When Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the rest of the Cuban revolutionary army marched victoriously down the streets of Havana celebrating successful military overthrow of the US-backed corrupt, oppressive and exploitative Batista regime on January 1, 1959, nobody could have imagined that in a few years’ time Cuba would be deeply entangled in Afrika’s political, diplomatic and armed struggles against stubborn Western colonialism, neocolonialism and imperialism philosophically underpinned by vicious anti-black racism – itself best effected through extractive economies and super-exploited Afrikan labour.
Che Guevara surreptitiously crossed Lake Tanganyika and landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) on April 24, 1965 and with him were 150 well-trained Cuban soldiers to assist Congolese rebel forces loyal to the ideals and vision of the brutally assassinated Patrice Lumumba overthrow the despotic regime of Mobutu, another America-backed corrupt warlord. From then, Cuba was to remain an instrumental factor in Afrikan politics and its quest for freedom right up to May 25, 1991 when the last Cuban soldier departed Luanda returning home to Havana. What was the main driving force of such decades-long commitment, generosity, sacrifice, struggle, suffering and death in the fight to attain the liberation of black Afrika? Fidel Castro and his unwavering, genuine obligations to the Internationalist aspect of the theory of Marxism-Leninism.
A tiny island with meagre resources with none of the strategic commodities that funnelled global capitalist economic growth in the past century, Cuba was certainly punching above its weight in taking a decisive position to be on the side of the oppressed and exploited poor people of Afrika against technologically and militarily advanced industrialised nations of the Global North already boasting exclusive possession of nuclear weapons. Cuba’s “me time” would have been perfectly understandable bearing in mind that the 1959 revolution inherited a dysfunctional state and a weak economy characterised by massive unemployment, high illiteracy, nationwide poverty and squalor.
Batista and several other Castro predecessors had been content with keeping Cuba a stable heaven of debauchery of the rich Americans, efficiently rendering prostitution, rum, gambling, salsa and cigars. A commensurate playground for the world’s economic and military superpower. But Fidel knew Cuba had a date with history.
Further compounding the odds against Cuba’s likely dynamic role in geopolitics, international relations and external military battles of the time was its relentlessly obnoxious and ultra-violent Goliath neighbour that usurped all powers to decide which individuals and on what ideological frameworks and economic systems Afrikan, Latin American and Asian nations could be governed. As if the long enduring internal violent oppression of black people in the USA wasn’t enough.
It didn’t help that Cuba itself had a precarious senior ally in the socialist Soviet Union regime that unfortunately could never be relied upon to always be unreservedly and unconditionally on the side of the oppressed and exploited of the world as per the key principles outlined in the Communist Manifesto which ultimately constituted the initial conceptualisation of Internationalism as a defining feature of Marxist-Leninist outlook and praxis. The untimely demise of Lenin in 1924 and the emergence, only a year later, of a new theory of “Socialism In One Country” by his successor Stalin signified a coming shift in the attitude and involvement of the USSR in many anti-colonial, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist struggles across the global south.
The narrow and selfish nationalist Soviet ambitions of becoming a world superpower only rivalled by the USA often trumped its ideological obligation to eliminate “exploitation of man by man” across the globe. An erstwhile overzealous Moscow-based communist, George Padmore, severed his ties with the Soviet Union and the Communist International in the mid 1930s due to the latter’s conspicuous desires and efforts to forge stronger diplomatic ties with colonial powers while concurrently significantly downscaling its involvement in the cause of the colonised of the world. In 1933 the Soviet Union reneged on its undertaking to make a film depicting the hellish lives of black people in the USA after it succeeded in getting the latter to recognise it and set up an embassy. Langston Hughes and others had been invited to Moscow for discussions and commencement of the film production work but the Kremlin lacked the decency to even furnish him and his delegation as to why it had suddenly dropped the idea. For the most part, the post-Lenin Soviet Union (mis)used Internationalism not as a sacrosanct, intrinsic Marxist-Leninist principle never to be traded but as a bargaining chip in its supremacy life-costly games with the USA. Revolutionary Cuba, through Castro’s genius and immense integrity, filled the huge vacuum created, under completely hostile and nonconducive internal and external conditions.
