March 2018 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, an illegal war whose perpetrators have yet to answer to justice. The Bush administration’s failed regime change and the destructive effects of the conflict across the Middle East turned Operation Iraqi Freedom into a symbol of the limits of American power and the folly of military interventionism — a lesson that Washington’s foreign policy establishment insists on ignoring.
Less remembered, but just as important, is the thirtieth anniversary of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which between March 1987 and June 1988 witnessed Cuban and Angolan soldiers fight against the South African Defense Force (SADF) in the largest military confrontation in Africa since the end of World War II. The clash overwhelmed the South African government, which was eventually forced to relinquish its grip on southern Angola and accept Namibian independence. These concessions, in time, helped bring about the end of apartheid rule.
Besides a decisive battle, Cuito Cuanavale also represents a climactic ending to Fidel Castro’s foreign policy in Africa, which between 1963 and 1991 witnessed an ambitious succession of interventions in seventeen countries, involving hundreds of thousands of Cuban soldiers, doctors, and social workers. While these ventures were imperfect, the overlap of both anniversaries offers the opportunity to contrast the sterile brutality of Western interventions with a striking tradition of internationalism.
Independence and Internationalism
The most detailed account of Cuban interventions in Africa is found in Piero Gleijeses’ landmark studies, Conflicting Missions and Visions of Freedom. Gleijeses posits that Castro’s support for African independence movements sprung from a combination of realpolitik and idealism. The Soviet Union’s willingness to bypass Havana and cut a deal with the United States during the 1962 missile crisis had made Cuban leaders painfully aware that their country could become a bargaining chip between superpowers. Accordingly, they sought to boost revolutionary movements abroad in the hopes that they would gain power and provide alternative sources of support for Cuba. As revolutionary leader Víctor Dreke explained, “Cuba defends itself by attacking the aggressor.”
The island’s Latin American neighbors seemed the obvious choice for exporting foquismo, the Guevarist theory of guerilla revolution, but this plan soon ran into difficulties. A string of disappointing ventures, coupled with the Soviet Union’s reticence to alienate governments in the region and the launching of Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, posed formidable obstacles. With Ernesto Che Guevara’s 1967 capture and murder in Bolivia, the focus on a Latin American revolution came to an end.
At the same time, Cuba was becoming more involved in Africa. It first intervened in the region between 1961 and 1965, sending military supplies, instructors, and doctors to support Algeria’s National Liberation Front in its struggle for independence and subsequent border war with Morocco. The experience exemplified the idealistic streak in Cuban foreign policy, inviting Charles de Gaulle’s hostility at a time when the island’s resources were stretched thin. “It was like a beggar offering his help,” remarked José Ramón Machado Ventura, who directed Cuba’s medical mission, “but we knew the Algerian people needed it even more than we did and they deserved it.”
Che’s 1964 Africa trip demonstrated an expanding commitment to the continent, with Cubans supporting anticolonial movements in Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, and Congo, where Guevara personally attempted to organize guerrillas following the coup against Patrice Lumumba. Other interventions, such as the assistance to Western Guinea’s dictator Francisco Macías Nguema and the 1978 deployment of twelve thousand soldiers to aid Ethiopia during the Ogaden war, seemed dictated by Cold War dynamics rather than a commitment to emancipatory politics. Indeed, relations with Moscow — which provided critical military and logistical support, as well as generous economic subsidies — became a determining factor in Cuba’s foreign policy. The Soviet Union would often dictate the island’s foreign policy positions, as in 1968 and 1980, when it pressured Havana into supporting the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan — the latter a nonaligned state, at a time when Cuba presided over that movement.
The United States’ impression that Castro was a Soviet stooge, however, was far from accurate. As Gleijeses points out, “Cuban leaders were convinced that their country had a special empathy for the Third World and a special role to play on its behalf. The Soviets and their East European allies were white and, by Third World standards, they were rich; the Chinese suffered from great-power hubris [. . .] By contrast Cuba was nonwhite, poor, threatened by a powerful enemy, and culturally Latin America and African.” Castro also exploited his personal fame and Cuba’s record as a Latin American showcase for socialism to leverage independence.
The best example of such autonomy came in 1975, when Havana set out to defend the Angolan Movement for People’s Liberation (MPLA) from the combined offensive of rival armed groups. Operation Carlota — named after a Cuban slave who led an uprising in 1843 — initiated a struggle against South Africa that lasted until 1991, with the withdrawal of the last Cuban troops.
