from the Soviet Union.”
I have no idea whether in 1975 or 1976 Kissinger believed that Fidel Castro was a proxy. But in the last volume of Kissinger’s memoirs, he writes, “I was wrong. I said that Fidel Castro was a proxy. Actually, it was an operation designed by the Cubans who confronted the Soviet Union with a fait accompli.”
One was self-defense. The United States refused to negotiate with Cuba for a modus vivendi. Therefore, Cuba decided it would respond wherever it could. Cuba could not launch a covert operation against Miami, and the United States could not launch a military operation against Cuba because it would be suicidal. Cuba instead responded to the United States by supporting guerrilla movements and governments in the Third World that were hostile to the United States and friendly to Cuba.
The other was the idealism of the Cuban Revolution and its leadership. The Cubans and Fidel Castro believed that Cuba had a duty to help other people liberate themselves, even though the main burden of the struggle belonged to the people of the country.
The Soviet Union was sympathetic to Cuba’s approach from 1961 to 1963. Then, the Soviet Union began to think it was not a good idea to support this for several reasons.
First, the Soviets correctly realized that the Cuban approach to guerrilla warfare was not working. Second, the majority of the Communist Party in Latin America, which was pro-Soviet and did not want to be bothered by Castro-ite military groups, did not support Fidel’s policy. Third, in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union wanted to establish diplomatic relations with Latin America.
In the 1960s, there was no difference between Cuba’s approach in Africa and the Soviet Union’s. Cuban paramilitary operations in the former Belgian Congo and Guinea-Bissau were established without even informing the Soviet Union, but the Soviet Union also supported the guerrilla movements in Guinea-Bissau, the Congo, and in Leopoldville. By the early 1970s, there were no major differences in foreign policy in Latin America between Cuba and the Soviet Union either.
Then, there was Angola. In late 1975, Fidel Castro began sending troops to Angola. At the same time, the Ford administration decided to freeze the SALT negotiations. Brehznev called the Congress of the Communist Party and had to present a victory. He could not present SALT. So he presented Angola as if Angola were a Soviet success.
The Cubans had learned how to deal with the Soviet Union. Brehznev wanted to appropriate the glory of the victory in Angola? Fine. Havana was not going to contradict him. The Angolans know who won. The Africans know who won. That’s the difference.
In Africa, Cuba incurred fewer risks, whereas in Latin America, Havana challenged legal governments and flouted international law. In Africa, it confronted colonial powers and defended established states. Above all, in Africa, there was much less risk of a head-on collision with the United States.
This is not what happened in Cuba. In late 1956, a strong urban underground was militarily stronger than the rural guerrilla force. In the Sierra Maestra, there were already groups organized and ready to support the guerrillas. Until 1958, Batista focused on the cities rather than the guerrillas. At the same time, the United States did not focus on Fidel because he had not proclaimed himself a communist. He enjoyed the support of the bourgeoisie.
If you were a young, middle-class Dominican or Guatemalan, the foco theory was attractive because it implied that you could start the armed struggle immediately rather than doing all the painful preparation work. Urban groups arrived in the countryside full of idealism and enthusiasm. The peasants didn’t know who they were. These groups didn’t do any political work with the peasants or learn lessons from Cuba.
The upper class and military in those countries, along with the United States, didn’t like the foco method. They immediately concentrated on areas where guerrillas appeared. The guerrillas in Latin America led to one failure after another because the methodology was wrong.
I interviewed a close aide of Che Guevara, who told me that they thought they had found a shortcut when there was no shortcut. The Cubans thought you needed objective conditions (misery and exploitation) and subjective conditions (people ready to organize and fight) to have a revolution. The objective conditions for revolutions were there in Latin America. The Cubans thought that the foco theory would take care of the subjective conditions and educate the people. So they skipped the very painful stage of political education. By the late 1960s, the foco theory had failed.
Cuba sent weapons to the Algerian rebels. Many Algerians were wounded, and children became orphans during the war. So they were sent to be educated in Cuba. With one ship, the Casablanca, there were these two dimensions of Cuban policy in Africa: military assistance — weapons for the guerrillas — and sending the children and the wounded to Cuba. These were the first steps.
