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Vol. 81/No. 4      January 23, 2017

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Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom

Firsthand account by Harry Villegas (‘Pombo’) on Cuba’s internationalist missions

Those unwilling to fight for the freedom of others will never be able to fight for their own.
Pinar del Río, July 1976

If our people know themselves better, if all of us know much better what we are capable of achieving, that too is thanks to Angola!
Havana, May 1991

Between 1975 and 1991, some 425,000 Cuban volunteers, organized by Cuba’s revolutionary leadership, served in Angola. In various deployments, they went there in response to a call for assistance from the Angolan government. In 1975 the people of that African country had just wrested freedom from Portugal after nearly five centuries of brutal colonial exploitation and domination. Now they were under attack by the white-supremacist regime of South Africa and its African and international allies.

The purpose of the Cuban mission, which stretched over sixteen years, was to help Angola defend itself and decisively repel this military aggression backed by Washington. The mission ended only after the armed forces of the apartheid regime had been dealt a decisive defeat in March 1988 at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola while, at the same time, a formidable force of Cuban, Angolan, and Namibian combatants swept south, toward the bases of the South African regime in its colony, Namibia.

Simultaneously fearful of the exploding mass antiapartheid struggle within South Africa itself, Pretoria sued for peace. A tripartite agreement between Angola, South Africa, and Cuba, negotiated over five months, was signed at United Nations headquarters in New York in December 1988. It recognized not only the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Angolan government in Luanda but also the independence of Namibia. It gave further confidence to workers and youth in South Africa fighting the apartheid state.

As Nelson Mandela, the central leader of the struggle to bring down the racist regime, told the people of Cuba and the world in July 1991, the defeat of the South African army at Cuito Cuanavale was made possible by Cuba’s “unparalleled” contribution. It was “a victory for all of Africa,” he said, “a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!”

Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom is a firsthand account of that historic internationalist mission in Angola, as told by Harry Villegas, a brigadier general of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), who is better known around the world as “Pombo.” That was the Swahili nom de guerre given to Villegas by Ernesto Che Guevara. Pombo fought at Che’s side for a decade — first in the revolutionary war on Cuban soil that brought down the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, and then in internationalist missions in the Congo and Bolivia.

After Guevara fell in battle in Bolivia in October 1967, Villegas led the five surviving combatants of Che’s guerrilla front — two Bolivians and three Cubans — who evaded capture by the Bolivian army and US intelligence forces for four months. Villegas and the two other Cubans eventually escaped across the border into Chile, and in March 1968 they returned to Havana.

In April 1974 the fifty-year-old, deeply decayed fascist dictatorship in Portugal was overthrown in a military coup led by young officers. A revolutionary upsurge of Portuguese workers and farmers erupted. The old regime had faced rising opposition at home, as well as advancing national liberation struggles in each of its African colonies, especially Guinea-Bissau. The new government in Lisbon was forced to recognize the independence of all its African territories.

As Portugal’s brutal colonial hold over its African empire was being broken, other imperialist powers had for years been maneuvering to grab what they could. With independence day for Angola — Portugal’s largest and richest colony — approaching on November 11, 1975, they accelerated their efforts.

Just months earlier, in April 1975, the victorious national liberation forces of Vietnam had driven US troops and personnel out of Saigon, soon renamed Ho Chi Minh City. Now, on top of that blow to the imperialist world order, the future of all southern Africa was at stake, from the Congo and what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), down to the Cape of Good Hope. For Pretoria — encouraged and backhandedly supplied by Washington — survival of the apartheid regime itself was on the table.

The first invasion of Angola by South African and Zairean troops began in October 1975 as armored columns crossed the border from their bases in South-West Africa (Namibia) and drove north. A military offensive simultaneously swept south from Zaire (Congo). Zaire’s proimperialist Mobutu dictatorship hoped to annex the oil-rich province of Cabinda and take whatever other Angolan territory it could.

The objective of these combined operations was to conquer Luanda, the capital city, before November 11, to prevent the installation of a government headed by the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the strongest of the anticolonial movements, with the broadest popular base. With planned celebrations barely a week away, Luanda was in danger of falling.

The response of the leadership of the Cuban government and people to the urgent request for aid from Angola’s MPLA-led provisional government was immediate and decisive. Within hours Operation Carlota was launched — named in tribute to the African woman who had led two rebellions against slavery and colonial oppression in Cuba before being captured and brutally executed in 1843.

The day before the independence ceremony in Luanda, some 200 just-landed Cuban internationalist volunteers joined the Angolan defenders. Together they turned back the column moving south from Zaire that was poised on the doorsteps of the capital. The immediate objective of South Africa and its imperialist allies had been stymied.

Less than five months later, with thirty-six thousand Cuban volunteers by then on the ground, allied with Angolan troops, the military forces of both the South African apartheid regime and Mobutu dictatorship had been driven out of Angola.

But that was only the beginning.

More than a decade of what was euphemistically called “low intensity warfare” against the Angolan regime ensued. South African forces regularly operated deep in Angolan territory in support of UNITA, Pretoria’s Angolan ally, led by Jonas Savimbi. The brutality of the war was enormous, with Angolan casualties eventually rising to hundreds of thousands. Nearly 2,100 Cubans also lost their lives on Angolan soil before their mission was completed.

Then, in late 1987, South African troops began their second major invasion in hopes of inflicting a crushing defeat on Angolan forces. But the apartheid regime had once again miscalculated — the crushing defeat was theirs.

