‘Fidel is a friend, a comrade. He is an unforgettable figure to us. His memory will be always remembered in Angola,’ said the country’s vice president Manuel Vicente after signing the condolence book dedicated to Fidel Castro at the residency of the Cuban ambassador to Angola.
There is no doubt that one of the greatest foreign influences on modern Angola was Cuba’s socialist policy of internationalist solidarity’. This took the form of sending troops and aid workers to Angola in support of the country’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) government from 1975, as it waged a conflict against apartheid-era South Africa and CIA-backed nationalist forces (also supported by then-Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo).
Notes of a 1975 National Security Council meeting at the White House during the Richard Nixon presidency show that senior US officials discussed which of the various factions in Angola to support, either directly or through allies such as Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, once the Portuguese withdrew from the country. In considering options, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger suggested, ‘We might wish to encourage the disintegration of Angola. Cabinda [a disputed Angolan province bordering Congo] in the clutches of Mobutu would mean far greater security of the petroleum resources.’
Fidel Castro had another vision and authorized significant Cuban support, a massive undertaking of some 50,000 Cuban civilians and some 370,000 troops between 1979 and 1991, representing five percent of Cuba’s population. This intervention may have saved Angola from fragmentation, but it also resulted in the country becoming a Cold War hotspot, attracting significant US support of UNITA, the MPLA’s main rival in Angola, and the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a series of conflicts that Cuban-backed MPLA forces fought against South African forces and UNITA rebels. The battle was thought to have been the largest on African soil since the Second World War.
The Cubans first engaged the MPLA via Che Guevara in 1965 and provided some military training in Congo. In 1975, Cuba unilaterally intervened in support of the MPLA and it is clear that without Castro’s support, the MPLA would not have been able to assert its power. Originally, Cuba had no interest in long-term engagement, but the MPLA was able to cleverly draw on Cuba’s foreign strategy of internationalist solidarity, whereby the West African country paid for the services it received in a mixture of foreign currency and local kwanzas. Far from being a clientelist relationship, this enabled the Angolan government to influence the process and it locked Cuba into a longer-term commitment than it had initially anticipated.
This was to last 21 years, and Cuban teachers educated 2.4 million Angolans (of which 1.36 million were women) and from 1977-2003, almost 14,000 scholarships were granted for Angolans to study at Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud, an island dedicated to education for students from socialist countries, according to Christine Hatzky’s 2015 book on the subject. The impact of Cuban teaching was patchy, but by the mid-1980s the warring parties had systematically annihilated the modest achievements of the social development aid (in infrastructure, administration, and health and education programs) during the first few years of independence.
Cuban aid greatly benefited the MPLA government as the conflict allowed it to extend its centralized and undemocratic political structures of the socialist era, which had been established with the help of Cuban development aid. Education through Cuban support had become an instrument of maintaining MPLA power, but today Cuban-trained Angolans hold important positions in politics, education, economics, and even in the church. In a country that still has an acute skills deficit, this was an important developmental contribution. It was also the Cubans that recommended in 1976 that the MPLA use the unitary slogan ‘From Cabinda to Cunene’ (referring to Angola’s northernmost and southernmost provinces).
The Cuban intervention in Angola authorized by Castro also provides insights for the much broader question of the purpose served by external support in civil wars or postcolonial conflicts. Cuban external support contributed little to reconciliation as the military strategy took precedence over civil aid. The deployment of civilians was well coordinated and concentrated on strengthening state administration. Cuban engagement therefore focused primarily on a political and military strategy to support the MPLA’s position of power; it made no effort to encourage reconciliation. The driver for that came from declined oil prices of the mid-1980s and the knock-on effect of Cuba increasingly looking to reduce its exposure in Angola and the MPLA government concluding that it had no choice but to try to negotiate with UNITA and its enemies. This opened up the New York Accords, which eventually resulted in the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola under UN supervision, the independence of Namibia and Angola’s first multiparty elections in 1992.
At least 4,300 Cubans are believed to have died in conflicts in Africa, half of them in Angola alone. Cubans who served in Angola have mixed emotions about their time there. Angolans remain much more appreciative of Cuba’s internationalist solidarity, especially the education they received. Although Cuban-Angolan relations cooled during the 1990s, they significantly improved after the end of the Angolan civil war in 2002.
Cubans fighting in Angola against apartheid South Africa also supported Namibian and South African independence. Even today, Namibian leaders remember this solidarity: the current Namibian president Hage Geingob, on a trip to London last week that included a speaking engagement at Chatham House, modified his schedule to accommodate memorials for the Cuban revolutionary.
Castro’s support for Africa’s liberation was not just limited to Angola: he also supported other independence leaders including Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Namibia’s Sam Nujoma, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. But among African nations, Cuba’s solidarity and sacrifice was greatest in Angola.
Alex Vines has been head of the Africa programme at Chatham House since 2002 and in 2008 became director for Regional Studies and International Security. In 2012 Alex was appointed director for Area Studies and International Law.
This article was originally published in Newsweek.