01/19/13 - The Militant - 'Cuba's greatest internationalist feat ever'
Vol. 77/No. 2 January 28, 2013
'Cuba's greatest internationalist feat ever'
Introduction to 'Cuba and Angola: Fighting
for Africa's Freedom and Our Own'
Below is the introduction by Mary-Alice Waters to Cuba and Angola:
Fighting for Africa's Freedom and Our Own.
The new book by Pathfinder Press features speeches by Fidel Castro, Raúl
Castro and Nelson Mandela; interviews with Cuban generals Armando Choy,
Gustavo Chui, Moisés Sío Wong and Luis Alfonso Zayas; accounts by Cuban
revolutionaries Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González and René González;
and a report by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez.
Waters, a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party,
is the editor of the book.
Copyright © 2013 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY MARY-ALICE WATERS
Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence,
freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless
Matanzas, Cuba, July 1991
When we face new and unexpected challenges we will always be able to
recall the epic of Angola with gratitude, because without Angola we would
not be as strong as we are today.
Havana, Cuba, May 1991
Between 1975 and 1991, some 425,000 Cubans volunteered for duty in Angola
in response to requests from the government of that country, which had
just wrested freedom from Portugal after nearly five centuries of brutal
exploitation and colonial domination. The mission: helping to defend
Angola against what stretched into thirteen years of military aggression,
including two major invasions, by the armed forces of the apartheid regime
of South Africa and its African and imperialist allies.
The stakes were enormous.
In April 1974 the fifty-year-old, deeply decayed fascist dictatorship in
Portugal was overthrown by a military coup that unleashed a powerful
revolutionary upsurge of Portuguese workers and farmers. The confidence of
Europe's capitalist rulers was shaken.
In April 1975 US imperialism was literally driven out of Indochina. The
whole world watched-in joy or horror, depending on your class
perspective-as helicopters scrambled to rescue thousands of desperate
American officials and their Vietnamese lackeys from the rooftop of
Washington's embassy in what had just become Ho Chi Minh City.
Anti-imperialist struggles of a more and more popular character were
deepening in Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Central America.
Not losing control of southern Africa was rising in the priorities of the
imperialist powers. For years they had been maneuvering to salvage what
they could as the Portuguese empire crumbled. With Angolan independence
day approaching in November 1975, they accelerated their efforts to
install what they hoped would be a compliant puppet regime in the largest
and richest of Portugal's former African territories. For
Pretoria-backhandedly encouraged and supplied by Washington-the future of
all southern Africa, including the survival of the apartheid regime
itself, was on the table.
The first major invasion of Angola by South African troops began in
October 1975 as armored columns crossed the border from their de facto
colony of South-West Africa (Namibia) and swept north. Simultaneously a
military offensive moved south from Zaire (Congo). The pro-imperialist
Mobutu dictatorship there hoped to annex the oil-rich Angolan province of
Cabinda and take whatever other territory they could. The objective was to
conquer Luanda, the capital city, before November 11 to prevent the
installation of a government headed by the Popular Movement for the
Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the strongest of the independence movements,
with the broadest popular base.
It was only the eleventh-hour intervention of some six hundred fifty Cuban
internationalist volunteers, responding to the urgent request of Angola's
provisional government for aid, that prevented the South African
objectives from being realized. Less than five months later, with
thirty-six thousand Cuban volunteers by then on the ground, the military
forces of both the South African apartheid regime and the Zairean
dictatorship had been driven out of Angola. But they had not given up.
More than a decade of what was euphemistically known as "low intensity
warfare" against the Angolan regime ensued. Then, in late 1987, South
African troops began their second major invasion, which ended with the
crushing defeat of Pretoria's military forces in March 1988 in the
now-famous battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
As South African anti-apartheid struggle leader Nelson Mandela told the
world three years later, "Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history
of the struggle for southern African liberation! .A turning point in the
struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of
That decisive victory not only secured the sovereignty of Angola. It also
allowed the people of Namibia to achieve their independence from South
African apartheid rule and gave a powerful boost to the rising mass
revolutionary struggle against white supremacist rule in South Africa
itself. Less than two years after the victory at Cuito Cuanavale, Nelson
Mandela, imprisoned for more than twenty-seven years, was free. Four years
later the apartheid regime was no more, and Nelson Mandela was president
of South Africa.
