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Cuban Opinions on Internationalist Efforts in Angola

by Daniel Krook • June 1998 • Universidad de La Habana

This paper is more or less a journalistic survey based on interviews with a variety of Cubans in the Havana area in the summer of 1998 on aspects of the intervention in Angola.

Among others, questions included "Was it truly voluntary to serve, as the government maintains?" and "What is your estimate of the casualties of the 16 year operation?" since this information is still jealously guarded by the Castro administration.

Opinions of Cuba's Internationalist Efforts in Angola

Cuban policy in the Americas would be one of close solidarity with the domestic people on this continent and...those politically persecuted by bloody tyrants oppressing our sister nations would find generous asylum, brotherhood, and bread in the land of Martí. - In Fidel Castro's 1953 defense for his actions at Moncada, as published in "History Will Absolve Me."

Castro's prescient words have become a promise in the years following the Cuban Revolution, not only for the countries of Latin America, but also for third world nations in Africa and Asia as well. Although Fidel Castro spoke these words expressing his own plans for a new Cuba in 1953, it was his embrace of two influential figures less than 10 years later that allowed his dreams to become reality: Karl Marx and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.

After formally declaring himself a Marxist-Leninist in 1961, Fidel undertook the task of forging international proletarian solidarity. Che Guevara's eagerness to export the revolution made the contacts in Africa in the early 1960s that allowed Castro's government to actually implement its internationalist policy.

It is these three pillars that have shaped the framework for Cuba's impressive internationalist policy. Today, Cuba looks back to a history of constant aid - militarily, politically, and socially - that has been extended not only to its socialist brethren, but also to sister third world nations who struggle against imperialism or other hindrances to their right to self-determination.

This paper will briefly delineate what Cuba's internationalist policy has been, why it went to Angola, and what it has achieved there and then I will present some observations on the opinions of American publications, Cuban publications, and centrally, the opinions of ordinary Cubans.

As this is a continuation of a past project I have completed, it is necessary to note that I tried to fuse both the American sources I utilized in my earlier project and some Cuban publications that I have since found here in Havana.

Unfortunately, I had limited success, however, in finding any valuable Cuban sources on this topic at either the Biblioteca Naciónal José Martí, or at the library of Casa de las Americas. I did find a book on the topic at a local bookstore, but the information within comes mainly from primary, subjective sources such as Fidel and Raúl Castro and PCC member Jorge Risquet themselves. Nonetheless both the American and Cuban sources were important sources for this paper in gauging public and official opinion.

The key question asked in this project has been: Why did Cuba get involved in this regional dispute in southwestern Africa? As was noted earlier, Revolutionary Cuba was committed to global struggles against imperialism and to advancing nationalistic independence movements, as well as upholding the "duty" of proletarian solidarity. Che sowed the seed for future contacts in Africa when he made a diplomatic tour of the continent in 1965. During this trip, her made the acquaintance of Angolan independence movement leader Agostinho Neto, head of the MPLA (People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola). Aside from being the largest and most popular group involved in the struggle for Angolan self-determination, it was also perceived to be:

...the only genuinely independent [that is, not subject to the agenda of a foreign group] , nontribalist, and nonracist movement. It was the only one with the will to fight for Angola's independence on the basis of a consistent program of national liberation. - Jorge Risquest in a 1988 interview with David Deutschmann.

While carrying immense public support, MPLA's ascension to power in a soon-to-be independent Angola in 1975 was threatened by militaristic opposition groups, well known to be the puppets of foreign powers who had much to lose should the legitimate government put an end to their economic exploitation.

It was under these circumstances that the MPLA called on the aid of Cuban personnel and arms, as was their prerogative according to UN Charter Article #51.

Despite limited resources, Cuba responded with as much materiel as it could give and the forces succeeded in stopping several annexationist invasions by South Africa (who were interesting in Angola's rich mineral deposits) and secessionist groups seeking to undermine Angola's independence so as to make it pliable to the interests of international oil firms.

Cuba ended up embroiled in the conflict for the better part of 13 years (1975-1988) at the continued behest of the government of Angola, until a decisive battle was fought with South Africa in the closing months of 1987 and the early months of 1988 at Cuito Cuanvale. While both exhausted from the drawn out war, South Africa capitulated due to intense domestic pressure.

For Africa, Cuba's efforts had caused an upheaval in the power relationships of the southern region. It had secured the legitimate rule of a popular, democratic government in Angola, drawn attention to the area and South Africa's long illegal occupation of Namibia which led to the earnest implementation of Namibia's independence under UN Security Council Resolution #435, and finally, destabilized and humiliated the South African apartheid regime, which later fell to a legitimate government under Nelson Mandela.

