Cuban Intervention in Africa

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Cuban Intervention in Africa

As part of its efforts to play a major role in third world affairs, the Cuban government of Fidel Castro directly involved itself with military and diplomatic efforts on behalf of several African socialist movements. Cuba's ties to Africa, however, also heightened opposition to those movements and increased cold war tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Cuban interest in African anticolonial movements began soon after Fidel Castro came to power. Cuba sent military and medical supplies to the Algerian National Liberation Front and upon achievement of Algerian independence in 1962, Castro established a Cuban military mission in Algeria. He had sent a similar military mission to Ghana in 1961.

More substantial involvement in African affairs began in 1964, when Ernesto "Che" Guevara visited with leaders of progressive movements in the Portuguese colonies. A year later, Cuba began sending them military missions. The main recipient of Cuban military assistance was Angola's Popular Movement of Liberation (MPLA). Although there were several revolutionary movements in Angola, the MPLA received Cuban support because its socialist ideology most closely reflected that of the Cuban Revolution, whereas others emphasized tribalism and racism, or were pro-Western. Cuban support of African socialist movements in the early 1960s began to replace declining Soviet aid to these movements, and Cuba was openly critical of the USSR for its failure to offer more assistance. This point of contention even hindered Cuban-Soviet relations for a number of years.

The support of other governments for different Angolan movements prompted Cuba and the USSR to reconcile their differences and unite in their support of the MPLA. The United States, China, and South Africa supported the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA). Although the United States charged that the Soviets were dictating Cuba's actions in Angola, scholarly research on the subject suggests that Cuba was largely acting on its own behalf in initiating aid to the MPLA.

Cuban involvement intensified after the breakdown of peace negotiations in Portugal in 1975. As fighting escalated, Cuba sent 230 military instructors to the MPLA. South Africa, meanwhile, began to train FNLA and UNITA troops in Namibia. When these troops failed to make consequential gains against the MPLA, South African forces intervened directly. South Africa sought to maintain instability in the region, which it hoped would guarantee the continued economic dependence of southern African nations on South Africa. South Africa was also encouraged by the United States. With strong anti-Communist rhetoric, South Africa cited the presence of Cuban troops as grounds both for delaying Namibian independence and for continuing its policy of apartheid.

Direct South African intervention in Angola changed the scope of the struggle there. It prompted the Organization of African Unity (OAU) immediately to condemn South Africa while simultaneously avoiding any judgment against Cuba or the Soviet Union. Nigeria's strong protest against South Africa, combined with praise of the Soviet and Cuban action in Angola, demonstrated that the struggle embodied more than an East-West competition at the international level. Nigeria had been one of the West's strongest allies in the sub-Sahara region, but here sided with anticolonialism and against racist South Africa.

Cuban military aid was crucial to an MPLA victory. By March 1976 some 24,000 Cuban troops were in Angola, a number that grew to nearly 40,000 by 1984. With this assistance the MPLA drove the South Africans out of Angola. Negotiations over Namibian independence had complicated the issue. Namibia (Southwest Africa before 1968) had been mandated to South Africa following Germany's defeat in World War I. After World War II, South Africa, having expanded its apartheid policies into the territory, refused to allow the United Nations to monitor its administration of the area. Although the United Nations nullified South African jurisdiction in 1966, resolution of the dispute came slowly. In the negotiations, South Africa linked Namibian independence to Cuban withdrawal from Angola. The Cubans, however, were unwilling to give South Africa the strategic geographic advantage that a removal of Cuban troops would cause. Moreover, as G. R. Berridge has pointed out, Cuba insisted that withdrawal had to be conducted in a way that emphasized a positive legacy of Cuban influence in African history. In 1988 a number of accords involving Cuba, Angola, Namibia, and South Africa were signed, with Cuba and Angola agreeing to remove Cuban troops by July 1991.

Cuba's presence in Mozambique was more subdued, involving by the mid-1980s seven hundred Cuban military and seventy civilian personnel. While Cuba's presence in Angola was vital in shifting the balance of power in southwest Africa, its presence in Mozambique was relatively insignificant.

In Ethiopia the Cubans also played a role, closely in concert with Soviet policy. Before 1974, both the USSR and Cuba had supported Ethiopia's adversary, Somalia. But in that year Ethiopia, suffering from much internal turmoil, began to move toward the Left. After Emperor Haile Selassie's overthrow in 1974, a bitter military struggle led to the victory of the socialist faction in 1977. Meanwhile, Cuba's former ally, Somalia, sponsored a revolutionary group in Ogaden, which had historically been a part of Ethiopia. As Ethiopia reshuffled its international alliances, Somalia found itself on the outside. Only two months after supplying aid to Somalia, in 1977, Cuba, in collaboration with Soviet policy, began sending arms and advisers to Ethiopia. After unproductive negotiations, Somalia broke relations with Cuba and sent its own troops into Ogaden. Cuba responded by sending 17,000 troops into war-torn Ethiopia, which by 1987 had established a Marxist-Leninist state and was suffering massive economic and social devastation, exacerbated by famine and drought. The end of the cold war resulted in foreign withdrawal from the area, leaving Ethiopia and Somalia to struggle with internal strife and continued economic and physical hardships.

Although Cuba's presence in Africa was beneficial to Angola, Ethiopia, and several other nations, there was a high cost in lives and material. Cuba had both gains and losses from its intervention in Africa. It greatly strengthened its ties to the Soviet Union, while further alienating it from the United States at a time when a willingness to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations had begun. In effect, it furthered Cuba's break with the West, solidifying its membership in the Soviet economic and political bloc.

Cuba's relations with Africa changed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Without Soviet support, Cuba entered an extended economic crisis in the 1990s and early twenty-first century, and consequently dramatically lessened its involvement in Africa. Despite its difficulties, Cuba did continue to send its doctors on medical missions. In 2002 Cuba had more than two thousand physicians working on numerous projects throughout the continent.

See alsoCastro Ruz, Fidelxml .


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Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Kahn, Owen Ellison. "Cuba's Impact in Southern Africa." Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs 29 (Fall 1987): 33-54.

Liebenow, J. Gus. African Politics: Crises and Challenges. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

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Montgomery, Robin Navarro. Cuban Shadow over the Southern Cones. Austin: TX: Tyler Publishing, 1977.

Ohaegbulam, Festus Ugboaja. Towards an Understanding of the African Experience from Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.

Pérez, Louis A., Jr. Cuba: Between Reform and Revolution New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Ros, Enrique. La aventura africana de Fidel Castro. Miami, FL: Ediciones Universal, 1999.

                                      Allan S. R. Sumnall