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Vol. 77/No. 3      January 28, 2013

‘Cuba’s greatest internationalist feat ever’
Introduction to ‘Cuba and Angola: Fighting
for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own’
(feature article)

Below is the introduction by Mary-Alice Waters to Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own.

The new book by Pathfinder Press features speeches by Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro and Nelson Mandela; interviews with Cuban generals Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, Moisés Sío Wong and Luis Alfonso Zayas; accounts by Cuban revolutionaries Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González and René González; and a report by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez.

Waters, a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party, is the editor of the book.

Copyright © 2013 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.



Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.

Matanzas, Cuba, July 1991

When we face new and unexpected challenges 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.

Havana, Cuba, May 1991

Between 1975 and 1991, some 425,000 Cubans volunteered for duty in Angola in response to requests from the government of that country, which had just wrested freedom from Portugal after nearly five centuries of brutal exploitation and colonial domination. The mission: helping to defend Angola against what stretched into thirteen years of military aggression, including two major invasions, by the armed forces of the apartheid regime of South Africa and its African and imperialist allies.

The stakes were enormous.

In April 1974 the fifty-year-old, deeply decayed fascist dictatorship in Portugal was overthrown by a military coup that unleashed a powerful revolutionary upsurge of Portuguese workers and farmers. The confidence of Europe’s capitalist rulers was shaken.

In April 1975 US imperialism was literally driven out of Indochina. The whole world watched—in joy or horror, depending on your class perspective—as helicopters scrambled to rescue thousands of desperate American officials and their Vietnamese lackeys from the rooftop of Washington’s embassy in what had just become Ho Chi Minh City.

Anti-imperialist struggles of a more and more popular character were deepening in Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in Central America.

Not losing control of southern Africa was rising in the priorities of the imperialist powers. For years they had been maneuvering to salvage what they could as the Portuguese empire crumbled. With Angolan independence day approaching in November 1975, they accelerated their efforts to install what they hoped would be a compliant puppet regime in the largest and richest of Portugal’s former African territories. For Pretoria—backhandedly encouraged and supplied by Washington—the future of all southern Africa, including the survival of the apartheid regime itself, was on the table.

The first major invasion of Angola by South African troops began in October 1975 as armored columns crossed the border from their de facto colony of South-West Africa (Namibia) and swept north. Simultaneously a military offensive moved south from Zaire (Congo). The pro-imperialist Mobutu dictatorship there hoped to annex the oil-rich Angolan province of Cabinda and take whatever other territory they could. The objective 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 independence movements, with the broadest popular base.

It was only the eleventh-hour intervention of some six hundred fifty Cuban internationalist volunteers, responding to the urgent request of Angola’s provisional government for aid, that prevented the South African objectives from being realized. Less than five months later, with thirty-six thousand Cuban volunteers by then on the ground, the military forces of both the South African apartheid regime and the Zairean dictatorship had been driven out of Angola. But they had not given up.

More than a decade of what was euphemistically known as “low intensity warfare” against the Angolan regime ensued. Then, in late 1987, South African troops began their second major invasion, which ended with the crushing defeat of Pretoria’s military forces in March 1988 in the now-famous battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

As South African anti-apartheid struggle leader Nelson Mandela told the world three years later, “Cuito Cuanavale was a milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation! …A turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!”

That decisive victory not only secured the sovereignty of Angola. It also allowed the people of Namibia to achieve their independence from South African apartheid rule and gave a powerful boost to the rising mass revolutionary struggle against white supremacist rule in South Africa itself. Less than two years after the victory at Cuito Cuanavale, Nelson Mandela, imprisoned for more than twenty-seven years, was free. Four years later the apartheid regime was no more, and Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa.

In the pages that follow, this history is told by those who lived it and made it.


The contribution made by hundreds of thousands of Cuban internationalists, military and civilian alike, to the independence struggles in southern Africa was not a “favor” to others, however. The Cuban Revolution, the strength of its proletarian core, was also at stake. As Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces Raúl Castro told the Cuban people in May 1991 as he welcomed home the last contingent of volunteers, “If our people know themselves better, if all of us know much better what we are capable of achieving—veterans as well as our young people, the new generations—that, too, is thanks to Angola!”

Among the “new generations” whose lives were transformed as they fought side by side with the people of Angola were three young Cubans, still in their twenties, whose names are today known around the world: Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González, and René González. They are three of the five Cubans who, a few years after their experiences in Angola, volunteered for another internationalist assignment, this time in the United States. Their mission: monitoring the activities of Cuban American counterrevolutionary organizations operating with impunity from bases in the US, groups that organize to carry out violent actions against supporters of the revolution inside Cuba, the US, Puerto Rico, and elsewhere, and whose actions always contain a threat of precipitating a confrontation between Washington and Cuba. Arrested by the FBI in 1998, and framed up on more than thirty charges, the Cuban Five have been imprisoned in the US for more than fourteen years.

As Fernando González writes in the account published in these pages, the lessons he learned in Angola are ones he has continued to draw on ever since, “including here, withstanding conditions of prolonged imprisonment.”


