Archives: How Cuba Helped Free Mandela and Defeat Apartheid

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[Reflections: Pan-Latino Solidarity]

At the Non Aligned Movement Summit in Havana, 1979, Castro greets Guinea's President Ahmed Sekou Toure, Angola's Neto and Guinea-Bissau's  Luis Cabral.  Photo NAM Database. Flickr

This is the second-part of my commentary on Cuba And Africa: Brothers in arms, and Solidarity; part one was published on April 29.

The word Apartheid leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many Africans. Fascism is another word that will spoil our appetite.

During our fight for independence these where the challenges we confronted. These thorns which took much toil, and pain to pick out of our sides came from; the racist Portuguese, and the White South African minority that imposed the segregated regime. As one may logically think a country that champions itself on rights, liberty, and freedom would be the most logical ally in our skirmishes. It is an unfortunate fact that the United States, which fashioned itself the champion of democracy, actually helped the oppressive forces to keep these systems in place.

Cuba However had different plans, and executed them. What must be said about this is that the Cuban intervention was done freely. It wasn’t a Soviet idea. The Cubans did this out of their own convictions; to exercise true humanism, and internationalism. Were it not for Cuba Apartheid could have lasted for another decade if not even longer; Nelson Mandela may never have set foot out of prison.

Many people don't know the tremendous sacrifice Cuba made for Africa.

The Cuban African experience of course like any other project was one of trial and error. The experience of the Congo had mediocre success when Cuba tried to help supporters of the murdered Patrice Lumumba as they challenged the CIA- and Belgian-installed Mobutu. The results were disastrous. Che Guevera who fought with the Congolese was surprised by their lack of experience. Later, when African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral requested assistance from Cuba in order to rid Guinea and Cape Verde of Portuguese fascist rule, the tides changed. Che Guevara and other Cuban guerrillas were seasoned from the Congolese experience. The Cubans could now share valuable knowledge with Amilcar Cabral's PAIGC fighters.

Cabral being was an agricultural engineer and embrace lessons in production from the Cubans who also brought their expertise in guerilla warfare, reconnaissance, and in the medical field; victory was inevitable.

Mind you, the Portuguese were armed to the teeth, and better equipped thanks to the CIA and NATO. But the joint resolve of Cabral and the PAIGC fighters, combined with loyalist Cubans, proved too much for Portuguese colonialism. More territory was taken and preparations made for the post-colonial rule. Unfortunately, Cabral, the tireless fighter and visionary intellectual never got to see the fruits of his work; he was assassinated before official independence took place.

Cuba's next involvement in Africa changed the course of history in four countries.

Mighty South Africa was at its military and economic peak and anchored by Apartheid, which milked the labor of Black workers, when Cuban internationalism was in effect. South Africa was sitting solidly atop Namibia and occupying parts of Angola through its proxy UNITA.

Cuba helped Mozambican revolutionary Samora Machel’s FRELIMO movement punch Portugal to the ground. Angola’s fight for independence was in the hands of the MPLA liberation movement. The first hurdle of independence was over in 1975 when the Portuguese withdrew from the country after many defeats on the battlefield and a coup d'etat in Lisbon. In order to prevent a socialist national regime from coming to power in Angola, the United States financed two pro-Western opposition guerrilla groups FNLA under Holden Roberto and UNITA under Jonas Savimbi. Imperialism knows no limits. Henry Kissinger, architect of U.S.-Africa policy collaborated openly with the South African Apartheid regime. With U.S.-support, South Africa invaded Angola with its own regular troops to escalate its regional destabilization campaign.

Facing serious reversals and possible defeat, MPLA leader, the poet and intellectual, Agostinho Neto, made a direct appeal to Cuba for assistance. Operation Carolota was underway. Even though her resources were stretched while supporting other global causes, Cuba responded quickly to Angola’s plea for help and soon 36,000 Cuban companeros were deployed.

At the famous Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in March 1988, the Cubans, fighting alongside Angolan troops and liberation armies SWAPO of then occupied Namibia, and the ANC's Umkhoto We Sizwe, dealt South African forces and its stooges including UNITA, a decisive victory, forcing them to withdraw in disarray while abandoning tanks and artillery on the field. Cuba may have lost as many as 10,000 troops in Angola; South Africa and its proxies perhaps 15,000 or more.

When the South Africans withdrew, the Cuban/Angolan coalition followed them to Namibia. The fearless approach of the Cubans was a key to ending the South African occupation of Namibia.  In an equal way it hastened the end of Apartheid rule in South Africa.

The Apartheid regime realized it could be militarily defeated even with the help from the U.S. with sophisticated weapons. So, by 1990 South Africa had ended its occupation of Namibia which became independent and Mandela was released after 27 years in jail; by 1994 he was the first democratically elected president of South Africa when the country had full universal franchise.

Marveling at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Mandela later said "South Africans, are indebted to the Cubans” and that “Cubans hold a special place in the heart of Africans.”

There are many lessons for Africans on the continent and in Diaspora to take from Cuba.  The first lesson that comes to mind is resilience and fortitude. That no matter what sanctions, or threats that an outside country makes, we should always stay the course of bettering our nations on our own terms. Even with a tyrannical blockade Cuba still kept its course. It didn’t succumb or beg for mercy.

The second lesson is of self-sufficiency.  Most of Cuba’s efforts drew from its own limited resources, wisely and efficiently deployed. In warfare, it used its own weapons; its own battle-tested strategies; and,  its own maps. Outside of the liberation front the blockade has hindered the majority of nations from dealing with Cuba. Yet remarkably they are one of the healthiest, most literate, and best-educated societies in the world.

On the athletic side from a grassroots level Cuba has produced more Olympic medalist than any other Latin American country, including many of the larger ones. If African countries had the right infrastructure in place and dedicated resolve we would have world-beaters in every discipline of sport.

The final lesson from Cuba is fearlessness. Cuba, a small island took on some of the biggest superpowers. They were well aware of the risk but still dealt heavy blows to these powers. Africans, especially the peasants, need to realize that these leaders who are manipulated by former colonial powers are people too. The only difference is more quantity of resources at their disposal. Cuba showed however quality is way more important than quantity. I truly believe in order to make the continent a place where we want to live prosper, and progress on we must adapt these methods.

It makes no sense that we risk our lives at sea to go to the very countries that put our continent in the predicament that it is in now. Many Americans and the African petite bourgeoisie class ridicule me for my support and admiration of Cuba and its accomplishments.

Having personally been effected by the Cuban experience in Africa by having a father who was in the trenches with Cubans during our Independence struggle, and having a sister who currently studies medicine in Cuba, I have nothing but admiration for them.

Can you imagine how far ahead Africa would be if all the continent's abundant natural and mineral resources could be combined with the kind of discipline and organization of Cuba?

Cuba has shown that it can be done. Africans must remember that there were Africans in the past who wanted to use the continent's resources for its people, including Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lamumba, and Thomas Sankara.

Africans must use the examples that were set before in order to have a chance to realize our continent's superpower potential. The way has been paved by our brothers in arms and solidarity-- Cuba. 

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