Former South African President Nelson Mandela and former President Fidel Castro in Cuba during 1991. Mandela praised the role of Cuba in the liberation of southern Africa., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Cuito Cuanavale 25 years on: celebrating revolutionary internationalism in the struggle against colonialism and apartheid
By Carlos Martinez
27 June, 2013
“The history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale” – Fidel Castro
Twenty-five years ago, on 27 June 1988, the army of apartheid South Africa was forced to start withdrawing from Angola after 13 years’ intervention in that country’s civil war. The South Africans had been outmanoeuvred and outgunned by the Angolan defence forces (FAPLA – the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola), in combination with thousands of Cuban soldiers, and units from both the MK (uMkhonto weSizwe – the armed wing of the ANC) and PLAN (People’s Liberation Army of Namibia – the armed wing of the South West African People’s Organisation). The four-month battle between the SADF and the Cuban-Angolan force at Cuito Cuanavale was, to use the words of Nelson Mandela, “the turning point for the liberation of Africa from the scourge of apartheid.”
Cuba’s assistance to post-colonial Angola started in 1975, just a few days after the independence celebrations on 11 November (Angola won its independence from Portugal in the aftermath of the Portuguese Revolution of 1974). At the time, three different Angolan political-military movements were struggling for supremacy: the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) and the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola). The most radical, most popular and best organised of these groups was the MPLA, which had the support of most of the socialist countries. The FNLA was allied with the pro-imperialist Mobutu dictatorship in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and UNITA was collaborating with the US, white-supremacist South Africa and the representatives of the old colonial order. As Fidel Castro noted at the time: “The Soviet Union and all the countries of Eastern Europe support the MPLA; the revolutionary movements of Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau support the MPLA; the majority of the nonaligned nations support the MPLA. In Angola, the MPLA represents the progressive cause of the world.” (Speech given in Havana to the first contingent of military instructors leaving for Angola, 12 September 1975)
South Africa, faced with the prospect of pro-socialist, anti-racist, anti-colonial, independent states in Angola and Mozambique (plus a rising independence movement in its colony of South West Africa – now Namibia), decided to intervene militarily in Angola on the side of UNITA. The SADF entered Angola from Namibia on 14 October 1975, and the MPLA’s army, FAPLA, was in no position to stop its advance. It was, writes Piero Gleijeses, “a poor man’s war. South of Luanda there were only weak FAPLA units, badly armed and poorly trained. They were strong enough to defeat UNITA, but were no match for the South Africans” (‘Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976′).
South Africa’s invasion, along with the continued threat and provocations by Mobutu’s Zaire, caused Fidel Castro and the leading commanders in Cuba to understand that Angola needed urgent help. In mid-November 1975, several hundred Cuban soldiers boarded two planes for Angola. Over the course of the next 13 years, nearly 400,000 Cubans volunteered in Angola, mostly as soldiers but also as doctors, nurses, teachers and advisers.
With Cuban assistance (and with the help of Soviet advisers and weaponry), the Angolans drove the SADF troops back across the border, and for the next decade or so South Africa focused its efforts in Angola around destabilisation, providing significant financial and logistical support for UNITA, thereby extending a brutal civil war that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Angolan civilians.
The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale
As long as Angola was embroiled in bitter civil war, it was not a major threat to apartheid control of South Africa or Namibia.
But in mid-1987, FAPLA – with the help of Soviet and Cuban forces – launched a major offensive against UNITA. This offensive had the potential to finally bring an end to the civil war – an outcome that neither South Africa nor the US could accept. Therefore the SADF intervened again. “By early November”, writes Gleijeses, “the SADF had cornered elite Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was poised to destroy them.”
Ronnie Kasrils notes that the situation “could not have been graver. Cuito could have been overrun then and there by the SADF, changing the strategic situation overnight. The interior of the country would have been opened up to domination by UNITA, with Angola being split in half. This was something Pretoria and [UNITA leader Jonas] Savimbi had been aiming at for years.”
The Cubans moved decisively in support of their African allies. Fidel decided that more Cuban troops must be sent immediately, boosting the total number in Angola to over 50,000.
