By ISAAC SANEY*
CUBA’S direct, critical and extensive role in the struggle against the apartheid regime in South Africa is little known in the West. November 5th, 2005 marks the 30th anniversary of Cuba’s decision to deploy combat-troops, at the request of the Angolan government, to repulse a major South African invasion of October 1975. In 1987-1988, a decisive battle occurred in the south-eastern Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale. When it occurred, the battle was the largest military engagement in Africa since the North African battles of the Second World War. Arrayed on one side were the armed forces of Cuba, Angola and the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO); on the other, the South African Defense Forces, military units of the Union for the Total National Independence of Angola (UNITA — the South African-supported organization) and the South African Territorial Forces of Pretoria-controlled Namibia.
The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale is marginalized in Western mainstream scholarship, frequently ignored, almost as if it had never occurred. However, the overarching significance of the battle cannot be erased; it was the turning point in the struggle against apartheid. In Black Africa — particularly in southern Africa — the battle has attained legendary status. It is considered THE debacle of apartheid: a rout of the South African armed forces that altered the balance of power in the region and heralded the demise of racist rule in South Africa. Thus, the battle is often referred to as the African Stalingrad of apartheid: the decisive event that defeated Pretoria’s objective of establishing regional hegemony — a strategy which was vital to defending and preserving apartheid — and directly led to the independence of Namibia and accelerated the dismantling of apartheid. Cuba’s contribution was crucial as it provided the essential reinforcements, material and planning.
Cuba’s involvement in Angola began in the 1960s when relations were established with the Movement for the Popular Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The MPLA was the principal organization in the struggle to liberate Angola from Portuguese colonialism. In 1975, the Portuguese withdrew from Angola. However, in order to stop the MPLA from coming to power, the U.S. government had already been funding various groups, in particular the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) led by the notorious Jonas Savimbi.
In August 1975, South African Defence Forces (SADF), with the support of Washington, invaded Angola. This was followed by a much larger invasion in October. On November 5th, in response to a request from the Angolan government, the Cuban government initiated the deployment of combat troops in Operation Carlota, named after the leader of a revolt against slavery that took place in Cuba on November 5, 1843. It must be emphasized that all military service in Angola was on a voluntary basis. Cuban military assistance was decisive in not only stopping the South African drive to Luanda, the capital, but pushing [South Africa’s troops] out of Angola. The defeat of the South African forces was a major development in the African anti-colonial struggle. The significance was underscored by The World, the foremost Black South African newspaper, which declared: “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola. Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of realizing the dream of “total liberation.”
Cuban involvement in Southern Africa was repeatedly dismissed as surrogate activity for the Soviet Union. In an acclaimed and award-winning book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-76, Piero Gliejeses unequivocally demonstrates that: 1) the Cuban government — as it had repeatedly asserted — decided to dispatch combat troops to Angola only after the Angolan government had requested Cuba’s military assistance to repel the South Africans, refuting Washington’s assertion that South African forces intervened in Angola only after the arrival of the Cuban forces and 2) the Soviet Union had no role in Cuba’s decision and were not even informed prior to deployment. In short, Cuba was not the puppet of the USSR. Even The Economist magazine, in a 2002 article, acknowledges that the Cuban government acted on its “own initiative.”
In 1987, the FAPLA, the Angolan armed forces, launched an offensive against UNITA. The Cubans had advised against this operation because it would create the opportunity for a significant South African invasion, which is what transpired. The South Africans invaded, stopped and threw back the Angolan forces. The fighting became centred on the town and strategic military base of Cuito Cuanavale, which was important as a forward airbase to patrol and defend southern Angola. Pretoria committed its best troops and most sophisticated military hardware to its capture.
As the situation for the besieged Angolan troops became critical, Havana was asked by the Angolan government to intervene. On November 15th, 1987 Cuba decided to reinforce its forces by sending fresh detachments, arms and equipment, including tanks, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons and aircraft. Eventually Cuban troop strength would rise to more than 50, 000, with 40,000 deployed in the south where the major engagements were occurring. Cuba was also able to achieve air supremacy, which was a critical factor in repelling the South Africans. It must be emphasized that for a small country such as Cuba the deployment of 50,000 troops would be the equivalent of the U.S. deploying 1.25 million soldiers.
The Cuban government viewed preventing the fall of Cuito Cuanavale as imperative. A South African victory would have meant not only the capture of the town and the destruction of the best Angolan military formations, but, quite probably, the end of Angola’s existence as an independent country. At Cuito Cuanavale, the SADF were dealt a decisive defeat. As the South Africans withdrew, the Cubans, together with Angolan and SWAPO forces, advanced toward the Namibian border. This advance exposed the insecurity and vulnerability of the South African troops in northern Namibia. This was further compounded by another South African debacle, when on June 27th 1988 at the south western Angolan town of Tchipa a major South African offensive was resoundingly routed when the SADF was encircled. This defeat was described in South Africa as “a crushing humiliation.”
This defeat on the ground forced South Africa to the negotiating table, resulting in Namibian independence and dramatically hastening the end of apartheid. In a July 1991 speech delivered in Havana, Nelson Mandela underscored Cuba’s vital role:
“The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. 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 defense of one of us. The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people in South Africa! Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today! Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation!”
Cuba’s role in Angola illustrates the division between those who fight for the cause of freedom, liberation and justice, to repel invaders and colonialists, and those who fight against just causes, those who wage war to occupy, colonize and oppress.
Isaac Saney is author of Cuba: A Revolution In Motion (Fernwood)