The War in Angola is little remembered today yet it played an important role in the history of the world. It would lead to the end of Apartheid in Southern Africa including in South Africa itself. Actually it would have quite shocking unforeseen consequences a topic I discussed at the end of my last article on Angola the February 2015 "CIA in Africa" the war in Angola would lead to the war on terror itself. This article is the fourth entry in a series on the war in Angola and Cuba's role in Africa. The First was the September 2014 Che Guevara in the Congo examining Cuba's early involvement in Africa which included Che Guevara's failed effort to aid the Simba's in the Congo, and Cuba's successful efforts to aid the PAIGC guerrillas under the leadership of the brilliant Amilcar Cabral in liberating Guinea Bissau from Portugal. The Second Article also in September 2014 "Castro vs. Kissinger in Angola" dealt with the first year of the war in Angola when Castro sent aid to the MPLA the most popular of the three factions in battling it's rivals the CIA and Mobutu backed FNLA and the CIA and South African Backed UNITA. Then Cuba sent thousands of troops to Angola in order to help it resist a South African invasion launched with the secret encouragement of the US. Both these articles relied on Piero Gleijeses excellent book "Conflicting Missions." The third the CIA in Africa examined the War in Angola as depicted by CIA whistleblower John Stockwell in his classic book "In Search of Enemies." Now this Article will bring the story of Cuban involvement in Angola to it's conclusion relying on Piero Gleijeses second book on the topic "Visions of Freedom."
To briefly summarize the strain of fighting multiple wars in Africa to hold onto it's colonies proved to much for Fascist Portugal and the government was over thrown in the Carnation revolution. The new government announced that it would grant it's colonies independence. In Angola there were three armed movements vying for control. However the MPLA was the most popular and competent of the three. During the struggle for independence Cuba had helped train some MPLA troops and the two had become allies. Thus with independence approaching they decided to help aid the MPLA. The FNLA was lead by Holden Roberto who was Mobutu's the then Dictator of Zaire Son in law. (Zaire is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo where 10 million have died as a result of an invasion from US proxies Rwanda and Uganda see my February 2014 "Uganda, Rwanda, Congo") The FNLA would never recover from their disastrous defeat in the first year of the war and would become irrelevant even loosing Mobutu's support. UNITA was lead by Jonas Savimbi a ruthless and Charismatic figure. He was infamous for having the wives and children of his political opponent publicly burned at the stake. During the war for independence he had been working with the Portuguese and he was equally willing to work with Apartheid South Africa and the CIA. However unlike Holden Roberto Savimbi was an experienced fighter and so would end up receiving massive support from South Africa and the US in waging a terror campaign aimed at destabilizing Angola. Savimbi and South Africa hoped this would lead to his eventual rule over Angola.
South Africa had the most powerful military in Africa. It's primary concern was to preserve it's system of Apartheid whereby a prosperous white minority lived in luxury through the exploitation of the black majority who were used for cheap labor, had no rights and who were the victims of a constant terror campaign by South Africa's government meant to maintain the status quo through the usual methods of torture and murder. South Africa had watched with concern as more and more of the continent had fallen under black rule. They had cooperated with Portugal in suppressing black revolutionary movements in Angola. With the fall of Portugal's empire in Africa they hoped to maintain Apartheid control of two countries to their north Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) and Namibia (they called it Southwest Africa.) They also were waging a covert war in Mozambique during the same time period supporting the brutal RENAMO. The MPLA were determined to aid the movements seeking to liberate Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa itself. In Cuba was equally committed to helping these movements. In Namibia there was SWAPO and they relied on bases in Angola to train fighters to infiltrate Namibia. In Rhodesia there were ZANU and ZAPU Cuba and Angola helped train ZAPU but skipping ahead it was the Robert Mugabe lead ZANU that would end up ruling the country when it finally held free elections. The sight of radical groups ruling in Zimbabwe made South Africa all the more determined to prevent a similar scenario in Namibia. In addition the South African's were determined to stamp out the ANC and their armed wing the MK. Cuba and MPLA lead Angola were equally determined to aid them in their struggle and provided training camps in Angola for them. Thus South Africa was motivated through ought the war by the hope of gaining control of Angola so that it could destroy SWAPO and the ANC. Fidel Castro had correctly seen the importance of Angola and correctly predicted that a defeat for South Africa here would eventually lead to the liberation of all of southern Africa. Thus Cuba was in Angola to liberate southern Africa while South Africa was intervening to keep it enslaved.