In the pages that follow, this history is told by those who lived it and
The contribution made by hundreds of thousands of Cuban internationalists,
military and civilian alike, to the independence struggles in southern
Africa was not a "favor" to others, however. The Cuban Revolution, the
strength of its proletarian core, was also at stake. As Minister of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces Raúl Castro told the Cuban people in May 1991
as he welcomed home the last contingent of volunteers, "If our people know
themselves better, if all of us know much better what we are capable of
achieving-veterans as well as our young people, the new generations-that,
too, is thanks to Angola!"
Among the "new generations" whose lives were transformed as they fought
side by side with the people of Angola were three young Cubans, still in
their twenties, whose names are today known around the world: Gerardo
Hernández, Fernando González, and René González. They are three of the
five Cubans who, a few years after their experiences in Angola,
volunteered for another internationalist assignment, this time in the
United States. Their mission: monitoring the activities of Cuban American
counterrevolutionary organizations operating with impunity from bases in
the US, groups that organize to carry out violent actions against
supporters of the revolution inside Cuba, the US, Puerto Rico, and
elsewhere, and whose actions always contain a threat of precipitating a
confrontation between Washington and Cuba. Arrested by the FBI in 1998,
and framed up on more than thirty charges, the Cuban Five have been
imprisoned in the US for more than fourteen years.
As Fernando González writes in the account published in these pages, the
lessons he learned in Angola are ones he has continued to draw on ever
since, "including here, withstanding conditions of prolonged
The final and decisive battles waged in 1988 in Angola by more than fifty
thousand Cuban volunteers coincided with, and in turn advanced, what was
known in Cuba as the rectification process, one of the most important
chapters in the history of the revolution.
In April 1986, speaking on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of
the victory at Playa Girón that crushed the US-organized invasion of Cuba
at the Bay of Pigs, Cuban president Fidel Castro announced the
leadership's decision to initiate a profound correction in the course of
the revolution. He likened it to a ship altering its compass headings in
order to sail on a different path. For more than a decade, as policies
associated with an Economic Planning and Management System copied from the
Soviet Union had been introduced, proletarian initiatives and collective
efforts by Cuba's workers and small farmers had become progressively
Fidel summed up the error with great insight many years later in November
2005 when he told an audience of young leaders of the revolution that
"among the many errors we all have committed, the most important was to
believe that someone knew something about socialism, or knew how to build
socialism. As if it were an exact science, as well known as an electrical
system conceived by those who considered themselves experts in electrical
systems. When they said, 'Here is the formula,' we thought they knew."
As the rectification process unfolded, encouraging the creativity and
imagination of Cuba's toilers again became the driving force of the
revolution, combating the economic, social, and political weight of what
had become an increasingly bloated, and relatively privileged,
administrative layer in the mills, factories, ministries, offices, and
Wages for agricultural workers, among the lowest paid in the country, were
raised by 40 percent. Special clinics, stores, restaurants, and
recreational facilities established by the Ministry of the Interior for
its personnel were turned over to general use by the population.
Privileged access to state cars, gas rations, and special entertainment
budgets were curtailed.
Volunteer full-time minibrigades involving tens of thousands of workers
were established in workplaces across the country mobilizing almost
overnight a workforce eager to help accomplish the most urgently needed
social priorities-housing, child care centers, clinics, schools,
recreational facilities, and more. Larger volunteer construction
contingents-in which wages, hours, and work rules were decided and
implemented by the workers themselves-took on the building of roads, dams,
hospitals, airports, and other major infrastructure projects.
