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Cuban Internationalism in Angola 1975-1991

by Daniel Krook • May 1998, HIST 379 • Trinity College

Even as early as 1953, defending his actions at Moncada in his trial, Fidel Castro committed himself to spawning revolution, not only in Cuba, but throughout the world. Years later, many of his words about expanding the Revolution outside of Cuba have become reality.

Initial aid to Africa began in 1960, when Cuba sent aid to the Algerian Liberation Front in the form of military and medical supplies. Cuba later aided the leaders of the progressive government of Ghana in the early 1960s.1

By 1965, just over five years since the overthrow of Batista and the inception of a socialist Cuba, efforts of Cuban led military activities with the goal of spreading the Revolution manifested themselves in central Africa with the now well known guerrilla adventures of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

These internationalist solidarity missions continue today, primarily in the form of general civilian aid to those who request it, but Cuban military, economic, and political intervention in Africa, as well as other locales, has had a long and heavily influential role in advancing the aspirations of anti-imperialism, industrialization, and to a lesser extent, the socialist cause in the Third World. Among the more in depth efforts the Cuban state has made in supporting its Global South brethren was the prolonged intervention in Angola between 1975 and 1991.

This paper will seek to shed light on three facets of Cuban internationalism in Africa. The first section will provide some background and suspected causes for the massive efforts Cuba made to export the Revolution to Africa. The second section will outline Cuban intervention in the case of Angola. The third section will summarize the gains and losses of Cuba's adventures in southern Africa, both for Cuba itself and the surrounding region in addition to evaluating the prospects for the future of Cuban internationalism.

Reasons for Cuban Intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa
As was noted before, the vanguard military actions of Che Guevara were the first direct efforts by Cubans to foment armed rebellion in Africa. While they were not officially coordinated by Havana, Fidel Castro made certain provisions for his close comrade's operations. However, Che's failure to successfully ignite a popular movement in Africa, as well as his death leading an faltering insurrection in Bolivia during 1967, initially decreased Castro's enthusiasm for internationalist efforts.

Once the priority of survival in the face of US hostility subsided and Cuban-Soviet intentions in Africa started to coincide in the early 1970s, Cuba again began to increase its aid and actual involvement in the affairs of third world nations.2

Drawing on Guevara's earlier diplomatic tour and his list of contacts in progressive Africa, Cuba noted potential areas "ripe for revolution" in addition to heeding African states' calls for aid.3

Cuba's initial support in the late 1960s for the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) came as a combination of both Guevara's acquaintance with MPLA president Agostinho Neto and Neto's appeal to Cuba for aid. Cuba supported the MPLA mainly because, as one of three parties contending for power in Angola, it was the one most ideologically similar to Cuba. It also appeared the most legitimate heir to the governance of Angola, in addition to its "staunchly anti-imperialist, multi-racialist, and prosocialist ideological position" and that "it pursued a strategy of political organization among the mestiço and black urban working class of Luanda."4

Both groups in opposition to the MPLA were characterized as tribally and racially centric as well as being anti-communist, with only regional support, in the south east5

Che was not alone in his desire to spread socialism and foment anti-imperialist revolution in Africa. The Cuban Revolution hinged the internationality of its revolution and well known was the wish of Fidel and the "people" of Cuba to unite the world in solidarity under socialism. Therefore, it might be said that Cuba's exploits in Africa were the result of ideological proselytization. Indeed, the two goals of Cuba's forays into Africa have been said to be "the promotion of national liberation movements and the defense of existing progressive governments," which are very much in line with the encouragement of socialism.6

William M. LeoGrande goes even as far as to state, "Cuban activism was motivated not by hopes of any direct tangible benefit for Cuba, but rather in hopes of advancing the cause of socialism."7

While the communist crusade may have been a certain factor in the actions of Cuba in Africa, it is also wise to take a look at the underlying pragmatic benefits of such ventures, since Cuba was really in no position of strength to export its revolution so early.