Towards the end of 1960, drowning in bitterness about Cuba’s correct move to nationalise American oil refineries without compensation, JF Kennedy responded with imposing an evil and illegal embargo on Cuban exports except for food and medicine. Exhausted at pretending to uphold any moral principles, the empire beefed up the embargo to include virtually all imports the following year. Needless to say, all the countries under its imperialist yoke had to follow suit and act as if they too were enemies of Cuba: isolate it diplomatically and certainly not trade with it or risk regime change. Cuba, already a poor underdeveloped country, was effectively exiled to economic and political wilderness by the most powerful nation on the planet. But under the capable leadership of President Fidel Castro, Cuba was not to be excommunicated from global political affairs, to the contrary, it was going to be a decisive factor.
In 1961 Cuba had to ward off a CIA-sponsored attempted coup in what famously came to be known as the Bay of Pigs invasion. Disillusioned by the slow effects of the trade embargo through which it was hoped the masses of Cubans would become disgruntled with the revolution and stage a popular uprising, JFK now resorted to a new low of training USA self-exiled Cuban scoundrels obsessed with dollarism and bourgeois hedonistic lifestyle for a military invasion of Cuba and overthrow of the revolutionary government. Having earned their stripes as fighters and military prowess through almost three years of guerrilla warfare on the Sierra Maestra, the revolution was decisively defended and even the CIA itself dubbed the attempted coup a “perfect failure”. Yet the very real and serious need for Cuba to focus firmly on self-preservation, state security and constantly checking on the threats and plots engineered by its neighbour from hell did not in any way make it think twice about fulfilling its internationalist obligations to the wretched of the earth. This is largely due to Fidel’s excellent leadership and his profound and radical humanist principles.
Towards the end of 1962 Cuba found itself in the middle of a nuclear weapons crisis between the USA and the Soviet Union, a situation that threatened to get more than half the world annihilated by technologically advanced weapons of mass destruction. Contrary to the dominant narrative, it was then Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev who offered to install such weapons in Havana, not that Fidel had requested them. Consistent with Stalin’s earlier duplicitous foreign policy and conflicting strategic and diplomatic interests, Krushchev maintained this tendency and secretly met with Washington and agreed to remove the missiles, without uttering a word to Fidel on the matter. Soviet-Cuba relations were strained like never before, and Cuba was significantly exposed to US attack and aggression.
None of the never-ending imperialist onslaughts, Cuba’s economic hardships and betrayal by its key ally ever diverted Cuba’s attention from meticulous study and analysis of the global balance of forces and the deleterious plight of the non-white nations of the world in Latin America, Afrika and Asia created and sustained by Western Europe and North America since the adventures of Columbus. Against the historical backdrop of slavery and contemporary reality of colonialism, imperialism, Zionism and apartheid, Cuba conceptualised, organised and hosted an unprecedented anti-imperialism, anti-colonialism tri-continental conference in January 1966 that included virtually every liberation movement engaged in or considering armed struggle in Afrika, Asia, and Latin America. The sole agenda of the conference was to agree on and implement the most decisive forms of intervention to liberate the global south from the shackles of western colonialism, imperialism, oppressive and exploitative capitalism. Fidel was characteristically eloquent and unequivocal in his input:
“We revolutionary Cubans understand our international obligations. Our people understand their obligations because they understand that we face a common enemy. An enemy that threatens Cuba is the same enemy that threatens everyone else. That is why we say, and we proclaim, that Cuban fighters will lend support to any revolutionary movement in any corner of the earth.”
Cuba had already been assisting the Vietnamese war effort against the Yankee empire. The Sindinistas of Nicaragua, Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation, Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement in Grenada, Salvador Allende’s Chilean Socialist Party, Hafez al-Assad’s Syrian Ba’ath Party and virtually all Afrikan liberation movements and progressive post-colonial states were to benefit immensely Cuba’s medical doctors, expert advisers on military strategy, education, Cuban arms and aircraft, sugar and above all Cuban soldiers ever ready to fight and die in the cause of liberating the human family from all forms of oppression, exploitation and injustice. Not even Brezhnev’s ultimatum in a letter to Fidel in April 1967, ordering the letter to “reign in” his revolutionary activities or Moscow would give President Lyndon Johnson the green light to attack Cuba, shook Fidel.
