Proof of Fidel Castro’s impact in speeding up the end of white minority rule in southern Africa emerged from a 1976 intelligence briefing by then CIA director George H.W. Bush to the US president, Gerald Ford: “It is the intelligence community’s prediction that Cuban troops will be involved in Rhodesia before the end of 1976” – three months away.
Researching my book, GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, I found a recently declassified memoranda of conversations in the Oval Office on September 29, 1976, and another in the cabinet room at the White House in which Bush added: “Assuming nothing was done it was our assessment that it would be 1978, at the very maximum, when we would witness the end of white control of Rhodesia by force.”
From Dr Henry Kissinger’s memoir and other sources it is clear that Kissinger wanted these briefings for President Gerald Ford and senior senators and congressmen to persuade them why they had to end support for the white government of Ian Smith. Kissinger’s biographer, Walter Isaacson, explained Kissinger’s new policy by noting he believed in Talleyrand’s maxim that “the art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence”.
We now know that the US government often assumed wrongly that Castro acted on behalf of Moscow. In fact, Castro was driven by his own passions in Africa. His opposition to racism was sincere and lifelong.
After Cuito Cuanavale, the controversial battle considered decisive in southern Angola, a group of foreign correspondents were invited to the Cuban embassy in Harare for a briefing. All I remember is sitting down at a table and being handed a Coke, which turned out to be laced with Cuban rum. It was ten o’clock in the morning. I drink little alcohol but a lot of Coca-Cola. Glass followed glass. The rest is a mist.
We now know that Cuito was decisive, not because it was an overwhelming victory, but because it was a stalemate, costly in lives and treasure. South Africa could not defeat the Cuban Air Force combined with Angola’s Stalin organs. And South African President P W Botha, for all his war talk, flinched in the face of casualties among his white soldiers.
So what to make of Castro, now that he is dead at 90?
He still excites passions for and against. He was with southern African liberation movements. He brought healthcare and education to Cuba’s poor. He brought down a corrupt, violent and decadent Cuban dictatorship beholden to America. And he fought hard and successfully against racial preference in Cuba.
But the country has been led by someone named Castro since 1959. Fifty-seven years. That’s not democracy; it’s a Communist family dynasty.
To understand Castro, it’s useful to see him alongside his close comrade, Ernesto “Che” Geuvara. Che remains a romantic figure, on T-shirts on Rodeo Drive and Soweto, worn by people with little idea of who he was. He was good-looking, wore a beard and beret, a natural revolutionary, a fuck-you to the establishment, whoever your establishment happens to be. That’s enough for many.
In fact, Che was frank during the revolution. He said he was a Communist, while Castro did not. On a visit to the United Nations in New York in 1959, Castro explicitly denied it. Academics still dispute whether he was a communist who concealed it or became a communist in response to American hostility.
Some Cubans emigrated feeling betrayed. Others were dissidents or left because he nationalised their property. Some couldn’t make living in Castro’s Cuba.
Che stayed on to help Castro in Cuba. One of Joe Slovo’s favourite jokes was about a meeting Castro called in the Sierra Maestra mountains before entering Havana. “Anyone here an economist?” Slovo has Castro ask. Che’s hand shot up. “Good, you’ll be Minister of Finance.” Walking out of the meeting, Fidel told Che, “All these years together, I never knew you were an economist.”
“Economist?” replied Che. “I thought you said Communist!”
The romance of government wore thin for Che. He left Havana to attempt to lead world revolution. He made the mistake of assuming the ease of success in Cuba could be replicated widely. In fact, the particular conditions of the corrupt Batista regime, American influence, and Fidel’s inspiring leadership were absent elsewhere.
With Fidel’s endorsement, Che tried Latin America, then Africa. He hooked up with Laurent Kabila, father of Joseph Kabila, the current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Patrice Lumumba, who had been democratically elected, was overthrown and murdered. According to recent accounts, both the CIA and Belgian intelligence had a hand in the murder. But Laurent Kabila was not cut of the same cloth, and Che left, disillusioned.
Che took only dark-skinned Cubans with him to foment revolution in Congo, hoping they would blend better, but he failed. Blaming Kabila for a lack of revolutionary spirit, Che fled just ahead of the bullets. He returned to Bolivia, where the local Communist Party rejected him. They told him he was not wanted, but Che persisted, until he was caught by the CIA, shot dead by the Bolivian soldiers in 1967, his hands cut off so the fingerprints could prove they had the right man.
It was a sorry end. You can’t foment revolutions in other people’s countries and expect success. Mayhem is easier. Che was in fact an Argentinian who found in Castro his Cuban leader. Now Fidel is gone. His brother Raul is president, and 85 himself.
Nelson Mandela insisted on visiting Cuba before landing on his first visit to the United States, and dressed down any westerner who complained that he paid homage to Fidel as a lifelong supporter of southern African liberation. But Mandela did not adopt Fidel’s one-party state. Fidel was genuinely popular in Cuba, despite the lack of a free press or open opposition parties. But Mandela thought constitutional democracy a healthier model. DM
PS After 57 years’ blaming the comprehensive American embargo on goods down to car parts and elevator maintenance, Obama and Raul began slowing opening the doors. If Trump is the pragmatist Obama thinks he is, he may let it continue. The political imperative of anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida is less now. The new generation wants the ties. They see no point in punishing this tiny speck of an economy off America’s coast. Hopefully Havana will stop the erection of a Trump casino there. That would be too much to bear.
John Matisonn is the author of GOD, SPIES AND LIES, Finding South Africa’s future through its past, and host of CTV’s BETWEEN THE LINES with John Matisonn.
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
John Matisonn began political reporting at the Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and received a prison sentence for refusing to divulge his source in a report about the South African Watergate scandal known as Muldergate. A foreign correspondent in Washington for the Rand Daily Mail and back in Johannesburg for National Public Radio, he has been published in the New York Times, Financial Times, Washington Post and The Observer. After four years as a broadcast regulator in the Mandela administration and two as editorial director of the short-lived THISDAY newspaper, he became the United Nations Chairperson of the Electoral Media Commission in Afghanistan. He returned from a second tour in Afghanistan to write God, Spies and Lies, Finding South Africas future through its past, which has just been published.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon