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Back to the Motherland: Cuba in Africa

Christian Parenti is the author of Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (Verso, 1999). He is a Soros Senior Justice Fellow of the Open Society Institute, and a Fellow at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center. His new book, The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slave Passes to the Patriot Act, will be published by Basic Books in fall 2003.


Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976 (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 576 pages, cloth $34.95, paper $24.95.

Angola is by most accounts a decimated, nearly hopeless land, ruined by more than three decades of war. But there was a moment in the mid-seventies when this former Portuguese colony shone as a beacon of hope for all Africa. It was here that the mythic power of white military supremacy was smashed by black troops from Angola and Cuba. And though the role of Cuban volunteers in this victory inspired Africans and left internationals everywhere, the details of the story have remained largely hidden and even in Cuba, uncelebrated.

Historian Piero Gleijeses’ new book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976, recovers this politically far away time. It is a truly impressive accomplishment, based on ten years of research using declassified U.S. intelligence, interviews with principal players, and most importantly, vaults of never before revealed Cuban documents from the Communist Party Central Committee, armed forces, and foreign ministry. This highly detailed but superbly told story recounts Cuba’s many bold, often noble, sometimes successful interventions in Africa. The operations ranged from briefly aiding revolutionary Algeria under Ahmed Ben Bella; fighting and doctoring with Amilcar Cabral’s guerrillas in Guinea Bissau; and Che’s lost year in the Congo with the demoralized rank and file of Laurent Kabila’s Simbas; to Cuba’s finest hour, outgunned and outnumbered, on the battlefields of Angola. This last adventure forms the heart of the book and was Cuba’s largest engagement, thus its details are worth recounting.

On October 14, 1975, as Angolan independence approached and the civil war tipped in favor of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the South African armored column Zulu crossed into Angola. Made up of white troops from the South African Defense Forces (SADF) assisted by several thousand black mercenaries, Zulu rolled over the MPLA’s few defenses and started racing for the capital, Luanda. Joining Zulu came a second column, Foxbat, airlifted into the central Angolan town of Silva Porto—a gangster’s Shangri La and home to the warlord Jonas Savimbi and his murderous National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Meanwhile, from the north came another anticommunist guerilla army, Holden Roberto’s National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was saturated with CIA personnel, South African military advisors, and Zairian troops, plus some Portuguese and British soldiers of fortune.

This secret invasion code named “Operation Savanna” was just the culmination of an older U.S.-backed, Kissinger-approved program of covert action which had begun half a year earlier when it became clear that an exhausted Portugal was giving up on its colonial project and that the Marxist MPLA would win the civil war between itself and the two anticommunist groups, UNITA and the FNLA. Formal decolonization was set for November 11, 1975, and the CIA/South African invasion was an attempt to steal Angola away from the MPLA before that legitimizing date.

Also on the ground were five hundred volunteer Cuban military advisors who had been training and fighting alongside the MPLA for the last two months, but many of this number were in the country’s detached northern oil-rich enclave, Cabinda. The speed and secrecy of the South African blitzkrieg stunned both the MPLA leadership and the Cubans. Less than three weeks after invading, Zulu was almost upon Luanda, yet the head of the Cuban military mission, Diaz Argüeselles, still did not grasp the magnitude of the situation. As Gleijeses explains: “There were no Cubans in southern Angola, so he had no clear idea of the strength of the column and he did not realize that it included South African troops.”

A few days later, the Cubans and the MPLA leadership were disabused of their confusion when all the coastal highway towns south of Luanda had fallen to Zulu. Within hours it became clear to the MPLA and their Cuban comrades on the ground—and then to Fidel and his brother Raul Castro—that they must choose either to abandon Angola to the ravages of South Africa and its proxy warlords or send immediate reinforcements. After consulting with Raul and a few top aids, Fidel dispatched 430 members of the Special Forces and an artillery regiment. Most would go by boat arriving in about a week, but a vanguard detachment of 158 elite Cuban commandos and heavy weapons specialists dressed in civilian clothes boarded two passenger planes and took off for Angola.

Before they left Fidel met them on the tarmac. “He spoke most of all about the South African invasion,” recalled one veteran of the operation. “He said that some of the Cuban instructors had died, that it was a difficult situation, that we must stop the South Africans before they reached Luanda and that many of us would not return. He said that it was very hard for him to say this and not go with us.” Even more chilling were the final instructions: fight with the MPLA, if the MPLA lost the capital go to the hills and fight on, if the MPLA gave up—only then, if possible—the survivors should fall back to Zambia where Cuba had a new embassy.

After two stops for refueling, the Special Forces touched down in Luanda under the cover of night and immediately raced to the nearby bluff-top village of Quifandongo from which the MPLA was guarding the capital with several hundred of its best troops, some artillery pieces and six Soviet-made rocket launchers. Just outside Quifandongo lay Holden Roberto’s FNLA, a host of 3,500 mounted on trucks, tanks, and mobile artillery, massing for their final assault on Luanda.

But here fate and the megalomaniacal hubris of the CIA’s pet, Roberto, intervened. As one of the South African veterans of the operation wrote: “Unlike Savimbi who…relied on his South African advisors’ professional knowledge, Roberto insisted on going his own way.” As high-flying South African bombers attempted to soften up the village, the attacking foreigners suggested a flanking maneuver but “Roberto shrugged off all such subterfuges in favor of an advance straight down what later became known as Road.’ ”

The FNLA forces—described by a South African veteran as a “hoard of partly trained…tribesmen…Portuguese mercenaries…[and] faint-hearted Zairians…” held together by a few SADF officers and CIA advisors—lined up on the road to attack as a convoy. Greeting them was an awful hail of Cuban controlled artillery. As one discouraged white advisor later wrote, “one by one the armored cars were knocked out.” Mauled and panicked, the attackers scattered.

