The first Cuban troops arrived only days before Angola was to become independent from Portugal on Nov. 11, 1975, and just in time to play a decisive role in repelling the invaders as they closed in on the capital Luanda. In late 1987 Angola was threatened again by a new South African offensive centered on the town of Cuito Cuanavale.
Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, published this article in 2007 on the 20th anniversary of the Cuban-Angolan victory in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale.
Since the article was written, “I have conducted an exhaustive research on the South African archives, and the South African documents support what my article says,” Gleijeses wrote to the Militant. This previously unavailable information will be included in Gleijeses’ forthcoming book Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991, scheduled for release in September. Gleijeses is also author of Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976.
Reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.
This debate about the significance of Cuito Cuanavale has been fueled by the fact that the South African documents about the campaign remain classified. I have been able to study, however, the relevant documents from the closed Cuban archives, as well as many US documents. Despite the ideological divide that separates them, the Cuban and American documents tell a remarkably similar story.
Let me review the facts, briefly. In July 1987 the Angolan army (FAPLA) launched a major offensive in southeastern Angola against Jonas Savimbi’s forces. When the offensive started to succeed, the South African armed forces (SADF), who controlled the lower reaches of southwestern Angola, intervened in the southeast. By early November, the SADF had cornered the elite Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was poised to destroy them.
The United Nations Security Council demanded that SADF unconditionally withdraw from Angola, but the Reagan administration had ensured that the demand had no teeth.
US Assistant Secretary for Africa Chester Crocker reassured Pretoria’s ambassador, “The resolution did not contain a call for comprehensive sanctions, and did not provide for any assistance to Angola. That was no accident, but a consequence of our own efforts to keep the resolution within bounds.”2 This gave the SADF time to annihilate the best units of the FAPLA.
Cuba sends reinforcementsBy early 1988, South African military sources and western diplomats were confident that the fall of Cuito was imminent. This would have dealt a devastating blow to the Angolan government.
But on November 15, 1987, Fidel Castro had decided to send more troops and weapons to Angola — his best planes with his best pilots, his most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons and his most modern tanks. Castro wanted to do more than save Cuito Cuanavale: he wanted to force the SADF out of Angola, once and for all. He later described his strategy to Joe Slovo, the head of the South African Communist Party: Cuba would halt the South African onslaught against Cuito Cuanavale and then attack from another direction, “like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right — strikes.”3
Cuban planes and 1,500 Cuban soldiers reinforced the Angolans at Cuito. Cuito did not fall.
On March 23, 1988, the SADF launched its last major attack on the town. As Colonel Jan Breytenbach writes, the South African assault “was brought to a grinding and definite halt” by the combined Cuban and Angolan forces.4
Now Fidel’s right hand prepared to strike. Powerful Cuban columns were marching through southwestern Angola toward the Namibian border. The South African documents telling us what the South African leaders thought about this sudden threat are still classified. But we know what the SADF did: it gave ground. US intelligence explained that the South Africans withdrew because they were impressed by the suddenness and scale of the Cuban advance and because they believed that a major battle “involved serious risks.”5
As a child, in Italy, I heard my father talk about the hope he and his friends had felt in December 1941 as they had listened to the radio reports of the German troops vacating the city of Rostov on the Don. It was the first time in two years of war that the German superman had been forced to retreat. I remembered his words — and the profound sense of relief they conveyed — as I read the South African and Namibian press from these months in early 1988.
On May 26, 1988, the chief of the SADF announced that “heavily armed Cuban and SWAPO forces, integrated for the first time, have moved south within sixty kilometers of the Namibian border.” The South African Administrator General in Namibia acknowledged on June 26 that Cuban MIG-23s were flying over Namibia, a dramatic reversal from earlier times when the skies had belonged to the SADF. He added that “the presence of the Cubans had caused a flutter of anxiety throughout the R[epublic of] S[outh] A[frica].”6
Among whites, that is. For the blacks of Namibia and of South Africa the advance of the Cuban columns toward the border, pushing back the troops of apartheid, was a clarion of hope.
While Castro’s troops advanced toward Namibia, Cubans, Angolans, South Africans, and Americans were sparring at the negotiating table. Two issues were paramount: whether South Africa would finally accept the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 435, which prescribed Namibia’s independence, and whether the parties could agree on a timetable for the withdrawal of the Cuban troops from Angola.