In Guinea Bissau Cuba’s intervention with artillery experts, doctors and technicians on the side of Amilcar Cabral’s revolutionary PAIGC precipitated Portugal’s colonial exit in Octover 1974 and paved the way for the independence of Angola and Mozambique, the two remaining Portuguese colonies. Cuba’s most intense and protracted internationalist and revolutionary mission in Afrika was doubtlessly in Angola, assisting Augostino Neto’s MPLA the coloniser as well as two reactionary movements which were both USA political proxies masquerading as liberation movements. The USA supported Savimbi and his Unita through the South Afrikan apartheid regime. The other US puppet was FNLA’s Holden Roberto whom the empire pampered via its Zairean tyrannical stooge it had earlier helped overthrow and assassinate Lumumba, Mobutu Sese Seko. Historians estimate that the Angolan Cuban mission cost the island no fewer than 10,000 thousand lives in the 13-year period Cuban troops spent in Angola. The culmination of this long, bitter struggle was the independence of apartheid SA-occupied Namibia and the guarantees for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, spelling the demise of the apartheid regime after its long-standing military, economic and political support from the USA, Israel and Western Europe.
The Alvor Agreement signed by the MPLA, FLNA, Unita and Portuguese government in January 1975 guaranteed the handover of power on November 11 of the same year and this caused a bitter struggle for control of the capital Luanda prior to that date. The understanding was that whoever controlled the capital at that time would become the leader of a free Angola. America sent arms, financing to hire mercenaries and trainers, weaponry to the FNLA. Apartheid South Afrika trained Savimbi’s henchmen and the MPLA faced immediate decimation. The knock to Moscow for assistance was effectively not responded to. Moscow was now firmly committed to arms control negotiations with the USA. Cuba turned to Moscow and General de Carvallo of the MPLA’s recollections are instructive:
“When we decided to ask Cuba for help we made a formal request. Fidel’s response to our request went much further. It went far beyond what we had expected. He said, ‘you’ll be annihilated. You need much more than that’. We’d ask, say, for a packet of sweets and he’d say no you don’t need a packet of sweets, what you need is 80 sacks of sugar. And you don’t have cooks, I’ll send you some”. Such was the spirit of the man we are today paying tribute to.
When the regular forces of the apartheid regime invaded Angola less than a month before Portugal was to hand over power, Cuba responded swiftly by dispatching its elite special forces along with 35,000 foot soldiers to come to Neto’s aid. Even Moscow was taken by surprise and upset that Cuba hadn’t first consulted them about this huge covert operation. Castro the master strategist and tactician, the powerful orator and astute analyst read the situation very accurately:
“Why are they so annoyed? Because they had planned to seize control of Angola before 11th November. Angola is rich in natural resources. Cabinda has large oil reserves. Some imperialists ask why we are helping the Angolans, what our interest is. They assume that countries only act out of a desire for petrol, copper, diamonds or some other resource. NO. WE HAVE NO MATERIAL INTEREST. Of course the imperialists don’t understand this. They would only do it for jingoistic, selfish reasons. We are fulfilling an elementary, internationalist duty in helping the people of Angola”.
General Dos Santos of the MPLA reflected, “we’d been sandwiched. Thinking about our defence strategy kept us awake at night. That was when a Cuban unit arrived, just before the crucial battle of Kifangondo. It was a surprise, we weren’t expecting them, but we were very happy to see them joining at the front”. Through Cuban critical assistance MPLA won the the battle and Augostino Neto was announced President of Angola. Almost immediately a civil war ensued as USA-backed losers would not accept the outcome. The MPLA government was chiefly safeguarded by Cuban troops without which it would have easily fallen into the hands of imperialist puppets.
The civil war raged on till the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987 which lasted for over six months, claiming 25,000 lives. Fidel Castro remarked:
“The history of Afrika is at a turning point. They will write about ‘before Cuito Cuanavale’ and ‘after Cuito Cuanavale’. Because of the power of apartheid South Afrika, the whites, the ‘superior race’, has come unstuck in a little parcel of land defended by blacks and mulattoes. We do not seek a great military victory but a reasonable and just solution. They might not only lose Namibia, but apartheid too. We want a solution now. I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of apartheid”.
History emphatically vindicated President Fidel Castro. We have lost a brother, friend, comrade and outstanding radical humanist. We are inconsolable. Long live the spirit of El Commandant! DM