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We all know it…the US and Cuba are not friends. The socialist Cuban government openly calls the US “imperialists,” while the US continues to uphold an old embargo that has serious economic repercussions for the Caribbean nation. This contentious history is probably why you haven’t heard that Cuba played a huge role in assisting the liberation of southern Africa, ultimately ending in the defeat of the apartheid government. This is Dr. Piero Gleijeses of Johns Hopkins University.
Cuba is the only country in the world that sent its soldiers to fight against apartheid in South Africa.
In the 1970’s, a war broke out in Angola between two sides. On one side, the MPLA, or the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, supported by the Cubans and the Soviets. On the other side, the Union for the Total Liberation of Angola, a movement supported by the US and the South African apartheid government. The MPLA was winning.
In order to crush the MPLA, in October 1975, South African troops invaded Angola from Namibia, which was ruled by South Africa. And had they continued on to take Rwanda, they would have crushed the MPLA if not for the military aid and troops provided by the Cuban government, to respond with troops. And between November 1975 and April 1976, 36,000 Cuban soldiers arrived in Angola. And they forced the South African army to retreat. It was the first time in living memory that the army of apartheid was forced to retreat. And they were forced to retreat by a non-white army, because the Cuban army was a non-white army. And this had an immense psychological impact in Southern Africa.
Gleijeses explained that an article that appeared in a prominent “white” South African newspaper in February 1976 admitted the symbolic nature of the defeat. He quotes the article.
“The reality is that they won, are winning, and are not white. And that psychological edge, that advantage the white man has enjoyed and exploited over 300 years of Colonialism Empire is slipping away. White elitists suffered an irreversible blow in Angola.”
The battle at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 turned out to be one of the key moments in the war. It was with this effort that Cuban forces were able to push South African forces out of Angola. From prison, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela wrote that the win “was the turning point for the liberation of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge of apartheid.”
Ronnie Kasrils, South African Minister for Intelligence Services, said in a 2008 address to the Cuban people in Havana: “After thirteen years defending Angolan sovereignty the Cubans took nothing home except the bones of their fallen and our eternal gratitude.”
Gleijeses called the US’ criticism of the armed resistance in South Africa “absurd.”
Senator Ted Kennedy went to South Africa, to the headquarters of the African National Congress, and he felt the right and the duty to lecture the leaders of the ANC and castigate them because they were resorting to armed struggle, which I always found completely absurd. How could Americans, who gloried themselves in their fight for independence against England, which was a very generous rule compared to Apartheid South Africa, how could Americans dare to criticize the ANC because of its armed struggle?
While history cannot be reversed, it can be revindicated. And the United States policy toward a Cuba could be just the place to start.
For more on this history, you can check out Gleijeses’ new book, “Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991.” The prologue is posted on our website. Click here for the full audio and transcript from VOR's interview with Gleijeses.