The final and decisive battles waged in 1988 in Angola by more than fifty thousand Cuban volunteers coincided with, and in turn advanced, what was known in Cuba as the rectification process, one of the most important chapters in the history of the revolution.

In April 1986, speaking on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the victory at Playa Girón that crushed the US-organized invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Cuban president Fidel Castro announced the leadership’s decision to initiate a profound correction in the course of the revolution. He likened it to a ship altering its compass headings in order to sail on a different path. For more than a decade, as policies associated with an Economic Planning and Management System copied from the Soviet Union had been introduced, proletarian initiatives and collective efforts by Cuba’s workers and small farmers had become progressively weaker.

Fidel summed up the error with great insight many years later in November 2005 when he told an audience of young leaders of the revolution that “among the many errors we all have committed, the most important was to believe that someone knew something about socialism, or knew how to build socialism. As if it were an exact science, as well known as an electrical system conceived by those who considered themselves experts in electrical systems. When they said, ‘Here is the formula,’ we thought they knew.”

As the rectification process unfolded, encouraging the creativity and imagination of Cuba’s toilers again became the driving force of the revolution, combating the economic, social, and political weight of what had become an increasingly bloated, and relatively privileged, administrative layer in the mills, factories, ministries, offices, and mass organizations.

Wages for agricultural workers, among the lowest paid in the country, were raised by 40 percent. Special clinics, stores, restaurants, and recreational facilities established by the Ministry of the Interior for its personnel were turned over to general use by the population. Privileged access to state cars, gas rations, and special entertainment budgets were curtailed.

Volunteer full-time minibrigades involving tens of thousands of workers were established in workplaces across the country mobilizing almost overnight a workforce eager to help accomplish the most urgently needed social priorities—housing, child care centers, clinics, schools, recreational facilities, and more. Larger volunteer construction contingents—in which wages, hours, and work rules were decided and implemented by the workers themselves—took on the building of roads, dams, hospitals, airports, and other major infrastructure projects.

Volunteer labor—the centerpiece of proletarian action in the early years of the revolution, which “took refuge in defense activities” during what Fidel in 1987 called that “shameful period in the building of socialism”—was reborn “like a phoenix.” As the minibrigades took on the character of a mass social movement, “The bureaucrat’s view, the technocrat’s view that voluntary work was neither basic nor essential” lost ground.

This was the revolutionary course advancing in Cuba as the final great battles of the Angola war were joined. It was the spirit that marked the forty thousand Cuban volunteers on the Southern Front in Angola who together with their Angolan and Namibian comrades-in-arms fought their way east and south in the opening months of 1988, building a forward airfield in seventy days as they raised the siege at Cuito Cuanavale, cleared minefields and roads, and took control of the air.

It was all over. The apartheid regime was forced to withdraw from Namibia as well as Angola and sue for peace.


The victory represented by Cuito Cuanavale, together with the deepening proletarian course in Cuba itself, also allowed the revolution to confront and emerge strengthened from one of the bitterest moments it had faced in thirty years.

In June and July 1989, evidence was uncovered by the military high command that Division General Arnaldo Ochoa, Hero of the Republic of Cuba, who headed the Angolan mission in 1987–88, had been supervising sugar sales on the black market in Angola as well as amateur trafficking in diamonds and ivory as the lives of thousands of Cuban and Angolan combatants hung in the balance at Cuito Cuanavale.

As Fidel expressed it with unflinching clarity, “At the same time that the most glorious page was being written, the most shameful one was being written, in large measure by the head of the Cuban military mission in Angola.”

The Granma editorial announcing Ochoa’s arrest pointedly made clear, however, that it was Division General Leopoldo Cintra Frías, not Ochoa, who had been given command of the Southern Front “to ensure the complete success of our troops’ operations in Angola.” That was where “the bulk of the Cuban personnel, tanks, artillery, antiaircraft forces, and air force units were stationed.” Ochoa, the editorial noted, was “involved in other tasks for the Cuban military mission,” tasks that were removed from “the course of military events.”

As a widening investigation by the Cuban government soon revealed, the small-scale illegal operations in Angola were the least of Ochoa’s offenses. He had also been supervising the activities of one of his aides, whom Ochoa had authorized to meet with Pablo Escobar of the Medellín drug cartel and other narcotics dealers to explore options for trafficking operations using Cuban air and sea lanes and possible cocaine laboratories in Africa. The motivation, Ochoa claimed, was a desire to raise money—big money, $4 billion was the sum he used—to buy military equipment for Angola and Cuba and speed development of a tourist industry in Cuba.

Ochoa and his subordinate were court-martialed and executed, together with two high-ranking officers of the Ministry of the Interior who, the investigation revealed, had already been engaged in their own drug-trafficking operations, in addition to facilitating Ochoa’s schemes.

It was a traumatic moment in Cuba.