The US motivation would shift. Initially it would be a desire by Kissinger in the wake of the fall of Saigon only months before to demonstrate that the US was still willing to protect it's interests any where in the world. Ironically it's actual economic interests were not threatened by the MPLA who were desperate for foreign investment to develop their country which had been kept purposely poor, uneducated and backwards during Portuguese rule. However Kissinger was mostly doing it all for symbolic reasons. Since the USSR were supplying weapons to the MPLA the US would supply the other two groups. However since the MPLA was still winning the civil war despite massive CIA support for it's enemies the US through backchannels encouraged South Africa to invade. However Cuba which already had advisers in the country helping to train the MPLA caught wind of the whole thing and Fidel Castro after consulting with the MPLA sent 30,000 Cuban troops to help Angola resist the South African invasion. Cuba and the MPLA would manage to stop the South African invasion and then force them out. Thus Kissinger's attempt to demonstrate American prestige had ended in humiliating failure. By a wonderful coincidence shortly after I finished my second article discussing all this a New York times article came out revealing that after his failure Kissinger had flown into a rage and had actually considered attacking Cuba in retaliation.
The new American goal was to get the Cuban's to leave. However the South African's had a large force stationed in Namibia from which it could launch an attack on Angola at any time. Cuba promised the MPLA that they would remain in Angola to help defend against any future invasion so long as the MPLA wanted them to remain. Actually here I should mention one of the most Charming features of "Visions of Freedom" is that with his access to the Cuban archives he is able to reconstruct exactly what Cuba's relations were with the various players in minute detail and what emerges is a surprising picture to those used to following the cynical strategies of American officials. Cuba really is run by idealists although idealists who have learned pragmatism and realism through hard experience they remain at core idealists. Thus on the one hand Cuba showed a surprising deference to their weaker allies in Angola even though their aid was vital to the governments very survival. They also showed a surprising independence from the Stronger Soviets even though Soviet aid was vital in their survival. The Soviets for their part tolerated a great deal of independence from Cuba even in the dark days of Gorbachev's rule when he was eager to win US good will by betraying his allies in places like Afghanistan and Nicaragua. The Cuban's also showed unbelievable courage in the face of threats from the US. Basically You'll have to read the book to get the full flavor but it is wonderful to read with what courtesy and integrity Cuba always behaved throughout the years of the war. Cuba's aid was not only military they also sent thousands of doctors, teachers, and construction workers. They also opened special schools in Cuba providing education for over 50,000 African students and today many of Africa's doctors were trained in Cuba.
The primary US goal became to get the Cubans to leave. In the Carter years there was conflict in the administration between Cyrus Vance and infamous geostrategist Zbigniew Brzezinski. Vance hoped to restore the US reputation in the world by ending it's alliances with some of the most notorious regimes in the world. Brzezinski on the other hand was more concerned with expanding US power and battling the soviets. Thus while Carter opposed South Africa personally after a few early statements condemning apartheid he ended up doing nothing to pressure them to change since Brzezinski convinced him it would be a bad idea to put sanctions on South Africa while it was opposing the Cubans. South Africa was illegally occupying Namibia and the UN had passed resolution 435 ordering them to leave but the US made sure there would be no penalties for their refusal. Officially however the US demanded that South Africa end it's illegal occupation in Namibia. Carter had considered normalizing relations with Angola but wanted a cuban withdrawal in return. The MPLA were not about to force their only protection against South Africa to leave. Carter had also toyed with the idea of normalizing relations with Cuba but since one of their conditions was Cuban withdrawal from Africa it never happened. In addition Cuba later intervened to stop a Somalian invasion of the Ogaden in Ethiopia which ruined all chances of a deal. During most of Carter's administration the war was confined to the Illegal support of UNITA by the CIA and South Africa. It was Illegal because after the scandal that broke after the Initial defat of US efforts in Angola congress had passed the Clark Amendment forbidding covert US involvement in Angola. UNITA used the money to terrorize the country in cooperation with South African special Forces. The South African's tried to hide their involvement by painting their skins black and by leading specially trained black troops known as buffalo soldiers. Thus the war was mostly low intensity throughout the Carter years until 1979 when South Africa launched a major attack on Angola bombing a Namibian refugee camp and also sending a land invasion. It was to be the first of many invasions of Angola South Africa would launch. It had airbases in Namibia and was able to maintain air superiority over southern Angolan through most of the war. The west did nothing to condemn the attack. Basically during the Carter years the war continued but Carter was unenthusiastic and uncomfortable with being allied with South Africa which alienated even close US allies in Africa.
