Greg Shupak

The apparent thaw in US-Cuba relations is welcome and has been demanded by Cubans since the start of US aggression against the island. Barack Obama’s recent visit to the island was the most dramatic episode yet in the thawing relationship. Optimism about these developments, however, should remain cautious. US strategy toward Cuba has not so much shifted away from an attempt to dominate the island’s political and economic system as it has altered its tactics. The approach the American ruling class is taking looks to enmesh Cuba’s economy in an asymmetric relationship with American capital as a means of exerting control over the island.

Following the Obama administration’s announcement that it intends to move toward normalizing relations with Cuba, the White House’s webpage posted a blog listing reactions to this decision from around the United States. These responses are characterized by enthusiasm over “how much opportunity there is to promote American agriculture and trade moving forward.” Capitalism has an insatiable need to expand and US elites see engagement with Cuba as a scaled down version of the frontier for primitive accumulation that opened up in Eastern Europe when the USSR collapsed.

This is not to say that Cuba will necessarily return to its pre-revolutionary status as a virtual colony of the United States. Canadian and European capitalists have done business in Cuba for decades and that has not caused Cuba to privatize health or housing or education let alone become a hotbed for western corporations’ sweatshops. Yet, if relations between the United States and Cuba normalize and the embargo is lifted, Cuban socialists will face enormous potential risks such as a deepened dependency on international capital and the rise to power in Cuba of leaders hospitable to those interests.

Should that happen, one aspect of Cuban politics likely to erode is its internationalism. Cuba has long played an inspiring role in global disaster relief and in worldwide medical and scholastic solidarity. Cuban globalism has also involved providing varying forms of support for efforts to assert independence from US-led global capitalism, most recently in such places as Venezuela and Bolivia. The most storied example of Cuban internationalism is chronicled in Visions of Freedom, Piero Gleijeses’s masterful account of how Cuba’s revolutionary leadership allied with African leftists to defeat US-backed, reactionary forces in Angola, South Africa, and elsewhere on the continent.

Gleijeses begins with the fall of Portugal’s dictatorship in April 1974 and the subsequent weakening of its rule in Angola and Mozambique. The US government and its allies in apartheid South Africa saw a threat to Portuguese colonialism as a threat to white rule in Africa. Washington teamed up with Pretoria, then, in an effort to destroy the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).  

Between November 1975 and April 1976, South African troops invaded Angola with US support. 36,000 Cuban troops arrived on the continent shortly thereafter in support ofAngola’s leftist forces.  By the end of April 1976, Cuba had driven South Africa from Angola, and the MPLA soon came to power. (Until 1991 it would be subject to subversion and attacks courtesy of South Africa, with US collusion.)

The Angolan conflict reverberated across the border to Namibia, which was under South African occupation. On May 4, 1978, South Africa bombed Cassinga, a Namibian refugee camp in southern Angola, killing over 600 people. At the time, Namibia’s South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) was fighting a guerrilla war for liberation from the apartheid government and were being trained in Angola by Soviet and Cuban instructors. 

Internal documents from South Africa show that the country’sofficials believed Namibian independence would have “an extremely negative impact on every front” for the apartheid government and would embolden “black militant groups in South Africa,” leading to “a decline in white morale.” Moreover, more than 6,000 rebels from Zimbabwe, –then called Rhodesia and ruled by an apartheid government—were also trained by Cuba on Angolan bases. The rebels that Cuba trained were from the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and had minimal military impact in Rhodesia. Gleijeses, however, finds that Cuba’s support for the group helped push the Carter administration to belatedly permit Zimbabwean independence.

Fighters from South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), the group Nelson Mandela belonged to, received Cuban and Soviet training in Angola as well. The ANC’s military wing, the MK—which stands for Umkhonto we Sizwe, Zulu for “Spear of the Nation”—had been a marginal force in South Africa from the time Mandela and other leaders were arrested in 1962 until the Cuban-trained guerrillas infiltrated South Africa in the late 1970s. Because the MPLA allowed the Cubans and the Soviets to train anti-apartheid fighters on Angolan soil, South Africa sought to overthrow the MPLA and install a government that would kick out Cuba, Russia, SWAPO, ZAPU, and the ANC. 

