Saturday, June 30, 2007

Cuba in Africa: Internationalists Tell Their Stories

Cuba in Africa: Internationalists tell their stories

Special for Granma International

CUBAN doctors and teachers are now a familiar sight in the world. Over the last five decades, the Revolution’s solidarity has brought health and education to millions of people, and thousands of young people from the Third World are studying for free in Cuba.

However, many people do not know about Cuba’s historic aid to national liberation movements, especially in Africa, for several reasons: first, the omission and/or distortion of that history in the mass media; second, the discretion required to protect the lives of both Cubans and those they were helping; and finally, the modest silence of those whose actions helped change the world for the better.

In the past, enemies of the Revolution have taken advantage of this lack of knowledge — including among the Cuban people themselves — to spread lies and slander about Cuba and the anti-imperialist movements it aided.

They have tried to liken the Cuban internationalists to European and U.S. mercenaries; they have claimed that Cuba went to Angola on the orders of the Soviet Union, creating a completely false version of history, and then there are those who repeat the idea that the sacrifices were not worth it. In reality, the only thing that the Cubans have ever taken out of Angola — a country rich in diamonds and oil, making it the object of the imperialists’ desire — was the bodies of their fallen comrades; moreover, it was only after they decided to provide military aid to the newly-independent government, not before, that they informed the Soviets.

Now, the Cuban government, Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and combatants themselves are filling that void of information about what is referred to in Cuba as la epopeya — their epic feat — in Africa.


“For a certain period of time, we preferred for it to be the [African] peoples themselves who related that history,” said Jorge Risquet of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, who was a leader of the Cuban forces in Congo-Brazzaville in 1965-1967 and an organizer of the Revolution’s collaboration with Angola.

“But 30 years have passed. Now, those of us who were the protagonists of those epic feats are disappearing. That is why it is better for those of us who were there to write that history while we are still alive. And it was decided to declassify a number of secret documents that were kept filed away for a time.”

Risquet spoke with GI after a May 26 gathering of about 190 of the 437 Cuban combatants who completed missions in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde between 1966 and 1974. Organized by the Association of Combatants of the Cuban Revolution, it was the first large-scale reunion of these veterans, marking the 41st anniversary of the start of Cuba’s aid to that national liberation struggle, which forced Portugal to recognize that it would be unable to sustain its colonial power in Africa, affirmed retired Brigade General Harry “Pombo” Villegas, a central leader of Cuba’s missions in Africa and vice president of the combatants’ association.

Sitting at Risquet’s side was retired colonel Pedro Rodríguez Peralta, who headed Cuba’s forces on the Guinean southern front and was held prisoner by the Portuguese from 1969 to 1974. “We no longer have any prisoners,” Risquet noted. “We no longer have a military struggle in Africa; instead, we have white coats, an army of white coats [referring to Cuba’s solidarity missions by medical personnel],” Risquet affirmed. “Therefore, now we can talk about what we did in those wars, what we did for our African brothers and sisters.”


War in and of itself is not glorious: it is full of bloodshed and suffering. The Angolan people and their Cuban allies faced an enemy that murdered innocent civilians, as in the case of the notorious Cassinga massacre; at times, they suffered hunger and loneliness.

There was also heroism. Those who did not know how to read and write were taught. Medical attention was provided to victims of the invading forces. The Cubans’ supply caravans worked miracles in the jungles and deserts. They shared everything with their African brothers and sisters in struggle, including glory, as in the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which was the beginning of the end for the racist South African apartheid regime.

Two results of the effort to make it possible for those who took part in these events to preserve and tell their stories are Operación Carlota (Operation Carlota) and La Epopeya de Angola (The Epic Feat of Angola), two documentary series directed by Cuban journalist Milton Díaz Cánter for Cuban Television and broadcast in late 2005 and December 2006 to May 1, 2007, respectively. He himself an internationalist combatant who served two missions in Angola — 1976-1977 and 1985-1986, the second time as a cameraman for the FAR — Díaz Cánter captures the pain, pride and revolutionary conviction of the Cuban combatants, many of whom were very young.

The first series, comprising dozens of brief, personal accounts by Cubans who went to Angola — the mission’s code name was Operation Carlota — is divided into three historical periods. Its showing in Cuba was part of the activities in late 2005 commemorating the 30th anniversary of the start of Operation Carlota — named after an African slave woman who, machete in hand, led a slave rebellion in Matanzas province in 1843.

La Epopeya de Angola comprises 22 episodes — 11.5 hours in total — and together with its unique, valuable footage features interviews with hundreds of Cubans and Africans, not just the central leaders, but the ordinary men and women who changed history.

Foreign-language subtitles for both series are being prepared; in fact, the documentaries were made with the idea of being available for viewing in other countries as well, Díaz Cánter explains. Now he is working on a three-hour miniseries that should be finished by the end of the year and will be a concentrated version of Epopeya, he said.


