Context is Everything!!!
By Baffour Ankomah
In the 1970s and 80s, Fidel Castro sent 350,000 Cuban soldiers, civilians and doctors to support the African liberation struggle, especially in Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, and Sao Tome & Principe. The Cuban effort eventually hastened the demise of apartheid in South Africa. In the evening of his life, and having just retired from the Cuban presidency, Fidel Castro deserves to be honoured by Africa, by the African Union. Baffour Ankomah argues that such an honour will boost the morale of the foreign friends of Africa, past and present, to do even more for the continent and also assure them that their many sacrifices on behalf of Africa have not been in vain. A good 2,077 Cubans died fighting for Africa.
The British had their Lawrence of Arabia; we have our Castro of Africa. Nelson Mandela was in jail when Fidel Castro, then president of Cuba, sent 300,000 Cuban soldiers and another 50,000 civilians and doctors across the Atlantic to fight in Africa’s liberation wars, particularly in Angola against Western-sponsored proxies then in power in South Africa and Zaire (under Mobutu) who were trying to prevent the Southern African countries from attaining true independence.
After the Cuban and their Angolan, Namibian and ANC allies decisively defeated the then feared South African defence forces in Angola, it brought independence not only to Angola and Namibia, but also accelerated the death of apartheid itself in South Africa. No wonder, when Nelson Mandela met Castro for the first time in Havana in July 1991, 17 months after his release from 27 years in jail, the future South African president gave Castro a bear hug so big as though he was meeting his long lost brother for the first time in 100 years!
Mandela would later ask: “What other country can claim to have been as altruistic as Cuba in its relations with Africa? Castro is a man of the masses.” Four years later, in a speech at the opening of the Southern African-Cuban Solidarity Conference in Johannesburg on 6 October 1995, Mandela revealed that “Fidel was one of the first heads of state we have asked to pay a state visit to our country, because it is one way in which we can show our gratitude and indebtedness to him and to the people of Cuba.”
1995 was part of the period in which Fidel’s Cuba went through stiff economic hardships, after losing Soviet support following the collapse of both the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union itself. And Mandela continued: “I have heard, with a sense of real emotion and pride, of how poorly paid [African] mine workers have collected money for Cuba. I have read that they have donated their own overalls and boots, and bought mine-lamps and safety gear for their Cuban brothers. These workers on South African mines come from several countries of our region.
“Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonisers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid. Hundreds of Cubans have given their lives, literally, in a struggle that was, first and foremost, not theirs but ours. As Southern Africans we salute them. We vow never to forget this unparalleled example of selfless internationalism.”
Then his voice choked with irony, Mandela turned this way and that way, and told his audience: “Many people, many countries, including many powerful countries, have called upon us to condemn the suppression of human rights in Cuba. We have reminded them they have a short memory. For when we battled against apartheid, against racial oppression, the same countries were supporting the apartheid regime–a regime that represented only 14% of the population, while the overwhelming majority of the people of the country had no rights whatsoever. They supported the apartheid regime. And we fought successfully against that regime with the support of Cuba and other progressive countries.
“They now want to be our only friends, and dare to ask us to renounce those people who made our victory possible. That is the greatest contempt for the morality and the principles which are the basis of our relations, not only with the various population groups in this country, but with the entire world. And I want to make a commitment here that we will never let our friends down, friends during the most difficult period of our struggle, especially Cuba.”
On 21 March 2008, Namibia will celebrate 18 years of independence. And Fidel Castro and his beloved Cuba will loom large over the celebrations. The Namibian government will honour Castro and Cuba during the celebrations as a way of saying “thank you” for the help that Castro and the people of Cuba gave Namibia during the liberation struggle.
Can the African Union fail to follow suit? Can we not have a continental honour, supported by all Africa, bestowed on Castro and the people of Cuba before Africa’s Great Friend, now 81, and in poor health, probably joins the ancestors? Moreso when 2,077 Cubans died fighting Africa’s liberation wars? Such an honour will make Africa rise and shine with pride and gratitude, particularly for the indomitable Cuban people to know that their sons and daughters did not die in vain for Africa’s final decolonisation and statehood.