Despite constant heckling by the Reagan administration of the United States, Cuba had gained international prestige which led to an increase in its global political weight and an expanding number of political and economic allies. The largest negative was the unsettling domestic economic situation which was precipitated by its long time intervention, a result which is felt as sharply as ever in contemporary Cuba. However, it was an expected consequence and was noted as early as 1976 by President Agostinho Neto:

"It's not right," he said to a functionary personally close to him. "If they go on like this, the Cubans will ruin themselves." - Writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez' report in his article "Operation Carlota."

Aside from what has been proclaimed by the US government as "Cuban military imperialism," or just as loudly what Castro calls "fulfilling a duty" or "paying a debt to mankind," why did Cuba go to Angola and continue such expensive operations 10,000 kilometers from Havana?

It has been suggested that Cuba was a pawn of the Soviet Union's "global hegemony" project, or that Cuba merely wanted access to Angola's rich oil and mineral resources before they could be taken by South Africa or Gulf Oil. Less critically, it has been said that Cuba was planting the seeds for future allies. But, despite the justifiably skeptical interpretations, both my American and Cuban sources have concluded no other motive than what has been officially proclaimed. For this project, I have thus aimed to tap a source of knowledge generally disregarded by American scholars or official Cuban publications: the average Cuban.

I asked my respondents a core? of questions and then allowed them to provide free interpretations. These questions were: Why was Cuba in Angola? What did the Cubans gain or lose? What was domestic opinion? What are your estimates of the casualties? and, Was it really voluntary for the soldiers who went?

A young soldier at La Cabaña aged 22 and a female student age 20 both mirrored the official line, which discouraged my faith in the value of this research, but later I interviewed two males of the involved generation, one who served for 3 and a half years and his civilian brother-in-law, aged 34 and 27, respectively. The soldier maintained that a strong incentive for Cuban involvement was the possibility that Cuba could negotiate for favorable trade terms on Angolan oil, as well as to open a new market for its sugar exports in southern Africa.

When both men were asked about the fact that all men and women went voluntarily, they were quick to point out three issues that underlaid this claim. While going was to an extent believed to be the responsibility of a committed revolutionary, they noted the key material incentives: it was a chance to leave Cuba for at least a while, there was the official promise of employment, good pay, and preferred housing upon return and, perhaps most convincingly, those who were called upon but declined to go were stationed in undesirable domestic areas such as the mosquito ridden Zapata peninsula swamps and kept on a blacklist.

When all respondents were asked about whether domestic support flagged in the expensive and drawn out involvement, nearly all said they weren't too conscious of public opinion, which I attributed to restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly as well as the state publication of most media.

In regards to gains and losses, the Cubans said they were extremely proud to have found an important place in history as the liberators of southern Africa, a sentiment encouraged by Nelson Mandela's speech of gratitude in July of 1991. But they are also conscious that much of the current poor economic situation is the direct result of internationalism.

The most nebulous answers came as a response to my query about casualties. I told them what I had read in a 1985 interview with Fidel Castro:

We have had our casualties but have not given out any information. We didn't feel it was convenient to do so. Our policy has been not to give casualty information; that has been our policy right from the start. The enemy must not have that information. We will know how to honor in a fitting manner those killed in revolutionary struggles here and elsewhere, - Fidel Castro in response to Jim Morland's question on casualty figures, January 1985.

And showed them the figure from an American book which stated 2,016 deaths in Angola. They had their own ideas on the policy and the figures. The 20 year old university student had estimated "hundred of thousands," while the 34 year old soldier said that 2,000,000 not 200,000 served in Angola, and of the 2 million 700,000 died or were wounded. The 22 year old soldier said that about 2,000 was accurate.

While I anticipate further interviews with Cubans on this topic, the evidence I've gathered from American government opinions, American scholars, and Cuban government opinions/statements for the first time viewed in a larger picture have altered my earlier conclusions, but not very substantially. I take most "official" or "scholarly" work with a grain of salt and was therefore encouraged when I found doubting Cubans in regard to the information I told them that I had gathered and formed my opinions around. Perhaps when I continue my interviews on this topic here in Cuba and later in South Africa, a clearer picture will emerge, but for the moment it appears that despite a few variances in opinion, the evidence I've gathered has supported most Cuban official accounts, be it American scholars or regular Cuban citizens.


• Castro, Fidel, Jorge Risquet, and Gabriel García Marquez, Changing the History of Africa. Australia: Ocean Press, 1989. David Deutschmann, ed.

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

• Perez-Stable, Marifeli, The Cuban Revolution: Origins, Course, and Legacy. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993

from: Moreover &
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