Cuito Cuanavale was defended by 6,000 Cuban and Angolan troops, using sophisticated Soviet weaponry that had been rushed to the front. The SADF had been convinced that its 9,000 elite troops – in addition to several thousand UNITA fighters – would be able to conquer Cuito and thereby inflict a major defeat on MPLA, and indeed the progressive forces of the whole region. But Cuito held out over the course of four months, in what has been described as the biggest battle on African soil since World War II (Greg Mills and David Williams, Seven Battles that Shaped South Africa, 2006).
Kasrils notes: “All the South African attempts to advance were pushed back. Their sophisticated long-range artillery kept bombing day and night. But it didn’t frighten the Angolan-Cuban forces and turned out to be ineffective.”
With the South African stranglehold at Cuito Cuanavale broken by the end of March 1988, the Cuban-Angolan forces launched a major offensive in the south-west of the country. This offensive is what Castro had intended from the start: to tie South Africa down with pitched battles at Cuito (several hundred kilometres from its nearest bases in occupied Namibia) and then launch a ferocious, dynamic attack to drive South Africa out of Angola once and for all, “like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right – strikes“. Castro noted: “While in Cuito Cuanavale the South African troops were bled, to the south-west 40,000 Cuban and 30,000 Angolan troops, supported by some 600 tanks, hundreds of pieces of artillery, a thousand anti-aircraft weapons and the daring MiG-23 units that secured air supremacy advanced towards the Namibian border, ready literally to sweep up the South African forces deployed along that main route.” (Cited in Vladimir Shubin ‘The Hot “Cold War”‘)
Kasrils writes: “The end for the SADF was signaled on June 27 1988. A squadron of MiGs bombed the Ruacana and Calueque installations, cutting the water supply to Ovamboland and its military bases and killing 11 young South African conscripts. A MiG-23 executed a neat victory roll over the Ruacana dam. The war was effectively over.”
The supposedly invincible South African Defence Force had been forced out of Angola. The apartheid regime was left with no choice but to sue for peace.
Turning point for southern Africa
Fidel stated that “the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale”. Nelson Mandela is on record as saying that Cuito Cuanavale was “the turning point for the liberation of Africa from the scourge of apartheid”. What made a battle in the Angolan war the major turning point for the wider southern African region?
Isaac Saney explains in his excellent book ‘Cuba: A Revolution in Motion’: “The defeat shattered the confidence of the South African military, and with the approach of Cuban forces toward Namibia, Pretoria sought a means by which to extricate their troops ‘without humiliation and alive’. Thus, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale was instrumental in paving the path to negotiations. In December 1988, an agreement was reached between Cuba and Angola on one side and South Africa on the other, which provided for the gradual withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola and the establishment of an independent Namibia”.
So, as part of the negotiation process resulting from the Cuban-Angolan victory, South Africa was forced to set a timetable for withdrawal from Namibia. Namibia became an independent state in March 1990. The victory in Angola also provided important impetus for the anti-apartheid forces within South Africa. In early 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 long years, the ANC and other liberation organisations were unbanned, and the negotiations towards a free South Africa were begun in earnest. UNITA suffered a series of major military reverses and Angola was able to start pursuing a course of peaceful progress. These were all extraordinary developments that nobody could have predicted a few years’ earlier.
“Cuito Cuanavale changed the military balance in Southern Africa on the side of liberation” (Kasrils).
Not a proxy cold war but an epic battle between the forces of imperialism and the forces of progress
It has been suggested by several western historians that the war in Angola was, at heart, an extension of the so-called Cold War between the two superpowers of the day (the USA and the USSR) with South Africa acting on behalf of the USA and Cuba acting on behalf of the USSR. Such an analysis is wholly refuted by the facts; its only purpose is to place a moral equivalency between imperialism and socialism.
