Africans always say they owe an unpayable debt to Cuba. But Fidel said the reverse: Cuba owes a huge debt to Africa, for the African men and women who were brought here as slaves and whose descendants helped to build our nation and gave their lives for independence and for the Revolution. The biggest and most important Cuban liberation operation in Africa was called CARLOTA, after an African slave woman who gave her life in the first slave uprising in Cuba.
The first Cuban combatants in the long struggle for freedom and independence in Africa was a group of some one hundred men led by Che Guevara in the Congo, in 1965. Since 1961, barely two years after the triumph of the Revolution, Cuba had collaborated with half a dozen African liberation struggles, and in 1962 Cuba sent a shipload of guns—US weapons captured from the Bay of Pigs invasion—to Algeria, and the ship brought back dozens of wounded guerrillas and orphaned children. In 1963, over 50 health workers went to Algeria, the start of an unprecedented program that continues to this day, with tens of thousands of doctors having provided free lifesaving services to Africans.
Recall that at this time and for many years after Cuba was fighting for its very existence against the avowed determination of the greatest power on earth just 90 miles away to destroy it. And Cuba was not acting at the behest of the Soviet Union, as some have tried to claim. Many times, although it sent weapons to Africa provided by the Soviets to Cuba for its own defence, it acted there without the knowledge and sometimes against the express wishes of the Soviet Union, as occurred in 1988 in Angola.
It is difficult to appreciate the uniqueness of the vision of solidarity-in-action in Africa of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who considered himself a student and faithful follower of Fidel’s ideas and ideals. As British writer Richard Gott says, “Most Africans did not share Guevara’s internationalism. They were prepared to fight only for the liberation of their own country, not for the continent . . . The Cubans were internationalists in the purest sense”.
When the recently independent Angola was threatened with imminent destruction by the South African army in 1975, and the US was pumping millions of dollars and weapons to the counter-revolutionary movement in Angola, whose forces were being trained in South Africa, Angola’s leader, Agostinho Neto, appealed to Fidel for combat troops. Without consulting the Soviets, and at first against their wishes, Fidel sent some 500 instructors to train the Angola soldiers, and later when the capital Luanda was about to be overrun by South African troops, he sent up to 4,000 troops. That is the exercise he named “Operation Carlota”, and within four months the South African forces withdrew.
Fidel planned to withdraw the Cuban forces, and began to do so, but always the Angola leaders asked that some remain, as South Africa had not given up its determination to overthrow the Angolan government, but only taken a tactical retreat. The massive and determining attack came 12 years later, in 1987. Although after 1975 the Soviet Union had been assisting the Angolans with weapons and advisers, they never had much heart for battle, as Gott explains, and now the Angolans, if they were to survive, needed committed boots at the front line, not just half-hearted advisers. Recall that by then Gorbachev was heading the USSR; he was seeking to placate the USA, and wanted Cuban troops and Soviet advisers withdrawn from Angola. Aware of this, the South African army prepared their most ambitious offensive against southern Angola. That beleaguered country now had only one hope: Cuba.
A year earlier, Fidel had promised that his troops would stay in Angola until the end of apartheid in South Africa. Now, with South Africa preparing for a final offensive against Angola, he agreed to send more troops to stop them. By early 1988 he had 50,000 troops there, along with aircraft and the most experienced pilots. The South Africans began their massive attack at Cuito Cuanavale, and the Cuban and Angolan troops, commanded by Fidel from Havana, handed the South African army a resounding defeat.
After Cuba’s first defeat of South African forces in 1975, a South African newspaper had noted of the Cuban and Angolan forces: “The reality is that they won, are winning, and are not White; and that psychological edge, that advantage the White man has enjoyed and exploited over 300 years of colonialism and empire, is slipping away. White elitism has suffered an irreversible blow in Angola, and Whites who have been there know it”. Imagine the impact in 1988, where the humiliating defeat was much greater. South Africa had to withdraw from neighbouring Namibia, which had been its virtual colony. Namibia became independent, and soon after the apartheid regime in South Africa crumbled, and Nelson Mandela became the first President of a free country.
Fidel has said that only volunteers from Cuba went to fight in Angola, because such a war “can’t be carried out if it’s not carried out by volunteers; that’s another principle”. Over the 15 years in Angola, more than 300,000 internationalist combatants fulfilled their mission, and almost 50,000 civilians. Fidel told his biographer: “The great deeds in Angola, the fight for Namibian independence and against the apartheid regime did a great deal to strengthen our people—they are a treasure of extraordinary value. Although I told you that there were also millions of men and women in the rear, so to speak, aiding the cause of Cuba.
And he warned: “Just as the imperialist and their pawns suffered the consequences of a Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) multiplied many times over in Angola, the nation that comes to this land to wage war will find itself facing thousands of Cuito Cuanavales, and defeats such as those dealt to colonialism and apartheid in heroic nations such as Angola, Namibia and South Africa — defeats they never imagined would be linked to the history of this small Caribbean nation”.
What is more linked to that small Caribbean nation in the eyes of the world is the millions of lives throughout the world that have been saved and improved because of Cuba’s disinterested internationalism. Cuba has responded to natural disasters and epidemics, such as the terrible Ebola epidemic in Africa, with quick and efficient assistance as soon as it has been asked to do so. No country in history can come close to Cuba’s record in that field.
The man who had that vision and made it a reality is physically gone now. One can only hope that his spirit continues to inspire people in Cuba and around the globe to continue such altruistic work. Everybody knows we need it now more than ever.
Havana, 5 December, 2016.