Then, Cuba sent a medical mission to Algeria. The health minister of Cuba said that it was like helping another beggar. Cuba had lost a lot of doctors because half of them had fled to the United States. Yet they sent a medical mission to Algeria because there were worse things for Cuba, and Algeria really deserved it. When the medical mission arrived, there was a negative reaction from many, even Algerians, because the Cuban doctors worked for free. But the medical missions continued for decades.
Then, Cuba started to focus on sub-Saharan Africa. This was Cuba’s mistake. Initially, Cuba had a very small presence in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1964, the war in the Portuguese colonies — Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique — began. There was also a revolt in the former Belgian Congo and what seemed to be a revolutionary government in Congo-Brazzaville. Fidel Castro decided to send a mission to Africa to assess the situation and see if Cuba could help.
Che went to sub-Saharan Africa, an area he didn’t know anything about. The people who went with him didn’t know anything about sub-Saharan Africa either. Che concluded that Africa was already experiencing a revolution and agreed on behalf of Fidel to send instructors to help guerrillas fighting against governments supported by the United States. At the time, it was the largest covert operation that Cuba had undertaken.
Che led a force of around 125 men into the former Belgian Congo-Brazzaville. There was a huge intelligence mistake. When they arrived, the revolt had already been defeated. For six months, there wasn’t much that Che or his guerrillas could do. Then, in November 1965, all Che could do was withdraw from the Congo. The revolt had lost, and Tanzania, the rear base of the revolt, was exposed to too many enemies. Cuba learned a very important lesson: you have to know what’s going on before you act.
After the Congo-Brazzaville operation and before the Angolan one, there were two more Cuban covert operations in Africa. One was in Guinea-Bissau, which had the strongest guerrilla movement in Africa. Until the Portuguese acknowledged the independence of Guinea-Bissau in 1974, Cuba gave the guerrillas military and humanitarian assistance.
No other Third World country offered a program of technical assistance of such scope and generosity. The comparison that immediately comes to mind is the US Peace Corps, but with an important difference: Cuba’s aid workers included highly skilled professionals — doctors, nurses, engineers, and university professors.
What does that distinction reveal? How did Cuba, which remained a very poor country after the revolution, develop the capacity for such a massive deployment of skilled workers across the Third World?
My impression of doctors in the United States is that their major motivation is money. In Cuba, the education was completely different. You became a doctor because you wanted to be a doctor. Cuba was the one country in the world where a university professor made more than a doctor: money was not a major motivation. The Cuban doctors who went to Africa went with a completely different culture.
This is the difference between Cuba and Angola versus the United States and Vietnam: no one had to go. But if you said no, depending on what your occupation was, there might be a price to pay.
When Cuba sent the huge reinforcement of 17,000 men in 1988, top military officers said that a number of people refused to go but not a large number. No one was sent to jail for refusing to go on a military mission abroad.
Why did Carter’s promise of change end up, by the end of his term, being just more business as usual?
Carter’s first priority was Rhodesia because the situation seemed the most explosive there. Americans were terrified that Cubans would repeat the experience of Angola in Rhodesia. Rhodesia bordered Mozambique and Zambia, countries that both supported the guerrillas. They were receiving heavy blows from the Rhodesian government.
The Carter administration correctly felt that unless it stopped the war, the governments of Mozambique and Zambia would ask the Cubans to defend them and intervene in Rhodesia. It asked itself, “If the Cubans intervene in Rhodesia, what are we going to do? Can we intervene in defense of an openly racist government in Rhodesia considering what we as the Carter administration claim to be?” It decided it had to solve the war before it escalated. That’s what gave Rhodesia priority: the fear that Cubans might intervene and repeat Angola.
By 1978, Carter was on the defensive against American public opinion. He was considered weak vis-à-vis the communist strength. When Brzeziński addressed Carter, he always referred to the elections and US domestic situation. Brzeziński’s position, which Carter supported, was that they would not have diplomatic relations with Angola until the Cuban troops left. The CIA wrote that the Cuban troops were the guarantee of Angola’s independence because of the growing South African press, but this was completely irrelevant for Brzeziński. He never addressed the issue of the security of Angola.
Records in the State Department indicate that it knew this was the wrong policy and that it should establish diplomatic relations with Angola, but it was not a battle it was willing to give up. It thought establishing diplomatic relations was something it should leave for the second term of Carter after reelection.
By the time Carter stepped down, an image was etched in the mind of most Americans, and it endures to this day: the United States was stumbling, on the ropes, pressed by an aggressive Soviet Union. The reality was starkly different.
