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Over Where? Cuban Fighters in Angola’s Civil War

By Ron Soodalter
Spring 2016 • MHQ Magazine

Castro exports his brand of armed revolution

 

Fidel Castro’s unexpected 1959 victory over the army of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista radiated shock waves that would affect world policy for decades. His triumph confirmed history’s lesson—that a small, dedicated force led by an inspired and charismatic commander can have the ultimate advantage over a larger but poorly motivated professional army. Not content with keeping the flame of revolution burning solely within Cuba’s borders, Castro also sent his forces to fight in armed conflicts on other continents. Nowhere was their presence more strongly felt than in Angola during its bloody 27-year civil war.

 

BY THE EARLY 1970s Angola was less an emerging southern African state than a maelstrom of political chaos. The many ethnic and economic factions of its widely disparate population had been at odds for years. About the only goal they could agree on was independence from Portugal, which had dominated Angola since the late 15th century, when the area was ruled by a group of independent kingdoms and tribal confederations. The Portuguese had come seeking gold but soon realized that the real treasure here lay in the commerce of humans. The slave trade was the single most lucrative commercial enterprise of the time, and the Portuguese were among its most prolific traders. They raided for slaves, traded with the local rulers for captives from rival tribes, and engaged in international slaving on a massive scale.

Although the planters and businessmen of North America and the Caribbean purchased large numbers of slaves, the Portuguese colony of Brazil—with its many plantations and steady demand for unskilled labor—was the destination of choice until the mid-1800s, when it closed its ports to the slave trade. But in the 275 years of the trade an estimated million or more natives from Angola were shipped in chains to the slave markets of the New World. Even with the formal end of the trade, slavery remained legal and widely practiced on Angola’s coffee, sugar, and cotton plantations until 1875, when it, too, ended.

In the late 1880s European treaties recognized and defined the boundaries of Portugal’s colonial claim to Angola. Thereafter, the Portuguese began colonizing in earnest, building railroads, cities, and seaports, and launching a program of Westernization to develop the country’s economy.

Their methods were often brutal, and when the tribes resisted, they were subjugated one by one, until Portugal controlled nearly the entire colony. By the 1920s labor camps had sprung up at northern coffee and cotton plantations, where forced labor became the new form of slavery. Meanwhile, in a short time Portugal had evolved from a monarchy to a republic and, in 1926, to a military dictatorship whose control over Angola grew increasingly tighter.

 

IN 1956 A LEFTIST GUERRILLA GROUP calling itself the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) rose in armed opposition to the government. It was founded by members of the Portuguese Communist Party, with the backing of various Eastern-­bloc countries. The MPLA consisted largely of Mbundu tribesmen from north-central Angola. The following year a second faction, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), was formed, mainly by the Bakongo of northern Angola and aided in part by the United States. By 1961 an anticolonial war of resistance, initially driven by oppressed workers in the coffee and cotton fields, had broken out and was spreading quickly. Five years later a third nationalist group emerged: The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) consisted largely of the Ovimbundu of central Angola—at some 37 percent of the population, the country’s largest ethnic group. It got some support from the United States and from apartheid South Africa. This array of movements, each with its own political agenda, made conflicting demands on the loyalty of the native Angolans, and the factions fought not only the Portuguese but each other.

After 13 years of bitter fighting that came to be known as the War of Independence, the three groups agreed to a cessation of hostilities. In November 1975 Angola achieved its independence following a bloodless coup in Portugal that immediately put an end to the nation’s involvement in its African colonies. The resulting Alvor Agreement, signed jointly by Portugal’s new democratic government and the leaders of the three warring Angolan liberation movements, provided for a tripartite transitional government to be overseen by all three factions.


For a brief interval the bloody fighting among the groups halted, but despite Portugal’s best efforts, the transitional government collapsed and the three nationalist groups fell to fighting among themselves for control of the newly liberated country. Shortly after independence was declared, the MPLA—backed by its military arm, the Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA)—set up its own government in Luanda, Angola’s capital. By then South Africa’s defense force troops (SADF), in support of UNITA, had already invaded from the south, while FNLA troops had received reinforcements from the north in the form of Zairean infantry, paratroops, and armored vehicles. The Angolan Civil War had begun.

Played out on a Cold War stage, the war proved to be one of the longest and bloodiest modern-day conflicts. The Soviet Union, Cuba, and other communist countries supported the leftist MPLA, while the United States, unwilling to allow a communist government to stand and eager to protect its petroleum interests, covertly provided arms and advisers, as well as nearly $32 million, to the FNLA and UNITA. Reportedly, the CIA flew tens of thousands of “sanitized” foreign-made rifles, mortars, and small rockets—and military training personnel—to Angola.

 

IN EARLY AUGUST 1975, just prior to the South African invasion, Fidel Castro had ordered the establishment of four military missions, “Centers for Revolutionary Instruction,” in Angola to train the MPLA’s FAPLA fighters. He staffed them with 480 Cuban instructors and technical advisers, nearly five times the number the MPLA had requested. At the time Castro possibly envisioned the Cuban mission as strictly instructional. That would soon change. In late October some of the Cuban staffers joined FAPLA in an attempt to repel the South African advance. Badly outnumbered and outgunned, they failed. Castro later wrote in his autobiography that among the dozens of casualties, eight of the Cuban instructors had died and seven were wounded. Cuban blood had been shed on Angolan soil for the first time. “We accepted the challenge without a moment’s hesitation,” Castro recalled. “Our instructors would not be abandoned to their fate….Six thousand miles from home, Cuban troops…entered into combat with South Africa, the largest power on the continent, and Zaire, the richest and best armed of Europe[’s] and the United States’ African puppet regimes.”

Castro had been familiar with the MPLA since the late 1950s. In the early ’60s, after he came to power, Cuba had trained some of its guerrilla fighters, and military emissary Che Guevara had come to know its leaders. South Africa’s incursion into Angola spurred Cuba to action in support of the MPLA. In a newsmaking 1977 interview with Barbara Walters, Castro stated that when South African troops invaded Angola on October 23, 1975, Cuba had to make a decision. “Either we would sit idle, and South Africa would take over Angola, or we would make an effort to help. That was the moment. On November 5 we made the decision to send the first military unit to Angola to fight against the South African troops.”

In fact, on the evening of November 4, 1975, less than two weeks after South Africa/UNITA invaded, 100 Cuban heavy-weapons specialists flew from Havana to Brazzaville, arriving in Luanda three days later. They were the vanguard of the thousands of Cubans who would soon begin arriving.

Castro code-named his ambitious plan Operation Carlota, after an Afro-Cuban slave woman who had staged a revolt in Cuba in 1843. Over the next year he dispatched an estimated 36,000 troops to Angola—and that number would grow exponentially. From the beginning, the Cubans were well armed. Although Castro maintained that “the Soviet Union never requested that a single Cuban soldier be sent to Angola,” the Soviet Union did supply Cuba and the MPLA with what The Atlantic would describe as a “cornucopia of weaponry,” including small arms, tanks, rockets, helicopters, and MiG fighter planes.

When Cuba’s armed presence in Angola became known to President Gerald Ford in late 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger immediately announced America’s disapproval, advising Castro that “a policy of conciliation [between the United States and Cuba] will not survive…Cuban armed intervention in the affairs of other nations struggling to decide their own fate.” Ford said that Cuba’s involvement “ends, as far as I am concerned, any efforts at all to have friendlier relations.” Castro, singularly unimpressed by Kissinger’s declaration, responded that if a positive relationship with the United States was contingent upon Cuba’s withdrawal of support for the Angolan rebels, then “at that price there will never be any relations with the United States.” More than any other issue, Cuba’s involvement in the burgeoning Angolan Civil War would play a major part in crippling Cuban-U.S. relations for years to come.

 

WHY DID CUBA IMMERSE ITSELF so deeply in an African power struggle, particularly one in Angola? Racial considerations were a major factor. Historically, Cuba’s racial and ethnic composition was rooted strongly in Africa. In the mid-1850s the island was taking in many thousands of slaves annually, when every other port in the Western Hemisphere was closed to slavers. Fidel Castro observed, “Those who once sent enslaved Africans to America perhaps never imagined that one of those places that received the slaves would send soldiers to fight for the liberation of black Africa.” Castro’s brother, Raul, expanded on these sentiments during a 1977 visit to Angola: “The blood of many African peoples flows through our veins….Only the reactionaries and the imperialists are surprised by the fact that the descendants of those slaves who gave their lives for the freedom of our country have shed their blood for the freedom of their ancestors’ homeland.”

