On the 20th anniversary of Cuito Cuanavale

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It’s sort of a telling statement about the utility, or rather, inutility of Wikipedia that the first footnote in its wandering entry on Cuito Cuanavale comes from Cubanet, the U.S. financed anti-Cuba propaganda site. According to Wikipedia, Cuba’s assistance at Cuito Cuanavale, might have helped end apartheid in South Africa. Or it might not have.

If you ask an African about it, there’s not a moment’s confusion or hesitation. Nelson Mandela didn’t have any doubts, so why does Wikipedia? The Cubans’ military contribution, and that of their commander, Fidel Castro, was brilliant and decisive. If you ask a Cuban about it, and I’m talking about a real Cuban, not an ex-Cuban or an anti-Cuban, they’ll recount the details of the battle with an overwhelming, effusive sense of pride, as though the battle occurred yesterday, nearby, not twenty years ago on a distant continent.

Viva Cuba!

The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale – The 20th Anniversary of an Example of International Solidarity

Jose Steinsleger – La Jornada

Havana, near the end of 1984: “Is it worth dying so far away?” The young woman in olive green, sitting next to me in the famous Cuban ice cream parlor, Coppelia, dropped her “compañero” attitude and gave me a fearsome stare of contempt. “Look, sir. This country was made with the blood of millions of slaves.”

Then she turned away and left me there, alone and blushing with embarrassment, with a lost appetite for my stupid icecream.

Luanda, Angola, November 5, 1975. The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, hardly a friend of the Cuban Revolution but the best illustrator of Western cowardice toward our [Cuban] intervention in the heart of Africa, described the situation of the purebred dogs abandoned by the Portuguese colonists, fleeing the city en masse, “…locked up and condemned to die.”

Boxers, bulldogs, greyhounds, dobermans, dachshunds, cockers, lapdogs, mastiffs, Scottish terriers all in search of food. “If the dogs went to the north, they’d find the FNLA. If they’d gone to the south, they’d find UNITA.”

The National Liberation Front (FNLA, backed by Congo Kinshasa and the United States) and the National Union for Independence (UNITA, supported by the racist South Africans) was about to capture Luanda to prevent Agostinho Neto, head of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) from proclaiming the Portuguese colony’s independence.

By nightfall, when the cannons of both forces announced the imminent slaughter of the exhausted soldiers and civilians of the MPLA, Kapuscinski said:

“The great tropical rain had stopped but the mist continued. Suddenly, from far away, above, to the left, two lights appeared: a plane was landing. It was a Britannia turboprop from the Cuban airlines. Later, overhead, the lights again, with four airplanes landing…The pilots turned off their motors and became silent. The staircase was wheeled to the planes and Cuban soldiers began to descend, with rucksacks and weapons.”

Operation Carlota had begun. Solidarity that came from afar, from the period in which Che Guevara’s small guerrilla contingent appeared in the Congo. Later, Portugal’s “Carnation revolution” (April, 1974) accelerated the independence process and the consequent disintegration of its African colonies (Guinea-Bissau, Cabo Verde, Sao Tomé, Mozambique, Angola).

With their backs to the usual enemy (at least 200 kilometers away), Fidel Castro directed Operation Carlota, which in Guinea was coordinated by his friend, President Sekou Touré. An 11,000 kilometer air-bridge was put in place over the Atlantic. In the blink of an eye, 36,000 Cuban soldiers landed in Luanda, complete tank, land artillery and anti-aircraft units, Mig-21 and Mig-17 aircraft, as well as armored units up to the brigade level.

The taking of Luanda halted the offensive by the imperialist forces, and on November 11, 1975, Agostinho Neto declared the independence of the popular republic. However, the racist South African regime had no respect for agreements, and refused to abandon the former German colony of Namibia (formerly South West Africa). The war continued.

In January of 1988, recognizing the impossibility of repelling the South African attacks from Namibia, the Angolan government requested Cuban aid again. Moscow was opposed. Fidel Castro responded with 40,000 men. On March 23, 1988, after confronting two complete divisions of the most powerful army in Africa (holding nuclear weapons) “white supremacy” bit the dust in its defeat at the hands of Angolan and Cuban troops.

In December, following various rounds of negotiations between Angola, Cuba, South Africa and a “mediator” (the United States), accords were reached which established an independence process for Namibia, guaranteed by the United Nations. Cuban casualties reached a total of 2,016 fighters.

Tad Szulc, the famous New York Times journalist, wrote: Contrary to widespread belief, it was Castro’s idea – certainly not the Russians’ – to engage Cuban combat troops in Angola’s civil war…The truth is that Castro beat everybody to it, entering first the conflict in an impressive display of instinct, imagination, and daring.” (Fidel: A Critical Portrait, Morrow, 1986, p. 637)

The most careful historian of Cuba’s presence in Africa, Piero Gleijeses (Johns Hopkins University), wrote for his part: “In deference to the sensitivities of the MPLA, the few Cuban publications about Operation Carlota have always assigned a diminished role to the Cuban troops, giving credit in their place, to the MPLA (Conflicting Missions – Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

The battle of Cuito Cuanavale, 20 years ago, sealed the fate of colonialism in Africa. Without it, statesmen of peace such as the South African Nelson Mandela, would still be locked in prison, under an apartheid regime.

One response to “On the 20th anniversary of Cuito Cuanavale

  1. I am a Canadian married to an Angolan and the more I read the more interesting and insightful modern Cuban history becomes.

    My wife was born in Angola and lived the first 14/15 years of her life there until she and her immediate family came under attack from I’m assuming UNITA soldiers. They were wisked away from their farm (which wasn’t extravagant by any means) by Portuguese military and after spending time in some intermittent camps ended up in Portugal which is where most of them still live today.

    I have a great deal of respect for Fidel Castro because I believe he truly saved the Cuban people from becoming degraded servants in their own country to foreigners.

    For the Cubans it’s been a long haul and although I’ve yet to get there I hope they stick to their course and maintain their unique and colourful culture. They seem to be the only country in the world that has successfully managed a socialist economy/culture and I think the world could learn a lot from their example.

    For the Angolans it’s continuing to be a long haul and I truly hope that their leaders step up to the plate for them and create the same kind of equal opportunity that Cuba accomplished for their people.

    I think that Angola would be best served as a modern socialist country that would use the tremendous wealth that it holds to ensure that all of it’s people are given at least the opportunity to experience complete subsidised education, shelter and health care. It’s the least that it’s government could do for them. It has been written by many that the government in Angola has and is looking after itself and that nepotism is rampant.

    That saddens me.

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