Pretoria’s hopes dashedThe South Africans had arrived at the negotiations with high hopes: Foreign Minister Pik Botha expected that Resolution 435 would be modified; Defense Minister Malan and President P.W. Botha asserted that South Africa would withdraw from Angola only “if Russia and its proxies did the same.” They did not mention withdrawing from Namibia. On March 16, 1988, Business Day reported that Pretoria was “offering to withdraw into Namibia — not from Namibia — in return for the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. The implication is that South Africa has no real intention of giving up the territory any time soon.”7
But the Cubans had reversed the situation on the ground, and when Pik Botha voiced the South African demands, Jorge Risquet, who headed the Cuban delegation at the June round of talks, fell on him like a ton of bricks: “The time for your military adventures, for the acts of aggression that you have pursued with impunity, for your massacres of refugees ... is over.” South Africa, he said, was acting as though it was “a victorious army, rather than what it really is: a defeated aggressor that is withdrawing. ... South Africa must face the fact that it will not obtain at the negotiating table what it could not achieve on the battlefield.”8
As the talks ended, Crocker cabled Secretary of State George Shultz that they had taken place “against the backdrop of increasing military tension surrounding the large build-up of heavily armed Cuban troops in southwest Angola in close proximity to the Namibian border. ... The Cuban build-up in southwest Angola has created an unpredictable military dynamic.”9
The burning question for the South Africans and Americans was: Would the Cubans stop at the border? To answer this question, Crocker sought out Risquet: “Does Cuba intend to halt its troops at the border between Namibia and Angola?” Risquet replied, “If I told you that the troops will not stop, it would be a threat. If I told you that they will stop, I would be giving you a Meprobamato [a Cuban tranquilizer]. ... and I want to neither threaten nor reassure you. ... What I can say is that the only way to guarantee [that our troops stop at the border] would be to reach an agreement [on the independence of Namibia].”10
The next day, June 27, 1988, Cuban MIGs attacked the SADF positions near the Calueque dam, eleven kilometers north of the Namibian border. The CIA reported that “Cuba’s successful use of air power and the apparent weakness of Pretoria’s air defenses” highlighted the fact that Havana had achieved air superiority in southern Angola and northern Namibia. A few hours after the Cubans’ successful strike, the SADF destroyed a nearby bridge over the Cunene river. They did so, the CIA surmised, “to deny Cuban and Angolan ground forces easy passage to the Namibia border and to reduce the number of positions they must defend.”11
Never had the danger of a Cuban advance into Namibia seemed more real.
On August 30, the last South African soldiers left Angola. They left before the negotiators had even begun to discuss the timetable of the Cuban withdrawal from Angola — as Havana had demanded, these discussions could begin only after the SADF had left Angola.
Despite Washington’s best efforts to stop it, Cuba changed the course of southern African history. Even Assistant Secretary Crocker acknowledged Cuba’s role when he cabled Shultz, on August 25, 1988, “Reading the Cubans is yet another art form. They are prepared for both war and peace. We witness considerable tactical finesse and genuinely creative moves at the table. This occurs against the backdrop of Castro’s grandiose bluster and his army’s unprecedented projection of power on the ground.”12
The Cubans’ prowess on the battlefield and skill at the negotiating table were instrumental in forcing South Africa to accept Namibia’s independence. Their successful defense of Cuito was the prelude for their campaign in the southwest that forced the SADF out of Angola. This victory reverberated beyond Namibia.
Many authors — General Malan is just the most recent example — have sought to rewrite the history of what happened in that memorable year of 1988, but the US and Cuban documents tell another story. It was expressed eloquently by Thenjiwe Mtintso, the South African ambassador to Cuba, in December 2005: “Today, South Africa has many new friends. Yesterday, these same friends called our leaders ‘terrorists’ and supported the South Africa of Apartheid. … Now they ask us to denounce and isolate Cuba. Our response is very simple: it is the blood of Cuban martyrs — not that of these new friends — that runs deep in the soil of Africa and has nourished the tree of freedom of our motherland.”13
1. Malan, My lewe saam met die SA Weermag, Pretoria, 2006, ch. 16; Mandela, Granma (Havana), July 27, 1991, p. 3.
2. SecState to American Embassy Pretoria, Dec. 5, 1987, Freedom of Information Act (hereafter FOIA).
3. “Transcripción sobre la reunión del Comandante en Jefe con la delegación de políticos de África del Sur (Comp. Slovo),” Centro de Información de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, Havana.
4. Breytenbach, Buffalo Soldiers: The Story of South Africa’s 32 Battalion, Alberton, 2002, p. 308.
5. Abramowitz (Bureau of Intelligence and Research, US Department of State) to SecState, May 13, 1988, FOIA.
6. General Geldenhuys, The Namibian, May 27, 1988, p. 1; Plenaar, Windhoek Advertiser, June 27, 1988, p.3.
7. Pik Botha, Star, Feb. 3, 1988, p. 1; Malan, Burger, March 7, 1987, p. 1 (quoted); PW Botha, Washington Times, March 14, 1988, B8; Business Day, March 16, 1988, p. 1.
8. “Actas das Conversaçôes Quadripartidas entre a RPA, Cuba, Estados Unidos de América e a Africa do Sul realizadas no Cairo de 24-26.06.988,” Archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.
9. Crocker to SecState, June 26, 1988, FOIA.
10. “Entrevista de Risquet con Chester Crocker, 26/6/88,” ACC.
11. CIA, “South Africa - Angola - Cuba,” June 29, 1988, FOIA; CIA, “South Africa - Angola - Namibia,” July 1, 1988, FOIA.
12. Crocker to SecState, Aug. 25, 1988, FOIA.
13. Dec. 2, 2005, speech, courtesy of Thenjiwe Mtintso.
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