For one thing, Cuba has tended to maintain a high degree of political independence in spite of close relations with the Soviet Union. In Angola, it is well documented that the Soviets were surprised by the sudden arrival – in both 1975 and 1987 – of large numbers of Cuban soldiers. Kasrils writes that the US security services were “surprised to discover that the Soviet Union’s so-called proxy had not even consulted Moscow over Havana’s massive intervention. They were even more taken aback when sophisticated Soviet military equipment was rushed to Angola to supply the Cuban reinforcements.”
Even the arch-reactionary Henry Kissinger, who was among the leading ‘hawks’ in relation to US Angola policy at the time, admitted: “At the time, we thought Castro was operating as a Soviet surrogate. We could not imagine that he would act so provocatively so far from home unless he was pressured by Moscow to repay the Soviet Union for its military and economic support. Evidence now available suggests that the opposite was the case.” (Cited in ‘Conflicting Missions’)
The Soviet Union did provide significant support for the MPLA, sending weapons, funding, training and military advisers to Angola (as documented in detail in Vladimir Shubin’s book ‘The Hot “Cold War”‘).
Furthermore, they provided much of the weaponry and planes used by the Cubans. Was this done in the pursuit of cynical geostrategic interests, for the sake of ‘cold war’ one-upmanship? Such a suggestion represents a vicious attack on the history of socialist internationalism. Shubin, former head of the Africa Section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s international department, writes:
“The Soviets did not assist liberation movements and African frontline states only because of the ‘Cold War’. To put it in the language of the day: such actions were regarded as part of the world ‘anti-imperialist struggle’, which was waged by the ‘socialist community’, ‘the national liberation movements’, and the ‘working class of the capitalist countries’… In reality the ‘Cold War’ was not part of our political vocabulary; in fact the term was used in a strictly negative sense. It was considered to be the creation of the ‘warmongers’ and ‘imperialist propaganda’. For us the global struggle was not a battle between the two ‘superpowers’ assisted by their ‘satellites’ and ‘proxies’, but a united fight of the world’s progressive forces against imperialism.”
One need only look at the succession of devastating, predatory wars of imperialist domination since the collapse of the Soviet Union – Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya – to see that, in spite of a period of intense confusion and political degeneration, the USSR played a fundamentally positive role in opposing imperialism and standing with the oppressed nations.
The continuing relevance and necessity of revolutionary internationalism
Why is it important to remember Cuito Cuanavale? Because it represents a pinnacle of revolutionary internationalism, of solidarity between peoples struggling for freedom. As Nelson Mandela said, speaking at a huge rally in Havana in July 1991:
“The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”
Cuba’s actions in Angola were driven by a deep sense of social justice and revolutionary duty. One of the historical forces driving its actions was the depth of African roots in Cuban society. Fidel, speaking shortly after the departure of the first few hundred troops to Angola, explained: “African blood flows freely through our veins. Many of our ancestors came as slaves from Africa to this land. As slaves they struggled a great deal. They fought as members of the Liberating Army of Cuba. We’re brothers and sisters of the people of Africa and we’re ready to fight on their behalf!” This dynamic is reflected in the name that was given to the operation: ‘Carlota’ – in honour of the heroic Afro-Cuban female slave who led an uprising near Matanzas in 1843 and who, upon her capture, was drawn and quartered by Spanish colonial troops.
Raúl Castro pointed out that Cuba had itself benefitted massively from revolutionary international solidarity and thus felt morally compelled to extend the same type of solidarity to others. “We must not forget another deep motivation. Cuba itself had already lived through the beautiful experience of the solidarity of other peoples, especially the people of the Soviet Union, who extended a friendly hand at crucial moments for the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The solidarity, support, and fraternal collaboration that the consistent practice of internationalism brought us at decisive moments created a sincere feeling, a consciousness of our debt to other peoples who might find themselves in similar circumstances.” Fidel emphasises this point: “As we have said before, being internationalists is paying our debt to humanity. Those who are incapable of fighting for others will never be capable of fighting for themselves. And the heroism shown by our forces, by our people in other lands, faraway lands, must also serve to let the imperialists know what awaits them if one day they force us to fight on this land here.”
