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Sunday, 29 September 2013

Cuba's greatest service to humankind: Angola 25 Years Later

Cuba is rightly known for its many acts of humanitarian internationalism, exemplified by its  medical missions across the world.  However, Cuba’s greatest service to humankind has often been neglected.

Next week will be the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale – what a colleague of mine, Isaac Saney, has called “Africa’s Stalingrad” due to the fatal blow it dealt against South Africa's occupation of  Namibia and the apartheid system in South Africa.   Nelson Mandela stressed that the battle of Cuito Cuanvalae "was the turning point for the liberation of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge of apartheid."

From the eve of Angola’s independence in November 1975, South African forces, supported by the CIA,  assisted UNITA (Union for the Total Liberation of Angola) in its attempt to seize power from the revolutionary government of the MLPA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) by carrying out numerous invasions, incursions and sabotages within Angolan territory.

Given the prospect of “losing” Angola, US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger bluntly proposed that “We might wish to encourage the disintegration of Angola.”  Using Zaire’s (now Congo) dictator Mobutu as a channel for the aid, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger approved Operation IA-FEATURE, which consisted of $40 million in funding and US military trainers which sought to support UNITA and other anti-MPLA groups.

Responding to the requests of the newly independent Angolan government in 1975, the first contingent of Cuban troops arrived on Angolan soil.  They would be the first of many.  In addition to the deployment of troops and military equipment, Cuban military advice was central in defeating the South Africans at Cuito Cuanavale.

Cuito Cuanavale was a small town in the southeast of Angola located on the Cuito River – but became the site of the most intense fighting during the war. The battle for Cuito Cuanavale lasted roughly six months and at the time was the largest battle on African soil since World War II.  The fighting took place on both the ground and in the sky, with Cuban pilots taking to the air in combat against the South African air force.  The stakes were so high for the South Africans that it has been revealed that the apartheid government was considering the use of nuclear weapons in an attack against Angola’s capital city of Luanda in order to prevent their own defeat.

Overall, the number of Cuban volunteers (including troops, educators and doctors) who served in Angola from 1975 to 1991 is officially estimated at over 300,000 – 2,000 of which whom lost their lives.

This is  the reason why Cuba was the first non-African country visited by Nelson Mandela following his release from prision in 1991.  Later at the 1995 Southern Africa Cuba Solidarity Conference, Mandela remarked that “Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonizers.  They have shared the same trenches with us in the struggle against colonialism, underdevelopment, and apartheid.  Hundreds of Cubans have given their lives, literally, in a struggle that was, first and foremost, not theirs but ours. As Southern Africans we salute them. We vow never to forget this unparalleled example of selfless internationalism.”

This is my edited extract from a longer article by Kevin Edmonds for NACLA.

For more information please read Piero Glijeses' Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976

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