Angola gained independence following Portugal’s 1974 revolution, but the country was split between three rival armed groups. The Marxist-leaning MPLA held the capital, Luanda, and was acknowledged by US diplomats and intelligence officers as the most competent force. But it faced attacks from Holden Roberto’s National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and Joseph Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Backed by Mobutu’s Congo, China, France, and the United States, these two groups were poised to expel the MPLA from Luanda before November 11, the first independence day. The SADF, which intervened militarily to bolster Savimbi’s advance, hoped his triumphal march into the capital would establish a friendly regime that safeguarded South Africa’s occupation of Namibia.
Against this backdrop, Castro approved an emergency deployment of elite units to defend MPLA-controlled areas. When asked by Soviet authorities about the timing of the operation, the Cubans revealed that their ships and airplanes — assisted by the governments of Guyana, Barbados, and Jamaica — were already on the way. They had taken the decision without consulting Moscow. “The intervention of Cuban combat forces came as a total surprise,” wrote a frustrated Henry Kissinger, whose previous offers for détente were replaced with contingency plans to “clobber” and “squash” the island, establishing a blockade, mining its harbors, and launching airstrikes.
As declassified documents witness, Kissinger feared a domino effect across Southern Africa, with leftist victories in Angola and Mozambique paving the way for the end of white rule in Rhodesia, Namibia, and South Africa. His concern was well founded. The MPLA’s victory over FNLA and UNITA at the battle of Quifangondo — in which Cuban forces played a leading role — galvanized anti-apartheid activists in Namibia and South Africa. “In Rhodesia they are talking and after ten years they have nothing,” a black man from Soweto told the New York Times following the SADF’s retreat in March. “In Angola and Mozambique they fought, and they won.” The Soweto uprising erupted only three months later.
Boxing at the End of the World
The war, however, had only begun. South Africa spent the following decade launching raids from its bases in Namibia into southern Angola, which it transformed into a buffer zone. Savimbi retained his stronghold in Jamba, on the southeastern corner of the country — a region so remote it is referred to as the land at the end of the world. Tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers were stuck holding a defensive line in the south and southwest while the MPLA fought UNITA and the FNLA’s remnants. The stalemate left Angola divided and ravaged by violence.
Making matters worse, Cubans argued frequently with Soviet military advisers, who supplied and trained the MPLA’s forces. Led by a World War II veteran, they pressed the Angolans to develop heavy brigades and prepare for a decisive clash with Savimbi and the SADF. Jorge Risquet and Leopoldo Cinta Frías, who commanded the Cuban mission, considered guerrilla tactics necessary for the MPLA to win the civil war while Cuban forces protected the country from SADF incursions.
The Soviet approach turned out to be disastrous, with successive offensives crumbling due to logistical problems and the SADF’s control of airspace. This dynamic came to a tipping point in March 1987, when against Cuban warnings the Angolan army launched another ill-fated attack on Jamba. Crippled by South African artillery and airstrikes, it soon fell back to the village of Cuito Cuanavale. Savimbi and the SADF, sensing the opportunity of a conclusive victory, pressed hard on their heels. While the Security Council demanded the SADF retreat into Namibia, Ronald Reagan provided South Africa with diplomatic support. Cuito resisted thanks to last-minute Angolan and Cuban reinforcements.
The siege dragged on inconclusively, and the Cuban deployment eventually increased to fifty-five thousand — an enormous commitment for a country of roughly ten million. Castro, drawing on a boxing metaphor, suggested turning Cuito into a trap for the SADF. “By going there, we placed ourselves in the lion’s jaws. We accepted that challenge, and from the very first moment we planned to gather our forces to attack in another direction, like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right — strikes.” Indeed, as the siege tied down the bulk of the SADF in southeastern Angola, Cuban forces were massing on the southwest, getting ready to advance to the Namibian border.
The operation was extremely dangerous, with fears over the nuclear capacities of the South African regime. Cuban soldiers often moved at night in small columns to avoid detection. Following the construction of the Cahama airstrip, Cuban pilots could reach the Calueque hydroelectric dam, which provided essential resources for SADF operations. The dam’s bombing on June 27, 1988 signaled Cuban air superiority and shattered the SADF’s hopes for military victory.