However with Reagan's election the US approach became more aggressive. Reagan strongly supported both South Africa and Savimbi. His administration was also the scene of conflict between realist hawks Chester Crocker and His bosses the Secretaries of State first Alexander Haig and then George Schulz vs what the Author misleadingly labels true Reaganites better known today as Neo-Conservatives. Israel and South Africa were close allies and Israel used it's Powerful lobby in Washington on South Africa's behalf. Angola became a pet cause of the Neo-Conservatives in the 80's and they adored Jonas Savimbi and UNITA as well. Although Reagan shared these beliefs his secretaries of State were able to win the power struggle on this Issue and Chester Crocker was allowed to control Angola policy during the entire Reagan administration. His strategy was known as Linkage he decided to link the Cuban withdrawal from Angola with a South African withdrawal from Namibia. This ignored the fact that South Africa had been illegally Occupying Namibia long before the Cubans had arrived and that the Cubans had arrived because of a South African invasion from Namibia. Basically it served to justify the illegal occupation of Namibia. South Africa Ruled by the hardliner PW Botha had no intention of ever leaving Namibia and allowing free elections because it was unwilling to tolerate a SWAPO victory which it's spies in BOSS assured them would be the result in fair elections. However they were happy to have diplomatic cover to remain in Namibia. The Cubans were not going to withdraw until South Africa did and so the war continued. However during the entire war Crocker played a complex diplomatic game that would in the end bear fruit Ironically because of Cuban victories not his tireless diplomacy.
South Africa continued to launch periodic invasions and along with the CIA funded and trained an ever growing UNITA. Because of South African air superiority in Southern Angola the Cubans were forced to withdraw to a defensive line further north where they lived in underground tunnels prepared to resist a south African attempt to take the capital. Luckily for Angola the south of the country was sparsely populated and mostly a wasteland. Much of the South of Angola fell under South African and UNITA control and Savimbi established a base near the Namibian border from which he directed a terror campaign against Angola. One tactic he used was to plant land mines in the fields so that the peasants would be to frightened to harvest their crops or to farm. By wars end the UN estimated that 50,000 Angolan's had been killed or injured by these mines. He also launched attacks against vital infrastructure blowing up bridges and paralyzing the railroad. The MPLA was given conflicting advice on what to do. The Cuban's advised them to concentrate on training their forces to fight a counter-insurgency war against Angola. Cuba would prevent an attempt by South Africa to invade the north of the country. The Soviets however advised them to train a conventional force that would be able to resist South Africa. The Soviets had little experience with Guerrilla war after World War 2 and this would prove to be disastrous to them in Afghanistan and would also lead them to give bad advice in Angola. The Cubans on the other hand had fought a successful guerrilla war ending in a victorious revolution. They had then put down a CIA backed terror campaign aimed at overthrowing their new regime. They had also been involved in a highly successful Guerrilla war in Guinea-Bissau. Thus through out the war the Cuban advice would prove correct while the soviets were wrong. The FAPLA Angola's army took the soviet advice and neglected the UNITA threat. UNITA continued to expand it's area of operations. Meanwhile FAPLA would prove no match for South Africa although they often managed to mount a stubborn and brave resistance.