Volunteer labor-the centerpiece of proletarian action in the early years
of the revolution, which "took refuge in defense activities" during what
Fidel in 1987 called that "shameful period in the building of
socialism"-was reborn "like a phoenix." As the minibrigades took on the
character of a mass social movement, "The bureaucrat's view, the
technocrat's view that voluntary work was neither basic nor essential"
This was the revolutionary course advancing in Cuba as the final great
battles of the Angola war were joined. It was the spirit that marked the
forty thousand Cuban volunteers on the Southern Front in Angola who
together with their Angolan and Namibian comrades-in-arms fought their way
east and south in the opening months of 1988, building a forward airfield
in seventy days as they raised the siege at Cuito Cuanavale, cleared
minefields and roads, and took control of the air.
It was all over. The apartheid regime was forced to withdraw from Namibia
as well as Angola and sue for peace.
The victory represented by Cuito Cuanavale, together with the deepening
proletarian course in Cuba itself, also allowed the revolution to confront
and emerge strengthened from one of the bitterest moments it had faced in
In June and July 1989, evidence was uncovered by the military high command
that Division General Arnaldo Ochoa, Hero of the Republic of Cuba, who
headed the Angolan mission in 1987-88, had been supervising sugar sales on
the black market in Angola as well as amateur trafficking in diamonds and
ivory as the lives of thousands of Cuban and Angolan combatants hung in
the balance at Cuito Cuanavale.
As Fidel expressed it with unflinching clarity, "At the same time that the
most glorious page was being written, the most shameful one was being
written, in large measure by the head of the Cuban military mission in
The Granma editorial announcing Ochoa's arrest pointedly made clear,
however, that it was Division General Leopoldo Cintra Frías, not Ochoa,
who had been given command of the Southern Front "to ensure the complete
success of our troops' operations in Angola." That was where "the bulk of
the Cuban personnel, tanks, artillery, antiaircraft forces, and air force
units were stationed." Ochoa, the editorial noted, was "involved in other
tasks for the Cuban military mission," tasks that were removed from "the
course of military events."
As a widening investigation by the Cuban government soon revealed, the
small-scale illegal operations in Angola were the least of Ochoa's
offenses. He had also been supervising the activities of one of his aides,
whom Ochoa had authorized to meet with Pablo Escobar of the Medellín drug
cartel and other narcotics dealers to explore options for trafficking
operations using Cuban air and sea lanes and possible cocaine laboratories
in Africa. The motivation, Ochoa claimed, was a desire to raise money-big
money, $4 billion was the sum he used-to buy military equipment for Angola
and Cuba and speed development of a tourist industry in Cuba.
Ochoa and his subordinate were court-martialed and executed, together with
two high-ranking officers of the Ministry of the Interior who, the
investigation revealed, had already been engaged in their own
drug-trafficking operations, in addition to facilitating Ochoa's schemes.
It was a traumatic moment in Cuba.
Division General Enrique Carreras gave eloquent voice to the popular
outrage a few years later when he commented in an interview, "Imagine
sullying our uniform for money, to get out of an economic bind! That's
what Ochoa did. And this in an army as honorable as the Rebel Army! If we
have to die of hunger we'll die of hunger, but we won't disgrace what the
people have fought for so hard and so long. We won't disgrace what so many
people have died for over the years. . That's why we fought for
socialism-to eliminate such evils."
Extensive excerpts of the proceedings of the Military Court of Honor, the
court martial testimony, and the review of the death sentences by the
Council of State were published in the daily paper Granma, broadcast on TV
and radio, and followed closely by millions of Cubans. By the end of what
became known in Cuba as Case No. 1 in 1989, there was broad, though far
from unanimous, agreement among Cuban working people with the justice of
the sentences-and their necessity.
"Who would ever believe in the revolution again," Fidel asked, "if we did
not actually apply the most severe sentences established by our
legislation for crimes of this gravity?"
"Who would ever speak of rectification again?"
A July 9 meeting of the Council of State reviewed and then ratified the
sentences for Ochoa and the other three. At the conclusion of his remarks,
Raúl Castro reminded everyone that as the commander of the military
mission in Angola, Ochoa had signed death sentences for three young Cuban
soldiers who had been convicted of rape and murder of Angolan women. As
minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Raúl had been responsible for
ratifying those orders, which he had done.