Interestingly, in his memoirs, Castro talks about Cuba’s love affair with Africa with such gusto and passion that you might think it happened only yesterday. Titled “My Life, Fidel Castro”, the original of the book was published in Spanish in 2006 but the English translation only came out in December 2007, published by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books. Every African must get a copy! The book–a rare question and answer format allowed Castro to talk about his life, his work, his country, his adversaries in the White House, and anything under the sun. It is a tome of 724 pages (including index). “A kind of ‘autobiography a deux’, though in the form of a conversation, it [is] Fidel Castro’s political testament, an oral summing-up of Fidel Castro’s life by Fidel himself,” writes Ignacio Ramonet, the long-time editor of the French publication, Le Monde Diplomatique, who did the interviews between 2003 and 2005, and put the book together.
The English translation was done by Andrew Hurley, a professional translator in Puerto Rico, who had 25 years earlier translated books by (as he himself admits) “quite a number of anti-Castro figures or personae non grata”. Hurley adds for good measure: “I see it as a mark of their [Castro and Ramonet’s] self assurance and sense of realpolitik that neither of them objected to my taking on their project and this one being a conduit for the words and thoughts of the great devil’.” That is what Castro’s enemies call him. And as it happens, one of “the great devil’s” supposed sins is being a stickler for detail. Neil Tweedle of The Daily Telegraph (London) reports that “in a country [Cuba] where music and dance are staples of life, Castro is an enthusiast for neither. He prefers reading and the accumulation of detail.”
And so, listening to him talk, in the interviews with Ramonet, about Cuba and Africa, you get the impression that “the great devil” was watching it all on TV as the pitched battles were being fought for African liberation between 1970 and 1988. He remembers everything to the last detail. He told Ramonet: “In 1961–not quite two years after the triumph of the [Cuban] Revolution [in 1959], when the people of Algeria were still fighting for their independence [from France]–a Cuban ship took weapons to the Algerian patriots. And on its return to Cuba, it brought back about 100 children who had been orphaned and wounded in the war.
“The story of rescued children would be repeated many years later, in 1978, when Namibian survivors of the Cassinga massacre arrived in Cuba, the great majority were children. [Cassinga was a Namibian refugee camp in southern Angola bombed by apartheid South Africa during the war of independence]. Interestingly, the current Namibian ambassador to Cuba was one of those children. Just as you can see the twists and turns that life can take.” Castro went on: “At the time of the massacre, the Cubans were fighting an intense bloody battle defending the long line in southern Angola, at a point not far from Cassinga.
“A Cuban unit was advancing determinedly towards that point to engage South African parachutists that were carrying out the slaughter of children, women and old people there, with the support of modern fighter planes. It was one of the actions in the war with the most casualties, counting both dead and wounded. But the massacre was stopped, and the hundreds of surviving or wounded children were brought to Cuba to recover. They were later enrolled in schools, where they received their primary and middle-school education. Some of them later graduated from Cuban universities.”
Cuban troops also fought against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea-Bissau. About 600 Cuban soldiers, including 70 doctors, went to Guinea Bissau to help the African guerrillas for 10 years before independence came in 1974. Cuba also helped in the liberation struggles in Cape Verde, and in Sao Tome & Principe, who gained their independence in 1975. Cuba again fought in Ethiopia on the side of Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam’s troops in the Ogaden campaign in 1978 against an invasion by Somalia, but sadly Mengistu’s military regime turned out to be a nightmare for Ethiopia–not a pretty item that Cuba would want to see on its illustrious CV.
Again, way back in April 1965, Cuba had sent the legendary Che Guevara and a large group of Cuban fighters to Kibamba, near Fizi, in DRCongo’s province of South Kivu, to help the supporters of Patrice Lumumba, headed by one Laurent Desire Kabila, who were trying to wrestle power from Mobutu Sese Seko. The mission did not succeed because of poor planning by Kabila and his top brass.
Then came Mozambique and Angola where the biggest Cuban action in Africa was staged against apartheid South African troops backed by America and its Western allies. Castro takes up the story in his memoirs: “In Angola, which was the largest and richest of Portugal’s colonies in Africa, the situation was different,” he says. “The USA implemented a covert plan to crush the legitimate interests of the Angolan people and impose a puppet government. A key point was a US alliance with apartheid South Africa to train and equip certain organisations created by the Portuguese colonial regime in order to frustrate Angolas independence and turn it into virtually a condominium for Mobutu and South African fascism.
