“The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character … Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers. They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid.” – Nelson Mandela
Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro instilled in the Cuban people the internationalist spirit Mandela spoke about. The country's dedication to the liberation of Africa is unique in its scope and success.
Nov. 5, 2016, marked the 41st anniversary of Operation Carlota, Cuba’s 15-year mission to defend Angola’s independence, which played a decisive role in southern African national and anti-colonial liberation struggles.
Havana initiated the operation in response to a direct and urgent request from the government of Angola. Having just achieved independence after a long and brutal anti-colonial struggle, Angola confronted an invasion by racist South Africa. South Africa was determined to destroy the Black government of the newly independent Angola.
Operation Carlota was decisive in not only stopping the South African drive to the capital Luanda but also in pushing the South Africans out of Angola. The defeat of the South African forces was a major development in the southern African anti-colonial and national liberation struggle. At the time, The World, a Black South African newspaper, underscored the significance: “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.’”
Named after the leader of a revolt against slavery that took place in Cuba on November 5, 1843, Operation Carlota lasted more than 15 years. During that time, more than 330,000 Cubans served in Angola. More than 2,000 Cubans died defending Angolan independence and the freedom and right of self-determination of the peoples of southern Africa.
The Cuban revolutionary leadership viewed the military intervention as both defending an independent country from foreign invasion and repaying a historical debt owed by Cuba to Africa. Fidel Castro frequently invoked Cuba’s historical links to Africa.
Fidel: A Revolutionary Life
On the 15th anniversary of the Cuban victory at Bay of Pigs, he declared that Cubans “are a Latin-African people.” Reverend Abbuno Gonzalez underscored this connection, “My grandfather came from Angola. So it is my duty to go and help Angola. I owe it to my ancestors.”
In tribute to Cuba's assistance to African liberation struggles, Amilcar Cabral stated, "I don't believe in 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."
Cuban involvement in Southern Africa has been repeatedly dismissed as a surrogate activity for the Soviet Union. This insidious myth has been unequivocally refuted. In his acclaimed book, “Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-76,” Piero Gleijeses demonstrated that 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; the Soviet Union had no role in Cuba’s decision and were not even informed prior to deployment. In short, Cuba was not the puppet of the USSR.
Cuba’s military mission was a necessary counter to South Africa’s bloody drive for regional domination. From 1975 to 1988, the South Africa armed forces embarked on a campaign of massive destabilization of the region. The war of destabilization wrought a terrible toll. Between 1981 and 1988, an estimated 1.5 million people were (directly or indirectly) killed, including 825,000 children.
This was the result of Pretoria sponsored insurgencies — namely, UNITA in Angola and Renamo in Mozambique — and direct military actions by the South African armed forces. South Africa launched numerous bombing raids, armed incursions and assassinations against surrounding countries.
The decisive military confrontation with South Africa occurred around the southeastern Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale. Cuito Cuanavale was a critical turning point in the struggle against apartheid. From November 1987 to March 1988, the South African armed forces repeatedly tried and failed to capture Cuito Cuanavale.
The Cuban commitment was immense, providing the essential reinforcements, material and planning. Fidel Castro stated that the Cuban Revolution had “put its own existence at stake, it risked a huge battle against one of the strongest powers located in the area of the Third World, against one of the richest powers, with significant industrial and technological development, armed to the teeth, at such a great distance from our small country and with our own resources, our own arms … We used our ships and ours alone, and we used our equipment to change the relationship of forces, which made success possible in that battle. We put everything at stake in that action.”
The defeat of the South African armed forces altered the balance of power in the region and heralded the demise of racist rule in South Africa. South Africa was forced to the negotiating table, directly resulting in Namibian independence and dramatically hastening the end of apartheid.
In a July 1991 speech delivered in Havana, Nelson Mandela underscored Cuito Cuanavale’s and Cuba’s vital role, “We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defense of one of us. The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people in South Africa! Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today! Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation!”
Cuba is often described as the only foreign country to have gone to Africa and gone away with nothing but the coffins of its sons and daughters who died in the struggles to liberate Africa. 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, colonize and oppress.
The island’s internationalist missions in Africa are a profound challenge to those who argue that relations among the world's nations and peoples are — and can only be — determined by self-interest, and the pursuit of power and wealth. Cuba provides the example that it is possible to build relations based on genuine solidarity and social love: demonstrating the alternatives which permit people to realize their deepest aspirations, and that another better world is possible.
Isaac Saney teaches history at Dalhousie University and Saint Mary's University, Halifax. He is co-chair and national spokesperson of the Canadian Network On Cuba. He is the author of the acclaimed book "Cuba: A Revolution in Motion" and is currently putting the final touches on the book "Africa's Children Return! Cuba, the War in Angola and the End of Apartheid."