As grounded in history as it was, this emotional argument—solidarity with its Afro-Cuban slave-descended citizens—ignored the fact that race relations in Cuba at that time were highly volatile. In reality, Castro’s powerful sympathy for leftist revolutionary causes probably figured as much or more in Cuba’s commitment; for years Castro had supported various liberation and anti-apartheid movements and organizations in Africa, so South Africa’s 1975 incursion, along with U.S. backing for the anticommunist FNLA and UNITA, was all but certain to arouse Castro’s sense of political kinship.

Further, Cuba was well aware of the role Angola could play in the world economy. With its 1,000 miles of coastline south of the Congo River, the country was of considerable strategic importance geopolitically, offering natural resources of tremendous value: enormous reserves of gas, oil, diamonds, iron ore, copper, and manganese, and large quantities of coffee, sugar, and tobacco.

Finally, Castro was likely motivated by a desire for greater Cuban involvement in world affairs. Author Hugh Thomas, in his definitive work, Cuba, refers to Cuba’s Angolan intervention as “breathtakingly audacious”: “In those heady days Castro was seeking a world role, not just an American one, much less a Caribbean one. [Ultimately] he…showed how Cuba was able to send out tens of thousands of troops in the cause of revolution.”

 

THE FIRST BLOODY DEFEAT the Cuban/FAPLA forces suffered occurred along the Nhia River, in southeastern Angola. The Battle of Bridge 14 in early December 1975 left some 400 Cuban and FAPLA troops dead. It was a sobering beginning to what would be a long and brutal conflict. Two weeks later, the U.S. Senate, in the wake of America’s recent withdrawal from Vietnam, passed the Clark Amendment, which called for shutting down the CIA Angola program that had been operated in collaboration with South Africa. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, stepped up its delivery of arms and munitions to the MPLA. Beginning in January 1976 Cuban and FAPLA troops, buoyed by massive Soviet military aid, expelled the FNLA/Zairean forces from Angola and drove the South African army and its UNITA allies from Luanda back to the border of South-West Africa (then administered by South Africa, now the country of Namibia). The last UNITA stronghold in the country fell to the leftist army in March. Quiet reigned briefly, as Fidel Castro met with MPLA leader Agostinho Neto to discuss Cuba’s withdrawal of its 36,000 troops. Fewer than 300 Cubans had been killed to date, and Castro still envisioned Cuba’s objective in Angola—establishment of the MPLA as the country’s sole governing body—as achievable in the short term. That summer Angolan and Cuban leaders met in Havana to celebrate their victory, and a few months later the MPLA central committee officially adopted Marxism-Leninism.

In March the following year Castro visited Luanda to address the Angolans and to expedite Cuban withdrawal. His optimism soon faded, however. Factionalism had broken out within the MPLA, and Neto found himself asking once again for Cuba’s aid—this time, to help stabilize his own organization. A Cuban withdrawal would have to wait.

South Africa had taken advantage of the unrest within the MPLA to stage a second invasion of Angola, effectively ending the détente. South Africa feared that if Cuba did help the MPLA establish supremacy in Angola, Castro would use the country as a steppingstone for the invasion of South Africa by way of South-West Africa, which had been under South African control since 1915 and was then engaged in its own fight for independence. South Africa’s concerns had grown in March 1976, when the MPLA provided bases in Angola for the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO), a leftist liberation movement.

In May 1978 the South African Defense Forces (SADF) invaded Angola again by way of South-West Africa, resulting in the massacre of hundreds of its civilians. For the first time the world became aware of the atrocities being committed in the regional war. What one chronicler called “global revulsion” prompted the United Nations Security Council to pass Resolution 435, calling for South Africa’s withdrawal from South-West Africa and for free elections to be held there. The security council also recognized the leftist SWAPO as the valid government. Predictably, South Africa defied the terms of the so-called settlement proposal and continued to maintain its control. Over the next 10 years the war seesawed back and forth, marked by more than a dozen South African invasions of Angola, Cuban/FAPLA responses and counterattacks, and an intermittent series of all-too-brief cease-fires and peace talks. Inevitably, negotiations would quickly collapse, and when agreements were signed, the terms were breached almost at once.