“And in that respect, there is something very important that I should tell you: While Cuba was in Angola, and Angola was being invaded by South Africa, the USA made arrangements to transfer to South Africa–racist, fascist South Africa–several atomic bombs, similar to those it exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“Which means that, that war in Angola–this is something that people often forget–was fought by Cuban and Angolan soldiers against an army and a government that had eight atomic bombs provided by the United States through that great supporter, that eternal supporter of the US blockade against Cuba, Israel.
“And there were those who hoped that those bombs would be used against us–we had our suspicions and we took all precautions, under the assumption that the South Africans were going to drop a nuclear weapon on our troops.”
Ignacio Ramonet could not believe his ears as Castro narrated the story: “The South Africans had atomic bombs supplied by the USA? I didn’t know that, “he asked Castro, in disbelief. By now, “the great devil” was in his element: “Not many people know that, but it’s the truth,” Castro told Ramonet. “The ‘democrats’–not the Democratic Party, but rather the ‘democratic empire’–who didn’t they make deals with? What act of banditry did they not carry out or countenance? They joined forces with Mobutu and turned a blind eye to his crimes.
“This Mobutu, the corrupt dictator of Zaire, was one of the biggest thieves that ever lived–no one knows where the $40bn he stole is now, what banks it may be in, or what government helped him to collect those tens of billions of dollars in a country where there was practically nothing left. Nor should we forget that when Lumumba was assassinated, it was Mobutu who was leading the mercenary troops, armed by the Europeans, who killed so many people in Congo.
“One day I asked Nelson Mandela: ‘Mr President, do you know where the nuclear weapons that South Africa had are?’ ‘No, I don’t know,’ he said. ‘What have the South African military leaders told you?’, I asked him. ‘They haven’t told me a word,’ he replied.
“That’s a time that nobody knows about, and the world doesn’t ask those questions, ever, anyone. Just like nobody asks questions about the nuclear weapons that Israel has–nobody! The news that circulates in the world is the news that interests the empire [USA] and its allies, who want to control a monopoly even on nuclear fuel, against the time when crude oil and natural gas supplies are depleted.”
Ramonet wanted to know more about South Africa’s nuclear bombs, and pursued the point with Castro, asking him: “Faced with South African forces armed with nuclear weapons, what tactics did the Cubans adopt?” Castro replied: “Totally new. And in fact, we had to adopt asymmetrical methods, in keeping with the fact that we were facing a South African army with nuclear weapons. We decided to form tactical groups consisting of no more than 1,000 men, heavily armed, with tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and antiaircraft weapons, plus our domination of the air thanks to the audacity of our MiG-23 units, which could fly at very low altitudes and had managed to really dominate the air space in the area, even in the face of a power that had dozens and dozens of the most modern planes. It’s a nice story–what a shame nobody has written about it fully.”
Castro talks about the epic battles of the Angolan war of independence, especially the one in October 1975, in such detail as if he were there himself. Despite Mobutu’s army and mercenary troops bolstered by South African military advisers arriving at the gates of Angolas capital, Luanda, in mid-1975, Castro thinks the greatest danger to Angola’s independence was in the south.
“Armoured columns of South African troops had crossed the southern border of Angola and were advancing quickly into the heart of the country,” he recalls. “The objective was for the racist South African forces coming from the south to meet up with Mobutu’s mercenaries from the north and occupy Luanda before Angola proclaimed its independence, which was scheduled for 11 November 1975. Those were difficult days!
“At the time, there were only 480 Cuban military instructors in Angola–along with a group in Cabinda, doing training there. The 480 had arrived in the country a few weeks earlier in response to a request by the MPLA leader, Agostinho Neto. He had the support of all African nations and recognised worldwide.
“In the face of the two-pronged invasion of Angola, the Cubans immediately joined in the defence of the country that would go on for many years. Our instructors would not be abandoned to their fate, so Cuba, in coordination with President Neto, decided to immediately send in special troops from our Ministry of Interior, and regular troops from the Revolutionary Armed Forces. It was at that point that Cuba launched what was called ‘Operation Carlota’, a codename for the most just, long-lasting, massive and successful internationalist military campaign in our country’s history.”
According to Castro, Carolota was both a symbol and a tribute to the thousands of slaves who died in combat or were executed during the first slave insurrections in Cuba. “It was in those uprisings that women such as Carlota were forged. She was a Lucumi slave on the Triunvirato sugarcane plantation, in what is now the Cuban province of Matanzas, and in 1843 she led one of the many uprisings against the terrible stigma of slavery, and she gave her life in the struggle.”