From there, half the Cubans turned south and ambushed Column Zulu. Put in check, the column tried an end run around the Cubans but was ambushed again. This time, caught on a long open stretch of road surrounded by impassable monsoon-soaked terrain, the South African tanks and trucks were smashed to pieces. From then on Zulu’s war was a fighting retreat home. By March 27, 1976, the last SADF tanks rolled back across the Namibian border where then defense minister, and future South African president, P. W. Botha watched and saluted through “a cloud of dust.”

News of South Africa’s humiliation in Angola swept the bantustans electrifying and emboldening ANC activists and youth. A few months later the ghetto of Soweto exploded, marking the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Impressive as it may be, the Cuban adventure in Angola was only one piece of a truly audacious African foreign policy. Gleijeses makes a convincing case that Cuba was not a Soviet pawn in Angola or elsewhere. In fact, in the majority of these interventions the Cubans played a leading role, sometimes acting against the wishes of the Soviet Union. In Angola, for example, the MPLA had been requesting direct military intervention—troops—from both the USSR and the Cubans starting in early 1975. But these socialist states held off: Cuba for fear of antagonizing the United States; the USSR in the hope of achieving a new arms agreement.

When Cuba finally acted it did so without consulting the Soviets. And when the Russian “elder brothers” were presented with the fait accompli of Cuban troops duking it out with South African invaders, requests from Castro and the MPLA for military aid contained as much blackmail as they did supplication. What were the Russians to do—let the Cubans sink? Of course once the tide had turned, the independence date had come, and South Africa had finally been exposed in the western press as the aggressor, the USSR was happy to help out. In this regard, Gleijeses makes the point that Cuba was to the USSR as Israel is to the United States: financially dependent, smaller, and weaker, but very often in the lead and calling the shots.

Cuba’s interventions weren’t always victorious. Che’s year in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo was a socialist Heart of Darkness. Che’s host, the dashing, seemingly committed Laurent Kabila turned out to be a soft, jet-setting fundraiser who frequented foreign capitals while his troops languished in the jungles around Lake Tanganyika. Che tried to turn things around but Kabila’s Simbas (meaning lions) preferred to lay low while a U.S.-backed army of white mercenaries supported by Cuban-American pilots had its way with the geographic heart of Africa. Likewise a leftist coup in the nearby French Congo turned out to be heavy on radical pronouncements but light on actual socialist forward motion. The Cuban mission there—to train a more left-leaning popular militia—ended after a rightwing coup.

What makes Conflicting Missions such an important and compelling book is its truly commanding array of obscure and exotic sources. The ultimate prizes are the declassified Cuban communications, reports, and diaries, as well as the interviews with Cuban veterans whose voices are heard here for the first time. And it is these sources that tell the previously obscured stories of Cuba in Africa, particularly in Guinea Bissau and Angola. So thorough is Gleijeses’ research that he frequently takes the reader on little archival detours to cross-reference, re-check and eventually debunk many a flimsy source. For example, Gleijeses proves that Dariel AlarcF3n (alias Beningo), a former associate of Che Guevara’s who now lives in France, is a liar. Vouched for by Regis Debray, AlarcF3n is important because Jorge Castaneda relies heavily and uncritically on AlarcF3n in writing his controversial biography of Che. More specifically AlarcF3n via Castaneda claimed that Che and Fidel had a major falling out that led to Che’s death by way of suicide missions, first in the Congo then in Bolivia. But, as Gleijeses shows, AlarcF3n was not at a key meeting where the rift supposedly occurred, nor was AlarcF3n, contrary to his many assertions, even in Africa with Guevara.

As for the many flimsy and ridiculous claims of mainstream U.S. newspapers and politicians, they too are triangulated and then methodically destroyed by bombardment with multiple, cross-referenced counter sources. The veracity of State Department and CIA intelligence reports, on the other hand, are often corroborated by interviews and other intelligence sources excavated from previously secret Cuban, European, and East European archives. All of which, once again, goes to show that there is frequently a massive gulf between what U.S. government agencies know and what they say. After all, one discourse is for making policies, the other is for selling them.

A particularly interesting, but little examined, subplot in Conflicting Missions is the strangely personalistic and ad hoc nature of Cuban relations with African states and movements. The Cubans risked all for leaders they liked and respected while often suffering chilly relations with groups that might seem their natural allies. Che set the initial tone in most of these cases during his diplomatic barnstorming through Africa in late 1964 and early 1965. At times the connections and near misses seem counterintuitive. For example, Che offended and alienated the very Marxist, Cuban-oriented Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, but quickly bonded with the ideologically more eclectic, more social democratic, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau’s liberation movement. In later years this meant scant Cuban involvement in Mozambique and a huge military and medical assistance package for Cabral’s forces in Guinea Bissau.

A final question remains: why did Cuba risk military defeat, confrontation with the United States, and ill repute in the West? Gleijeses’ answers are multifaceted and always crosschecked between CIA/State Department and Cuban sources. Most important in the whole picture—whether one likes it or not—is Castro’s ideological commitment. Throughout the CIA and State Department documents Gleijeses finds descriptions of Castro as “first of all a revolutionary,” “a compulsive revolutionary,” with a “fanatical devotion to his cause,” motivated by “a messianic sense of mission.” One report stated that Castro believed he was “engaged in a great crusade.”

Added to this was another logic—to survive Cuba needed friends. As one of the only Marxist-Leninist revolutions in the third world, life was rough. Two, three, many Cubas would help defuse and check imperialist aggression and perhaps deliver a modus vivendi with the United States. Ultimately, this book humanizes Cuban foreign policy, complicates the standard Cold War history and, in a realistic scholarly fashion, gives credit where credit is due.

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