Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz took power on January 1, 1959 after an armed revolution by his 26th of July Movement toppled the authoritarian government of President Fulgencio Batista. When the victors morphed into the Communist Party in October 1965 it thrust Cuba into the heart of the Cold War primarily between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
Many battles were to be fought in Africa where the struggle for independence and post-independence politics were being sucked into the ideological war.
Few outsiders can be said to have played a more important role in fighting colonialism and apartheid in Africa than Fidel Castro.
In fact, so widespread was Fidel’s involvement in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa that it is easier to point to countries where Cuba was not involved than to run through the list of those, from Algeria to Angola and many more in-between where it was.
From the onset, the Cuban revolutionaries, including the poster-boy of the revolution, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, were keen to spread their message and methods to other parts of Latin America and Africa.
It wasn’t just about independence from colonialists but also from the perceived injustices of capitalism. “I find capitalism repugnant. It is filthy, it is gross, it is alienating,” Castro would say, as he hitched Cuba’s wagon to the Soviet Union. The first stop was Algeria where Cuba gave medical support to the Algerian National Liberation Front in its successful war of independence against France, then Zaire, where Che Guevara and a dozen commandos tried, unsuccessfully, to inspire and lead a grassroots campaign against Mobutu Sese Seko.
After dabbling in Bolivia, Vietnam and in the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, Cuba sent at least 15,000 troops to Ethiopia and helped the Derg regime beat off an invasion of Somali troops in Ogaden in 1978.
But it was in Angola that Castro’s Cuba upped the ante. The Carnation Revolution in Portugal in April 1974 forced the country to quickly pull out of its colonies, including Angola. A power contest immediately broke out between the three independence movements in the country: the left-leaning People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, Holden Roberto’s National Liberation Front of Angola supported by Zaire and the US, and Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola.
Also interested was apartheid South Africa which continued to illegally occupy present-day Namibia, and which now saw, in Portugal’s departure, the removal of a buffer zone with “black Africa” hostile to its racial segregation policies, and a new threat in the rise of left-leaning movements in Angola and Namibia.
As war broke out, Cuba surprised the world, the South Africans and the Americans by sending in troops to support MPLA.
The troop buildup continued rapidly and by the end of 1975 there were at least 36,000 Cuban troops in Angola supported by Soviet military advisers and materiel. On the other side of the contest stood FNLA and UNITA with support from Zaire, South Africa and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Cuba had already brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war in 1962 and it had now brought the two powers to a face-off in southern Africa.
The MPLA would prevail, thanks to Cuba’s decisive intervention in March 1988 at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale that forced South Africa’s withdraw, Namibia’s independence, and the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime.
Cuba paid a high price for its military adventures – at least 4,300 Cuban soldiers were killed in the African wars, half of them in Angola – but the small island of 11 million people had, once again, stood up to much bigger powers and refused to back down.
And it was just in time, for the Soviet Union came tumbling down only a few months later, but by which time the wheels of history had already turned against apartheid South Africa.
Still Castro remained defiant. Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union he asked: “They talk about the failure of socialism but where is the success of capitalism in Africa, Asia and Latin America?”
It is a question that, given the recent rise of isolationism, protectionism and antipathy towards the inequalities of capitalism, remains valid today.
Castro himself was no angel, neither was his Cuba, which he ran with a strong arm and with dodgy economic policies, but for many in Africa the Cuban leader, who, at 6’ 3” loomed large with his beard, cigars and green fatigues, was a friend in need.
Appearing in the dock after his arrest soon after the start of the Cuban revolution in 1953, Castro addressed himself to the court: “You can condemn me but it doesn’t matter; history will acquit me.”