Castro told Ramonet: “By late November 1975, the enemy aggression in Angola had been halted in both the north and south. The empire [USA] wasn’t able to achieve its goal of dismembering Angola and thwarting its independence. It was prevented from doing that by the heroic struggle of the people of Angola and Cuba.”
In all, over 36,000 Cuban soldiers fought in that offensive right up to the borders of South Africa, forcing the apartheid army to retreat over 1,000kms (some 650 miles) to their starting point on Angola’s border with Namibia which at the time was ruled by South Africa.
Castro reveals how after defeating the South Africans in the 1975 war, Cuba wanted Pretoria to pay a heavy price for its adventure, including the independence of Namibia. But the Soviet Union put heavy pressure on Cuba to desist, because Moscow was worried about possible American reactions. “After serious objections on our part, we had no alternative but to accept the Soviets’ demand, though only in part,” Castro remembers. “Although the Soviets were not consulted on Cuba’s decision to send troops to Angola, they did later provide arms for the creation of the Angolan army, and they responded positively to certain of our requests for military materiel throughout the war. There would have been no possibility of a successful outcome in Angola without the political and logistical support of the USSR after that first triumph.”
When Castro talks about the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987-88 where the South Africans were routed by the combined forces of Cuba, Angola and Namibia, his eyes brighten up like a young man just meeting his first love. “It was the last offensive against [Jonas] Savimbi’s imaginary capital down there in southeast Angola. On that occasion, once again, the same old story–the Angolans had not followed Cuba’s recommendations, and the offensive, now in its last stage, was hit hard by South Africa, and the Angolans suffered heavy losses of both men and the brand new armoured equipment that had been supplied by the Soviets,” Castro recounts.
“The enemy, which became emboldened, was advancing in depth towards Cuito Cuanavale, Nato’s former alternative airport, near the Menongue air base, and was preparing to launch a mortal blow against Angola. There was not a single Cuban there, as had also been the case on previous occasions, because we had told them, ‘don’t count on us’. But given the disaster that had been created–the worst of all in this war, and one in which we bore not the slightest responsibility–we began to receive desperate calls from the Angolan government, asking for our aid. You can imagine what mood we were in after those previous disasters. Pretty disgusted, as is only natural. But this time the risk was much greater … the morale of the Angolan troops had been destroyed, and the tanks and armoured transport vehicles that were left could hardly move. Cuba’s closest unit was 200kms away, 125 miles.”
But finally, the Cubans agreed to help the beleaguered Angolans. “Our nation repeated the great feat of arms we had pulled off in 1975. A flood of units and combat equipment was quickly sent across the Atlantic and disembarked on the southern coast of Angola, in order to attack the enemy from the southwestern part of Angola, down towards Namibia,” reveals Castro.
“Meanwhile 800kms (500 miles) to the east, a complete brigade of tanks, after sweeping the road for almost 100kms of mines, was advancing towards Cuito Cuanavale, where the Angolan troops in retreat under the South African attack were re-assembling …
“Prior to that, we had asked President Jose Eduardo dos Santos to turn over command of all the Angolan troops on the southern front to us. Thus, there was one single command for all the forces in the battle against the South African racists. New Cuban reinforcements followed the tank brigade in, and for many days that forgotten name (Cuito Cuanavale) was the centre of world attention.
“I don’t want to go on and on, so let me just say that along with the officers and enlisted men of the Angolan army that was reassembling, our combatants and their brilliant commanders prepared a mortal trap for the powerful South African forces advancing on the airport–a trap into which the racist army fell, and was overpowered.”
Over 55,000 Cuban soldiers had been sent to Angola for this battle. And while the South African troops were being bled slowly dry in Cuito Cuanavale, down in the southwest of Angola, another group of 40,000 Cuban soldiers, plus 30,000 Angolan troops and some 3,000 Namibian SWAPO guerrillas, backed by about 600 tanks, hundreds of artillery pieces, 1,000 anti-aircraft weapons and the daring MiG-23 air units, advanced towards the Namibian border, ready to sweep away the South African forces quartered in that main direction.
“It was an operation that decided the war, really,” recalls Castro. “It was a long and very complex campaign, unquestionably the largest military operation that Cuban troops have ever taken part in. And I could sit here for hours telling you about how that long, long battle unfolded, the strategy that was followed, dozens and dozens of incidents and stories, because it’s still very fresh, very clear in my memory. Someday you will have to write the complete history of that great feat.”
