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   Vol. 70/No. 4           January 30, 2006  

30 Years Since ‘Operation Carlota,’ Cuba’s Internationalist Mission in Angola   

Cuba’s response to 1975 apartheid
army assault on Angola
We reprint below excerpts from the conclusion of an article that appeared in the Oct. 31, 2005, issue of the Cuban daily Granma under the headline “Operation Carlota Is Born.” Excerpts from the first section of the article appeared in the Jan. 23, 2006, Militant.

The first part dealt with initial contacts Cuban revolutionaries made with the Peoples Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the organization that led the struggle for independence from Portuguese colonial domination, won in 1975. The excerpts below cover the events that unfolded after independence, as forces of the racist South African apartheid regime invaded and sought to crush the independence movement. They were aided in this by two pro-imperialist groups in Angola: the CIA-sponsored National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the Portugal-backed National Union for the Total Integration of Angola (UNITA).

This is part of a series of articles and documents the Militant has been publishing to mark the 30th anniversary of Cuba’s internationalist response to Angola’s request for help in defeating the invading armed forces of South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Translation, subtitles, material in brackets, and footnotes are by the Militant.


During a new stage of the struggle that began in 1975, when the Alvor Agreement [which codified Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975] was blatantly violated by the FNLA and UNITA—led, financed, trained, and armed by the CIA, South Africa, and Zaire—the MPLA urgently requested Cuba’s military collaboration.

First Commander [Raúl] Díaz Argüelles, then head of the MINFAR’s 10th Command, took on that responsibility….

The MPLA had proposed through Díaz Argüelles that they needed about 100 instructors in order to contribute to preparing FAPLA units (People’s Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola).

The plan suggested by Cuba included the organization, training, and arming of some 50 FAPLA units (infantry battalions and artillery batteries), in four military schools that would be created: the Centers for Revolutionary Instruction (CIR) in Dalatando, east of Luanda; Cabinda, in the country’s north; Saurimo, in the northeast region; and one located in southern Benguela….

Our country had decided to offer the MPLA almost five times as many instructors than asked for. “If we were going to send our men, we had to send enough to carry out the mission and defend themselves, because a group that was too small would have been destroyed,” attested Jorge Risquet….

The four schools went into operation in mid-October of 1975, headed by Cuban officials. Commanders Romárico Sotomayor García and Eustaquio Nodarse Bonet and First Commander Ulises Estrada Reyes led the first three, and the fourth center, with more instructors and extra weapons—given Cabinda’s isolation from the rest of Angola’s territory—was under the leadership of Commander Ramón Espinosa Martín.

As the Cuban instructors began arriving, the political/military situation in Angola was becoming increasingly complex. The Portuguese governor was there, with an army that was becoming smaller and smaller as it returned home. Those troops were carrying out their duty of guarding the borders; Zairian units were penetrating the country from the north and advancing silently without the Portuguese authorities preventing that violation.

South African interference was also on the rise. First they sent a detachment to Calueque and Ruacaná—15 kilometers inside Angolan territory [1 kilometer = .62 miles]—with the pretext of protecting the hydroelectric complex facilities on the Cunene River that provided energy to Namibia.

This provoked a weak diplomatic protest from the Portuguese government, but nothing more…. Finally, on October 14, the Zulu Column penetrated without the governor lifting a finger. The Portuguese forces in Moçamedes (a company of paratroopers and a ship) abandoned the post under orders from the South African invaders. Luanda was being increasingly threatened both from the north and from the south. It was quite clear that there was a conspiracy by the imperialist powers to prevent independence. In this aggression, “The United States was in the lead, flanked by Zaire and South Africa. England and France took up the rear. This was the coalition that was forming in the summer of 1975 behind UNITA and the FNLA.”1

Between November 2 and 3 in Catengue, Cuban military instructors and their Angolan students at the CIR located south of Benguela tried to stop the advance of a South African column of armored vehicles, which since October 14 had been advancing from Namibia toward northern Angola, headed for Luanda. It was the first organized resistance encountered by the invaders, who suffered considerable casualties but were able to hold their position and continue advancing north due to their superior numbers and resources. Cuban and Angolan blood were spilled together for the first time….  
Operation Carlota
Led by Fidel and Raúl, the country’s authorities decided to send the first regular troops from our country to wage combat in Angola and take on the South African aggressors….

