Castro’s Most Enduring Legacy: An African Story

Say the words “Cuito Cuanavale” to the average American citizen, liberal and conservative alike, and you’re likely to get a blank stare in response. Add the name “Fidel Castro” to that phrase and you’ll instantly notice a nervous tick in their squinting eyes. Dare to throw the word “hero” into the mix and you’ll see a definite jerking motion in their knees and a reddening in the face.

“BUT CASTRO WAS A BRUTAL DICTATOR!!!!!” is what usually comes next (give or take an exclamation mark or two), followed by saliva dripping from the corners of their mouths, a clenching of their fists and an aggressive posture toward you. Symptoms resembling an epileptic seizure may even appear in the more rabid citizens. Like Dr. Pavlov’s famous laboratory dogs, U.S. citizens are trained by their corporate-driven news media to react a certain way to the sound of the name of Cuba’s long-reigning leader, who recently passed away at the age of 90.

Yet mention the words “Cuito Cuanavale” to people in other parts of the world, especially African and Latin America countries, and you’re liable to get a whole different response altogether. There, you’re more likely to get a knowing smile, a nodding of the head and an affirmation of what a hero Fidel Castro truly was in his lifetime — how he stood up to the forces of racism and imperialism in the world, and came away triumphant.

That victory, however, took place not on the shores of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba or even on American soil in New York City, home of Harlem and the United Nations, where Castro sometimes visited when he was alive. No, Castro’s most enduring legacy is arguably one that most of the U.S. press is not evening touching these days in the wake of the Cuban leader’s death. It occurred on the continent of Africa decades ago, and this is the story behind it.

Prelude to a Victory

Among the selected international heads of state who had the honor of paying homage to the deceased South African president Nelson Mandela at a massive Soweto stadium memorial service on 13 December 2013 was Raúl Castro, president of Cuba.
Castro referred to the late Mandela as “the ultimate symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice — a prophet of unity, peace, and reconciliation.”

“Cuba, a country born in the struggle for independence and for the abolition of slavery, and whose children have African blood in their veins, has had the privilege of fighting and building alongside the African nations,” said Castro. He spoke of Mandela’s “moving homage to our common struggle” in the past and the “bond of affection” shared between his brother Fidel Castro, the aging former leader of Cuba, and the late Mandela as a “symbol of the fraternal relations between Africans and Cubans.”

The manic focus of American press coverage, however, was on a diplomatic handshake at the event between Raúl Castro and U.S. president Barack Obama, whose respective countries had not had official relations since the U.S. severed them in the early 1960s.
USA Today breathlessly called it the “handshake that shocked the world”. News reports widely repeated one U.S. senator’s likening of Obama’s handshake with Castro to shaking hands with German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. And not to be left out, Fox News dutifully propagated the U.S. right-wing political outrage that all but called for Obama’s head for daring to make such a gesture to a murderous “thug”.

Beyond all the hype of this typical U.S. media-created “controversy”, however, there was another far more important and legitimate news story about South Africa that was
going unreported in the American press: the vital role that Cuba, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, had played on the battlefield in helping to bring down the brutal South African apartheid regime at a time when the USA was busy propping it up.

This news story dates all the way back to 1965. It was then when Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara secretly went to Africa in support of the Congolese liberation guerrilla army, following the Congo’s independence from its former colonial power of Belgium. While there in the Congo, Guevara met leaders of another African guerrilla force fighting against Portuguese colonial rule in the nearby southern African nation of Angola, the “Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola” (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola), or MPLA. Guevara promised, and eventually delivered, Cuban military instructors and soldiers to the MPLA that would fight alongside the Angolans in southern Africa for as long as they were needed

In 1974 in Europe, the right-wing government of Portugal was unexpectedly overthrown in a military coup. With Portugal’s centuries-long colonial grip now gone, the African nation of Angola was finally poised to get its own independence. The MPLA’s leader, Agostinho Neto, an Angolan medical doctor firmly supported by the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc of nations (including Cuba), was the heir apparent to power in Angola. But the USA had much different plans in mind.