Division General Enrique Carreras gave eloquent voice to the popular outrage a few years later when he commented in an interview, “Imagine sullying our uniform for money, to get out of an economic bind! That’s what Ochoa did. And this in an army as honorable as the Rebel Army! If we have to die of hunger we’ll die of hunger, but we won’t disgrace what the people have fought for so hard and so long. We won’t disgrace what so many people have died for over the years. … That’s why we fought for socialism—to eliminate such evils.”

Extensive excerpts of the proceedings of the Military Court of Honor, the court martial testimony, and the review of the death sentences by the Council of State were published in the daily paper Granma, broadcast on TV and radio, and followed closely by millions of Cubans. By the end of what became known in Cuba as Case No. 1 in 1989, there was broad, though far from unanimous, agreement among Cuban working people with the justice of the sentences—and their necessity.

“Who would ever believe in the revolution again,” Fidel asked, “if we did not actually apply the most severe sentences established by our legislation for crimes of this gravity?”

“Who would ever speak of rectification again?”

A July 9 meeting of the Council of State reviewed and then ratified the sentences for Ochoa and the other three. At the conclusion of his remarks, Raúl Castro reminded everyone that as the commander of the military mission in Angola, Ochoa had signed death sentences for three young Cuban soldiers who had been convicted of rape and murder of Angolan women. As minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Raúl had been responsible for ratifying those orders, which he had done.

“I didn’t hesitate,” Raúl said, “because the decision was just. Nor will I hesitate when I sign the sentence requested by the court in these four cases considered by the Council of State. The mothers of those three young men might have asked for clemency. If we don’t carry out this sentence, we will have to beg them for forgiveness.”


By the time the last units of internationalist volunteers returned from Angola in 1991, Cuba was already confronting the greatest political and economic crisis in its history. With the implosion of the bureaucratized regime in the Soviet Union came an abrupt loss of 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade. As virtually all imports evaporated, agricultural and industrial production collapsed. It was “as if one day the sun didn’t rise,” Fidel said.

As the crisis deepened, Cuba’s enemies, blindly convinced of their own myths of dwindling support for the revolution, were once again predicting (hoping for) its imminent demise. And in fact, no other government in the world could have survived such a crisis. But Cuba had never been a tropical version of what the Soviet Union had become, or the countries of Eastern Europe had always been. In class terms, it was their political and moral negation. And the confidence of Cuba’s toilers in themselves and their government, “in what we are capable of achieving,” to use Raúl’s words, was in no small measure due to the conquests registered in the Angolan internationalist mission and the rectification process.

The fifty thousand Cubans who volunteered for duty in Angola in 1988 to assure the crushing defeat of the apartheid army in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale would have been equivalent at the time, in population terms, to the United States fielding 1.2 million troops in a theater of operations. That’s just one measure of the enormity of the internationalist commitment made by the men and women of the Cuban Revolution. Yet to new generations of revolutionists and militant, thinking working people around the world, all this is virtually a hidden history.

A handful of memoirs have been published in Cuba by those who fought on one or another front during the nearly sixteen-year mission. Virtually none have been translated or published outside Cuba. Moreover, no comprehensive account yet exists, although this may change with the scheduled publication in September 2013 of Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, and Pretoria in Southern Africa, 1976–1991 by Piero Gleijeses, author of the excellent study Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–76, which covers the opening months of the mission.

Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own aims to make a small contribution to filling the void and encouraging those who took part in what Fidel called “Cuba’s greatest internationalist feat ever” to make that history known.

Readers will find its strength in the multiple perspectives it offers on many of the same events.

Through the speeches of Fidel Castro, commander in chief of the Angola internationalist mission and historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, and those of Raúl Castro, then minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, we are given the broadest political, strategic, and military view. Why the Cuban leadership took the decisions it did at important junctures. How these decisions were implemented and led. And the consequences for the revolution and its relations with other world powers and national liberation forces in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere.

Nelson Mandela, the historic leader of the struggle to rid his country, his continent, and the world of the scourge of apartheid, explains the unprecedented political character of Cuba’s actions in Africa, their weight and place in world history.

Armando Choy, Gustavo Chui, Moisés Sío Wong, and Alfonso Zayas, four historic combatants of the struggle to overthrow the Batista dictatorship, give us the perspective of four generals of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. Each of them was among the seasoned frontline officers, leading in different capacities on the battlefields of Angola and in Cuba.

Through the accounts of Gerardo Hernández, Fernando González, and René González, we see the Angolan internationalist mission as it was lived by the then youngest generations of revolutionaries--—how they were molded by that combat experience and transformed for life.

And in Gabriel García Márquez’s “Operation Carlota,” one of the greatest contemporary Latin American authors documents the opening of the Angola campaign and its first great victories. Through his eyes we see the impact that those events had on the fighting determination of Cuban working people—from the new beats in their music to the added bounce in their steps and broader smiles on their faces.

Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own is dedicated to the men and women of Cuba who wrote this epic chapter in the history of their revolution—and to those then too young to have participated, who will learn from it and from each other as they march into the class battles whose initial flares are already burning.

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