When the Cuban Revolution triumphed on Jan. 1 1959, its leaders openly declared their enmity for imperialism and colonialism, and began to organize material solidarity for revolutionary struggles in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
One of the first African countries on which Cuba focused was the Congo, a Belgian colony until 1960. Though rich in minerals, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as it is now called) had been ruthlessly looted by Belgian, European and U.S. capitalists, who strove to make sure they could continue to do so unimpeded after the country became independent. The CIA and Belgium connived with Congolese traitors to murder the left-wing prime minister, Patrice Lumumba and replace him with a corrupt military man, Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese-Seko). Lumumba’s supporters carried out guerilla war against Mobutu and an army of foreign mercenaries the CIA brought in to support him.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara, one of the main leaders and theoreticians of the Cuban Revolution, showed up in the Congo with a small but highly-trained group of mostly Afro-Cuban volunteers, and worked with Congolese guerilla forces, trying to impart some of the ideological and tactical lessons learned in Cuba in a new context. Unfortunately, even with Cuban help, the organizational and leadership level of the insurgent forces was no match for the Mobutu army and the white mercenaries. Thwarted, Che left Africa for Bolivia, where he met a heroic death.
Cuba helped Algeria resist a Moroccan invasion, and helped the Portuguese colonies in Africa (Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde and Sao Tome-Principe) fight for independence. In 1974, the overthrow of the fascist regime in Portugal made possible the quick triumph of the independence struggles. In central Angola, the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) formed a government, led by Marxist doctor Augustinho Neto, whom Che had met in Africa in 1965. However, two right-wing armed movements — the FLNA of Holden Roberto (Mobutu’s brother in law) and UNITA, led by a ruthless warlord, Jonas Savimbi — contested the MPLA’s power.
From the north, Roberto invaded with troops from Mobutu’s Congolese army, in an attempt to capture the Angolan capital, Luanda. South African apartheid troops, who had been fighting the SWAPO independence movement in Namibia, pushed north. Both these forces were fully aided by the CIA.
At this point, Cuba sent its own military forces to support the Angolan troops. It was not a matter of technical advisors, but of thousands of Cuban volunteers putting their lives on the line to defend the Angolan people’s freedom. Quickly, Cuban and Angolan troops defeated Holden Roberto’s forces, which ceased to be a factor in Angola, and then turned back the South African intervention.
In 1985, the South African army invaded Angola from Namibia once more, in coordination with Savimbi. Cuban President Fidel Castro quickly sent a force of 40,000 Cuban troops to help Neto (Fidel says eventually more than 300,000 Cuban soldiers and 50,000 technical helpers served in Angola — all of them volunteers).
From December 1987 to March 1988, Cuban and Angolan troops, with Soviet aid, defeated South Africa and UNITA in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, an Angolan military base which the South Africans and UNITA tried to capture with five unsuccessful ground assaults. Though South Africa claimed victory, there is no doubt it was for them not only a military but a huge political defeat. A short while later South African and Cuban troops were withdrawn from Angola and Namibia got its independence.
Most analysts consider that Cuito Cuanavale so rattled the South African regime that it led to the fall of hard-line racist prime minister P.W. Botha and his replacement by F.W. deKlerk, who convinced his colleagues in the ruling National Party that they must negotiate with the African National Congress. There followed Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the crumbling of the apartheid state.
Today, Angola remains poor despite continued Cuban help, oil wealth and the death of Savimbi. The Democratic Republic of the Congo has still not recovered from Mobutu’s long and larcenous reign. But all over Africa, the Cuban contribution is recognized and extolled.
Nelson Mandela put it best: “Hundreds of Cubans have given their lives, literally, in a struggle that was, first and foremost, not theirs but ours. As Southern Africans we salute them. We vow never to forget this unparalleled example of selfless internationalism.”