Back to the Motherland: Cuba in Africa. (Book Reviews)

By Parenti, Christian | Monthly Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Back to the Motherland: Cuba in Africa. (Book Reviews)


Parenti, Christian, Monthly Review


Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 576 pages, cloth $34.95, paper $24.95.

Angola is by most accounts a decimated, nearly hopeless land, ruined by more than three decades of war. But there was a moment in the mid-seventies when this former Portuguese colony shone as a beacon of hope for all Africa. It was here that the mythic power of white military supremacy was smashed by black troops from Angola and Cuba. And though the role of Cuban volunteers in this victory inspired Africans and left internationals everywhere, the details of the story have remained largely hidden and even in Cuba, uncelebrated.

Historian Piero Gleijeses' new book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, recovers this politically far away time. It is a truly impressive accomplishment, based on ten years of research using declassified U.S. intelligence, interviews with principal players, and most importantly, vaults of never before revealed Cuban documents from the Communist Party Central Committee, armed forces, and foreign ministry. This highly detailed but superbly told story recounts Cuba's many bold, often noble, sometimes successful interventions in Africa. The operations ranged from briefly aiding revolutionary Algeria under Ahmed Ben Bella; fighting and doctoring with Amilcar Cabral's guerrillas in Guinea Bissau; and Che's lost year in the Congo with the demoralized rank and file of Laurent Kabila's Simbas; to Cuba's finest hour, outgunned and outnumbered, on the battlefields of Angola. This last adventure forms the heart of the book and was Cuba's largest engagement, thus its details are worth recount ing.

On October 14, 1975, as Angolan independence approached and the civil war tipped in favor of the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the South African armored column Zulu crossed into Angola. Made up of white troops from the South African Defense Forces (SADF) assisted by several thousand black mercenaries, Zulu rolled over the MPLA's few defenses and started racing for the capital, Luanda. Joining Zulu came a second column, Foxbat, airlifted into the central Angolan town of Silva Porto--a gangster's Shangri La and home to the warlord Jonas Savimbi and his murderous National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Meanwhile, from the north came another anticommunist guerilla army, Holden Roberto's National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), which was saturated with CIA personnel, South African military advisors, and Zairian troops, plus some Portuguese and British soldiers of fortune.

This secret invasion code named "Operation Savanna" was just the culmination of an older U.S.-backed, Kissinger-approved program of covert action which had begun half a year earlier when it became clear that an exhausted Portugal was giving up on its colonial project and that the Marxist MPLA would win the civil war between itself and the two anticommunist groups, UNITA and the FNLA. Formal decolonization was set for November11, 1975, and the CIA/South African invasion was an attempt to steal Angola away from the MPLA before that legitimizing date.

Also on the ground were five hundred volunteer Cuban military advisors who had been training and fighting alongside the MPLA for the last two months, but many of this number were in the country's detached northern oil-rich enclave, Cabinda. The speed and secrecy of the South African blitzkrieg stunned both the MPLA leadership and the Cubans. Less than three weeks after invading, Zulu was almost upon Luanda, yet the head of the Cuban military mission, Diaz Argueselles, still did not grasp the magnitude of the situation. As Gleijeses explains: "There were no Cubans in southern Angola, so he had no clear idea of the strength of the column and he did not realize that it included South African troops."

A few days later, the Cubans and the MPLA leadership were disabused of their confusion when all the coastal highway towns south of Luanda had fallen to Zulu. …

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