1. 1959-1991 Cuba-Africa Policy Elevates Consciousness, Strengthens Bonds
“I don’t believe there is life after death. But if there is, we can be sure that the souls of our forefathers who were taken away to America to be slaves are rejoicing today to see their children reunited and working together to help us be independent and free”[i] – Amílcar Cabral, leader of the independence movement of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, addressing Cuban soldiers at their Brazzaville camp.
Cuba-Africa ties are celebrated in Havana and are integral to Cuban identity. These links include common bonds between Cuba and Africa such as religion, identity, culture, and music as well shared values between peoples and movements that are both cherished by the Cuban revolution and the African liberation movements. These include third world solidarity, non-alignment, internationalist duty, anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism, anti-neocolonialism and anti-racism. The revolutionary Cuban government has actively enhanced Africa ties in multiple realms and changed the course of African history. Its scope and breadth range from legalizing the practice of Afro-Cuban religions and promoting Afro-Cuban music to its internationalist Africa policy from 1959-1991. Cuba’s engagement with Africa during this time was a fundamental extension of the Cuban revolution itself, rather than cosmetic foreign policy, and was spearheaded and crafted by a small group of people including Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.[ii] The Cuban revolution provided inspiration for African liberation movements and the Cuban internationalist missions were a “resevoir” of “revolutionary fervor”, helped consolidate “socialist consciousness”, and explain the “resilience of the Cuban revolution”.[iii]
“The Cuban doctors really performed a miracle. Not only did they save lives, but they put their own lives at risk. They were truly selfless”[iv] - on Cuban doctors serving in liberated zones in Guinea Bissau during its war of independence.
Cuba provided support to numerous African countries from Algeria to South Africa which ranged from weapons, medicine, and scholarships to personnel such as teachers, soldiers, doctors, and trainers. From 1959-1991, “over 500,000 Cubans served in the African wars that ultimately ended colonialism”[v] and the ideas and principles of the Cuban revolution were driving forces behind Cuba-Africa relations. Cuba sent doctors to newly liberated zones, such as those in Guinea-Bissau, during brutal anti-colonial struggles as well as newly independent countries such as Algeria. Cuban volunteers freely chose to go to Africa to serve.
Understanding the character of the Cuban leadership is important in analyzing why Cuba devoted so much to Africa. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analysis described Fidel Castro as “first of all a revolutionary”[vi] who “places himself in the vanguard of an irrepressible worldwide revolutionary movement”.[vii] For Castro and the Cuban high leadership, “revolution is their raison d'être”.[viii] The character of Cuban leadership is coupled with their understanding of Cuban identity and relationship to Africa. Fidel Castro elucidates this link in a speech delivered at Revolution Square on December 22, 1975:
"... bear in mind that we are a Latin-American nation and a Latin-African nation as well. African blood flows freely through our veins. Many of our ancestors came as slaves from Africa to this land. They fought as members of the Liberating Army of Cuba. We are brothers and sisters to the people of Africa and we are ready to fight on their behalf"[ix]
Ernesto “Che” Guevara visited Africa on an official tour in 1964 and later, in 1965, disgusted by the assassination of President Patrice Lumumba in Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and the massacre of Congolese by white mercenary forces, secretly headed a Cuban column and trained Simba rebels in Eastern Congo. Although this attempt failed, Guevara’s efforts enabled him to meet rebels of many different liberation movements in African cities such as Dar-es-Salaam and Brazzaville. These encounters forged links and relations which would continue through the decades. Africa policy allowed Cuba to challenge imperial, colonial, and racist forces at the margins which it could not do as successfully in Latin America due to strong U.S. influence there. The threats addressed in Africa were the same ones that posed existential threats to the Cuban revolution itself. Thus, the motives behind Cuba’s Africa policy were “self-preservation” as well as “revolutionary zeal”.[x]
Cuban involvement was most intense in Angola, where 300,000 Cubans served from 1975-1991.[xi] Cuban troops supported the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and its leaders including former President Agostinho Neto and current President Eduardo Dos Santos. The U.S. Government, apartheid South African army, and Zairean troops, loyal to Joseph Mobutu, supported the two other Angolan rebel movements, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The regular South African army, with the support of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), invaded Angola and tried to capture the capital Luanda before independence to prevent a leftist MPLA administration from taking power. In response to MPLA request for assistance, Cuba started ‘Operation Carlota’, named in honor of an African slave who led a revolt with other women slaves at a sugar mill in Matanzas.[xii] Cuba sent its Special Forces into Luanda in 1975, commencing Cuban military engagement which would continue until Peace Accords were signed in 1988 to guarantee Namibian independence, which was then under South African occupation, as well as Cuban and South African troop withdrawal.
Above: Fidel delivers a fiery speech vis-à-vis Angola citing internationalist duty as reason for aiding Angola and describes the resource-driven action of the imperial powers. Instead of the typical zero-sum foreign policy of states during the Cold War that protected and pursued material interests, Cuban action was unique and idealistic.[xiii] As mentioned by a guerrilla leader in Guinea-Bissau “Cuba made no demands, it gave us unconditional aid.”[xiv]
Above: Video outlining some of Cuba’s contributions to African liberation. Castro worked to prevent the implementation of apartheid in Angola such as in Namibia and South Africa. Themes include Cubans’ African identity, Angolan action as an extension of the Cuban revolution itself, Cuba’s contribution to Angolan and Namibian independence, as well as to the end of apartheid.
Cuban policy maintained its independence and Cuba was far from a Soviet puppet. In Angola for example, Cuba did not notify Moscow of its plans to send combat troops until they were already deployed. By supporting the MPLA, Cuba helped Angola gain total independence, dealt a severe blow to apartheid, and granted Namibia its independence. In addition, Cuban engagement helped defeat U.S. policy which influenced U.S. Secretary of State Kissinger to pursue an unpopular softer line towards white-ruled Rhodesia. Addressing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1976 Kissinger encouraged majority rule in Rhodesia in order to avoid the specter of direct Soviet and Cuban combat intervention.[xv]
1.1 Literature in Havana celebrates Angola
Angola-Cuba links are vibrant and celebrated in Havana through literature available at local bookstores. African poetry, prose, culture, geography, religion, and music are intertwined with themes such as national liberation and revolution.
The quotes read:
1. “From this moment on, the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale” – Fidel Castro
2. “In Cuito Cuanavale shone, with all its intensity, the star of internationalism" - President Eduardo dos Santos of Angola
3. “Cuito Cuanavale was the turning point in the liberation of my continent and my people from the scourge of apartheid” - Nelson Mandela
2. Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, La Habana
Cementerio Cristobal Colon, located on Avenida 23 y 12 in Havana is well worth a visit. An eerie silence pervades and one can view the elaborate tombs, sarcophagi, and intricate statues that are interspersed within a vast area that runs several city blocks. Many well-known figures rest here such as musician Ibrahim Ferrer, military hero Máximo Gómez, ethnomusicologist Fernando Ortiz, and poet Nicolas Guillén. A few hours are needed to fully explore this jewel.
“The Cubans understood better than anyone that they had a duty to fight and help their brothers become free”[xvi] – African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) leader, Guinea-Bissau
Cuban personnel served exceptionally in African countries. They put their lives at risk and were highly praised as empathetic, sensitive, brave and selfless.[xvii]
A range of options are available for the traveler to Havana, from locally run restaurants, including paladares, to fancier establishments at luxury hotels.
Top: A greasy meal at a well-known paladar in Havana a few meters from the grand steps at the University of Havana. This sampler includes minced ground beef, pork, chicken, fried yucca, and sweet plantains.
Verdict: No frills, street-side restaurants patronized by Cubans offer the most authentic and delicious experience. Avoid the tourist traps, explore the city, and eat local!
¡ Disfrute bien, compañeros, y Viva Cuba!
[i] Gleijeses, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, 198.
[ii] Ibid., 374.
[iii] Isaac Saney, “Homeland of humanity: Internationalism within the Cuban Revolution.” Latin American Perspectives 36 no. 1 (2009): 111.
[iv] Gleijeses, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, 200.
[v] Jihan el Tahry, Cuba: An African Odyssey, DVD, directed by Jihan el Tahry (2007; France: ITVS International).
[vi] Sherman Kent to DCI, Sept. 4, 1963, NSC 145-10001-10126/205, JFKAC, RG 263, NA in Gleijeses, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, 375.
[vii] CIA, OCI, “Survey of Latin America,” Apr. 1, 1964, pp-83-84, NSFCF, box 1 in Gleijeses, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, 375.
[viii] DOS, Policy Planning Council, “Caribbean: Cuba” (draft outline), Feb. 13, 1964, p. 6, NSFCF, box 26/29, in Gleijeses, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, 375.
[ix] Herbert Matthews,“Forward, With Fidel, Anywhere: 'Angola is another move in the Cuban Revolution.' Castro sees Havana as a leader in the third world,” New York Times, March 4, 1976, 31.
[x] Gleijeses, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, 375.
[xi] Estela Bravo, Fidel: The untold story, DVD, directed by Estela Bravo (2007; United States: Bravo Films).
[xii] Alberto Núñez Betancourt, “Operation Carlota. Infinite heroism,” Digital Granma International, November 9, 2010, accessed August 24, 2013, http://www.granma.cu/ingles/cuba-i/19nov-Operation-Carlota.html.
[xiii] Gleijeses, Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976., 376.
[xiv] Ibid., 198.
[xv] Ibid., 391.
[xvi] Ibid., 378.
[xvii] Ibid., 378.
1. Bravo, Estela. Fidel: The untold story. Documentary. Directed by Estela Bravo. United States: Bravo Films, 2002.
2. Digital Granma International. “Operation Carlota. Infinite Heroism”. Last modified November 19, 2010. http://www.granma.cu/ingles/cuba-i/19nov-Operation-Carlota.html.
3. Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
4. Matthews, Herbert L. “Forward, With Fidel, Anywhere: 'Angola is another move in the Cuban Revolution.' Castro sees Havana as a leader in the third world.” New York Times, March 4, 1976.
5. Saney, Isaac. “Homeland of humanity: Internationalism within the Cuban Revolution.” Latin American Perspectives 36 no.1 (2009): 111-23.
6. Tahry, Jihan el. Cuba: An African Odyssey. Documentary. Directed by Jihan el Tahry. France: ITVS International, 2007.