The man the South Africans and Americans chose to replace the MPLA was Jonas Savimbi,  leader of a rebellion against the MPLA. Savimbi collaborated with both Portuguese imperialists and South Africa and, in the words of the British ambassador to Angola, was “a monster whose lust for power had brought appalling misery to his people.” If not for the Cuban presence in Angola, Gleijeses shows, Savimbi’s National Organization for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) would have replaced the MPLA, and South Africa’s vicious government would have controlled both Angola and Namibia. Indeed, the CIA admitted that Cuban troops were “necessary to prove Angolan independence.”

Cuba’s military role in Africa also extended eastward. In July 1977, Somalia—backed by the United States—invaded Ethiopia’s Ogden region, home to a population of ethnic Somalis. Cuba responded by sending 12,000 people to Ethiopia, then governed by a left-leaning junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. 

Although Ethiopia remains impoverished and the Mengistu government shed a lot of blood, Cuba was coming to the defense of a government that was understood by even the CIA as aiming “to improve the lot of the disadvantaged.” Cuban intervention in Ethiopia, Gleijeses argues, “met every requirement of international law.” And it helped repel a foreign invasion, thereby preserving Ethiopian sovereignty.

The Angolan conflict reverberated into Zaire as well. Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo—was then ruled by the US-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who supported rebels against the Angolan government. In March 1977 1,500 Zairean exiles living in Angola attacked the southern Zairean province of Shaba with the blessing of the Angolan government. The United States, France, and Morocco saved Mobutu’s government and drove the exiles, known as the Katangans, back into Angola. (While the notion that the Katangans had Cuban support was widespread at the time, Cuba was surprised by the exiles’ actions.)

After the failed incursion—referred to as Shaba I—Mobutu’s army undertook a campaign of extraordinary brutality in Shaba; troops raped, robbed, and killed, sending tens of thousands of Zaireans fleeing to Angola. Intent on safeguarding Zairean capitalist interests and seeing the country as an anticommunist bulwark, Washington continued to staunchly back Mobutu. 

And Mobutu continued to support the insurgents against the Angolan government. When Havana learned that the Katangans were set to attack Zaire again, Cuban leaders made their opposition clear. They asked Angolan President Agostinho Neto to restrain the Katangans, and warned that imperialist forces would again intervene to protect Mobutu and could use the Katangans’ operation as a pretext to invade Angola. 

The Angolan government ignored Cuba’s advice and supported the Katangans in a second attack on Zaire in May 1978. The attack, known as Shaba II, had disastrous consequences for Cuba and its relationship with Washington. Cuba was denounced for supposedly aiding the Katangans despite their opposition to this aspect of Angolan government policy and despite the West’s own role in the Somali invasion of Ethiopia.

Even though the Angolan government’s decision in Shaba II damaged Cuba’s international, at no point did Cuba consider abandoning Angola in the struggle for African independence from imperialism and apartheid. 

While these conflicts were playing out, Western politicians characterized the Cubans as proxies for the Soviet Union. Gleijeses debunks this myth. When Cuba first sent troops to Angola in 1975, it did so against the wishes of Leonid Brezhnev. For two months, Cubans operated in Angola without logistical support from the USSR. Similarly, in 1987, the Cuban government defied Mikhail Gorbachev by sending Cuban reinforcements to drive South Africa out of Angola for good. Finally, Havana opposed an attempted coup against Neto that the Soviets appear to have supported.

Gleijeses, however, does not deny that the USSR helped the anti-apartheid struggle. On the contrary, he writes that, “Without Moscow, Cuba could not have kept tens of thousands of soldiers in Angola for more than a decade. Without Moscow, the Angolan army would have been virtually without weapons,” which were necessary to defend against the onslaught of the South African military and its proxies. But it was Cuba, Gleijeses argues, that was the driving force against apartheid.

Another American accusation frequently leveled against Cuban forces in Angola was that they were mercenaries who were fighting in Africa because the USSR was paying the Cuban state to do so. 

