Cuba: An African Odyssey is the fruit of fifteen years’ research and organizing on the part of Egyptian Jihan el Tahri. Treating three hot wars within the context of over “a quarter century plus one year, one month and one day” in the life of the larger Cold War.
Disguised in 1965, clean-shaved in a suit and thick-rim glasses, Che Guevara is another man — on shipping across Lake Tanganyika into the Belgian Congo/Democratic Republic of the Congo/Zaïre — to bring revolutionary expertise to those fighting for the leftist MNC ideals of popular PM Patrice Lumumba, usurped and murdered by Col. Joseph Mobutu. Before his own failure, capture and murder, Che would take Bolivian guerrillas to task on “the reality of war. I emphasized the importance of a united command and discipline . . . of the party’s line.” Unable to inculcate military or ideological order, Guevara left Africa secretly after eight months.
So opens the film, followed by a middle section on Cuban aid to also-assassinated Amílcar Cabral’s PAIGC movement for Portuguese Guinea and Cape Verde, separately independent in the wake of Lisbon’s 1974 Carnation Coup, the former as Guinea-Bissau. Speaking of the convoluted situation in, and worldwide concern with, Angola and Namibia — the last section in time but the documentary centerpiece — Fidel emphasizes that, contrary to capitalism’s imputing its own imperialistic ends to Cuba, “we have no selfish reasons.”
An ex-U.S. diplomat assesses that then as now we misread Cuba and the legitimate credit it deserves for bringing settlement to Angola’s alphabet soup of conflicting acronyms, armies and special interests from the Western and Eastern blocs as well as within the African continent. Governed after 1975 nationhood by the formerly Zambia-based liberation party MLPA, large, potentially rich Angola was plagued by warring factions, with South Africa’s “mandate” South West Africa/Namibia serving as a base for UNITA armed incursions (soon also supported by Washington, which as well funded yet another army in FNLA), as Pretoria simultaneously fought Namibia’s revolutionary SWAPO and maintained apartheid in its ex-German protectorate today touted for tourism as “quaint, but a land of stark beauty and riveting contradictions.”
Fidel was so joyfully embraced in Angola’s capital, Luanda, that his visit was extended into a three-week triumphal tour. Already suffering privation, and later itself to lose Soviet aid, his own island had given its lifeblood for emerging brother nations: the remains of ten thousand of Cuba’s fallen (many of them at Cuito Cuanavale, the greatest battle on the continent since El Alamein) were transported home for burial.
The legwork research here is impressive, even for those who question El Tahri’s hagiographic treatment. Protagonists’ motivations and actions are of course open to different interpretation, with interviewees on whatever side seemingly likeable, eloquent and sometimes surprisingly humorous about the past.
Back to the Motherland: Cubans in Africa
On October 14, 1975, as Angolan independence approached and the civil war tipped in favour of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the South African armoured column Zulu crossed into Angola. Made up of white troops from the South African Defense Forces (SADF) assisted by several thousand black mercenaries, Zulu rolled over the MPLA’s few defences and started racing for the capital, Luanda. Joining Zulu came a second column, Foxbat, airlifted into the central Angolan town of Silva Porto—a gangster’s Shangri La and home to the warlord Jonas Savimbi and his murderous National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Meanwhile, from the north came another anti-Communist guerrilla army, Holden Roberto’s National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was saturated with CIA personnel, South African military advisors, and Zairian troops, plus some Portuguese and British soldiers of fortune.
This secret invasion code named “Operation Savanna” was just the culmination of an older U.S.-backed, Kissinger-approved program of covert action which had begun half a year earlier when it became clear that an exhausted Portugal was giving up on its colonial project and that the Marxist MPLA would win the civil war between itself and the two anti-Communist groups, UNITA and the FNLA. Formal decolonization was set for November 11, 1975, and the CIA/South African invasion was an attempt to steal Angola away from the MPLA before that legitimizing date.
Also on the ground were five hundred volunteer Cuban military advisors who had been training and fighting alongside the MPLA for the last two months, but many of this number were in the country’s detached northern oil-rich enclave, Cabinda. The speed and secrecy of the South African blitzkrieg stunned both the MPLA leadership and the Cubans. Less than three weeks after invading, Zulu was almost upon Luanda, yet the head of the Cuban military mission, Diaz Argüeselles, still did not grasp the magnitude of the situation.
A few days later, the Cubans and the MPLA leadership were disabused of their confusion when all the coastal highway towns south of Luanda had fallen to Zulu. Within hours it became clear to the MPLA and their Cuban comrades on the ground—and then to Fidel and his brother Raul Castro—that they must choose either to abandon Angola to the ravages of South Africa and its proxy warlords or send immediate reinforcements. After consulting with Raul and a few top aids, Fidel dispatched 430 members of the Special Forces and an artillery regiment. Most would go by boat arriving in about a week, but a vanguard detachment of 158 elite Cuban commandos and heavy weapons specialists dressed in civilian clothes boarded two passenger planes and took off for Angola.