 

THE PROLONGED ANGOLA CIVIL WAR took a heavy toll on Cuba as well. International relations authority Pamela S. Falk succinctly laid out the history of Cuba’s Africa interventions and their costs in the summer 1987 issue of Foreign Affairs:

“The economic drain, loss of life, and domestic discontent in Cuba…suggest that Castro might re-evaluate his African agenda, particularly in Angola, where Cuban soldiers are now being called into frontline combat….Even though the Soviet Union provides Cuba’s military hardware free of charge—valued at over $2 billion for 1982–84—the additional costs of maintaining an overseas army, which includes 65,000 Cubans (troops, and military and civilian advisers) spread over 17 African nations, consume 11 percent of Cuba’s annual budget. Military expenditures, including salaries and uniforms, travel and maintenance, logistical support and supplies, have crippled Cuba’s domestic development plans.”

Yet this was a struggle Castro would not abandon. Cuba’s future in Angola would hold more firefights, one major battle, and another four years of occupation before final troop withdrawal.

The fight that has come to be considered the deciding factor in the outcome of the Angolan Civil War was the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale—actually a series of battles that lasted from late 1987 to March 1988. In that time SADF/UNITA launched no fewer than five major attacks against Cuban, FAPLA, and SWAPO positions. By the end of March the last SADF offensive had failed. Both sides declared victory, although the leftist army had kept the field while its adversaries had withdrawn into South-West Africa. Castro, ever a master of propaganda, claimed it a decisive win; others saw it as the stalemate that allowed for the rounds of peace negotiations that followed.

The fighting continued in southwest Angola, with heavy losses on both sides. Three years earlier, under the Reagan administration, the Clark Amendment had been repealed, and the United States had again begun providing military support to UNITA. Starting in May 1988 Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Chester Crocker conducted a series of 12 peace talks, held in

Cairo, London, Geneva, Brazzaville, and New York and attended by representatives from Cuba, South Africa, and the MPLA. By August the fighting had ceased, and on December 22 all parties met at the United Nations and signed the New York Peace Accords, ensuring the implementation of Resolution 435 as well as South Africa’s withdrawal from Angola. It also confirmed Castro’s earlier agreement to a 27-month timetable for the withdrawal of all Cuban troops, with a deadline of early summer 1991.

Meanwhile, a peace agreement struck between the MPLA and UNITA proved ineffectual and fighting broke out yet again. It would not officially end until May 31, 1991. By then the last Cubans had left Angola. Nearly half a million Cuban “internationalists”—soldiers, doctors, teachers, technicians, and construction workers—had traveled 6,000 miles to serve in this sub-Saharan civil war­—a war that would resume in 1996. But Cuba took little part in the Second Angolan Civil War.

By 2002 the left had prevailed. After nearly three decades of slaughter during which unspeakable atrocities were perpetrated by all sides, the guns were finally stilled. The most conservative estimates count at least 500,000 dead and a million permanently displaced. There are no accurate reports on the number of Cubans killed. When asked directly for the figure, Castro refused to discuss it: “The enemy must not have that information.” No one, however, disputes that the Cuban dead numbered in the thousands. Angola’s potentially robust economy slowed to a crawl in the years following the fighting. According to the Africa Progress Report for 2015 the country has not fully recovered from the devastating effects of the wars, even though it now has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

The Angolan Civil Wars—and Cuba’s direct and prolonged involvement—spawned a wealth of disinformation, propaganda, legends, and outright lies, from grassroots accounts to conflicting official policy statements generated by the nations involved. One truth remains indisputable: By sending thousands of armed Cubans to Angola in late 1975, Fidel Castro took a bold and unexpected step that would ultimately bring his small nation to the forefront of world attention, make it a player in the perilous Cold War contest, and turn Castro into what historian Edward George called “the unofficial spokesman for the Third World.”

 

RON SOODALTER has written for the New York Times, Military History, Wild West, and Smithsonian. His most recent book is The Slave Next Door.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Over Where? Cuban Fighters in Angola’s Civil War.

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