Edward Gonzalez summarizes these other interests very well:

Aside from its ideological commitment, therefore, one can identify at least three operational goals that Havana appears to be pursuing in its African policy and which promote Cuba's national interests [at least until this was written in 1981]. These goals are (1) the broadening and deepening of Cuba's ties with "progressive" and "socialist-oriented" regimes in Africa; (2) the assumption by Cuba of effective leadership over the Third World and the nonaligned states in particular; and (3) the lessening of Cuba's one-way dependence upon the Soviet Union and the creation of a new privileged relationship with the USSR as a highly valued ally. In turn, each of these goals involves the attainment by Cuba of increased leverage in the international order - in the form of either independent or derivative leverage - as the means by which Cuba expands its global influence and autonomy.8   [italics added for emphasis]

Susan Eckstein, in an article also in the Mesa-Lago and Belkin monograph, suggests that one of the core economic factors for Cuba's involvement in Africa is the desire to acquire hard currency with which to pay Western bloc countries for debts or new purchases. As she concludes, "ironically, Cuba promotes "socialist internationalism" partly to improve its economic relationships with the capitalist world!"9

These being some of the overt political and economic benefits of internationalism, perhaps it would be astute to note some other subtle reasons why Cuba undertook such risky ventures.

While noting Cuba's needs vis á vis the rest of the world, it has also been suggested that Cuba's internationalist crusades have been an attempt by a shrewd Fidel Castro to justify war-time conditions at home by "creating" a war. Successful battles with the forces of world capitalism have also been used to increase nationalistic pride in Cuba, thereby suppressing internal divisions by pleading for internal solidarity "in the name of socialist revolution." Mary-Alice Waters, a very pro-Castro writer, makes a note of this effect on the people of Cuba, in a passage that lends itself to ambiguous interpretation:

From the mid - 1970s through the mid - 1980s, internationalist missions such as those carried out by hundreds of thousands of Cubans in Angola - as well as in Grenada, Nicaragua, and elsewhere - were the main social and political force helping to mobilize and politically inspire working people in Cuba.10

These and other reasons apparently offered plenty of justification for the people of Cuba, let alone Castro, to support internationalist operations in Africa. Now that we have seen why, it is time to turn to what and how.

Cuban Intervention in Angola
As was noted earlier, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was the preferred beneficiary of Cuban support. There were further reasons for Cuban support of the MPLA:

The Cubans also had more concrete reasons for expecting that an MPLA government would be a good deal more progressive than one dominated by either of its rivals [the FNLA and UNITA, the tribally-fixated and vaguely ideologically oriented opposition groups]. The MPLA drew almost all its foreign support from the former members of the progressive Casablanca Group within the Organization of African Unity. Nkumrah and Ben Bella [leaders of Cuban supported Ghana and Algeria, respectively] were both vocal supporters of the MPLA and they were also the two African leaders with whom Cuba had the best relations. Finally, as a member of the Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP), the MPLA benefitted from its association with the two stronger members, FRELIMO and the PAIGC, both of which received Cuban assistance.11

Cuban and Soviet support for MPLA was consistent (aside from two temporary lapses by the Soviet Union) from the late 1960s right up until the dawn of the Angolan Civil war in 1975.

The leaders of the three factions in Angola who were vying for control of the soon to be arriving independent Angola met in January of 1975 in order to normalize relations for a tripartite transitional government.12

These accords, known as the Alvor Agreements, also called for a single national army and set the date of 11 November 1975 as the independence day of the Angolan state.13

With the rising tensions fuelled by mutual suspicion and the knowledge that each of the other parties were receiving external military aid (the FNLA from the US and UNITA from South Africa), the move to topple MPLA from its stronghold and major electoral constituency in Luanda was initiated by the South African led UNITA forces in mid-October.14

In the face of this aggression, the MPLA requested military intervention from Cuba. Cuban aid was requested on the 4th November, it was received on the 5th and 8th. Cuban troops helped defend Luanda from the "invasion" of "South African" troops as the MPLA maintained its hold on the country. 15

Cuba and the popular MPLA party were the winners, Cuba successfully defended a friendly government, and its actions were seen as justified in the majority of Africa, since the overt militancy of South African troops was universally judged in Africa as aggressive imperialism.