Far from profiting from the intervention, Cuba paid the salaries of its troops, some 337,033 of whom served in Angola. From 1975–77 Cuba covered all other necessary expenses involved in the mission, including clothing, food, and transportation. Even when the Cuban government asked that Angola begin to bear these costs, the Cubans made clear that they would stay even if the Angolan government could not come up with the money.

After Angola took responsibility in 1978 for some of these costs, it often did not come up with the funds; as promised, Cuba filled the gap. At times, moreover, Cuba fed thousands of Angolan soldiers and civilians in the Angolan province of Cabinda. 
Nor is there sufficient evidence to believe that Cuba benefited indirectly by receiving more Soviet aid in exchange for sending troops to Angola. While Soviet assistance to Cuba increased after 1975, Gleijeses is unconvinced that the cause was its Angolan operation. He notes, for example, that Soviet aid to Cuba declined between 1986 and 1988 even though Cuba considerably increased its troop presence in Angola during that period. Furthermore, considering that the Soviet Union was less than enthusiastic about Cuba intervening in Angola, it’s unlikely that the USSR would reward Castro’s government for taking such action.

Despite its economic problems—largely as a result of the US embargo—Cuba gave Angola generous amounts of aid. Cuba provided technical assistance at no cost except between 1978 and 1983. This support wasmuch needed because Portugal colonialism had left Angola 90 percent illiterate. In addition, Gleijeses notes that thousands of Cubans voluntarily went to Angola to do aid work without benefiting financially. 

US observers also took notice of the Cubans’ humanitarian activities. The CIA reported, “The Cuban technicians are primarily involved in rural development and educational and public health projects—areas in which Cuba has accumulated expertise and has experienced success at home.” And Gleijeses quotes 1980 US House subcommittee testimony given by Professor Gerald Bender, an American “not noted for his Cuban sympathies,” in which Bender says that “in certain sectors the Angolans are extremely pleased with the Cuban help and they have good reason [to be]” especially with regard to Cuban medical work that had been “very, very successful.” 

Bender told the panel that Portugal’s departure left construction in Angola “completely paralyzed” and that “the Cubans went in and sort of finished up the buildings that were started and began building news ones. You could not find a single Angolan that would criticize the Cubans for doing that.”

Additionally, Cuba offered free schooling to thousands of children from Angola and other African countries such as Mozambique. In the late 1960s, Cuba had built boarding schools for high school students, turning the sparsely populated Island of Pines into a center for these educational institutions and renaming it the Island of Youth. Four schools on the island, each home to six hundred students, were opened for Angolans. They were designed to ensure that the students would not lose ties with their culture; Angolan teachers accompanied the students and taught classes on Angolan history and geography and on the Portuguese language.

Perhaps the most significant act of Cuban self-sacrifice in the struggle against apartheid, however, occurred when the United States offered to lift its embargo if Cuba agreed to remove its troops from Angola. Washington’s crushing, criminal blockade had inflicted an incalculable toll, and the continuation of the blockade could have precipitated the collapse of Cuban socialism. But the Cuban government’s solidarity with Africans resisting racism and imperialism was so great that they rebuffed Washington’s overture.

Cuba’s presence in Africa was also a major reason that the Reagan administration threatened a military attack on Cuba. In 1981, Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig met with Cuban Vice President Carlos Rafael Rodríguez in Mexico. Haig said that the Reagan administration would consider trade with Cuba if Cuba withdrew its forces from Africa, ended its support for guerillas in El Salvador and for the Sandinista government, a demand that meant even the Cuban teachers in Nicaragua would have to go home. Haig also claimed that the US did not want a military conflict with Cuba but threatened that Cuba should cede to US demands because the two countries 

“have come to a crossroads that could be described as dangerous.….America’s national spirit has significantly strengthened lately, which has allowed us to attain unprecedented levels of military expenditures….I can assure you that the mood of the people in the United States is definitely itching for a change in our relations with Cuba, a change that would not be positive for Cuba….[President Reagan] is ready to go to the brink.”

Haig also told Rodríguez that the US could impose an even harsher blockade on Cuba and added that if Cuba did not cave, “then we move to confrontation, and fast.” 