A proud Castro then paused to take in the magnitude of that victory, and then told Ramonet: “The overwhelming victory at Cuito Cuanavale, and especially the withering advance by the powerful front of Cuban troops in southwestern Angola, put an end to outside military aggression against the country. The enemy had to swallow its usual arrogant bullying and sit down at the negotiating table.
“The negotiations culminated in the peace accords for South West Africa (Namibia), signed by South Africa, Angola and Cuba at the UN headquarters in 1988, and that led to our withdrawal from Angola.
“They were called the ‘four-party’ negotiations because the Cubans and Angolans were sitting on one side of the table, and on the other side the South Africans. The US was on the third side of the table, since the US was acting as a mediator. In fact, the US was both judge and party to the proceedings; it was an ally of the apartheid regime–it should have been sitting over there with the South Africans.
“For years, the lead American negotiator, Chester Crocker, under-secretary of state for African affairs, had been opposed to Cuba taking part in the negotiations. But given the gravity of the military situation for the South African aggressors, he had no choice but to accept us there. In a book he wrote on the subject, he was realistic when he mentioned the entrance of the Cuban representative into the meeting room. He said: ‘The negotiations were about to change forever.’ That spokesperson for the Reagan administration knew very well that with Cuba at the negotiating table, there was not going to be any crude manoeuvring, blackmail, intimidation or lying.”
On 27 May 1991, the last Cuban soldier was pulled out of Angolan soil. “Their contribution was decisive in finally bringing independence to Angola and in doing the same thing in Namibia in March 1990. It also made a significant contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe, and to the toppling of the hated apartheid regime in South Africa,” says a proud Fidel Castro. “It was an extraordinary feat on the part of our people, most especially the young people, the tens of thousands of combatants who–voluntarily–did their internationalist duty. And 2,077 of our compatriots died there.”
Can Africa fail to honour such bravery–and sacrifice?
When Ramonet interviewed Castro for his memoirs, a bit of bitterness appeared to creep into the ex-president’s voice regarding Africa’s apparent non-remembrance of the sacrifices made by Cuba on behalf of the continent. Ramonent asked him: “How do you explain that Cuba’s actions in Africa, and specifically in Angola, are so little known at the international level?”
Castro replied: “Why has that extraordinary epic moment in our history never been told in its entirety? There is an explanation for that. On 11 November 2003, during the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the independence of Angola, the imperialist Americans made an extraordinary effort to prevent Cuba’s name from even appearing in any of the commemorative events.
“And to top it off, Washington is even now attempting to rewrite history: Cuba, apparently, never had anything at all to do with the independence of Angola, the independence of Namibia, or the defeat of the till then invincible forces of the army of apartheid. Cuba doesn’t even exist–it was all just happenstance, luck, the workings of the imagination of those nations.
“And now they are also trying to claim that the government of the United States had nothing to do with the hundreds of thousands of Angolans murdered, the thousands of Angolan villages razed to the ground, the millions of landmines planted on Angolan soil, constantly taking the lives of children, women and civilians in that country.
“That is an insult to the nations and peoples of Angola, Namibia and South Africa, who fought so long and so hard, and a gross injustice to Cuba, the only non-African country that fought and spilled its blood for Africa and against the odious apartheid regime.
Ramonet asked him again: “Do you think that one of the reasons the world has ‘overlooked’ Cuba’s actions in Africa is that the US has become an important ally of Angola and one of the largest purchasers of Angolan oil?”
Castro answered: “It’s true that Yankee imperialism extracts oil from Angola amounting to billions of dollars … Cuba did what the famous anti-colonialist leader, Amilcar Cabral, said it would: ‘The Cuban combatants are ready to sacrifice their lives to free our countries, and in exchange for that aid to our freedom and the progress of our peoples, the only thing they will take away with them are the combatants that fell in the fight for freedom.’
“The ridiculous Yankee attempts to ignore the honourable role that Cuba played is an indignity to the African nations. It’s due in part to the fact that the true history of those events has never been written.
“And I can say that Cuba, for its part, which has never wanted to write about this, and even today resists talking about what it did with such disinterestedness and solidarity, is willing to lend its modest cooperation by opening its archives and documents to serious historians who wish to tell the true story of those events.”
Can Africa really forget such selflessness and heroism? Now is the time to show our deeply-felt appreciation to the courageous people of Cuba and their leader, Fidel Castro.
Source: New African