The Cuban and Angolan leaderships had come to agreement, as Cuban leader Fidel Castro put it, that the time was ripe to “cut off the hands” of South Africa in Angola, and that is what they did. The March 1988 victory at a village in southern Angola known as Cuito Cuanavale echoed around the world — and across South Africa above all. In Nelson Mandela’s words, that victory “broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors.”

Less than two years later, Mandela, imprisoned for more than twenty-seven years by the apartheid state, walked free. By 1994 the racist regime was no more, and Mandela was president of South Africa.

In May 1991 Cuban Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Raúl Castro welcomed home the last unit of internationalist volunteers returning from Angola. “When we face new and unexpected challenges,” he told the Cuban people, “we will always be able to recall the epic of Angola with gratitude, because without Angola we would not be as strong as we are today.”

The truth of those words was soon put to the test. As the Soviet Union and its allied regimes in Eastern and Central Europe shattered between 1989 and 1991, some 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade disappeared, almost overnight, crippling agricultural and industrial production, transportation, electrical generation, and much more. The Cuban Revolution confronted the most severe economic, and political, crisis in its history. Enemies of the revolution around the world started packing their bags in anticipation of what they believed would be a triumphal return to Havana.

Instead, it was the creativity and steadfastness of Cuba’s working people that triumphed, as they organized against all odds to produce and to defend their socialist revolution. One element underpinning that victory was the proletarian confidence gained over the years of the Angolan mission — and, in the late 1980s, the simultaneous rebirth in Cuba of a mass social movement of volunteer labor to build housing, schools, clinics, child care centers, and other social necessities.

The hundreds of thousands of Cubans who over the years had taken part in the epic feat in Africa returned knowing much better the true face of capitalist exploitation and imperialist domination. And in Raúl’s words, Cuban working people knew “much better what we are capable of achieving.”

The political education and combat leadership experience gained by new generations of Cubans during the Angola mission was nowhere better revealed than in the example set by the Cuban revolutionaries who became known around the world as the Cuban Five.

Arrested in Florida in 1998, where they were monitoring the activities of Cuban counterrevolutionary organizations planning attacks on Cuban and US targets, the five were railroaded to prison by the Clinton administration on fabricated charges that included conspiracy to commit espionage and even murder. They each served draconian sentences of up to sixteen years behind bars. Their freedom and return home to Cuba, including the release of the final three on December 17, 2014, was won only through their own steadfastness and the relentless work of the Cuban government together with a hard-fought international solidarity campaign.

Three of the five — Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González, and René González — had served in Angola. Their stories told firsthand can be found in Pathfinder’s Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own. For each of them, as they have explained many times over, their time as part of this internationalist military mission was an experience that transformed their lives and on which they drew continuously for strength throughout their long years of incarceration.

Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom by Harry Villegas is not a military memoir. It does contain powerful eyewitness accounts of moments of combat and decisive battles in Cangamba and Cuito Cuanavale among others. Its greatest value, however, lies in the political lessons it conveys — lessons, as Pombo makes clear, that were impressed on him above all by Commander in Chief Fidel Castro, with whom he worked on this mission for more than half a decade.

General Harry Villegas served three tours of duty in Angola, one from 1977 to 1979 at the head of the Motorized Infantry Regiment in the northern region. The Cuban unit collaborated with the Angolan army in mop-up operations against the Zairian-backed forces of Holden Roberto’s FNLA.

From 1981 to 1988 Villegas served as liaison between the Cuban command headquarters in Angola and the special command post in Cuba of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, headed by Fidel Castro. In that capacity, as Pombo describes in these pages, he was the eyes and ears of the central command in Havana. He traveled constantly between the two countries, responsible for keeping the general staff in Havana objectively and accurately informed of all important developments in Angola and conveying precise instructions back to the head of the mission on the battlefront.

After the accords were signed in December 1988, Villegas remained in Angola as head of operations for the Cuban mission, helping to plan the withdrawal of the Cuban forces. On returning to Cuba in 1990, he led the Political Section of Cuba’s Western Army, and served as a member of the Operations Directorate of the General Staff of the Revolutionary Armed Forces until his retirement from active duty.

It is on this experience that Villegas bases his rich account, aimed first and foremost at the political education of new generations of revolutionary combatants.

Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom is the product of multiple interviews with Harry Villegas between 2009 and 2016. Each round amplified and clarified details of previous discussions. In addition, during those years dozens of memoirs of the Angola mission appeared in Cuba, published by Verde Olivo, Editora Política, and others.

Firsthand accounts by those who served in Angola include books by General Ramón Espinosa, vice minister of the FAR; General Raúl Tomassevich, who twice headed the military mission in Angola; his adjutant Lt. Colonel José Gárciga; and Lt. Colonel Jorge Martín Blandino. These and other accounts too numerous to mention proved indispensable for understanding political and military events and verifying names, dates, and other facts.

Published in the US in 2013, and in Cuba in 2015, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976–1991 by Piero Gleijeses, became an additional source of valuable information.

The Pathfinder editors who interviewed Pombo and worked with him to bring his account to completion — Martín Koppel, Róger Calero, and I — are grateful for the generous help we received from so many, starting with Pombo himself. Special appreciation is also owed Iraida Aguirrechu and José Gárciga for their editorial assistance throughout, as well as to Verde Olivo publishing house, Casa Editora Abril and Granma newspaper for making available many of the photos that appear in this book.

It is to revolutionary combatants of the present and future that Cuba and Angola: The War for Freedom is addressed. We are confident it will serve them well in the battles ahead.

December 2016

Copyright © 2017 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

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