In March 1982, US General Vernon Walters went to Havana to meet with Fidel Castro. The talking points prepared for Walters said that the use of force against Cuba “is an option which we do not exclude. That way of dealing with the problem [of Cuba’s involvement in Central America] would be both more efficient and more acceptable to the U.S public” than confronting Cuba in Central America. The talking points also said that “We hope we do not have to address the solution to the Cuban problem by force. But if we must, it is better to do so early in the [Reagan] administration and when Cuba’s protector [the Soviet Union] is tied down in Poland and Afghanistan.” The Cuban leadership was nervous and took Haig’s threats very seriously, which is understandable given the US’ long history of overthrowing governments it disliked and given its many attempts to do so in Cuba. 

Gleijeses quotes a senior Cuban official saying that Cuba drew up plans for dealing with an intensification of the blockade and a military attack. These plans included that grim possibility of evacuating Havana as well as designs for a mass resistance campaign that they believed they could maintain for a year, which they hoped would be long enough to mobilize the world into forcing the US to halt its aggression.  Yetthe Cuban government would not budge in itscommitment to solidarity with Central America and southern Africa even knowing that this steadfastness could mean a devastating assault on Cuba and possibly the end of its government.

If Cuban officials’ decision-making had been guided by realpolitik or narrow self-interest, it would not have defied the Soviet Union and passed on a chance to have the embargo lifted. Gleijeses shows that Cuban participation in the fight against apartheid and imperialism can only be explained by a sincere commitment to international solidarity. As Henry Kissinger noted about these African wars years later, Fidel Castro “was probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power.” 

Gleijese concurs. Having poured through the 15,000 pages of Cuban documents—including more than 2,000 pages of transcripts of conversations between the Castro brothers and high-ranking aids — Gleijeses says the only motive for Cuban support of African resistance movements for which he finds evidence is Fidel Castro’s “commitment to a cause in which he deeply believed.” 

Even the CIA wrote that while Cuban foreign policy “is not free of contradictions….Nevertheless on questions of basic importance such as Cuba’s right and duty to support nationalist revolutionary movements and friendly governments in the Third World, Castro permits no compromise of principle for the sake of economic or political expediency.” 

To be sure, Cuban policy cannot solely be explained in terms of Fidel Castro’s personal characteristics. As Gleijeses demonstrates, Cubans who went to Africa as soldiers or aid workers did so voluntarily, and Cuba’s role in the struggle against apartheid was a major source of pride for participants and for the general public.

That pride is entirely justified: the Cubans played a crucial role in defeating apartheid, one of the great scourges of recent history and 2,103 of them died in so doing. Without Cuban troops, the Angolan government would have been replaced with one allied to South Africa, and SWAPO, ZAPU, and the ANC would have been seriously weakened. Namibian and Zimbabwean independence would have been forestalled, and South African apartheid would have persisted. However flawed the post-independence governments of southern Africa are, no tenable argument can be made that these deficiencies even remotely justify the invasions, occupations, colonialization and apartheid that preceded them.

The insights Gleijeses’ provides into recent African history and the Cold War are more than sufficient reason to read Visions of Freedom but its contributions do not end there. Too often leftist rhetoric about global solidarity suffers from vagueness. Too often leftists risk isolationism—there are worse approaches to the question of US-led interventions but we need to do a better job of articulating what real internationalism looks like. What Gleijeses shows is that it is possible to have a genuine global solidarity that isn’t characterized by racist rescue fantasies that provide pretexts for plunder and destruction. Although internationalist rhetoric is frequently a Trojan horse for Western domination, Gleijeses’ book offers a detailed case study in how internationalism actually can be a force for liberation. 

There are aspects of Cuba’s post-revolutionary governance well worth criticizing but Cuban society has registered major achievements at home and there’s probably no state in the post-WWII era that can claim to have made as significant and selfless a contribution to international emancipation as Cuba’s did in southern Africa’s struggles for liberation and the end of apartheid. As Mandela said in in his trip to Havana in 1991:  “We come here with a sense of the great debt that is owed the people of Cuba….What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?” If capitalist encroachments erode Cuban internationalism, this loss will be suffered by the world’s poor, sick, illiterate, and oppressed.

Dr. Greg Shupak is an author and activist who teaches Media Studies at the University of Guelph in Canada.