A successful defense of the capital during one offensive was unfortunately not the only help the MPLA required to solidify its dominant position, however, and soon the Cuban troops were requested to stay indefinitely. Persistent harassment from a now guerrilla UNITA, the threat of war with Zaire over border skirmishes, and the constant threat of a South African invasion were all continuing dangers to the fragile MPLA government of independent Angola.16

While the Cuban government's reputation at home and abroad was boosted astronomically, its continued presence offered diminishing returns. Over time, in the decade of the later 1970s through the mid - 1980s, the Cuban forces found themselves in a position so familiar to many nations in other periods of the twentieth century, "it could not win and it could not leave without putting the host government in jeopardy."17

The toll of constant guerrilla harassment, with a touch of irony, in addition to the burden of altruism became an incredible load to bear, especially in the years of 1985 to 1987. Cuba's idealism hardly waned, but it rubbed the Angolans and certain other African nations the wrong way after a decade of "occupation." Castro originally intended to stay until the end of apartheid in South Africa, as well as the inception of Namibian independence. While this had great returns in the future, as I will show in the third section, this conditional statement that had nothing to do with Angola's internal affairs raised a flag of suspicion on the continent, which helped wear out Cuba's welcome.18

Realizing that his influence and reputation was receding in Southern Africa as well as at home, Fidel Castro concluded that a decisive confrontation was necessary for more reasons than to end the suffering of the people in Angola. Thus began the "epic battle" of Cuito Cuanvale in September of 1987. Every source consulted for this paper notes that the events that unfolded near the Lomba river close to Cuito Cuanvale were decisive in bringing about the end of the Angolan Civil War and the Cuban involvement therein. Less agreement exists on what really happened there, or who actually won.

Mary-Alice Waters contends that, "by March 1988, the South African troops had been dealt a decisive military defeat at Cuito Cuanvale by the combined forces of the Cuban volunteers, the Angolan army, and fighters from SWAPO (South West Africa People's Organisation)."19

Susan Eckstein asserts that, "in 1988 massive Cuban aid resulted in a military victory of such proportions, in Cuito Cuanvale, as to change the political dynamics in southern Africa."20

However, W. Martin James informs us, "In 1987, at the second Battle of Lomba River, the FALPA/Cuban forces were decisively defeated by FALA/SADF [South African Defense Forces]. More importantly, Lomba River II proved to the Soviet Union that UNITA could not be defeated militarily."21

An internet source even goes as far as to call it "Cuba's Mythical Victory," and that "the Cuban propaganda version of this 'heroic battle' was widely believed in the west, and it was not until after the war that the facts emerged."22

Who won in the military showdown is inconsequential, however. It was a political victory for Cuba and Angola, note the key point:

  • South Africa never had any intention of deploying its forces to capture Cuito Cuanvale. Since July 1987, SADF had already lost several dozen soldiers. The press, politicians, and public, while supportive of the SADF role, were also questioning SADF commanders regarding intentions and timetables....The stalemate at Cuito Cuanvale helped MPLA-PT save face after the disaster at Lomba River. By projecting Cuito Cuanvale as the "South African Verdun" MPLA-PT could enter negotiations from relative strength, rather than as a defeated military force.(23); and,
  • The South Africans, who had been the real victors in the Cuito campaign, realised that making the full facts known at that delicate stage in the peace negotiations would humiliate the Cubans and their Soviet backers and perhaps spur them into sending yet more troops to Angola in an effort to save their reputation. Making the Cubans look ridiculous would serve no useful purpose.24

This discrepancy is noted to temper the perceived "invincibility" conceptions that the Cubans gave themselves and that the South Africans were reputed to have by the other nations of southern Africa. As was said before, the political victory was Cuba's and Angola's, and while South Africa looked only into the short term about ending a prolonged conflict with "Cuba and their Soviet backers," to quell increasing internal dissent, this "defeat" had profound repercussions for the social situation of South Africa as we shall see later.

The conflict resolved militarily, peace negotiations were forthcoming. Cuba did make a quiet and honorable exit, as it long hoped to do. It was pre-empted from the majority of peace talks, where the superpowers and local states worked out most of the terms. In mid-summer of 1989 agreements were reached in Zaire, the Gbadolite Declaration on Angola, to the effect of a declaration of peace in Angola and the phased withdrawal of Cuban troops from the area that was completed in 1991.