The U.S. government, under president Gerald Ford, saw the coming independence of the resource-rich Angola under the communist-supported Neto as a strategic threat, both ideologically and economically. Through its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the U.S. government backed two other rival anti-government guerrilla armies in Angola — the FNLA (supported by neighboring Zaire) and UNITA (supported by apartheid South Africa) — to fight the MPLA and prevent it from coming legitimately into power.

The first big attack came in October 1975, on the eve of Angola’s independence, when apartheid South Africa sent its army across the borders of Namibia — a neighboring nation that South Africa had been illegally occupying for decades — and into Angola. “[W]e couldn’t just sit and watch,” said then-Cuban president Fidel Castro. “And when the MPLA asked for our help, we offered the aid necessary to prevent apartheid being installed in Angola”

The “aid necessary” turned out to be a contingent of Cuban special military forces, more than 30,000 Cuban foot soldiers and a host of Soviet-made weaponry. Due in great part to Cuba’s support, the South African army, the most powerful military on the entire continent of Africa, was beaten back. Angola’s national independence went ahead a month later as planned in November 1975, with Neto becoming its first president.

The USA and South Africa, however, continued working together, both overtly and covertly, to bring down the newly independent African nation of Angola through civil war.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale

For a dozen years, the government of Angola, with the military support of Cuba and the Soviet Union, fought off its two remaining domestic guerrilla forces, which were being backed by South Africa and the United States. A small country town in the south of Angola, Cuito Cuanavale, where two rivers meet, was where it all came to a head — the last “hot battle” in the world to be fought during the long Cold War period.

In late 1987 the South African military once again crossed over into Angola from its bases in occupied Namibia in support of the Angolan UNITA guerrilla army. And the Angolan government once again urgently requested backup from Cuba. Fidel Castro sent over tens of thousands of volunteer troops from Cuba, Soviet-made tanks, anti-aircraft weapons and, for the first time, military aircraft and pilots to join the Angolan air force in fighting the South African military, both in the air and on the ground. The fighting went on for about half a year

By early 1988 the Cuban military presence in Angola had contributed significantly to a defensive victory: saving the key battleground of Cuito Cuanavale. An offensive followed, with Cuban troops helping to push the South African Defense Forces back across the border into Namibia
[*4]. By summer 1988, it was all over. Although South Africa maintained that its military retreated on its own accord as “winners”, there could be no doubt that without Cuban support in the 13-year-long war, the independent nation of Angola would have fallen long before to the combined might of apartheid South Africa and the United States.

The siege at Cuito Cuanavale was
a military turning point that brought the Angola-Namibia border war to an end. That, in turn, led to a U.S.-brokered “peace plan” that saw the withdrawal of both South African and Cuban forces from Angola and Namibia, as well as the independence of Namibia from apartheid occupation soon afterward. Many in the South African liberation movement, not least Mandela himself, always saw Cuito Cuanavale as the straw that broke apartheid’s back — the decisive battle, along with domestic and international pressure, that eventually helped to weaken the apartheid regime of South Africa sufficiently enough that it was forced to negotiate with Mandela and the ANC for the future of a democratic South Africa.

Mandela, following his release from prison in February 1990, made his first visit to Cuba a year later. Standing on a stage alongside Cuban president Fidel Castro and addressing an outdoor rally crowd of thousands on what was the 38th anniversary of Cuba’s revolution on 26 July 1991, Mandela said that the “decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors [in Angola] broke the myth of invincibility of the white oppressors”
[*5]. “The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today,” Mandela told the massive crowd of Cubans. “Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid” [*6].

The U.S. corporate-dominated media had their own take on this historical meeting between the two leaders. The
Los Angeles Times, reporting from Havana, termed Mandela’s three-day visit to thank the Cuban people for their support against apartheid an “unhesitant embrace of Cuban President Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution.”

“Hugging on the dais, the two men made an odd couple,” the
Times reporter observed. But such a gesture would seem “odd” only if you did not factor in, as the U.S. media had not bothered to do, the more than 300,000 Cuban troops, 2,000-plus Cuban military deaths and thousands of Cuban civilian aid workers that Fidel Castro had committed to the cause of freedom in southern Africa for almost a quarter of a century [*7].

