May 6, 1930
With the exception of Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl Castro, and Che Guevara, no Cuban has played a more prominent role in African affairs than Jorge Risquet Valdés, a man of intelligence, wit, and unswerving commitment to the Cuban Revolution. Born in Havana, Risquet is the descendant of an African slave, her white master, a Chinese indentured servant, and a Spanish immigrant. His parents were tobacco workers who were sympathetic to the Cuban Communist Party. While they could not afford to send their children to secondary school, they did give them a political education.
Jorge Risquet joined the party's youth organization in 1943 and two years later, at age fifteen, he was elected to its executive committee. A self-taught intellectual with a passion for reading, he was not yet twenty when he became the editor of the organization's newspaper. Over the next decade he endured the lot of a committed communist activist: detentions, torture, underground life. He joined Castro's guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra in mid-1958, and, after Castro's victory, he held senior positions in the army and the party.
In July 1965, Castro summoned Risquet. A column of 120 Cubans had secretly left Cuba to join the Congolese insurgents in Congo Leopoldville (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who were battling an army of mercenaries that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had organized to prop up that country's pro-American regime. A second column of 250 Cubans was preparing to leave for Congo Brazzaville (now the Republic of the Congo) at the request of that country's left-leaning government, which felt threatened by Washington's intervention in the neighboring country. The Cubans believed that Central Africa was ripe for revolution, and that the two Congos would be the seedbed from which revolution would spread. Che Guevara headed the column in Congo Leopoldville; Castro wanted Risquet to lead the other.
For sixteen months Risquet's column remained in Congo Brazzaville. The Cubans saved the host government from a military uprising without bloodshed, instead using bluster and diplomacy. They carried out the country's first vaccination campaign against polio, and they provided critical assistance to the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which was fighting for independence from Portugal. It was during this period that the first Cubans entered Angola (from Congo Brazzaville) to assist the MPLA, forging a bond that would blossom a decade later.
After returning to Cuba in January 1967, Risquet served as secretary of labor and held other senior positions until, in November 1975, he went to Angola. He left in a hurry, for civil war had broken out the previous spring in the Portuguese colony, which was slated for independence on November 11, 1975. The MPLA was struggling against two movements supported by the United States and South Africa. On October 14, to prevent an imminent MPLA victory, South African troops invaded Angola from neighboring Namibia (a de facto South African colony) and raced toward Luanda, the MPLA's stronghold, smashing all resistance. In an effort to stop the South Africans, Castro decided to send troops to Angola on November 4, and he sent Risquet as his personal representative. By late March 1976, the Cubans had forced the South Africans back into Namibia. Risquet remained in Angola until 1979.
Throughout the next decade, Cuba was a major protagonist in Africa. Tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers and technical advisers were in Angola, Ethiopia, and other African countries; Cuban instructors trained Namibian and South African rebels; and, through it all, Risquet was Castro's point man for Africa. As general Ulises Rosales del Toro, chief of staff of the Cuban armed forces, told a Soviet general in September 1984, "in my country whenever we discuss strategy, even military strategy, about Angola, Risquet has to be present, because for many years he has been at the center of all matters relating to Angola" (Rosales del Toro, 1984).
Risquet, a member of the Communist Party's political bureau, led the Cuban delegation during the 1988 negotiations on Namibian independence between Cuba, South Africa, Angola, and the United States. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was rushing toward implosion. Havana compensated for the growing irrelevance of the Soviet Union in southern Africa with an unprecedented, and successful, military effort on the battlefield (against the South Africans in southern Angola) and with superb diplomatic skill. "Reading the Cubans is yet another art form," Risquet's U.S. counterpart, Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, cabled Secretary of State George Shultz in August 1988. "They are prepared for both war and peace…. We witness considerable tactical finesse and genuinely creative moves at the table" (Crocker, 1988). The following December, South Africa acceded to Namibian independence. Cuban troops and Cuban diplomats had played an indispensable role in forcing Pretoria to accept a settlement it had bitterly resisted.
In July 1991, Nelson Mandela visited Havana and wrote the epitaph to the story of Cuba's aid to Africa during the Cold War. "We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba," he said. "What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba had displayed in its relations to Africa?" (Mandela, 1991).
Risquet began working as a senior adviser for Raúl Castro in 1991. He is also a writer, telling the story of what he and his countrymen and women sought to accomplish in Africa. No other Cuban has written about this important chapter in global history with such verve, insight, and authority.
Crocker, Chester. Communication to Secretary of State George Shultz. Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, August 25, 1988. Washington, D.C.: National Security Archive.
García Eloseguis, Francisco. Cien días después del Granma. Havana, Cuba: Editorial del Ciencias Sociales, 2002.
Gleijeses, Piero. "Truth or Credibility: Castro, Carter, and the Invasions of Shaba." International History Review 18, no. 1 (1996): 70–103.
Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
León Rojas, Gloria. El Pavel Cubano: Jorge Risquet, del solar a la Sierra. Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 2004.
Mandela, Nelson. "Cuito Cuanavale marca el viraje en la lucha para librar al continente y a nuestro pueblo del azote del apartheid." Granma (July 27, 1991): 3–4.
Risquet Valdés, Jorge. El Segundo frente del Che en el Congo: Historia del batallón Patricio Lumumba. Havana, Cuba: Casa Editora Abril, 2000.
Risquet Valdés, Jorge. "Angola: El camino hacia la victoria." Temas 37–38 (April 2004): 159–167.
Risquet Valdés, Jorge. "Las profundas raíces del internacionalismo de los cubans." Tricontinental 158 (2004): 103–114.
Rosales del Toro, Ulises. Conversación del general de división Ulises Rosales del Toro con el general de ejèrcito Variennikov V. I. Moscow, September 5, 1984. Havana, Cuba: Archives of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party.