Any of the men selected could have said no; it was each individual’s decision, made with the utmost freedom, that determined who departed for the battlefield. That was the beginning of Operation Carlota, which would last fifteen and a half years until May 25, 1991, when the last 500 Cuban internationalists in Angola returned to their homeland after demonstrating with flying colors our people’s spirit of solidarity and the ability of a small country to mobilize countless resources and military forces.

With the objective of taking Luanda, attackers from the north had twice attempted to break the FAPLA’s defense in Quifangondo, 22 kilometers from the capital.

On both occasions, the aggressors had been repulsed by FAPLA combatants and some 40 Cuban instructors and their Angolan students from the CIR in Dalatando.

For the third and last attack, on November 10, the aggressors assembled a powerful and heterogeneous group: the regular troops of the FNLA and Portuguese mercenaries were joined by at least two infantry battalions and several armored battalions from Zaire’s regular army; a general and 25 officers from the apartheid regime, well-equipped with heavy cannons brought by plane from South Africa; and several CIA paramilitary officers. They also had an airplane from the racists at their disposal to scope out FAPLA positions.

The defenders of Quifangondo were also reinforced. The participants from the previously mentioned combats were joined by 200 soldiers from the Katanga infantry and two Cuban artillery batteries: one of 120 millimeter mortars, and another of BM-21 reactive rockets, which arrived at the port of Luanda the same day, on November 7. The first company from the Special Troops Battalion arrived in Luanda on November 9. By the next day, they were already deployed in Cacuaco as reserve troops for the Cuban and Angolan forces stationed in Quifangondo.

Very early on the morning of November 10 combat began. The attackers suffered a crushing defeat.

The aggressors’ armored vehicles were put out of combat and their infantry, under fire from the BM-21s, suffered heavy losses…. Luanda had been saved. At one minute past midnight on the 10th, at a mass rally, President [Agostinho] Neto proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of Angola.

Immediately afterward, on the 11th, the Special Troops unit marched south under orders of Díaz Argüelles to establish a line of resistance against the invaders.

Days before, on November 8, the battle of Cabinda had begun, and it would last until the 12th.

The enemy was gathering together a reinforced regiment from the Zairian regular army, plus up to three battalions from the so-called Cabinda Enclave Liberation Front (FLEC), another puppet organization, and a company of white mercenaries….

In spite of their superiority in troops and weapons, after attacking the enclave from three directions and waging combat for four days, a large number of the assailants were wiped out and the majority of them dispersed….

In mid-November, the South African column was stopped along the banks of the Queve River. Units of the FAPLA, Cuban instructors and units from the Benguela CIR, and the first Special Troops Battalion companies played the leading roles in that feat. They blew up the bridges over the Queve and established a line of defense between Porto Amboim, Gabela, and Quibala, which was never broken by the enemy.

Under the leadership of Officer René Hernández Gattorno, head of one of the Special Troops Battalion companies, another event took place days later that established a precedent: the combat of Ebo, on November 23, south of the aforementioned defensive line. The action culminated in bloody defeat for the South Africans, who after losing 80 to 90 men and numerous armored vehicles were so demoralized that they halted their offensive for several days.

Support from Cuba continued to grow. On November 13, Commander Leopoldo Cintra Frías arrived in Angola to lead an artillery regiment that landed in Angola between November 27 and December 1. After these units arrived, the situation began to turn in favor of the revolutionary forces.

In late November, Commander Abelardo Colomé Ibarra also arrived to take command of the Cuban military mission, shoulder-to-shoulder with the MPLA. Colomé, Cintra Frías, and Díaz Argüelles comprised the Cuban leadership of the war against South Africa, its allies, and its puppets.

Following our tradition of struggle, they were in the most dangerous locations, leading their men; it is no coincidence then that on Dec. 10, 1975, Commander Díaz Argüelles lost his life when an anti-tank mine exploded as he was traveling down a road in the Southern Front….

By late March of 1976, the last invading units were leaving Angola. During that lapse of about five months, thousands of heavily armed Cuban internationalists arrived in Angola without pause, reaching a total of 36,000 troops.

On March 27, 1976, the last detachment of South African racists crossed the Cunene River and penetrated Namibia, which was occupied by the forces of apartheid. From the Atlantic Ocean to the border with Namibia, and from Cabinda to Cunene, the People’s Republic of Angola was free of the invaders and their puppets. Everything seemed to indicate that the war had come to an end, and that after a certain period allowing the FAPLA to assume the defense of that immense territory, the altruistic aid of the Cuban internationalists would no longer be needed.

1. Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. (The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), p. 293.

How Cuba’s support for Angola’s liberation struggle began  
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