"I didn't hesitate," Raúl said, "because the decision was just. Nor will I
hesitate when I sign the sentence requested by the court in these four
cases considered by the Council of State. The mothers of those three young
men might have asked for clemency. If we don't carry out this sentence, we
will have to beg them for forgiveness."
By the time the last units of internationalist volunteers returned from
Angola in 1991, Cuba was already confronting the greatest political and
economic crisis in its history. With the implosion of the bureaucratized
regime in the Soviet Union came an abrupt loss of 85 percent of Cuba's
foreign trade. As virtually all imports evaporated, agricultural and
industrial production collapsed. It was "as if one day the sun didn't
rise," Fidel said.
As the crisis deepened, Cuba's enemies, blindly convinced of their own
myths of dwindling support for the revolution, were once again predicting
(hoping for) its imminent demise. And in fact, no other government in the
world could have survived such a crisis. But Cuba had never been a
tropical version of what the Soviet Union had become, or the countries of
Eastern Europe had always been. In class terms, it was their political and
moral negation. And the confidence of Cuba's toilers in themselves and
their government, "in what we are capable of achieving," to use Raúl's
words, was in no small measure due to the conquests registered in the
Angolan internationalist mission and the rectification process.
The fifty thousand Cubans who volunteered for duty in Angola in 1988 to
assure the crushing defeat of the apartheid army in the battle of Cuito
Cuanavale would have been equivalent at the time, in population terms, to
the United States fielding 1.2 million troops in a theater of operations.
That's just one measure of the enormity of the internationalist commitment
made by the men and women of the Cuban Revolution. Yet to new generations
of revolutionists and militant, thinking working people around the world,
all this is virtually a hidden history.
A handful of memoirs have been published in Cuba by those who fought on
one or another front during the nearly sixteen-year mission. Virtually
none have been translated or published outside Cuba. Moreover, no
comprehensive account yet exists, although this may change with the
scheduled publication in September 2013 of Visions of Freedom: Havana,
Washington, and Pretoria in Southern Africa, 1976-1991 by Piero Gleijeses,
author of the excellent study Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington,
and Africa, 1959-76, which covers the opening months of the mission.
Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa's Freedom and Our Own aims to make a
small contribution to filling the void and encouraging those who took part
in what Fidel called "Cuba's greatest internationalist feat ever" to make
that history known.
Readers will find its strength in the multiple perspectives it offers on
many of the same events.
Through the speeches of Fidel Castro, commander in chief of the Angola
internationalist mission and historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, and
those of Raúl Castro, then minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Cuba, we are given the broadest political, strategic, and military view.
Why the Cuban leadership took the decisions it did at important junctures.
How these decisions were implemented and led. And the consequences for the
revolution and its relations with other world powers and national
liberation forces in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.
Nelson Mandela, the historic leader of the struggle to rid his country,
his continent, and the world of the scourge of apartheid, explains the
unprecedented political character of Cuba's actions in Africa, their
weight and place in world history.
Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, Moisés Sío Wong, and Alfonso Zayas, four
historic combatants of the struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship,
give us the perspective of four generals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Cuba. Each of them was among the seasoned frontline officers, leading
in different capacities on the battlefields of Angola and in Cuba.
Through the accounts of Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González, and René
González, we see the Angolan internationalist mission as it was lived by
the then youngest generations of revolutionaries---how they were molded by
that combat experience and transformed for life.
And in Gabriel García Márquez's "Operation Carlota," one of the greatest
contemporary Latin American authors documents the opening of the Angola
campaign and its first great victories. Through his eyes we see the impact
that those events had on the fighting determination of Cuban working
people-from the new beats in their music to the added bounce in their
steps and broader smiles on their faces.
Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa's Freedom and Our Own is dedicated to
the men and women of Cuba who wrote this epic chapter in the history of
their revolution-and to those then too young to have participated, who
will learn from it and from each other as they march into the class
battles whose initial flares are already burning.
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