Once it became obvious that the Cuban's had proved right about the danger of UNITA the soviets again gave the MPLA some bad advice urging FAPLA to launch an offensive far into the south to seize the UNITA base at Mavinga eventually planning to take Jamba. The Cuban's warned that this would be too dangerous without air support to fend off the South African air force but were ignored and after some initial success against UNITA they were attacked by South Africa loosing many men and barely managing to retreat. Then strangely the whole scenario was repeated again a couple years later with the same ignored warnings from Cuba. This time after intervening to save UNITA south Africa decided to seize the strategic town of Cuito Cuanavale in the North. South Africa hoped that it could replace linkage over Namibia with Linkage over Angola. South Africa would force cuban troops to leave and force the MPLA to reach a power sharing agreement with UNITA. For Years Cuba had lobbied the Soviets to provide them with enough air defense equipment that they could both protect Cuba and end South Africa's control of the skies of Southern Angola. The Soviets had put them off. Reagan had announced his hope to invade Cuba early in his administration and US diplomats had even threatened Cuba with all out war if they refused to withdraw from Africa but despite the danger the Cubans had stood firm. However during most of the Reagan administration they constantly worried about the possibility of invasion. However by the time of the siege at Cuito Cuanavale the Iran Contra scandal had occurred Reagan had been forced to fire many hardliners and Cuba decided it was much less likely that the US would invade Cuba. Castro decided to take a major gamble. He Shipped many of Cuba's own anti-Air defenses and it's best planes to Angola along with a major force of reinforcements. Since he knew the soviets would disapprove since Gorbachev was trying to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty with the US he decided not to tell them until it was already under way. Castro actually personally planned the entire campaign that followed and the strategy behind it. First he sent enough Cuban reinforcements to encourage the FAPLA defenders of Cuito Cuanavale to successfully hold out under siege then he launched a surprise offensive deep into the southwest. Accompanied by FAPLA troops and SWAPO guerrillas the Cubans began to frantically construct an airbase in Southern Angola close enough not just to protect southern Angola but also to strike the south African Airbases in Namibia. While the airport was under construction the Cuban's were able to protect their forces with mobile anti-Air defenses and slowly pushed the south Africans south back towards Namibia. Eventually the Airport was completed and South Africa found itself with the tables completely turned. The Cubans fought several successful clashes with the South African's and they were forced to retreat back to Namibia. One of the funniest scenes in the book was when the returning troops were greeted as victors and had to stand around disgusted and depressed as their humiliating defeat was celebrated as a wonderful victory. Meanwhile Castro used the victory for full political advantage bluffing the South African's into believing that he might be willing to invade Namibia.
Here diplomacy came into play and Chester Crocker was finally able to negotiate his linkage. Cuba was extremely lucky with the timing they were able to negotiate from a position of strength since no one suspected how quickly things would begin to unravel in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact. Castro was able to force the South Africans to withdraw from Namibia so that they could no longer directly menace Angola. Since he closely followed the events in South Africa he correctly guessed that apartheid would fall soon. The first victory over South Africa had inspired a massive wave of revolt among the black population and the movement had been steadily growing finally gaining support even in the US where sanctions had finally passed a couple years before despite Reagan's Veto. Earlier he had come up with a linkage of his own Cuba would stay in Angola until the fall of Apartheid. Now with South Africa defeated he correctly saw that it's plans for hegemony over southern Africa ruined it was only a matter of time before they would be forced to admit defeat and negotiate with the ANC. Cuba agreed that it would withdraw over a two year schedule. South Africa agreed to withdraw from Namibia and hold elections. Although they tried a bunch of dirty tricks and tried to leave behind a proxy death squad within the police force SWAPO emerged victorious. There was however a tragic incident before then when SWAPO tried to return to the country fully armed although with orders not to engage Namibian or South African forces. The US managed to gain UN authorization for South Africa to respond and they launched attacks killing a number of SWAPO members. In the end though SWAPO won the elections.
In the US Crocker received all the credit for events in Namibia. The Cuban role in the fall of Apartheid is still largely unknown. In South Africa once the ANC was victorious they erected a wall to commemorate those who died in the struggle against South Africa they included the names of the more then two thousand Cubans who gave their lives in Angola. They are the only foreign names included. When Nelson Mandela won south Africa's first free elections he invited Fidel Castro as a guest of Honor to his inauguration. Fidel Castro had outsmarted Kissinger and Brzezinski and helped finally liberate all of southern Africa. It was one of his proudest moments. Every one of the thousands of Cubans who served in Angola had been a volunteer hopefully articles like this one will see that there contributions are finally remembered. Today Cuba no longer sends troops out on internationalist missions but it still sends thousands of doctors and teachers around the world. Most recently they have played a vital role in trying to fight ebola in Africa.