This type of solidarity, sacrifice, sense of duty and revolutionary morality is a model, a benchmark. This level of unity of the oppressed is exactly what we need in an era when imperialism – desperate to slow its historic decline and to cut down all potential challenges to its hegemony – is projecting its military power around the world, ably assisted by its media dominance.
Today, Syria is under attack from imperialism. Libya has been set back decades. The Democratic Republic of Congo has been put through a disastrous war, motivated by foreign greed for raw materials. Iraq is a shadow of its former self, as are the states of the old Yugoslavia. Iran is under permanent threat from the imperialists, as is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as is Zimbabwe, as are other countries.
The point is not that Cuba or any other country should send a massive military force to Syria, Iran or elsewhere (actually, a little-known episode of Cuban internationalism is that Cuba sent a thousand troops to assist Syria in the war against Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, 1973-74). Today’s global political and military context simply doesn’t support that type of action. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, Cuba could send troops far and wide with the confidence that the USSR was there to back it up. Today there is only one military superpower: the United States. China and other countries may be rising fast, but the US is still the largest military power by a massive margin (its per-capita military spending is 30 times that of China).
But there are other important ways of expressing international solidarity. Thankfully, the level of unity and confidence within the progressive family of nations seems to be rising again, after the years of confusion following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The simple fact that Britain, France and the US have not thus far been able to force direct military action against Syria is an indication of that change. Progressive regional and international blocs such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), CELAC (Economic Community of Latin America and the Caribbean), ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) and SADC (Southern African Development Community) offer a glimpse of a new future for unity and solidarity.
Until imperialism, colonialism and neo-colonialism have been finally eradicated from our planet; until there is no longer the oppression and domination of the ‘third world’ by a handful of rich countries; until a world order built on friendship, cooperation and equality has been established, the history of Cuba’s solidarity with Angola is a story that must continue to be told.
Cuba continues to uphold the banner of socialism
Another important reason to recall Cuba’s internationalist mission in southern Africa is to remind people that Cuba is one of the world’s shining lights of socialism, internationalism and progress. Although it has suffered immensely as a result of the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern European people’s democracies, and although it remains under permanent threat from imperialism, facing a cruel and illegal economic blockade, it continues to build a dignified, independent, socialist society. Operation Carlota has been one of its greatest contributions to the global freedom struggle.
At a ceremony for those Cubans (over 2,000) who lost their lives fighting for Angola’s freedom, Fidel spoke passionately in their honour:
“These men and women whom we are laying to rest today in the land of their birth gave their lives for the most treasured values of our history and our revolution. They died fighting against colonialism and neo-colonialism. They died fighting against racism and apartheid. They died fighting against the plunder and exploitation of the third world. They died fighting for the right of all peoples to ensure their wellbeing and development. They died fighting so there would be no hungry people or beggars, sick people without doctors, children without schools; human beings without work, shelter and food. They died so there would be no oppressors or oppressed, no exploiters or exploited. They died fighting for the dignity and freedom of all men and women. They died fighting for true peace and security of all nations. They died defending the ideals of [Cuban independence heroes] Céspedes and Máximo Gómez. They died defending the ideals of Martí and Maceo. They died defending the ideals and example of Marx, Engels and Lenin. They died defending the ideals and example that the October Revolution extended throughout the world. They died for socialism. They died for internationalism. They died for the proud, revolutionary homeland that Cuba is today. We will follow their example. Eternal glory to them.”
Cuba still lives by those same principles. Fidel’s mention of the October Revolution here – in a speech made in December 1989, in the context of the obvious decline of the Soviet Union – is clearly a way of declaring that Cuba would not be participating in Gorbachev’s attack on socialism and working class power; that Cuba would not follow the ‘trend’ of capitulation to capitalism. In the same speech, he says: “We have never aspired to receiving custody of the banners and the principles the revolutionary movement has defended throughout its heroic and inspiring history. However, if some day fate were to assign to us the role of being among the last defenders of socialism, in a world in which US imperialism has realised Hitler’s dreams of world domination, we would defend this bulwark to the last drop of our blood”.
Long live socialist Cuba! Victory to Africa in its continuing struggle for freedom! Towards ever greater unity and solidarity against imperialism!