Cuba's African Adventure

In 1959 Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba after a masterly campaign of guerrilla warfare. Drawing on this success, Castro and his followers, including Che Guevara, sought to spread their revolution, as Clive Foss explains.

Fidel Castro in 1978Since his student days Fidel Castro had been an enthusiastic revolutionary, inspired by Cuba’s great patriot José Martí and by Karl Marx. From a remote base in the Sierra Maestra mountains, he defeated the armies of the dictator Fulgencio Batista and took control of Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959. Castro’s immediate aims were to consolidate the revolution and transform Cuba’s society and economy. He was also determined to secure its independence against what Martí had called the ‘colossus of the north’ – the United States. As the revolution became more radical and US suspicion hardened into hostility, Castro needed friends. He naturally turned to the Soviet Union, enemy of his enemy and leader of the Communist world. Increasing ties with the Soviets, combined with extensive seizure of US-owned property and the growing dominance of Communists in the Cuban government, led to the Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961, when Cuban exiles backed by President Kennedy met defeat on a Cuban beach. Castro now announced that his revolution was socialist; then, in December, that he was a committed Marxist. That got him thrown out of the Organization of American States whose governments he violently denounced. His need for allies accelerated still further after the crisis of October 1962 when the Soviet premier Khrushchev withdrew the nuclear missiles he had installed in Cuba without even consulting Castro, whose faith in the Soviets was badly shaken.

Latin America seemed to offer hope, especially since Castro’s close associate, Che Guevara, maintained that successful revolution only needed a small group of dedicated fighters to establish a remote rural base, a foco, for their guerrilla war. From there, with the increasing support of the locals, other bases could be established until a whole country seethed with rebellion. This drew on the Cubans’ own experience in the Sierra Maestra, a parallel that turned out to be misleading, even disastrous.

During 1962 Cuba sent expeditions to lead or support guerrilla movements in Latin America. The most important went to Che’s native Argentina in June 1963. The rebels planned to establish a foco which Che himself would join. After nine harrowing months they were wiped out by the Argentine army. This was a blow for Che who drew the false conclusion that a successful rebellion needed his personal leadership. Discouraged by their Latin experience, the Cubans turned to a continent ripe for revolution: Africa.

Cuba’s first friend in Africa was Algeria, whose uprising against the French, which started in 1954, seemed to offer a parallel to Cuba’s own revolution. In December 1961 Cuba sent military supplies and, after the rebels took power, continued to offer medical aid. It was in Algeria that the Cuban force sent to Argentina had been trained. In October 1963 Algeria’s radical leader Ahmed Ben Bella requested Cuban help against Morocco; men, tanks and weapons were soon forthcoming but the dispute was resolved peacefully. Friendly relations continued until Ben Bella was overturned in a coup in June 1965.

In December 1963 Che had himself set out for Africa, where he spent three months visiting radical states. His aim was to establish good relations with sympathetic regimes and to identify liberation movements that needed help. He found the ideal situation in the turbulent ex-Belgian Congo (later Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo) where the Simbas of Laurent Kabila, who represented the followers of the murdered left-wing leader Patrice Lumumba and made appealingly Communist noises, were making considerable progress against the right-wing government of Moise Tshombe. When Tshombe’s US backers failed to persuade European powers to intervene, he turned to the white mercenaries led by Irish-born ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare who swiftly pushed the rebels back.

Che was impressed with Kabila, whom he met in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a centre for African revolutionaries. He saw the Congo as the key to Africa because of its radicalism and central location. But when Che tried to persuade leaders of other African liberation movements to join in a common effort there, he was brusquely rebuffed, for they wanted Cuban aid for their own forces and had no interest in the Congo. Che was not deterred by this hint of problems to come nor by President Nasser of Egypt’s warning that he risked looking like a white Tarzan leading black troops.

In April 1965 a heavily armed force of 130 Cuban volunteers – all black, so they would not be conspicuous in Africa – sailed for Tanzania. Castro saw them off, while a heavily disguised Che flew in from Moscow via Cairo. The Simbas had no idea he was coming and did not know what to do with him. Che had great plans: to send trained groups of guerrillas to the front with instructors who would in turn train other groups and engage actively in fighting. He envisaged a war that would last five years. Che rapidly discovered that the African fighters had no discipline or training, were ethnically deeply divided and lacked proper command. Their officers tended to linger in the fleshpots on the Tanzanian side of the border and rarely visited the front, but nothing could be done without their approval. Worse, most of the African troops believed in magical powers that would render them invulnerable to bullets. When Che finally managed to send a force against a key position, the Simbas ran away at the critical moment. A Cuban was killed and his documents captured; the CIA learned that Cubans were fighting in the Congo. During the summer Che’s forces and the Simbas took control of strategic heights well within Congo, but they were soon pushed out by the mercenaries while a naval patrol backed by the CIA operated in Lake Tanganyika, threatening to cut off the rebels from their supply lines. Finally, in October, the Congolese president fired Tshombe and sent the mercenaries home in exchange for the agreement of all foreigners to end intervention. On November 21st a deeply despondent Che led his men back into Tanzania. Cuba’s most daring adventure in Africa had failed, largely because the Cubans, misled by their own guerrilla experience and ignorant of local conditions, had totally misjudged African realities.

Meanwhile Castro had sent 250 Cubans to Brazzaville in the ex-French Congo, whose leader Alphonse Massamba-Debat was a bitter enemy of Tshombe and supporter of Marxist rebels in Angola. Although Congo’s commitment to the Left was only skin-deep, the Cubans became a trusted military presence, for there was no danger of Cuba (unlike the West or the USSR) seeking local or regional dominance. Hundreds of young Congolese went to Cuba for free schooling and training and, when the military revolted against Massamba-Debat, the Cubans saved him. By 1966 the Cuban force had grown to 1,000, serving primarily as the presidential guard. Nevertheless, Massamba-Debat succumbed to a coup in April 1968 and Che’s dreams of using Brazzaville as a base for revolution collapsed.

