This is how Fernando González Llort summarized what it meant for him to have been part of the massive effort by the men and women of Cuba to help that African country defend its independence and sovereignty, newly won from Portugal, against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
González wrote from his prison cell in Terre Haute, Ind., in response to questions the Militant had asked him about his experiences as an internationalist combatant in Angola.
Between 1975 and 1991, more than 375,000 Cubans volunteered to fight alongside Angolans against repeated invasions by what was then still the white supremacist regime in South Africa and its allied counterrevolutionary forces. Nearly 50,000 more Cubans offered their services as teachers, medical personnel, engineers and other sorely needed skills during those years.
The apartheid regime’s military forces were finally dealt a decisive defeat in 1988 at the great battle of Cuito Cuanavale. That victory also assured the end of South Africa’s colonial domination of Namibia and accelerated the massive popular mobilizations inside South Africa that soon shattered the apartheid regime itself.
South African leader Nelson Mandela eloquently described these historic contributions by the men and women of Cuba during a 1991 visit to that country to thank them for their unprecedented aid. “The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character,” Mandela told a crowd of tens of thousands in Matanzas on July 26 that year. “For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.”1
Fernando González—along with Gerardo Hernández, René Gonzá-lez, Ramón Labañino and Antonio Guerrero—is one of the five Cuban revolutionaries who in 1998 were arrested by the U.S. government, framed up on espionage conspiracy and other charges, and railroaded to prison with sentences of up to double life plus 15 years. Fernando González, who received the second most “lenient” sentence, was given 19 years, later reduced to 17 years and nine months. Currently at the federal prison at Safford, Ariz., he has now spent more than 14 years behind bars.
In 1998 the five had been living and working in South Florida for some time, gathering information for the Cuban government on the operations of U.S.-based Cuban counterrevolutionary groups. With Washington’s knowledge and backing, these outfits have a long history of carrying out deadly operations against supporters of the Cuban Revolution—inside Cuba as well as the U.S. and elsewhere.
Three of the Cuban Five, as they are known around the world, were volunteer combatants in Angola. René González was a gunner in a tank battalion in 1977-79, and Gerardo Hernández led a Cuban-Angolan scouting platoon in 1989-90. Both served in the northern province of Cabinda. Their stories are told in The Cuban Five: Who They Are, Why They Were Framed, and Why They Should Be Free.
Fernando González was stationed in southern Angola during the final stage of the protracted war against the U.S.-backed South African invaders.
‘We left for Angola enthusiastically’In the summer of 1987 González graduated with honors from Cuba’s Higher Institute of International Relations (ISRI), which trains students for diplomatic service abroad.
“Part of the curriculum,” he wrote, “was military training, including practical work in reconnaissance. I graduated with an academic degree and the rank of lieutenant in the reserves of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).” He was also an active member of the Union of Young Communists (UJC).
“Soon after finishing school almost our entire graduating class was called for active duty in the FAR. We all volunteered for internationalist missions in Angola and left enthusiastically.
“Cuban military collaboration in Angola, which had begun 12 years earlier, was by then legendary for its heroism and selfless internationalism,” González continued. “It was hard to find a Cuban who didn’t know someone who had carried out a mission and talked of the experiences they’d lived through there. It was an honor for a young revolutionary to go to Angola and to be part of that effort.
“A few members of my graduating class who, for health reasons, weren’t allowed to join the group of us going to Angola appealed the decisions of the medical commission and fought to be accepted. They moved heaven and earth, and eventually were allowed to join.
“It’s an example of the importance we gave to being part of the experience in Angola and the enthusiasm with which we welcomed the opportunity.”
Battle of Cuito CuanavaleOnce in Angola, González wrote, “I spent the first six months in a unit stationed in the city of Lubango, in the south. There we received training in reconnaissance before we were assigned to different units. We were a relatively small group of about 35, so all knew each other by name.
“During the time we were in Lubango, we read the intelligence reports about the events taking place in Cuito Cuanavale,” he said.
Toward the end of 1987, the apartheid regime’s forces launched a new invasion of Angola, backed by its allies, the Angolan counterrevolutionary group UNITA, based among the Ovimbundu people in the south. The invasion rapidly created a critical situation. Enemy forces encircled the town of Cuito Cuanavale in the southeast and threatened to inflict a major defeat on the Angolan army, the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA). Cuba’s revolutionary leadership responded to appeals from the Angolan government by massively reinforcing its Angolan mission. “We even ran the risk of weakening our own defenses,” Cuban President Fidel Castro noted in 1991, “and we did so.”
For the first time since the war began, Cuban troops swept south toward the Angola-Namibia border in a powerful flanking operation while simultaneously fighting their way toward Cuito Cuanavale (see map on this page).
By March 1988 the combined forces of Cuban volunteers, FAPLA troops, and Namibian liberation fighters had dealt the South African army a resounding defeat. The apartheid forces began retreating and sued for peace. A series of tripartite negotiating sessions, involving Angola, South Africa and Cuba, led to a December 1988 agreement, signed at the United Nations in New York. The South African government withdrew completely from Angola and ceded independence to Namibia. With Angola’s independence assured, Cuban forces withdrew. The final units returned to Cuba between January and May 1991.