The war in Angola once again reveals the false rhetoric clothing the American empire as utter hypocrisy. Despite it's constant talk of freedom it supported Portuguese efforts to crush independence movements seeking to liberate their countries from foreign domination. Portugal was a lFascist country. They then Allied with south Africa in it's attempts to maintain Apartheid over southern Africa. They supported Savimbi a ruthless warlord as he terrorized his country. Ironically even after the peace agreement they continued to support Savimbi and he would maintain his war for many more years.
This brings us to Angola as part of the settlement the MPLA agreed to hold elections with UNITA allowed to run. Ironically these elections would have taken place long before if the CIA hadn't decided to launch a covert war in Angola to prevent an MPLA victory. The MPLA gradually became corrupted after there original leader Agostinho Neto died in 1979. Although it relied on Soviet and Cuban aid for survival the majority of it's trade was with the west. It fell prey to neocolonialism and is unfortunately today just another of Africa's corrupt governments in thrall to Multinational corporations. Namibia today still suffers under an informal form of Apartheid while ironically South Africa is according to Andre Vltchek fairly integrated and finally making some much needed efforts in trying to improve the lot of the majority of the population. Unfortunately the final liberation of Africa from colonial settler rule coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union and so today Africa is in a neocolonial bondage with only a few rays of hope Like Eritrea. Today the new Cold War in Africa is between Chinese business and America's network of armies organized under Africom. The US is massively expanding it's military presence on the Continent. Unfortunately it is clear that Africa will have to fight to liberate itself all over again.
Cuba meanwhile survives. After the fall of the Soviet Union the US redoubled it's efforts to destroy Cuba pressuring Russia to cut aid while waging a brutal economic war. Only through a truly heroic effort were the Cuban people able to survive and adapt during the 90's. However at the end of the 90's a wonderful surprise happened. In the Early days of the Cuban revolution Cuba had hoped to liberate Latin America. It had trained revolutionaries and sent out small numbers of advisers to aid revolutionary groups throughout Latin America. The efforts had seemed to be a failure in fact this failure was one reason Cuba turned it's attention to Africa. However many years later they had born fruit. In Venezuela Cuba had inspired and aided an attempted revolution it had initially failed but the influence of the former fighters had spread throughout Venezuela and Hugo Chavez inspired by many of their Ideas eventually took power. The Cuban example had finally been emulated. Now all of Latin America threatens to break out of the US orbit while the US is preoccupied with trying to conquer Eurasia.
Recently the US has finally announced that it wants to normalize relations with Cuba. Of course at the same time it admits that this is merely to attempt to overthrow it. US politicians lecture Cuba about human right they even had the Arrogance to claim that Mexico Canada and the US would help "reform" Cuba. Canada with it's secret genocides against it's indigenous population. Mexico where a 100,000 people have died in what is oversimplified into a drug war. Yet many are victims of the same sorts of right wing death squads the US is notorious for training throughout Latin America. The whole thing covertly fueled by the US. Finally we have the US worst of all waging war on the entire planet funding Nazis in Ukraine, Jihadi's in Syria, sparking tensions all across the pacific, waging war in Colombia, Africa, and too many places to name. We must defend Cuba from such insane hypocrisy. We must remember the proud role Cuba has played in freeing Africa from the brutal oppression of Apartheid and Colonialism an oppression fully supported by America and it's European allies. The proud role it has played in freeing Latin America. The tiny Island of Cuba provides a bright light of hope in our dark world.
Anyone interested in this topic should definitely read Piero Gleijeses "Conflicting Missions" and "Visions of Freedom." I also recommend John Stockwell's "In Search of Enemies" for an insider account of the early stages of the war in Angola. Read my June 2014 "Alternative Media Spotlight 2" for some great resources if you would like to understand current events in Africa. Also see my march 2014 "Israel Apartheid SouthAfrica" for a discussion of the Israeli Role which I briefly alluded too. Israel is launching a P.R. campaign to try to erase their role in this history. Read "Israeli Foreign Policy South Africa and Central America" by Jane Hunter for more on this topic.
Piero Gleijeses on Why South Africans love Cuba
Here is a great interview From Your World News with Piero Gleijeses on Cuba and Angola
An Article by Keith Harmon Snow on Angola's Brutal exploitation by the Diamond industry
A great Documentary on the Victory of Cuba over South Africa that ended the war
And a Documentary on Apartheid in Namibia
Andre Vltchek on South Africa
Andre Vltchek on Namibia
Another Article based on Piero Gleijeses books