In late December 1961, a ship flying the Cuban flag docked in Casablanca, Morocco.
In the Bahia de Nipe‘s cargo hold were 1,500 rifles, 30 machine guns, four mortars, and an undisclosed amount of ammunition. In the quarters was a small medical team. Once the passengers disembarked and the cargo was unloaded, the?Bahia started its journey back to Cuba, this time carrying 76 wounded Algerian FLN rebel soldiers and 20 war orphans.
Fidel’s imprint is on almost every major revolutionary effort in Africa after 1959.
To him, the anti-colonial dream was “the most beautiful cause of mankind.” By the time the 1959 revolution swept through Havana, only two Sub-Saharan African country were independent, Ghana and Guinea. Within the next decade, tens of others would join this list. Several would have to first battle colonial powers and then fight Cold War and regional proxy wars. In this chaotic theatres of war, Fidel made allies, and in turn Cuba became a key player in Africa’s future through military and humanitarian help.
The Bahia de Nipe, the ship that started it all, was built in Wilmington, California in 1945. Just months before the Algeria mission, its captain and ten-man crew diverted it to Virginia, United States and asked for asylum. The ship became the subject of a court case because it was carrying tonnes of sugar formerly owned by the poster child of American capitalism in Latin America, the United Fruit Company, whose plantations Castro had seized.
Even before he started sending boots to African conflicts, in support of socialist revolutions, Fidel was already an enigma who intrigued and scared Americans in equal measure.
They became obsessed with killing him over the next decade, but failed to understand his motives until it was too late. His dedication to revolutions in Africa and Latin America was, to them, driven by a messianic attitude and an addiction to the adrenaline fields of revolutionary wars. But this was only partially true; Fidel wasn’t just interested in conflict for its own sake. He also wanted to increase the theatres of revolutionary wars against imperialism, reducing focus on Cuba herself.
In Africa’s anti-colonial wars, Fidel found fertile ground for revolution. In the Cuban leader, African rebels and governments found a friend who was sometimes too willing to help.
In 1963, for example, Cuba sent Algeria a 55-person medical team on such short notice that there was no one at the airport to meet them. The team didn’t have passports when they left Havana on May 23, 1963, and landed in the North African country without any warm clothes. They also had to fend for themselves for the first weeks before everything, including their pay, was sorted out. On the battlefront, Cubans were scary because, according to an American negotiator in the years to come “they were as ready for war as they were for peace.”
Even countries such as Kenya, which were already well on their way to independence by 1959, sent delegations to Cuba in the early 1960s. They had a different ask; help in training technocrats to handle the delicate, long-term work of statecraft. Despite making first contact in 1962, Kenya quickly became the bastion of capitalism in Eastern Africa, and distanced herself from Cuba and the Soviet Union. In fact, the East African nation only established proper diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2001, and an embassy in Havana in September 2016, after the US signaled a shift in relations.
In late 1964, the other symbol of the Cuban revolution, Argentinian doctor Che Ernesto Guevara, visited seven African countries, including Tanzania. In Dar-es-Salaam, Guevara met the leaders of Simba Revolution, Laurent Kabila and his men. The Simba were the survivors of slain Congolese icon Patrice Lumumba’s once popular support. They planned to overthrow the new CIA-backed regime in Zaire. With a small unit of Cubans, Guevara joined them on the front but they lost once the CIA sent in mercenary forces from other countries. The well-documented defeat was one of the first major proxy wars between Cuba and the US. Guevara would later write that they lost because Kabila and his forces were unprepared and undisciplined.
After the Zaire failure, Cuba’s focus then shifted to Guinea-Bissau where, with Cuba’s help, rebels kept the Portuguese colonial government busy until 1974. Focus then shifted again, this time to another Portuguese colony in southern Africa, Angola. The immensely rich nation went into civil war immediately after attaining independence.
Three competing revolutionary movements jostled for power: Soviet-backed MPLA found itself fighting Zaire-backed FNLA, and South African-backed UNITA. Other countries, including Britain, Eastern Germany, Yugoslavia, France, Romania Israel, China, North Korea, and the United States joined in what became a proxy war for southern Africa’s future. Although MPLA was in power, it was losing control of large swathes of the south and the south east to its enemies.
Faced with an existential crisis, the socialist MPLA asked Cuba for help. They had already done so once, in May 1972 when they met Fidel Castro and his war cabinet as he toured five African countries. His commitment was wavering until Zaire and South Africa invaded Angola in August 1975.
When Cuba began sending her forces to Luanda, the Americans and South Africans mistakenly thought Castro was doing Soviet Union’s bidding. They predicted the Cuban effect would be minimal, so the only thing they did was to make countries on the way deny Cuban flights landing rights to refuel. In response, Cuban planes flew lighter, making the 9, 000 km non-stop Transatlantic journey from Havana to Luanda. Most of them carried military and medical supplies.
Over the cause of just three months, Cubans made 70 such flights to Luanda, and sent several ships sailed to join in the war. Thousands of Cuban soldiers flooded into Angola on MPLA’s side, bolstering its position and shocking the South African fronts, who realised they had underestimated Cuba’s commitment.