One book essential to understanding Cuba’s presence in Africa is Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976 (2002, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), by Piero Gleijeses, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. It is the product of many years of research, including access to Cuban, European and U.S. files, as well as interviews with African officials and leaders. A Spanish-language Cuban edition is also available (Ciencias Sociales, 2003). It is complemented by Cuba y África, Historia Común de Lucha y Sangre (Cuba and Africa, Common History of Struggle and Blood), by Piero Gleijeses, Jorge Risquet and Fernando Remírez de Estenoz (Ciencias Sociales, 2007), which features an essay on Cuba’s presence in Africa from 1975 to 1988; Risquet’s speech on the 40th anniversary of the mission to the Congo; and an essay on Cuban solidarity in Africa from the ‘80s to today.

Other useful titles (some only available in Spanish):

• 100 Hours with Fidel by Ignacio Ramonet, (2006, in Spanish, French, Italian and English editions by various publishers).

• The African Dream: The diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo by Ernesto Che Guevara (2001, Grove Press). The Spanish-language version is Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria: Congo (Editorial Grijalbo-Mondadori, 1999). Note: the Congo diary of Brig. Gen. Harry “Pombo” Villegas is soon to be published by Editora Política.

• From the Escambray to the Congo: In the Whirlwind of the Cuban Revolution by Víctor Dreke Moja (Pathfinder, 2002). (Editora Política is to publish a Cuban edition this year).

• Secretos de Generales: desclasificado, by Luis Báez (Editorial SI-MAR, 1996).

• Historias secretas de médicos cubanos, by Hedelberto López Blanch (Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Center, 2005).

• El segundo frente del Che en el Congo. Historia del batallón Patricio Lumumba, by Jorge Risquet Valdés (Editora Abril, 2000).

• Operación Carlota, by Milton Díaz Cánter (Verde Olivo, 2006). Transcriptions from the TV series.

• Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution by Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui and Moisés Sío Wong (Pathfinder, 2005).

• Cangamba by Jorge Martín Blandino (Verde Olivo, 2006).

• La Batalla de Cabinda, by Ramón Espinosa Martín (Verde Olivo, 2000).

• Victoria al sur de Angola, by Pedro Hedí Campos Perales (Verde Olivo, 2006).

• Angola: Saeta al norte by Jorge R. Fernández Marrero and José Ángel Gárciga Blanco (Letras Cubanas, 2003).

• Trueno Justiciero, Mis campañas en cielo angolano by Humberto Trujillo Hernández (José Martí, 1998). •

IN his December 2, 2005 speech marking the 30th anniversary of the military mission to Angola and the 49th of the landing of the Granma yacht, FAR Day, President Fidel Castro affirmed:

“The history of Europe’s imperialist and neocolonial pillage and plunder of Africa, with the full support of the United States and NATO, as well as Cuba’s heroic solidarity with its sister nations, have not been sufficiently known, if only as a well-deserved reward for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who wrote that glorious page, which, as an example for the present and future generations, should never be forgotten. That does not negate the need to continue making it known.” •


After the triumph of the Revolution, its earliest aid in solidarity to another people in struggle went to Algeria, fighting to overthrow French colonialism; in 1961, a Cuban ship took arms to the guerrilla forces there and returned full of wounded and orphans. Later, Cuban troops traveled to Algeria to help defend its threatened borders. Likewise, it was the first of many African countries – both in war and peace – to receive Cuban doctors and health personnel.

In 1964-65, the Revolution’s leadership responded to a request from national liberation forces in the former Congo-Léopoldville — today the Democratic Republic of the Congo — and Commander Ernesto Che Guevara, together with dozens of Cuban combatants, went to fight together with them; another group was sent to the former Congo-Brazzaville.

At the time, Portuguese colonialism faced several independence movements in Sub-Saharan Africa. In ’66, the Cubans provided their aid – military, medical and material – to the anti-imperialist forces of the African Party of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC). After a decade of armed struggle, Portugal admitted its defeat and on September 10, 1974, Guinea-Bissau won its freedom.

Likewise, the Cubans fought together with the revolutionaries of Mozambique and Ethiopia, and helped the newly-sovereign governments create and train their armed forces.

From 1975 to 1990, some 400,000 Cubans voluntarily left their homes and families and crossed the ocean to fight side-by-side with the Angolan people, who after winning their independence from Portugal, faced invasions from the South African and Zairian regimes and counterrevolutionary forces allied with those governments and backed by the USA.

More than 2,000 Cuban internationalists gave their lives to defend Angola’s independence, win Namibia’s and contribute decisively to the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa.

Many Cubans participated in more than one of these struggles; some who fought in the Congo, for example, also fought – and died – in Angola.

“The Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers,” affirmed South African liberation leader Nelson Mandela. “They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid. 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.”

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