2/25/10 - cuba in africa

In today's excerpt - when Fidel Castro took over Cuba he found that he needed allies to counterbalance the threat of the U.S.  Astonishingly, this quest led the tiny and poor country of Cuba to places as far afield as Ethiopia, Yemen, Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Algeria, adventures which led them to be perceived as champion of the Third World, but which each ultimately drained Cuba and ended in failure:

"[Fidel Castro's] need for allies accelerated still further after the crisis of October 1962 when the Soviet premier Khrushchev withdrew the nuclear missiles he had installed in Cuba without even consulting Castro, whose faith in the Soviets was badly shaken.

"Latin America seemed to offer hope. ... During 1962 Cuba sent expeditions to lead or support guerrilla movements in Latin America. The most important went to [Che Guevara]'s native Argentina in June 1963. The rebels planned to establish a foco which Che himself would join. After nine harrowing months they were wiped out by the Argentine army. This was a blow for [Castro's second-in-command Ernesto] 'Che' [Guevara]. ... Discouraged by their Latin experience, the Cubans turned to a continent ripe for revolution: Africa.

"Cubas first friend in Africa was Algeria, whose uprising against the French, which started in 1954, seemed to offer a parallel to Cubas own revolution. ...

"[Che also] found [an] ideal situation in the turbulent ex-Belgian Congo (later Zaire now the Democratic Republic of Congo). ... Hundreds of young Congolese went to Cuba for free schooling and training and, when the military revolted against [President] Massamba-Debat, the Cubans saved him. By 1966 the Cuban force had grown to 1000, serving primarily as the presidential guard. Nevertheless, Massamba-Debat succumbed to a coup in April 1968 and Ches dreams [there] collapsed.

"The Cubans had better luck in Guinea-Bissau where revolutionaries under Amilcar Cabral were the best organized and disciplined in Portuguese Africa. ...

"After his failure in the Congo, Che had turned his attention back to Latin America where Bolivia seemed to offer ideal conditions for revolution: poverty, instability, remote mountain terrain and borders with the most important countries of Latin America. Che and his small force set off in October 1966. ... His campaign was a disaster that culminated in his capture and execution on October 8th, 1967. Efforts to stir revolution in Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia collapsed soon after.

"Cuba's most ambitious involvement in Africa came [in] Angola, the richest and most strategically important of the colonies, [which] was to become independent on November 11th 1975. ... By the end of 1975 the Cuban sea and airlift had transported more than 25,000 troops to Angola and the Soviets had finally joined in, providing heavy weapons and coordinating closely with the Cubans. They could do so because the US Congress had prohibited President Ford from any further intervention in Angola. Castro was deeply and personally involved in all this. ... The last Cuban troops withdrew in June 1991 after 15 years in Angola. They left behind some 4,000 dead and suffered another 10,000 wounded.

"During these years, Castro was involved in another part of Africa. In 1977 on his way to Angola he had visited Marxist South Yemen where he tried to mediate the growing tension between Ethiopia and Somalia over control of the Ogaden region, which belonged to Ethiopia, but was inhabited by Somalis. ... In January 1978, Raul Castro flew secretly to Ethiopia and Moscow ,and worked out plans for a coordinated operation: 16,000 Cubans were transported by the Soviets who provided the heavy weapons. Cuban troops remained in Ethiopia though in diminishing numbers until 1989. ...

"There are no happy endings to this story. Castro's role as champion of the Third World never recovered from his support of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Ten years later Cuba's General Ochoa, hero of the Angolan and Ethiopian campaigns, was accused of embezzlement and executed after a Soviet-style show trial; his real offence was criticizing Castro's incessant interference in military operations. Guinea-Bissau where the Cubans had been successful suffered coups, civil wars, and assassinations that left it one of the poorest countries in the world. Che's friend Laurent Kabila took over Zaire in 1997 only to be assassinated four years later. By then an exceptionally violent civil war consumed the country; it still simmers in the eastern parts that Che had hoped to liberate. Ethiopia's Mengistu turned out to be a bloody tyrant and was thrown out in 1991; the succeeding regime fought a war with Eritrea in 1999-2000. Finally Angola: after the Cubans withdrew the regime sloughed off the thin skin of Marxism and called relatively free elections [but then] became a one-party state, a kleptocracy, ranked as one of the most corrupt places on earth where the elite flourished while the mass of the population remained mired in poverty."


Clive Foss


Cuba's African Adventure


History Today


Vol: 60, Issue: 3


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