The Cubans had better luck in Guinea-Bissau where revolutionaries under Amilcar Cabral were the best organised and disciplined in Portuguese Africa. In 1967 a small force of black Cuban volunteers joined the fighting. Cabral didn’t trust foreigners, but the Cubans improved the morale of his movement and taught them how to use Soviet heavy weapons. They were still there in 1972 when Castro himself visited Guinea-Bissau. Although Cabral was murdered the following year, his party went on to win the war and take over an independent state in 1974. In this case, the rebels were not Marxists, but Cuba was following its consistent anti-colonialist policy.

After his failure in the Congo, Che had turned his attention back to Latin America where Bolivia seemed to offer ideal conditions for revolution: poverty, instability, remote mountain terrain and borders with the most important countries of Latin America. Che and his small force set off in October 1966. As usual, he counted on the foco theory, but not on the opposition of Moscow and the Bolivian Communists, nor the suspicion of the local Indians toward the Cubans. His campaign was a disaster that culminated in his capture and execution on October 8th, 1967. Efforts to stir revolution in Guatemala, Venezuela and Colombia collapsed soon after.

Castro did not rush back into Africa, for his efforts were consumed in an ambitious effort to rebuild Cuba’s economy. When that failed, the Cuban revolution became less radical, with a regime reorganised along Soviet lines. Castro finally admitted that Latin America was not yet ready for a socialist revolution, but he hadn’t given up on the rest of the world.

Cuba’s most ambitious involvement in Africa came unexpectedly and under propitious circumstances when the United States was temporarily weak, dragged down by the disaster in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. In April 1974 the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown by radical officers who intended to withdraw from their African empire. Angola, the richest and most strategically important of the colonies, was to become independent on November 11th, 1975. The liberation movements, which had been fighting the Portuguese since the 1960s, formed three main factions who scrambled for control of the capital, Luanda. Each had a different tribal base and all had foreign backing, for Angola was becoming a prize in the Cold War. The National Liberation Front of Angola (FLNA), led by Holden Roberto in the north, had the backing of Zaire and China; Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) drew its strength from the southeast and from South Africa; while the Marxist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) of Agustinho Neto, with the greatest support in Luanda, looked to the Soviet Union and its allies. Neto had met Che during his African trip and was already receiving military aid from Cuba.

Fighting escalated during 1975 when the Soviets shipped masses of weapons to the MPLA and President Ford authorised the CIA to support the FNLA and UNITA and to coordinate with the South Africans who were anxious to preserve their control of neighbouring South West Africa (later called Namibia). Threatened from all sides and faced with Soviet reluctance to get directly involved (they were seeking détente with the US), Neto appealed to Castro who sent 480 specialists to train the MPLA forces, a task they expected to take six months. Events soon got out of control. The South Africans feared that Cuban involvement could create a Communist Angola and threaten widespread subversion. In mid-October, therefore, they sent an elite force that rapidly advanced towards Luanda. At the same time, the FNLA was poised 30 kilometres from the capital. Local rebels backed by Zaire attacked Angola’s Cabinda enclave, north of the River Congo, the source of the country’s oil wealth.

Neto’s urgent appeal met a swift response. On November 4th, Castro authorised Operation Carlota (named after the 19th-century leader of a slave rebellion), committing all available planes to transport a battalion of special forces and heavy artillery, while the navy and merchant marine carried more weapons and thousands of troops. Cuba was strained to the limit – without any help from the Soviets who weren’t even informed until the operation was well underway.

The results were spectacular: the Cubans stiffened MPLA resistance outside Luanda leaving their allies in control of the capital on independence day, November 11th. Cubans drove the invaders out of Cabinda and secured the oil wells. In the south, other Cubans stopped the South African advance at the River Queve, 200 km from Luanda. By the end of 1975 the Cuban sea and air lift had transported more than 25,000 troops to Angola and the Soviets had finally joined in, providing heavy weapons and coordinating closely with the Cubans. They could do so because the US Congress had prohibited President Ford from any further intervention in Angola.

Castro was deeply and personally involved in all this. As his friend the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez recounted:

Fidel Castro kept himself informed of the minutest details of the war. He personally saw off every ship bound for Angola, having previously addressed the fighting units in the La Cabana theatre; he himself sought out the commanders of the special forces battalion who went on the first flight and drove them in his own Soviet jeep right to the aircraft stairs ... By then, there was not a single dot on the map of Angola that he was unable to identify, nor any feature of the land that he did not know by heart. His absorption in the war was so intense and meticulous that he could quote any statistic relating to Angola as if it were Cuba itself, and he spoke of its towns, customs and peoples as if he had lived there all his life. In the early stages of the war, when the situation was urgent, Fidel Castro would spend up to 14 hours at a stretch in the command room of the general staff, at times without eating or sleeping, as if he were on the battlefield himself. He followed the course of battles with pins on minutely detailed wall-sized maps, keeping in constant touch with the MPLA high command on a battlefield where the time was six hours later.

The effort paid off: in January the FNLA was completely crushed and the South Africans decided to withdraw. The Cubans had saved Angola for the MPLA and Castro could bask in the glory that his support for Africa’s freedom brought. His reputation in the Third World soared and even the Soviets, who had long considered him a loose cannon, vastly increased their aid. It seemed that everything had gone right. 

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X