Why did Carter take Brzeziński’s advice, and why did Brzeziński’s advice serve Carter so poorly?
The situation was absurd. The United States maintained hundreds of thousands of soldiers in Western Europe to protect it from a nonexistent Soviet threat, but it told the Cubans to leave Angola, leaving Angola at the mercy of the South African people. People in the State Department felt that there was something wrong, but Carter didn’t feel it.
What was Reagan’s program to make US foreign policy even more decisively right wing?
True Reaganites also believed that the United States should overthrow every Third World government it considered communist. In the 1970s for instance, Angola and Mozambique’s governments proclaimed themselves Marxist-Leninist and were both ruled by guerrilla movements that had taken power. The difference between them was that the birth of the Angolan government came at a time of a huge American defeat and humiliation in 1975 and 1976. There was also a strong Cuban presence.
While true Reaganites said “the Angolan government is to be overthrown,” pragmatists, like the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker, said, “I’m not interested in overthrowing the Angolan government. I want the Cuban troops to leave Angola. Then, if Angola can survive, it survives.” In the end, the outcome would be the same because removing the Cuban shield would allow the South Africans to enter. But this was the difference between True Reaganites and pragmatists.
This difference became more real in the case of Mozambique. There were no foreign troops in Mozambique. In the United States, the True Reaganites wanted to overthrow the government of Mozambique, but the more pragmatic people said we could coexist with Mozambique’s government. This showed a real difference between the two groups not just in theoretical terms but in practice.
How did the idea of linkage come about, and how big of a change was it given that the Carter administration had already refused to impose any consequences on South Africa?
But by the mid-1980s, a movement in favor of sanctions against South Africa spread in the United States and throughout the world. Linkage protected South Africa then, at least on the issue of Namibia. Eventually, linkage became important in lessening the pressure on South Africa.
There are CIA reports containing devastating critiques of Reagan’s policy. They say that South Africans couldn’t care less about linkage. The only thing that interested South Africa was the defense of apartheid, which entailed dominating the region to eradicate any threats to apartheid. South Africa intended to overthrow the Angolan government. Chester Crocker’s theory of constructive engagement, or the theory that we should understand the worries of South Africans, meet them halfway, and prompt them to make concessions, was a joke. It was a one-way street.
The Cubans were opposed to this. They thought that the real problem of the Angolan government was not Savimbi. It was the South Africans. If the offensive was successful, the Angolan government would just withdraw, and Savimbi would come back. If they advanced, the South African Air Force, against which the Angolans had no defense, would intervene.
What struck me about the offensive was that the Angolan troops, about 11,000 soldiers, were successful. They fought better than Savimbi’s troops. They were winning. When I read South African documents, this took me by surprise. By late 1987, Savimbi was weaker than the South African force. The South Africans were disappointed by the way this military campaign was developing in southeastern Angola. They believed that they could win if they brought Savimbi to power, but they realized that Savimbi was weaker than they thought
But you write:
Here was the rub. The Soviet advisors and the Angolan military leaders wanted to create a regular army that could fight a conventional war against a foreign enemy, including South Africa. Havana, however, believed that the FAPLA should concentrate on fighting the insurgency — UNITA — at home, leaving the Cuban troops to protect the country from a foreign invasion.
Cuba believed that its responsibility was to fight the South Africans and the FAPLA’s job was to go after the other rebels wreaking havoc north of the Cuban defensive line. Cuba argued that FAPLA launching military incursions in the South would lead them to direct confrontation with South Africa, which had an army and air force that would crush them. But the Soviets insisted that the FAPLA do just that.
Why were the Soviets so intent on pushing FAPLA toward a conventional warfare model that did not remotely fit Angolan conditions? Were the Soviets stuck on World War II?
The FAPLA made a mistake in 1985 when they went offensive in the southeast: the South Africans intervened and beat them up. But then they launched another offensive in 1987. The Cubans kept saying the same would happen, but the Soviets asserted that it was a different situation because this time they had better antiaircraft weapons. It is true that, to South Africa’s dismay, the FAPLA was defeating Savimbi without South African intervention. But as the Cubans had foreseen, the South Africans intervened with their air force and special troops, turning the situation. The Cuban generals understood counterinsurgency better than Soviet generals.