These are the intricacies and accepted facts of the Cuban military mission in Angola. Whether these events are precisely accurate (the discrepancy over the battle of Cuito Cuanvale, and Cuba's failure to release official estimates of both Cubans involved and numbers of casualties) is up for speculation. However, the gains and losses that Cuba experienced, as well as the legacy of Cuban intervention in southern Africa have resulted in very definite outcomes, especially for Angola, Namibia, and South Africa.

Benefits, Detriments, and Other Results of Intervention
Initially, Cuba received much more in return than the amount it had invested in Angola. It came out of the original intervention in Luanda with gains such as added political weight, further crucial diplomatic expansion in Africa, and proved military excellence in unfavorable conditions. The largest loss was likely the failure to receive little in the way of economic return, even from the socialist bloc. In romantic terms:

Cuba, an underdeveloped country, was willing to commit blood to the anti-imperialist struggle without asking either military or economic concessions in return. Cuba was the Third World's David defeating the South African Goliath.25

While Cuba's reputation soared in the Third World, it should also be noted that Cuba was widely perceived to be "upgraded" from 'proxy' or 'pawn' of the Soviet Union to 'ally' or 'partner.'

Political benefits from the original intervention included: "the consolidation of the MPLA in Angola, stopping South Africa's intervention, the defeat of the allies of the United States and China, and advancing the causes of Namibia and Zimbabwe."26

Militarily, the Cuban ranks were consolidated under the cause of fighting for international socialism, testing new weapons and counterinsurgency techniques, and receiving a formidable reputation.27

Diplomatically, the actions in Africa quickly brought Cuba into association with the majority of the governments on the continent, reaching relations with 40 countries and the establishment of approximately 30 embassies, more African connections than any other Latin American state.28

Since Cuba received a lot from its interventions in Angola in the short term, it becomes easy to see why it continued to act in Africa, as it later did in Ethiopia. However, the longer term economic problems Cuba faced as a result of its prolonged military venture are important to note here. While initially foreign capital was increased to Havana in the form of Soviet aid and the rescheduling of debt, Cuba's commitment to Angola was part of the reason that the domestic economy's growth, which had been at an astonishing 16.3% in 1975-1975 decreased substantially to 4.1% in 1976-1980. While the crash in the world market price for sugar also caused major problems to Cuba's economy in this period, it must be seen that the missions in Angola really were no cheap investment even during the first five years of operations.29

The effects on Cuba seen, what then were the consequences to the regional politics of southern Africa? As has been said earlier, the political victory at Cuito Cuanvale was an immeasurable gain for Cuba, since it was then able to honorably withdraw from Angola. The wider picture of this "victory" for southern Africa was thus, as Díaz-Briquets concludes:

...A key determinant was the daring military move toward the Angola-Namibia border made by the Cuban expeditionary force in late 1987. This action changed the regional security equation. The until then uncontested South African military superiority was challenged by the Cuban gambit.30

and on a wider scale, Waters asserts that,

The South African invaders were forced to withdraw from Angola; in subsequent negotiations the apartheid regime ceded independence to Namibia, which celebrated the end of racist colonial domination and the establishment of its own government in March 1990.31

perhaps most dramatically stated, by Nelson Mandela in Havana in 1991,

The crushing defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanvale was a victory for the whole of Africa! The overwhelming defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanvale provided the possibility for Angola to enjoy peace and consolidate its own sovereignty! The defeat of the racist army allowed the struggling people of Namibia to finally win their independence! The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors! The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa! Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanvale our organization [the ANC] would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanvale has made it possible for me to be here today! Cuito Cuanvale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation! Cuito Cuanvale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!32

Cuban intervention in the affairs of Angola not only secured the independence of Angola's fledgling, independent socialist government, but its actions had profound regional meaning, leading to the independence of Namibia and the destabilization of the apartheid government in South Africa as well.

