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The Cuban Intervention in Angola

The Cuban Intervention in Angola

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Published by kickerofelves
history, military, Angola, Cuba, South Africa, SADF, Castro, Cuito Cuanavale, Cold War, military history, warfare, Cuban army, South African Defense Forces
history, military, Angola, Cuba, South Africa, SADF, Castro, Cuito Cuanavale, Cold War, military history, warfare, Cuban army, South African Defense Forces

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Published by: kickerofelves on Oct 01, 2010
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11/26/2012

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In November 1975, Cuba launched the largest intervention in its history,
sending 36,000 troops into Angola to defend its Marxist ally from twin
invasions by South African and Zairian forces. This unprecedented event
– which overnight turned Angola into one of the main fronts of the Cold
War – did not arise out of a vacuum, however. It was in fact the culmina-
tion of more than a decade of uneven cooperation between the Cubans
and the MPLA, dating back to Che Guevara’s Congo campaign in the
mid-1960s. Over the next thirteen years, the Cuban military contingent
grew until, by 1988 – when Cuban and South African forces clashed at
Cuito Cuanavale in the second largest battle in African history – there
were over 65,000 Cuban troops in Angola, proportionally four times the
American commitment to Vietnam. The Cubans fighting in Angola pro-
fessed to uphold the ideals of internationalism, an ideology little under-
stood in the West and often dismissed by their opponents as a mask for
Soviet imperialism. Yet despite being labelled ‘Moscow’s Gurkhas’, the
Cuban ‘internationalists’ drew overwhelming support from the majority of
African states, catapulting their leader – the charismatic and much
maligned Fidel Castro – back onto the international stage, and by the early
1980s turning him into the unofficial spokesman for the Third World. The
fifteen-year intervention in Angola would shape the lives of a generation
of Cubans, and by its end in 1991 nearly half-a-million Cubans would have
served there.

The aims of this book, therefore, are to explain why a Caribbean
country sent as many as half-a-million of its citizens 6,000 miles to fight in
sub-Saharan Africa, and to examine how a short-term intervention esca-
lated into a lengthy war of intervention, culminating in the spurious Cuban
‘victory’ at Cuito Cuanavale. Previous studies of the Angolan War have
tended to examine Cuba’s role in isolation – or as subordinate to Soviet
interests – and this book looks at the multidimensional character of the
Angolan War, examining how the interaction between the main players
affected and shaped the Cuban intervention. The first two chapters look at
the roots of the Cuban–MPLA alliance, examining the evolution of Che

1

Guevara’s brand of internationalism which spawned the Brazzaville
mission (1965–7), and the weakening of this alliance in the early 1970s as
both allies underwent internal crises. Following the Portuguese decision to
decolonise Angola (in mid-1974), the perspective expands to take in the
other main actors in Angola’s chaotic decolonisation – South Africa, the
Soviet Union, the USA and Zaire – and follows their fruitless struggle to
gain ascendancy in Angola, culminating in the New York Peace Accords
in December 1988. The book is therefore more than just a study of the
Cuban phenomenon in Angola, and is in a broader sense a study of
foreign intervention in the Angolan War, attempting to explain Cuba’s
escalating involvement in relation to the many other competing strategies
in Angola.

Like all conflicts of the Cold War, the Angolan War has produced its
share of propaganda and disinformation. Throughout thirty years of near-
continuous conflict those involved have seen fit to rewrite events after they
occurred to further their political agendas. A balanced analysis of Cuba’s
involvement in Angola is further hampered by the extreme polarisation of
opinion on the Cuban Revolution and its most notorious protagonist –
Fidel Castro. For, while some depict him as the saviour of the Cuban
people and the champion of the Third World, others label him a Soviet
puppet and a monstrous dictator who has ruthlessly maintained his grip on
the reins of power in Cuba for more than four decades. Such extreme
views on Revolutionary Cuba and its outspoken leader fail, however, to
shed any light on the ideologies which motivated the hundreds of thou-
sands of men and women who served in Angola. For the Cubans this
involved the constantly-evolving model of Guevara’s ‘internationalism’;
for the Angolans (at least on paper), Marxist–Leninism; and, for the South
Africans, ‘Total Onslaught’, an apocalyptic theory which depicted Pretoria
as the last bastion of Western values against the ‘Communist onslaught’.
Given the vast amount of confused and contradictory reporting from
the war zone – and the heavily-biased official accounts produced after the
war – it has proved essential to draw on first-hand accounts of those
involved in the conflict, from the politicians in Havana, Luanda and Preto-
ria, to the troops on the ground. For this reason, during a year spent in
Cuba between 1997 and 2002 (and two visits to Miami) I interviewed two
dozen Cuban internationalist veterans of Angola, among them profes-
sional officers, reservists and civilians (who worked on humanitarian pro-
jects). Their views span the political spectrum, and their detailed
testimonies shed fresh light on the experience of Cubans serving in
Angola, painting a bleak picture of Cuban-Angolan relations which con-
trasts starkly with the harmonious relationship depicted by Havana and
Luanda (see Chapter 7).
During a three-month visit to Angola in early 1998 (when there was a
lull in the fighting), I visited the main battlefields at Quifangondo, Cuito

INTRODUCTION

2

Cuanavale and Kuito-Bié, and interviewed a dozen Angolan veterans of
the 1985–8 campaigns who provided me with detailed information about
the fighting in Cuando Cubango. This was countered by interviews in
South Africa with former SADF officers and senior politicians which
helped to shed some light on South African perspectives of a conflict in
which they were internationally reviled as the pariah. Drawing on their
first-hand accounts – and on much new material from libraries and private
sources in Cuba, Angola and South Africa – this book aims to construct as
accurate a picture as possible of the conflict which has plagued Angola
since the early 1960s, dispelling the myths associated with Cuba’s inter-
vention in November 1975.
In particular, a fresh examination of the launch of Operation Carlota
seeks to demonstrate that Havana’s decision to intervene in Angola was
not so much an heroic gesture of international solidarity, but rather a last-
ditch gamble to avert military disaster (see Chapter 4). By the same token,
Cuba’s much-heralded ‘victory’ over the South Africans at Cuito Cua-
navale is shown to have been no more than a costly stand-off, its real
significance lying in the impetus it gave to the American-brokered peace
process (see Chapters 9–11). Given the extremity of the ideological clash
in Angola – and the disagreement which still exists over the outcome of
the fighting – the book’s ultimate goal is to explain Cuba’s relationship
with Angola within the context of the many conflicting agendas in the
Angolan War. Only by examining the interplay between the many bicker-
ing parties can a more accurate picture be constructed of the chaotic
events which escalated Angola’s guerrilla insurgency into a full-scale war
of intervention, spawning the conflict which was to plague Angola for four
decades.

Description of Angola

Angola is nearly half-a-million square miles in area (over five times the
size of Britain), and in 1960 was divided into sixteen provinces (see Map
1).1

North of the Congo river lies the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda, a histor-
ical oddity which has provided an economic life-line for the Luanda
regime, generating more than three-quarters of Angola’s total export
revenue.2

Cabinda’s proximity to Congo-Brazzaville and the vast
Mayombe jungle encouraged the early development of guerrilla activity,
although the extreme difficulty of the terrain in the end forced the MPLA
to scale down its insurgency and relocate to other provinces of Angola. In
the north of Angola, Zaire and Uíge provinces cling to the border with
Congo-Kinshasa (formerly Zaire),3

and are dominated by the Bakongo
ethnic group whose ties with other Bakongos in the region have fostered a
close relationship with Kinshasa (to which they have often looked for
support).

INTRODUCTION

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