Of it Fidel Castro later said “Given the distance between Cuba and Angola, our motto was: if we need one regiment, let’s send ten.” By early 1976, there were 36, 000 Cuban soldiers in Angola; a staggering number that was a deliberate form of psychological warfare.
By early 1976, MPLA’s fortunes were changing.
In the early 1960s, European and American spies missed the Cubans because of a favored system where Castro sent mostly black Cubans on missions. They blended in well, especially in countries like Guinea-Bissau. The only quirk that gave them away was the growing popularity of beards and Cuban cigars.
Jonas Savimbi, the iconic leader of the rebel group UNITA, saw the intervention as “Cuban colonialism.” Unlike greater powers though, Cuba didn’t seem to have any imperialist intentions. In fact, once the guns went quiet, Cuban numbers reduced to 12, 000 within months. Those who stayed were there to bolster MPLA’s position as South Africa and Zaire remained hostile.
The apartheid government continued supporting insurgencies in Angola, and intervened again to help its allies in the 1980s. Again, Castro bolstered Cuban forces in the country in August 1987, this time to a force of 15,000 soldiers. The war culminated in the Battle of Cuito Canavale, a town in southern Angola, in 1988. UNITA, assisted by South African forces based in Namibia, beat back the MPLA across the Cuito River, and tried to pin them in the small town. When South Africa blew up an important bridge over the Cuito River in January 1988, the Cubans built a wooden one they called Patria a Muerte (fatherland or death). It was a play of one of Fidel’s favorite quotes (and he had many in his long winding speeches) “Once a struggle begins there is no choice other than victory or death.” More than 4,000 Cuban soldiers would die in Angola’s battlefields, their greatest loss on foreign soil to this day.
There is little agreement on who won the actual battle of Cuito Canavale, and positions often depend on the point of history from which one is looking at the fighting. South Africa technically managed to win its immediate goals, but soon realised that it was a war of attrition which they would lose either way. It had never been a war for Luanda, but for Namibia.
For a small country, Namibia harbored the future of Southern Africa. A colony of South Africa at the time, it formed the warfront the apartheid government used to keep communism at bay, and busy, in Angola. South Africa rightly feared Luanda would become a base for rebel movements against the still existing colonies in the region. So the battle for Namibia, and southern Angola, became the true battle for the region. Throughout the war, the apartheid government made it clear it would only withdraw from Angola if the Cubans left. On the other hand, the Angola demanded that South Africa leave both Angolan soil and Namibia before the Cubans could leave.
Eventually, in June 1988, South Africa retreated and Namibia became an independent country. By November 1989, half the Cuban troops in Angola had left. In May 1991, two months before schedule, the last Cuban soldier boarded a flight back home. Three years, South Africa became independent too, a process many believe was speeded up by the Battle of Cuito Canavale.
To Nelson Mandela and southern Africa’s true liberators, Cuban intervention in the Angolan war destroyed “the invincibility of the white oppressor.” Almost immediately after he was released in 1991, Mandela travelled to Cuba to personally thank the small island nation for its unparalleled help to Angola, and by extension “…the struggle for liberation of southern Africa.” His friendship with the symbol of militant socialism was criticised by those who saw him as a hero of nonviolent struggle (which in fact, Mandela wasn’t).
Like all revolutionaries, Fidel Castro was far from perfect. His legacy, especially political and economic, in Cuba itself is controversial but his dedication to the ideals of freedom make him one of the most important revolutionaries of his time. One person’s revolutionary is another’s terrorist.
Fidel Castro’s most conflicting legacy in Africa is his intervention in the Ethiopia-Somalia conflict over the Ogaden region. Cuba and the Soviets helped wrest the Ogaden Plateau from Somalia in 1977; Cuba had 17, 000 soldiers fighting for Ethiopia under Haile Mariam at the time. Even ignoring the controversies of the war itself, and how it impact Somalia’s chaotic future, Ethiopia was at the time a colonial power at war with her subject, Eritrea. The presence of Cuban soldiers and tacit support kept the bullets flying, a clear contradiction of a man whose life’s work was destroying imperialism.
Note that despite the lionising of Mandela in the West, the US kept him on its terror watchlist until July 2008.
History is conflicted about characters like Fidel Castro, who straddled through two generations and did so much that it’s hard to box them in any one way. Here was a man, born into relative privilege, who chose to fight for a cause. Then he promoted that cause against a global giant and her allies, from a small, mixed-race nation. With little money, and with a poor economy under excruciating economic sanctions, Castro made a mark in history that can’t be erased.
Of course some countries such as Angola to whose cause Cuba sacrificed so much are under a new form of oppression. But that’s the thing about revolutions, one doesn’t mean universal and infinite freedom. It doesn’t mean the new powers will be perfect, and that a society will never need a revolution again. Each generation has its own mission, and is cursed to find its own revolution. Under Fidel Castro, Cuba found and did its part. Not just for itself, but also for a good chunk of the African continent.
When he stood trial in 1954, he swore history would absolve him. I think it already has.
One story is good,
till Another is told.