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Castro and Africa

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Cuban president Fidel Castro (R) expresses his joy in meeting former South African president Nelson Mandela at Mandela's office in Johannesburg 02 September 2001 . Castro who took part in the UN World Racism conference in Durban used the opportunity to visit Mandela, whose health is affected by cancer.                  AFP PHOTO YOAV LEMMER (Photo credit should read YOAV LEMMER/AFP/Getty Images)

One of the greatest arguments in favor of Fidel Castro was his anti-colonial, anti-racist foreign policy in Africa. Two essays discuss this critical part of his legacy. First:

Cuba’s involvement in Africa started with its support of Algeria’s liberation struggle against France, then moved to the Congo, now the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 1964 Castro sent his personal emissary, Che Guevara, on a three-month visit to a number of African countries. The Cubans believed there was a revolutionary situation in central Africa, and they wanted to help, argues the historian Piero Gleijeses.

While Cuba record in the Horn of Africa was mixed under Castro (it followed the Soviet Union’s lead in militarily aiding Ethiopia’s dictatorship against a Somalian invasion and Eritrean independence fighters), successes did follow elsewhere, where it pursued a more independent foreign policy.

Even as Cuba’s intervention struggled in Congo, Amilcar Cabral, leading a guerrilla struggle against Portuguese colonialism in Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, asked for Cuban assistance. Between 1966 and 1974 a small Cuban force proved pivotal in the Guineans’ victory over the Portuguese. Following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974, Guinea-Bissau finally won independence.

Cuba’s involvement in the freedom of South Africa from white minority rule was even more dramatic. Twice – in 1976 and again in 1988 – the Cubans defeated a US-supported proxy force of the South African apartheid army and Angolan “rebels”. These instances were the first times South Africa’s army was defeated, a humbling experience that the apartheid regime’s white generals still, in retirement, find hard to stomach.
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As Gleijeses told Democracy Now! in December 2013, at the time of Mandela’s passing, black South Africans understood the significance of these defeats. The black South African newspaper the World wrote about the skirmishes: “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban victory in Angola.”

Gleijeses remembered Mandela writing from Robben Island: “It was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom.”

Castro’s policy in Africa was far more progressive and humane than the United States, France, and England, that’s for sure. That’s doubly true for South Africa, where Castro was offering critical support for the African National Congress at the same time that Dick Cheney was openly supporting apartheid.

It was the beginning of the love affair between Castro and the people of Cuba and Nelson Mandela and the freedom fighters of South Africa, as well as across our continent, where he is today being mourned and celebrated as a freedom fighter himself.

That love blossomed in 1966 when Havana hosted the Tri-Continental Conference, a meeting of leaders from national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including South Africa’s.

And the relationship between Castro’s Cuba and the liberation struggle of South Africa grew deep roots when, in the 1970s and 1980s, Cuba provided military training and other forms of assistance to South Africans.

I was privileged to meet Castro in 1987, when Cuba helped prepare me for my mission into South Africa for the African National Congress’s Operation Vula. As part of that operation, members of the exile leadership infiltrated South Africa as the advance guard working clandestinely in the country.

I can still feel the energy Castro exuded. I remember the unreserved readiness with which he responded to our requests to help my mission as the commander of Operation Vula. He bore none of the posture of a person seeking to make his presence and power felt. I felt myself become a better person in his company — better in the sense of wanting to never stop making a difference to the lives of others.

Our interactions with Castro and the Cuban people reinforced a deeper understanding of the significance of the freedom for which we were fighting. During the late 1970s and ’80s, the A.N.C. and its military wing had their main camps in the People’s Republic of Angola. So did Swapo, the Namibian liberation movement.

From the moment Angola achieved independence in 1974, the military might of the apartheid South African state was turned to overthrowing the Angolan government. Angola survived in large part because Cuba sent its soldiers to give their lives for the freedom of the people of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. Their blood has seeped into the soil of my continent.

In the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, which lasted from 1987 to 1988 and was one of the largest battles on African soil, Castro committed thousands of elite Cuban troops to fight for freedom.

That bloody battle buried the apartheid regime’s military ambitions and paved the way for the peace accord mediated by the United States and signed in 1988. It led to the withdrawal of all foreign belligerents from Angola and the independence of Namibia. The agreement also led to the closing of the A.N.C.’s camps in Angola — a development that ultimately helped bring the apartheid regime and the liberation forces headed by the A.N.C. to negotiate South Africa’s transition from white minority rule to democracy.

Mandela, in notes for what was intended to be a sequel to his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” wrote: “Men and women, all over the world, right down the centuries, come and go. Some leave nothing behind, not even their names. It would seem they never existed at all.”

The world will always know that there once was a man named Fidel Castro. Africans will never forget him. His unshakable anticolonial and anti-apartheid beliefs guarantee a revered place for him in the hearts of South Africans.

I guess if Fidel Castro was a monster, so was Nelson Mandela.

Of course, none of this means that Castro was a saint. He obviously wasn’t. But his incredible support for African peoples against colonialist and racist regimes seeking to oppress them is a very important part of his legacy and for this he deserves a great deal of credit.

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