Two decades later in South Africa, at Mandela’s memorial service, the American news media were all agog over a handshake between another Cuban leader and a U.S. president. Then, as now, the American media missed the real news story entirely: that when all the dust over four decades of apartheid in South Africa had settled and Nelson Mandela and his people were finally free, it was Fidel Castro and Cuba that stood on the right side of history and the USA that stood, to its eternal shame, on the wrong side. That story of what is arguably Castro’s most enduring legacy remains unreported today by the U.S. corporate press in the wake of his recent death, and will probably continue to go unreported or misreported for years to come.

Epilogue: A New Bone for the Dog

U.S. citizens are about to get a taste of what a “brutal dictator”
really looks like within the coming months, when an obscenely wealthy, unacceptably racist Wall Street businessman with a neo-fascist political agenda becomes their next president — the so-called Leader of the Free World. The abuse of power that Donald Trump will exercise from the White House in Washington DC these next few years is expected to pale in comparison to any failings shown by Fidel Castro when he was president of Cuba.

While Castro was no angel and certainly made his share of political mistakes, most of the people of the world recognize that Castro did turn Cuba’s economy around and oversaw the restructuring of his nation’s educational, medical and social welfare sectors — which now rank far higher than those of the United States on just about any indexes you care to name. Likewise, even though Castro surely had his share of political opponents and enemies in the world, he has still received, and will continue to receive, far more genuine respect from the international community than Donald Trump could ever hope to get.

Not least on the continent of Africa, where, it could rightfully be said, Castro’s most enduring legacy lies. He dared to have his Caribbean nation, located just 90 miles off the coast of the Yankee mainland, stand side by side on a battlefield halfway across the world in the global fight against white racial supremacy by South Africa and the USA.

So, Pavlov dogs of America: Unite! You are about to experience what it means to have the people of the world accusing you of “human rights abuses” at every turn and having doors that used to be open to you slammed shut in your face. You will be thrown a bone every now and then, sure, when countries like North Korea or China or Iran do something really bad and earn your rabid displeasure. But your knee-jerk reaction to all the sins being committed by countries that you don’t like will look mighty hypocritical indeed, considering your own government will now be the source of many such abuses in the world.

Hey, who knows? Out of all this you may even find enough humility, in what little soul you’ve got left as the most powerful nation on Earth, to reach out and ask the Cuban people for some help. After all, they and their departed leader, Mr. Castro, are known for kicking some serious butt and getting the job done — skills you may well need in the not-too-distant future in dealing with your own domestic devils and internal terrorism.

Cuito Cuanavale. Remember those words well and what they meant to people in other parts of the world in the past century, especially in Africa, and why they remain so important a part of Fidel Castro’s legacy today in the wake of his recent death. And please, from now on, refrain from dribbling down the front of your clothes when the mere mention of his name is made in your presence. It’s so unbecoming of you.


[*1] Background information from the DVD Cuba, une Odyssée Africaine (Cuba, an African Odyssey), Arte France, 2007. This epic three-hour, French-made documentary film stands as perhaps the definitive cinematic source on the subject of Cuba and the liberation struggles of Africa.
[*2] Quoted in
Cuba, une Odyssée Africaine.
[*3] Piero Gleijeses, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 408-09. See also Horace Campbell, “Cuito Cuanavale — a Tribute to Fidel Castro and the African Revolution”, Pambazuka News, June 3, 2008.
[*4] Gleijeses,
Visions of Freedom, 425-430. For an interview with author Gleijeses on the subject, see also “The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid in South Africa”, Democracy Now!, December 11, 2013.
[*5] Quoted in Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro,
How Far We Slaves Have Come! (Atlanta: Pathfinder Press, 1991), 23-24.
[*6] Ibid. For a video record of meetings between Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, see also
Mandela y Fidel (Mandela and Fidel, 2013), a short documentary film by U.S. filmmaker Estela Bravo.
[*7] Gleijeses,
Visions of Freedom, 521.
See Older Posts...