But the Soviets pushed Angolans to launch one more assault on the South, which once again led to disaster: the SADF slaughtered Angolan troops and pushed the FAPLA back to Cuito Cuanavale, a town that South Africa was then poised to take. This was the decisive moment that pushed Cuba to finally take action with or without Soviet support. What happened at Cuito, and why was it so important?
There was a consensus among South Africans, Americans, and observers that the collapse of Cuito Cuanavale would be a terrible blow to the Angolan government. It could change the course of the war. The Soviets and the Angolans wanted the Cubans to intervene.
Fidel’s position was different. In a meeting, he said, “We’re going to intervene, but we’re not just going to intervene to save Cuito Cuanavale. We’re going to intervene to do what we want: save Cuito Cuanavale and then launch an offensive in the southwest,” where there were South African troops. Cuba started sending reinforcements.
The Cuban decision was made possible by the beginning of the great popular revolt in South Africa in 1984. The masses in the streets impressed the world. The Cubans received South African delegations and the South African Communist Party in Havana. Fidel and Raúl asked them to say more about South Africa and what they could do to help. The Cuban government was convinced that the aid it could first provide was to destroy the South African troops that were entering southern Africa. But the problem was — and this was the reason for the creation of the defensive line — the Cubans kept their best weapons, planes, pilots, and troops in Havana because they feared an American attack.
From 1983 to 1986, the Cubans asked the Soviets to give them more weapons because they were fighting a war on two fronts. The Soviets kept saying, “No, we can’t.” I think they refused to give them weapons because they feared that the Cubans would move into Namibia if they gained the upper hand in southern Angola. If they couldn’t control the Cubans, they couldn’t stop the Cubans. So they didn’t give them weapons.
On November 15, 1987, Fidel held a famous meeting in Havana with his top advisors. For the first time, the Cubans were going to plan without the nightmare of a US attack on Cuba. Fidel said that the war was no longer in Cuba — it was in Angola. Reagan was defanged.
In 1976, the Soviet Union decided that it might as well support Cuba. It was offended and irritated, but it thought that it had to be careful quarreling with Fidel Castro. In Angola in 1988, Gorbachev behaved well. He sent Cubans most of the weapons they wanted, and the Soviets didn’t interfere in the famous apartheid negotiations involving the Cubans, Angolans, South Africans, and Americans.
Chester Crocker acknowledges in memoirs that “Fidel Castro was leading the communist reign in Angola even though Cuba depended on the Soviet Union for military assistance.” There were two moments in history during which the Cubans intervened in Angola big time without consulting the Soviets: 1975 and 1987. Eventually the Soviets accepted their intervention. And by then, the Cubans had saved Angola.
The Americans and South Africans didn’t know what Cuba was going to do, and this forced their hand. Cuba wanted to enter Namibia. Cuba was strong enough to occupy the South African military base in northern Namibia and liberate the region. The situation was a triptych: there were three elements that brought about South Africa’s surrender.
One, the Cubans gained the upper hand in southern Angola. Two, at the same time, South Africans faced the threat of growing international sanctions. Three, there was a recent struggle of the people in South Africa: the bulk of the South African army was attempting to repress the population.
So South Africans had to agree to abandon Savimbi and allow free elections in Namibia. There was nothing South Africans could do. The elections took place, and the guerrilla movement won. These elections would not have taken place without the Cuban victory in Angola.
Why is this observation so essential to understanding US-Cuba relations and, more generally, the histories of both Cuba and the United States?
What really happened in 1898 is that we intervened in the war against a Spain that was already exhausted because of the Cuban patriots’ struggle. Then we deprived Cubans of the independence they had been fighting for. The US government had the right to send troops to Cuba whenever it deemed necessary and the right to establish naval bases like Guantanamo. There is a misreading of history.
Cuba helped liberate southern Africa against the United States and challenged the Soviet Union. But history is being rewritten. It’s not just being rewritten by Americans or Western Europeans. In Africa, there is a tendency to try to court [nations] that are stronger. For instance, in 2008 for the anniversary for Cuito Cuanavale, the president of Angola made a speech about the negotiations between South Africa and Angola with the mediation of the United States, and he completely overlooked Cuba. There is also a tendency in Africa to rewrite history because the United States is so powerful.
But people are still grateful. I was impressed when I went to Namibia and people remembered and appreciated the role of Cuba. In South Africa, all of the African National Congress was very grateful to Cuba too.