MARY-ALICE WATERS: At a mass rally in the city of Matanzas, Cuba, on July 26, 1991, Nelson Mandela, leader of the South African freedom struggle, paid tribute to the Cuban people. Mandela had been released from prison only a year earlier, after some twenty-seven years behind the bars of the white-supremacist apartheid regime.
Let me begin by reading a few paragraphs of what Mandela said to the tens of thousands of Cubans assembled in Matanzas, and to the world:
It was in prison when I first heard of the massive assistance that the Cuban internationalist forces provided the people of Angola, on such a scale that one hesitated to believe, when the Angolans came under combined attack of South Africa, CIA-financed FNLA, mercenary, UNITA, and Zairean troops in 1975.
We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory and subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defense of one of us.
We know also that this was a popular action in Cuba. We are aware that those who fought and died in Angola were only a small proportion of those who volunteered.
For the Cuban people, internationalism is not merely a word but something we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.
Pombo, you were one of the Cubans who led that unparalleled action spanning sixteen years, from 1975 to 1991. During those years, more than four hundred thousand Cuban men and women went to Angola as internationalist volunteers. They not only helped the Angolan people defend their independence against invading forces of the white supremacist regime. They helped the people of Namibia win their independence from South Africa. And their actions added to the massive revolutionary upsurge of the South African people that put an end to the apartheid regime.
In short, as Nelson Mandela declared in Matanzas in 1991, these victories made possible by Cuban solidarity changed the course of history in Africa and the world. Today, however, this history is little known among working people and youth in the United States. It is little known among several generations of youth in Africa, and even here in Cuba the memory is fading.
How did Cuba’s participation in Angola’s liberation struggle begin?
HARRY VILLEGAS: We have to place the Cuban mission in Angola within a broader framework. As Fidel has said, for us internationalism is paying our debt to humanity. Many of us in Cuba are of African descent. Thousands of Africans and their descendants participated in our struggles against slavery and for independence.
Cuban internationalism in Africa begins with the first years of the Cuban Revolution. It begins in Algeria. In 1961, when the Algerian people were fighting for independence from France, Cuba sent them a shipload of weapons.
Independence was won in 1962. The first thing we did was to send volunteer doctors and other medical personnel. That was in 1963.
Later that same year, when the Moroccan regime, backed by the US, attacked Algeria, we sent soldiers and military equipment to defend the newly independent government. We didn’t have to fight there; our strategy was deterrence. When the Moroccans saw we were in Algeria, they pulled out. Later, when we withdrew our troops, we left our tanks with the Algerians for their defense.
Mission in Congo, 1965
WATERS: Ten years before Cuba’s internationalist mission in Angola, revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara led a column of 128 Cuban combatants to the eastern Congo to help independence forces fighting the pro-imperialist regime in that country. You were one of them, and served on the general staff.
VILLEGAS: In early 1965 while on a tour of several African countries Che visited Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There he met with leaders of the Congolese revolutionary movement. It was agreed that Cuba would send instructors to support that movement. Che led the column, which fought alongside those forces for several months, from April to November 1965.
A few weeks earlier Che had visited Congo-Brazzaville, where he met with Agostinho Neto and other leaders of the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola). Angola was still a Portuguese colony at the time. They reached agreement that Cuba would give military training to MPLA cadres in their independence struggle.
A column of Cuban combatants was sent to Congo- Brazzaville in 1965. It was led by Jorge Risquet; the military commander was Rolando Kindelán. That unit helped defend the government of Congo-Brazzaville, which was threatened by the proimperialist regime in the Congo of Mobutu Sese Seko. It also trained the guerrilla fighters who subsequently became the People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA). …
RÓGER CALERO : How do you assess the experience of Che’s column in the Congo?
VILLEGAS: The Congo was a tremendous experience for all of us. We went there in April 1965 not to lead the war but to train and advise Congolese combatants in the liberated zones in the eastern part of the country. Fighting alongside them, we took part in ambushes and several important battles.
It was a complex situation, however. The Congolese leaders weren’t there with their troops; they were living in other countries. In the end, they decided to end combat operations. We left in November 1965.
WATERS: In his book Episodes of the Revolutionary War: Congo, Che explains that before arriving there, he and the rest of the Cuban leadership knew very little about the economic and social conditions of the Congo. He says, for example, that they weren’t aware that in much of central Africa land was not private property. Unlike Cuba and the rest of Latin America, peasants fighting for land to cultivate weren’t a driving force of the class struggle.
VILLEGAS: Yes, as Che pointed out in his diary, there was no concept of land ownership in the Congo. The mode of production and relations among families were different from Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America. Tribalism existed. A big part of the population looked to their tribe, and to the divisions colonialism had created, rather than to a nation. All these things have to be looked at concretely. There’s no single script for the whole world and for all moments in history.
Che concluded that the economic, social, and political conditions didn’t yet exist in that part of Africa to carry out a revolutionary struggle against imperialism — and might not for another twenty years.
In fact, a little more than two decades after Che made the commitment to help the MPLA, a historic victory was won when the invading South African army was defeated at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, securing Angola’s independence. So, when Cuba responded to Neto’s request in 1975 to send Cuban combatants to Angola, we already had a ten-year history of working with the MPLA. We had already been in Angola helping their independence struggle.
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