The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 43           December 8, 2003  
How Cuba aided
revolutionary Algeria in 1963
Military support helped deter
imperialist-backed aggression by Moroccan regime
Below are excerpts from Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa 1959-1976 by Piero Gleijeses—a compelling history of Cuban internationalist policy in Africa from 1959 and its inevitable clash with Washington’s course of deepening intervention to back colonial rule and reinforce imperialist domination. Previous excerpts appeared in the November 17 and December 1 issues of the Militant.

The passages reprinted here are taken from the chapter entitled, “Cuba’s First Venture In Africa: Algeria,” in which Gleijeses describes the solidarity extended by the Cuban revolutionary government to the independence movement in Algeria, and to the workers and farmers government formed after the victory of that movement in 1962. Gleijeses describes Cuba’s response to Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella’s appeal for assistance in the face of imperialist-backed military aggression in 1963 by the Moroccan government.

Earlier acts of solidarity by Havana included a 1961 shipment of weapons to the National Liberation Front (FLN) during its war against the French colonialists. The ship transporting the weapons brought back wounded Algerian fighters and 20 children from refugee camps, most of whom were war orphans. In May 1963, a mission of 55 Cuban doctors, nurses, and other medical workers arrived in Algeria.

The workers and farmers government in Algeria was overthrown in June 1965 in a counterrevolutionary coup led by Defense Minister Houari Boumedienne.

Among the Cuban revolutionaries mentioned below are Fidel Castro, the country’s president; Raul Castro, the head of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR); Efigenio Ameijeiras, commander of the forces sent to aid Algeria against the Moroccan threat, and presently a FAR division general; and Jorge Serguera, Cuba’s ambassador to Algeria at the time.

From Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 by Piero Gleijeses. Copyright 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher and the author. Curly brackets ({}) indicate notes added by the Militant, all other bracketed text is from the original.


Algeria gained its independence from France on July 3, 1962. On September 26, the National Assembly elected Ahmed Ben Bella prime minister. Two weeks later, Ben Bella left Algiers for New York to attend the ceremony marking his country’s admission to the United Nations…. On October 16, he boarded a Cuban plane in New York for a two-day visit to the island….

At the airport, Castro was waiting. And so were the Algerian children, the war orphans who were guests of Cuba. “I was terribly moved when I saw them there,” remembered Ben Bella…. “I don’t know who prepared the schedule, but Fidel paid no attention to it. Protocol was forgotten and we talked, talked…The two youngest revolutions of the world met, compared notes and together envisioned the future.”

When the Cuban medical mission arrived in Algiers in May 1963, Ben Bella was in Addis Ababa at the founding conference of the Organization of African Unity. There he electrified the assembly with his call for the liberation of Africa….

No African leader—not Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, or Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah—had moved the assembly like Ben Bella did; none had found such passionate and sincere tones. Ben Bella, the Arab, “won approval of subsaharans,” the U.S. State Department noted dryly….

He returned home to a far grimmer situation.… Unemployment and grinding poverty contrasted sharply with the hopes raised during the war and bred discontentment…. Meanwhile internal power struggles alienated many in the revolutionary elite and aggravated unrest in the turbulent Kabylia region.

From neighboring Morocco a new threat arose. In the spring and summer of 1963, Morocco’s young king, Hassan II, veered sharply toward repression in the face of growing economic, social, and political tensions…. He flaunted his nationalism by demanding a greater Morocco. In addition to territories still in Spanish hands, he claimed Mauritania…a corner of Mali, and a broad strip of Algeria along the ill-defined border.

Through the late summer of 1963 tension between Morocco and Algeria grew.… On September 25, following weeks of border incidents, Moroccan troops occupied the Algerian border posts of Hassi-Beida and Tindjoub…. On October 8, the Algerians struck back, retaking Hassi-Beida and Tindjoub in a bloody clash. The War of the Desert had begun.

Algeria was at a disadvantage. Its army had neither modern equipment nor training in conventional warfare.… “The Algerians really reminded us of ourselves in 1959,” mused a Cuban volunteer. “One had a rifle, another had a shotgun, another a machine gun and so on. It was as if we were back in the days of our own Rebel Army in 1959.”

Taking advantage of this military superiority, and their shorter logistical lines, the Moroccan troops scored several successes along the disputed border.…

{The Moroccan regime in} Rabat had just signed a three-year contract with Havana to buy a million tons of Cuban sugar for $184 million, a considerable amount of hard currency at a time when the United States was trying to cripple Cuba’s foreign trade. Nevertheless, as soon as it received Ben Bella’s request {for assistance}, the Cuban government began forming the Grupo Especial de Instrucción (GEI), the special force that would be sent to Algeria, even though this jeopardized the sugar contract.…

{Sailing from Cuba on October 10 and 17, respectively} the Aracelio Iglesias and the González Lines were carrying a tank battalion with twenty-two T-34s; an artillery group with eighteen 122-mm guns; eighteen 120-mm mortars, antiaircraft artillery with eighteen guns; a battery of 57-mm recoilless rifles. The entire force had 686 men, including 170 who left Havana on October 21 on two special flights of Cubana de Aviación. (The González Lines carried also 4,744 tons of sugar that Cuba was giving the Algerian people.)

The commander of the GEI was Efigenio Ameijeiras, a highly respected officer who presided over the GEI’s five-member Military Council. “The orders I had from Fidel,” Ameijeiras recalled, “were to place myself at their [the Algerians’] complete disposal, to go wherever they wanted, whenever they wanted.”

From Havana, Raúl Castro issued firm instructions to the Military Council. These included a strict code of conduct: no alcoholic beverages of “any type whatsoever, at any time…no intimate relationship, of any kind, with women…a complete and absolute respect” for Algerian customs and religion. “Do not boast about our Revolution, or our ideology,” Raúl went on. “Be modest at all times, share the little we know and never act like experts.” The members of the Military Council “should enforce these instructions, above all, by dint of their own example.”

In the early hours of October 22, the Aracelio Iglesias reached Oran. The first men disembarked dressed in Algerian uniforms, “but then we ran out of uniforms and the rest [of us] wore civilian clothes.” “We worked fast, but daylight caught us off guard,” Labrador Pino recalled. “Imagine the racket in Oran,” Ameijeiras remarked, “lowering those tanks with cranes, then driving them through the city to the railroad station where they were loaded on trains to Sidi Bel Abbés in broad daylight! Mers-el-Kébir towered above us and we drove past armored personnel carriers with French paratroopers. There was no way to keep our arrival secret.”

The Cubans prepared to fight.…

On October 29, Ben Bella and Hassan met at Bamako, Mali; they signed a cease-fire the following day. (This was followed, in February 1964, by the return to the status quo ante.)

The Cubans believe that an important consideration in Morocco’s decision to negotiate was the arrival of their troops.…

“Morocco must have been shocked,” Ameijeiras argues. “Until we arrived, they had superiority—the Algerians had only infantry battalions. But all of a sudden, at the hottest moment of the war, tanks and artillery roll off at a port [Oran] very close to the Moroccan border.”  
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