In weighing the net individual gains and losses that Cuba has made in the past or the benefits it may seek to work for in the future, it does not seem likely that Cuba would attempt any more of its former active military intervention any time soon. Indeed, as Eckstein points out, "both global and domestic conditions do not bode well."33

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the socialist camp disintegrated, leaving Third World nations nowhere to turn for viable help than the West. Not only are there less politically sympathetic countries in the world today, the United States has thrown one more wrench in Cuba's internationalist efforts, the 1992 US Cuban Democracy Act disqualified American aid to anyone having economic relations with Cuba, thereby draining the pool of the majority of Cuba's remaining partners.34

Military aid for these operations is not forthcoming either, as a result of the decline of Russia, once Cuba's primary backer of internationalist ventures. While external situations limit the role of Cuba in the third world, domestic economic problems sound the death knell of internationalism. The crisis of the Special Period, Eckstein points out, has made Cubans "come to see internationalism as conflicting with their own basic needs," which has done much to change public opinion of Cuba's altruistic policies.35

Rarely asserted, much less known or acknowledged in the West, was Cuba's heavily influential role in the security, liberation, and independence of southern Africa. The evidence I have consulted suggests that Cuba was directly or indirectly responsible for the stabilization of an independent Angola, pushing for the expedient independence of Namibia from South Africa, and forcing a political, if not military defeat, on South Africa, that resulted in the popular uprising against the apartheid system. It has been suggested that Cuba's influence in Africa led to similar progressive changes elsewhere in Africa as well.

While its possible that Cuba's intervention in Africa was not an independent decision (many sources suggest Soviet direction), I feel that the nature of Cuba's own revolution, its ideological and pragmatic aims, its military maneuvers, and its almost singular hauling of the African load, offer strong evidence that operations in Africa were heavily inspired by the nature of the socialist state of Cuba and were the embodiment of a long developing process instigated particularly by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara and Fidel Castro themselves. Although some may say the Cuban revolution was a failure, I find that it certainly lives on in the states of southern Africa.


1. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 18.
2. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 15.
3. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 20.
4. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 21.
5. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 21.
6. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 19.
7. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 19.
8. Edward Gonzalez, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 57.
9. Susan Eckstein, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 191.
10. Mary-Alice Waters, in Waters, Mandela, and Castro, page 11.
11. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 21.
12. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 23.
13. W. Martin James, page 269.
14. William Ratlif, in Díaz-Briquets, page 34.
15. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 24.
16. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 30.
17. Olga Nazario, in Díaz-Briquets, page 121.
18. Olga Nazario, in Díaz-Briquets, page 115-116.
19. Mary-Alice Waters, in Waters, Mandela, and Castro, page 9.
20. Eckstein, page 172.
21. James, page 176.
22. Richard Allport, see Bibliography/References for URL.
23. James, page 177.
24. Richard Allport, see Bibliography/References for URL.
25. William M. LeoGrande, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 33.
26. Carmelo Mesa-Lago, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 201.
27. Carmelo Mesa-Lago, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 201.
28. Olga Nazario and Juan F. Benemelis, in Díaz-Briquets, page 25.
29. Carmelo Mesa-Lago, in Mesa-Lago and Belkin, page 203.
30. Sergio Díaz-Briquets, in Díaz-Briquets, page 9.
31. Waters, in Waters, Mandela, and Castro, page 9.
32. Mandela, in Waters, Mandela, and Castro, page 20.
33. Eckstein, page 200.
34. Eckstein, page 201.
35. Eckstein, page 201.


Allport, Richard. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale: Cuba's Mythical Victory

Byrnes, Rita M. ed. South Africa: a country study. Washington: Library of Congress Federal Research Division, 1997.

Díaz-Briquets, Sergio, ed. Cuban Internationalism in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1989.

Eckstein, Susan Eva. Back from the Future: Cuba under Castro. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.

James, W. Martin. A Political History of the Civil War in Angola 1974-1990. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1992.

Mandela, Nelson, Fidel Castro, and Mary-Alice Waters. How Far We Slaves Have Come! South Africa and Cuba in Today's World. New York: Pathfinder, 1991.

Mesa-Lago, Carmelo, and June S. Belkin, eds. Cuba in Africa. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1982.

Russel, D.E.H. Rebellion, Revolution, and Armed Force: A Comparative Study of Fifteen Countries with Special Emphasis on Cuba and South Africa. New York: Academic Press, Inc. 1974.

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Participated in July 26, 1953, attack on Bayamo garrison; Granma expeditionary; Rebel Army commander; served as member of Communist Party Central Committee for many years.