Cuba, internationalism and African liberation

Oscar Wailoo
Oscar Wailoo

On Nov. 5, 1843, “Black Carlota”, an enslaved African woman, grabbed her machete and led a rebellion against Spanish slave masters in Cuba. Carlota lost her life in a noble but failed cause.
One hundred and thirty-two years later, 650 Cuban volunteers were mobilized and dispatched to the southern African country of Angola in November 1975. Cuba was responding to a request for help by the newly independent Angolan government, which had forced the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonists and was now facing an invasion by apartheid South African forces.
Cuba named its response to the call “Operation Carlota.” The intervention saved Angola’s independence and helped drive a nail into the coffin of apartheid in South Africa.
Angola was being assailed on all sides, from imperialist forces from Zambia, Zaire, and from American CIA-sponsored forces within the country, well coordinated with apartheid South Africa and all well supplied with the best arms the Americans could provide.
According to the late Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Cuban volunteers to Angola included 480 specialists in various fields, a team of doctors and 115 vehicles. Within six months they set up training centres, 16 infantry battalions, 25 mortar batteries and field hospitals.
The South Africans, who outgunned and outmanned the Angolans many times over, were marching inexorably to Luanda, the Angolan capital.
The apartheid nation was about to take control of all of Southern Africa; it had already “inherited” Namibia for more than a century after Germany “lost it” after its defeat in WWI, now they had their sights on Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau that were fighting for independence from Portugal.
South Africa would extend its apartheid empire across Southern Africa. Cuba and the Angolans ended the apartheid dream by driving them back to Pretoria.
Cuba, strangled by an American trade embargo and under constant threat of invasions by the U.S., scrambled three rickety ships, two modified merchant ships and three old British planes, patched up and held together like the antique cars that ply the streets of Havana.
The Cuban military assistance to Angola was not merely a sudden burst of revolutionary enthusiasm, it followed from a fundamental principle of Cuban internationalism enunciated with the successful revolution of 1959.
Historian Isaac Saney of Dalhousie University wrote, “The Cuban leadership justified the military intervention as both defending an independent country from foreign invasion and repaying a historical debt owed by Cuba to Africa. Fidel Castro frequently invoked Cuba’s historical links to Africa. On the fifteenth anniversary of the Cuban victory at Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs), he declared Cubans ‘are a Latin-African people.’
“Jorge Risquet, Havana’s principal diplomat in Africa from the 1970s to 1990s, was also unambiguous in explaining Cuba’s military intervention in terms of Cuba’s obligations to Africa and this linkage resonated especially with Black Cubans who were able to make a symbolic connection with their African roots.”
Cuba had been in touch with the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since 1965. Che Guevara was active in the independence struggle in the Congo against the Belgian colonizers. In truth Cuba has never failed to come to the aid of any African liberation struggle that asked for its help.
Illustrating that, Nobel Laureate Marquez listed Mozambique (since 1966), Guinea-Bissau (since 1965), Cameroon, Sierra Leone, and Algeria during a failed French attempt to reverse Algeria’s independence war.
For a period of 26 years, nearly 400,000 Cubans fought shoulder to shoulder with Africans at enormous economic and human cost to Cuba, a country that was the victim of American military abuse and a trade embargo, the cost of which is almost beyond calculation.
Cuba’s international dealings have approximated the highest ideals of true internationalism right down to its magnificent response to the recent ebola crisis and the 2010 Haitian earthquake. And all the nations that benefited from Cuba’s altruism have remained grateful and ongoing supporters of Cuba’s struggle to remain independent and chart its own social and economic course.
This past Remembrance Day, Canada rightly paused to remember the valour of our soldiers and sacrifices they made in the two great wars. However, we should also remember that Canada was hardly on the side of liberation when it came to the independence struggles of the colonies of the empire on whose behalf we fought.
We should examine the full spectrum of our past behaviour beyond European wars. The true record will show we come a distant second to Cuba’s spirit and history of internationalism and solidarity with the peoples who need it.