Nothing But Coffins: Cuban Foreign Intervention in Africa & the End of Apartheid
by Megan Bridges
The following article was also featured in The Spectrum as the first installment of a five-part series, titled Spotlight on Cuba.
“No country has given as much to the world as Cuba. No country has received so little materially from the world as Cuba.”
-Thenjiwe Mtintso, South Africa’s ambassador to Cuba
In 1963, Algeria summoned Cuban military and medical aid in a border dispute with the former French colony of Morocco. Cuba agreed to deploy 350 soldiers, heavy weapons, physicians, and 4,744 tons of sugar to Oran, a major coastal city in Algeria. Cuba’s decision to intervene not only jeopardized its fragile relations with France, but also the health of its people; no more than four years earlier, half of the 6,000 Cuban doctors in pre-revolutionary Cuba fled to the United States, causing a severe physician shortage that had devastating effects on Cuban health. Its commitment to anti-imperialism and support of home-bred revolutions in the Third World compelled Havana to send aid despite the costs. The early 1960s thus marked the beginning of a several decades-long history of Cuban foreign intervention in liberation movements across the African continent.
For over two decades, Cuban military personnel made tours of duty in 17 African countries, including Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda, Congo, and Libya. Its vast presence in Africa was expensive, constituting 11 percent of Cuba’s annual budget. Arguably, Cuba’s most significant contribution to Africa was its defense of Angola against South African aggression. Between 1975 and 1991, as many as 400,000 Cubans served in southern Africa as soldiers, teachers, doctors, and military and civilian advisors. In 1987 alone, Cuba deployed 50,000 troops, which—given its small size—was comparable to the United States deploying 1.25 million soldiers. Furthermore, over 2,000 Cubans perished in their efforts to support leftist Angolan revolutionaries. It is often said that Cuba is the “only foreign country to have come to Africa and gone away with nothing but the coffins of its sons and daughters” (Saney, 2006:91).
While critics insist that geopolitical and economic forces spurred Cuba’s involvement in Africa, there is little evidence to support this claim. A popular theory among United States politicians is that Cuba served as a proxy for the Soviet Union in its support of Black revolutionary movements in Africa during the Cold War. In the case of Angola, however, Cuba sent aid without Soviet knowledge. Moreover, despite Angola’s wealth of oil, iron ore, diamonds, and coffee, Havana did not leave the country with economic gains, nor did it establish settlements along its 1,000-mile coastline. In fact, the small island nation offered military, medical, and developmental assistance free of charge to the Angolan people. If Cuba did have any ulterior motives, a plausible explanation would be to encourage the propagation of socialism throughout Africa. Havana asserts that its cooperation with Africa reflects its policy of Third World solidarity by promoting self-sufficiency among post-colonial nations that have suffered countless abuses from the western powers.
The United States, on the other hand, did everything it could to support white minority governments in the region. In coordination with South Africa, Henry Kissinger organized a destabilization campaign against Angola that cost over $30 billion. Furthermore, the CIA supported the 1975 South African invasion of Angola by funding various groups that opposed the rule of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), which championed Angolan liberation from Portugal. In response, Angola requested Cuban military assistance to push South Africans back toward the border. The United States stood to gain in its alliance with South Africa. Washington believed that although South Africa supported a racist policy of apartheid, it was integral to the success of the global economic system. Furthermore, large amounts of money were at stake in its invasion of Angola, a country that produced over $2 billion in oil per year. Despite the financial edge South Africa had over Angola, the Cuban and Angolan militaries prevailed.
During the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (1987-1988), South Africa was decisively defeated. This victory for the opposing forces was a turning point in southern African history. It inflated the morale of Blacks who had lost all hope of overcoming the white minority government and ending apartheid. It also offered an opportunity for Cuba and Angola to make negotiations with South Africa. In December 1988, all parties agreed to UN Resolution 435, which ordered the withdrawal of Cuban military personnel from Angola in exchange for the independence of Namibia. The agreement significantly weakened South Africa by causing it to lose its position as an African superpower in the region. This set off a chain of events that eventually led to the end of apartheid. Although Cuban foreign intervention was instrumental in protecting the interests of Black revolutionaries in Africa, it has not received the recognition it deserves. Rather unjustly, the United States has been publicly commended for its role as a mediator in the conflict, despite its historic support of racist South Africa. To add insult to injury, the United States fabricated stories that accused Cuban soldiers of rape and pillage.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, the documentary Cuba, an African Odyssey is available on Youtube. It tells the story of Cuba’s support for African revolutions during the Cold War, a time when nations competed for the continent’s resources and the establishment of distinct political ideologies.