“Around the fourth month of training,” González recounted, “officers from general headquarters visited our unit and met with all the officers and soldiers there to explain in detail the decision of the FAR high command and the leadership of the revolution that our troops would advance toward the border with Namibia.
“We understood the strategic importance of moving our units to the south of Angola, and the decision the Commander in Chief [Fidel Castro] had made to send to Angola units with great combat experience, such as the 50th “Baraguá” Division. Even with our limited knowledge of military questions, we saw the decisive character of this historic moment.
“At that time,” González continued, “the southernmost line of Cuban troops was along an axis that went from the port of Namibe in the west, passed through Lubango, and ended at Menongue in the east. Cuito Cuanavale was a ways past Menongue.
“As we had not finished our training, we remained in the rearguard of the Cuban forces, in Lubango, when the Southern Troop Grouping (ATS) moved south and headed for Cahama, Tchipa, and other towns to occupy positions just a few kilometers from the border with Namibia.”
Near the Namibian border“When our training was over,” González said, “a group of us were sent to ATS headquarters in Cahama, where we were assigned by the Intelligence Section to different locations. Most of our group went on the next day to find their designated units. I remained in Cahama, in the Intelligence Section, where I served as an officer of the command post for three or four months. My responsibilities were 24-hour shifts to process all the information sent by units in the field about reconnaissance carried out in their area, and to prepare a daily report about these activities, which was supplemented by the results of intelligence received by radio and electronic means.”
After the defeat of the apartheid forces at Cuito Cuanavale and the agreement to begin to withdraw Cuban troops, ATS headquarters was moved back to Lubango. González was transferred there and remained in Lubango for the rest of his mission in Angola.
“The leadership of the Intelligence Section assigned me to the Lubango Operations Group, where I served as liaison with FAPLA headquarters,” he said. “My responsibility was to coordinate the exchange of information about the results of reconnaissance. Each day I would take the information obtained by our reconnaissance in southern Angola to the FAPLA headquarters. There, in the Intelligence section at their headquarters, this information was plotted on the map and we checked our information against each other’s.
“I prepared daily reports for the ATS Intelligence Section in Cahama and reports for the commander of the Lubango Operations Group on enemy deployment. I also served as an intelligence advisor for the 31st Tactical Group, based on the outskirts of Lubango.”
While he was serving in Lubango, González recounted, “UNITA forces detonated a bomb on the rail line connecting Namibe with Lubango. A firefight was also reported at one of our posts. We had troop detachments guarding the railroad at various points along the way. I was ordered to take command of a group of soldiers and go to the area where the attack took place to determine the needs of our comrades there.”
Returning to Lubango, González said, “I joined the general staff of the ATS and participated as a translator in one of the meetings related to the tripartite negotiations between Angola, Cuba and South Africa.”
Writing about this assignment, González commented, “I had studied English at ISRI. They put a lot of emphasis on languages there. But we were never trained as translators. Furthermore, the focus, at least back then, was not on communication so much as reading and expressing oneself verbally or in writing.
“I didn’t participate as a translator because I was qualified to do it. It was a matter of necessity. In fact, after almost two years in Angola without practicing a language that I had learned only in school, my English was very rusty.”
‘Experience I draw on in prison’Looking back on his experience in Angola, González said, “I learned a lot from the Cubans and Angolans around me. I learned from their spirit of camaraderie and solidarity under difficult conditions. From the modesty of so many. From the collective, team effort that prevailed despite cultural differences between the Cuban and Angolan combatants, and from the richness those very differences brought us. We learned from each other. Everyone felt a sense of responsibility.
“At the time I was 24-25 years old. The majority of the Cuban soldiers were younger, and many of the Angolans I met were only 16 or 17. During those two years I saw many Cubans who arrived in Angola as recruits with the physical and psychological traits of adolescents, and who transformed themselves into young men steeled by discipline and responsibility, with the capacity to confront difficulties, and with revolutionary consciousness.
“I myself was no stranger to this process of maturing under the impact of these conditions. I had barely graduated from the university. In Angola I learned—from both Angolans and Cubans—that no matter how much training you may have received, certain things are more important for a revolutionary: the development of character, sensitivity as a human being, a spirit of solidarity.
“I learned more by seeing with my own eyes the effects of colonialism, and its consequences for a people—in this case the Angolan people—than I did from all the books I had studied or could have studied.
“I saw the fighting spirit of that people and their determination to overcome the past, their efforts to repel foreign aggression and defeat the foreign-backed counterrevolutionaries.
“That was a lesson I always draw on. Including here, withstanding conditions of prolonged imprisonment.
“Although I did not take part directly in combat I had the good fortune and feel proud to have been a member of the Southern Troop Grouping, especially during the decisive moments for the Cuban mission that led to the final victory.”
While in Angola, González was taken into membership in the Cuban Communist Party. He was also awarded two medals for his service. After his return to Cuba, González was released from active duty and began graduate studies in international relations at ISRI.
A few years later he began a new internationalist mission. This time in the United States.