The Tripartite Accord, signed by Angola, South Africa, and Cuba at the United Nations headquarters on December 1988, ended international involvement in Angola. It also granted independence to Namibia, in line with UN Resolution 435. While SADF losses were modest, defeat came at a huge strategic cost. “In Angola black troops — Cuban and Angolan — have defeated White troops in military exchanges, and that psychological edge, the advantage the White man has enjoyed and exploited over three hundred years of colonialism and empire, is slipping away,” wrote a South African analyst at the time.
African National Congress (ANC) leaders concurred with this view. Ronnie Kasrils, the ANC’s intelligence chief, described Cuito as “a historic turning point in the struggle for the total liberation of the region from racist rule.” “Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been legalized,” Nelson Mandela acknowledged in a 1991 visit to Cuba. “Cuito Cuanavale marks the divide in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa.” Mainstream depictions of South Africa’s transition to democracy often suggest it succeeded thanks to Mandela’s moderation and his willingness to placate former enemies. Mandela’s remarks, however, are a reminder that the struggle to end apartheid demanded violent confrontation with the South African apartheid state. In Pretoria’s Freedom Park, the names of the 2,070 Cubans who fell in Angola remain inscribed next to those of South Africans who died fighting against apartheid rule.
Death Was Not in Vain
But Cuba was not only fighting the SADF. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, educators and social workers provided Angolans with basic services. Cuban traveled to the most isolated regions of Angola to provide health care. Cuba also welcomed Angolan and Namibian refugees to boarding schools at the , an educational project that eventually hosted . Throughout this time Cuban authorities kept a discreet profile — a decision taken to avoid infuriating the United States but also to let Africans take the lead in their own struggles.
In many ways Operation Carlota is an example of a just war: undertaken for a righteous cause and waged with genuine concern for the countries involved. But to truly learn from its example, we should recognize that, like any other armed conflict, it was fraught with contradictions and mistakes.
One of the intervention’s greatest enigmas is the fate of the generals who commanded it. In 1987 Rafael del Pino, a renowned veteran who had served as chief of air forces in Angola, flew a Cessna with his wife and children to Florida, where he joined the opposition. Even more shocking was the case of Arnaldo Ochoa, the war hero who led the advance toward Namibia but was sentenced to death in 1989. During a televised trial, Ochoa pled guilty of abusing his position to smuggle diamonds, ivory, and cocaine, in collaboration with the Medellín Cartel. In his , Cuban writer Norberto Fuentes, previously close to the Castro brothers, suggested leading authorities had orchestrated the smuggling deals with Colombians and Ochoa was used as a scapegoat for political intrigues. True or not, the episode cast a shadow on Cuba’s leaders and disheartened its citizens.
Castro’s African wars generate mixed feelings among everyday Cubans. While many feel a sense of pride at their country’s international achievements, they also view these foreign wars as a messianic project: driven by degrees of ego and idealism, while ignoring more prosaic concerns at home. It is undeniably impressive that such an ambitious foreign policy was conducted with the island’s modest means. But this mismatch became painful in the aftermath the Angola war, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuban citizens endured a decade of extreme hardship. In many ways these contrasts are microcosms of the island’s politics more generally, with the revolution’s great achievements in health care and education challenged by economic blockade and stagnation.
Angola’s present state is also dispiriting. While the MPLA had ably led the resistance movement against colonial authorities, it became hollowed out during the civil war. Following the death of historic leader Agostinho Neto and the displacement of his number two, , the force became increasingly corrupt — a recurrent source of frustration for Cubans in the country. A failed coup d’etat and endless civil war — fought with increasing brutality, and lasting until Savimbi’s death in 2002 — made Angolan leaders callous and autocratic. By the time he stepped down in September 2017, José Eduardo dos Santos had presided for almost forty years. In 2013, his daughter Isabel became .
At a time when capitalism rules uncontested, many other African states have chosen to downplay past ties with Cuba and partner with Western or Chinese investors. Most revolutionary movements did not live up to the high hopes they raised as they fought alongside Cubans, either. In Algeria, the 1965 coup against Ahmed Ben Bella opened an era of authoritarianism; in Ethiopia, Mengistu’s dictatorship led to mass famine. The ANC is also delegitimized by .
There should be nothing surprising in the realization that Castro’s interventions in Africa were imperfect. But on the anniversary of the Iraq invasion, and with the United States gearing up for new, more devastating wars of aggression, Cuba’s role in Angola should be looked upon as an example — perhaps the only one in recent history — of a foreign policy that was proudly interventionist, genuinely committed to emancipation, and in many ways successful. If we are to discuss internationalism in the twenty-first century, we could start from few better places.