The most beautiful cause

Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976–1991
Piero Gleijeses
2013, University of North Carolina Press
655 pages, plates, paperback

TO THE universal aphorism about football given to us by Latin America – “the beautiful game” – must be added another, equally important, expression: “the most beautiful cause”.

This was the phrase used by Fidel Castro to describe Cuba’s long engagement in southern Africa in the struggle against racial oppression and white colonialism that ultimately triumphed during the closing stages of the Cold War.

Piero Gleijeses’ monumental history of the complex interactions between Cuba, the Soviet Union and the struggle for liberation in southern Africa explores this engagement in magisterial detail, and his work should be essential reading for students of African history and politics – but also for students of Latin America.

Visions of Freedom is the first international history of the conflict based on archival sources and is an important work of reference. It takes as its focus the 15-year period after April 1976, by which time the Cubans had pushed South African forces out of Angola and the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) now ruled, until 1991, when the MPLA signed a peace agreement with the rebel leader Jonas Savimbi. By then, apartheid in South Africa was in its death throes.

As the author explains: understanding Cuba’s pivotal role in this regional conflict offers a unique insight into Cuban revolutionary identity and internationalism, the subject of another review here. Gleijeses writes: “The Cuban role in Angola is without precedent. No other Third World country has projected its military power beyond its immediate neighbourhood.” [p9]

Cuba’s intervention was, indeed, without precedent – driven as it was by solidarity and little potential for geopolitical gain. In the six months beginning November 1975 about 36,000 of its soldiers flooded into Angola, described by Castro as internationalists helping the African country repel the forces of apartheid South Africa who had invaded the country with the collusion of the United States.

A complex set of geopolitical interests in the context of the changing dynamics of the Cold War following the fall of the Portuguese dictatorship in 1974 combined with unadulterated white racism to explain the motives of South Africa, which held neighbouring Namibia in its colonial grip. There was the fear of communism, the desire to instal a puppet regime, and the breakdown of detente (largely because of Cuba’s presence in Angola) between Washington and Moscow. Eventually, the regional conflict would come to a head in the so-called second Cold War driven by the dogmatic hawks of Ronald Reagan.

Pretoria was keenly aware of the MPLA’s commitment to help black Africans fighting apartheid, and hence it was driven in no small measure by white self-preservation: MPLA support for the liberation of Namibia could sound the death knell for the racist regime and it was imperative to ensure that its de facto province avoided meaningful independence. It was for this reason that the MPLA supported the Namibian liberation movement SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation), and in Angola, SWAPO guerrillas were trained by the Cubans and Soviets. Like SWAPO, the African National Congress (ANC) also had its military camps in Angola and received Cuban and Soviet training and arms.

Gleijeses argues that had the African protagonists in this complex theatre of conflict been left to their own devices, South Africa would almost certainly have triumphed and crowned Savimbi as its puppet in Luanda. Savimbi would then have turfed SWAPO and the ANC out of Angola, paving the way for their defeat and the complete subjugation of Namibia according to South African designs.

The wild card that prevented this outcome – and ultimately that brought apartheid to an end – was Cuba, whose soldiers, armed by the Soviet Union, protected the MPLA government and thereby SWAPO and the ANC.

By exploring Cuba’s commitment to this struggle, and hence unpicking Havana’s motives, Gleijeses offers fascinating insights into the Caribbean revolutionary regime’s foreign policy perspectives and relationship with the Soviet Union.

The latter was by no means subservient: the author points out that in Angola the Cuban generals repeatedly clashed with their Soviet counterparts, often vehemently. Indeed, Castro had originally defied Leonid Brezhnev by sending troops to Angola in the first place, then deifed Gorbachev thereafter in sending reinforcements.

Cuba’s dogged persistence in remaining at the side of the Angola revolutionary regime provoked serious misgivings in Moscow, especially as Gorbachev began to seek a new rapprochement with Reagan. Yet the Soviet Union did not demur, and it was its loyalty to its Latin American partner that would eventually prove to be the crucial catalyst of black liberation in the region.

Gleijeses writes: “The engine was Cuba. It was the Cubans who pushed the Soviets to help Angola. It was they who stood guard in Angola for many long years, thousands of miles from home, to prevent the South Africans from overthrowing the MPLA government. It was they who in 1988, with the reinforcements Castro sent against Gorbachev’s wishes, forced the South African army out of Angola. It was they who forced Pretoria to abandon Savimbi and hold free elections in Namibia – which SWAPO won. In the words of Nelson Mandela, the Cuban victory over the South African army in southern Angola in 1988 ‘destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor … [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa’.” [p15]

In Angola, the Soviet Union played the role of tutor: by the mid-1980s, it had about 1,500 personnel in the country, and their job was to instruct the Angolan forces, not to fight. It was the Cubans who shared the front line with their African counterparts: by 1988 their forces in Angola peaked at 55,000. The key difference in approach and the explanation for many of the disputes between Havana and Moscow was the Cuban knowledge of guerrilla and counter-insurgent tactics. Soviet conventional military expertise proved of little use on the ground and was inflexible: it was Cuban expertise that would ensure victory.

When all was said and done, it was a victory borne of international solidarity, ideological commitment and, ultimately, simple friendship, that came at a very high price for Cuba: 2,103 Cubans lost their lives in Angola; Cuba footed the entire bill for the 337,000 of its troops who served there; Cuba threw vast quantities of humanitarian aid and technical knowledge at the country; and the despatch of its troops to Africa further damaged already poor relations with the US.

So, Gleijeses asks in perhaps the most important question that emerges from this episode, why did Cuba intervene and stay in Angola? Whereas in the 1960s, the answer to this question would have been self-defence and idealism, by the 1970s the former of these was less clear. What had not dimmed, however, was Castro’s commitment to the cause and the greater good. By this reasoning, the Cuban revolution was part of a process that Castro felt it was his destiny to push forward.

Gleijeses writes: “One may agree or disagree with Castro’s view of history, but this was certainly Castro’s credo in 1959, when he entered Havana in triumph. And it remained his belief over the decades that followed, as he continued to defy Washington’s imperial will.” [p524]