Before they left Fidel met them on the tarmac. “He spoke most of all about the South African invasion,” recalled one veteran of the operation. “He said that some of the Cuban instructors had died, that it was a difficult situation, that we must stop the South Africans before they reached Luanda and that many of us would not return. He said that it was very hard for him to say this and not go with us.” Even more chilling were the final instructions: fight with the MPLA, if the MPLA lost the capital go to the hills and fight on, if the MPLA gave up—only then, if possible—the survivors should fall back to Zambia where Cuba had a new embassy.
After two stops for refuelling, the Special Forces touched down in Luanda under the cover of night and immediately raced to the nearby bluff-top village of Quifandongo from which the MPLA was guarding the capital with several hundred of its best troops, some artillery pieces and six Soviet-made rocket launchers. Just outside Quifandongo lay Holden Roberto’s FNLA, a host of 3,500 mounted on trucks, tanks, and mobile artillery, massing for their final assault on Luanda.
But here fate and the megalomaniacal hubris of the CIA’s pet, Roberto, intervened. As one of the South African veterans of the operation wrote: “Unlike Savimbi who…relied on his South African advisors’ professional knowledge, Roberto insisted on going his own way.” As high-flying South African bombers attempted to soften up the village, the attacking foreigners suggested a flanking manoeuvre but “Roberto shrugged off all such subterfuges in favour of an advance straight down what later became known as Road.’ ”
The FNLA forces—described by a South African veteran as a “hoard of partly trained…tribesmen…Portuguese mercenaries…[and] faint-hearted Zairians…” held together by a few SADF officers and CIA advisors—lined up on the road to attack as a convoy. Greeting them was an awful hail of Cuban controlled artillery. As one discouraged white advisor later wrote, “one by one the armoured cars were knocked out.” Mauled and panicked, the attackers scattered.
From there, half the Cubans turned south and ambushed Column Zulu. Put in check, the column tried an end run around the Cubans but was ambushed again. This time, caught on a long open stretch of road surrounded by impassable monsoon-soaked terrain, the South African tanks and trucks were smashed to pieces. From then on Zulu’s war was a fighting retreat home. By March 27, 1976, the last SADF tanks rolled back across the Namibian border where then defense minister, and future South African president, P. W. Botha watched and saluted through “a cloud of dust.”
News of South Africa’s humiliation in Angola swept the Bantustans electrifying and emboldening ANC activists and youth. A few months later the ghetto of Soweto exploded, marking the beginning of the end of apartheid.
Impressive as it may be, the Cuban adventure in Angola was only one piece of a truly audacious African foreign policy. Cuba was not a Soviet pawn in Angola or elsewhere. In fact, in the majority of these interventions the Cubans played a leading role, sometimes acting against the wishes of the Soviet Union. In Angola, for example, the MPLA had been requesting direct military intervention—troops—from both the USSR and the Cubans starting in early 1975. But these socialist states held off: Cuba for fear of antagonizing the United States; the USSR in the hope of achieving a new arms agreement.
When Cuba finally acted it did so without consulting the Soviets. And when the Russian “elder brothers” were presented with the fait accompli of Cuban troops duking it out with South African invaders, requests from Castro and the MPLA for military aid contained as much blackmail as they did supplication. What were the Russians to do—let the Cubans sink? Of course once the tide had turned, the independence date had come, and South Africa had finally been exposed in the western press as the aggressor, the USSR was happy to help out.
Cuba’s interventions were not always victorious. Che’s year in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo was a socialist Heart of Darkness. Che’s host, the dashing, seemingly committed Laurent Kabila turned out to be a soft, jet-setting fundraiser who frequented foreign capitals while his troops languished in the jungles around Lake Tanganyika. Che tried to turn things around but Kabila’s Simbas (meaning lions) preferred to lay low while a U.S.-backed army of white mercenaries supported by Cuban-American pilots had its way with the geographic heart of Africa. Likewise a leftist coup in the nearby French Congo turned out to be heavy on radical pronouncements but light on actual socialist forward motion. The Cuban mission there—to train a more left-leaning popular militia—ended after a right-wing coup.
The Cubans risked all for leaders they liked and respected while often suffering chilly relations with groups that might seem their natural allies. Che set the initial tone in most of these cases during his diplomatic barnstorming through Africa in late 1964 and early 1965. At times the connections and near misses seem counterintuitive. For example, Che offended and alienated the very Marxist, Cuban-oriented Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, but quickly bonded with the ideologically more eclectic, more social democratic, Amilcar Cabral of Guinea Bissau’s liberation movement. In later years this meant scant Cuban involvement in Mozambique and a huge military and medical assistance package for Cabral’s forces in Guinea Bissau.