Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991, by Piero Gleijeses. 655 pages. University of North Carolina Press, 2013.
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
Visions of Freedom fills a big hole in telling the truth about a story that until now has been largely unknown around the world: revolutionary Cuba’s decisive contribution to the liberation of Angola, Namibia and South Africa. That struggle, which Cuban leader Fidel Castro has called “la causa más bonita,” — the most beautiful cause — changed the course of history on the African continent and beyond.
I’ve read this book a few times, with tattered and worn stickies throughout and underlining in various colors to prove it. Written in clear and compelling language, it offers meticulously documented facts and takes no shortcuts in explaining the complexities of Cuba’s internationalist combat mission in Angola. I strongly recommend it.
Visions of Freedom is the sequel to Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. The first volume, published in 2002, covers Cuba’s aid to liberation struggles from the Algerian independence war in the early 1960s to the victory over the first South African invasion of Angola in 1975-76. Visions takes the story through the 1988 final victory in Angola over the apartheid invaders and the subsequent shattering of the white supremacist regime itself.
The two books together provide a powerful account of the selfless internationalism that makes the Cuban Revolution unique in the world today — a living example of what working people are capable of when they take state power, transforming themselves and their society in the process.
A Spanish-language edition of Visions of Freedom has now been published by Havana-based Ciencias Sociales. It was launched in June at meetings in Havana with the participation of Gleijeses, Cuban leader Jorge Risquet, who was Cuba’s chief representative in the negotiations that ended the South African intervention in Angola, and Ricardo Alarcón. During the internationalist mission Alarcón was Cuban ambassador to the United Nations and then deputy foreign minister.
“When you read this book, you feel proud to be a Cuban and a revolutionary. You feel proud of the leadership of the revolution, and of having been part of that internationalist effort,” said Fernando González in an exchange with Cuban students last year. González is one of the five Cuban heroes who spent more than a decade and a half in U.S. prisons on frame-up charges stemming from their work in defense of the revolution. Three of the Cuban Five, including González, were volunteer combatants in Angola.
Gleijeses, who teaches U.S. foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, was the first non-Cuban scholar to gain access to the closed archives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba. He assembled 15,000 pages of documents from that source — including transcripts of conversations of Fidel Castro and Raúl Castro with close aides, Soviet officials, and Angolan leaders — as well as documents from the archives of the U.S., South African and other governments. (He has made many of these available through the website digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org.) The author also interviewed more than 150 participants, including many of the principal protagonists.
A deeply popular effortOver a 16-year period, 425,000 Cuban internationalist volunteers served in Angola as combatants or as doctors, teachers and other civilian workers. They joined with Angolans to fight off two major South African invasions, in 1975-76 and again in 1987-88. In between, they held the defensive line against countless actions by the South African army, as Luanda waged a long war against counterrevolutionary Angolan forces supported by the apartheid regime and Washington. Some 2,000 Cubans, along with hundreds of thousands of Angolans, were killed.
One thread that runs through the book is the Cuban people’s deep support for the internationalist mission in Angola and the genuinely voluntary character of their participation in it. It comes through in the author’s interviews with numerous volunteers, who in their own words express their identification with the fight to free southern Africa and willingness to risk their lives in that effort.
Gleijeses quotes a 1979 report from the CIA, not exactly a neutral source, that in Cuba, “Service in Angola remains popular with the youth.”
Rebutting Washington’s lie that the Cubans were acting as “Soviet proxies,” Gleijeses documents the true record. As Nelson Mandela put it in 1991, when he visited the island to thank the Cuban people for their contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle, “What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?”
The book also demolishes claims that the U.S. government sought to bring down the apartheid regime. It irrefutably documents Washington’s support to the South African invasions of Angola and its military aid to UNITA and other Pretoria-backed groups inside Angola.
The political and military leadership capacities of Fidel Castro and of the broader cadres leading the Cuban Revolution are evident throughout — from the unhesitating commitment of tens of thousands of Cuban troops in response to the 1975 South African invasion of Angola, to the definitive defeat of Pretoria’s army in Cuito Cuanavale and southwest Angola in 1988, through the negotiations and the final withdrawal of Cuban troops in 1991.
The Cuban leadership had confidence in the fighting capacity not only of the Cuban people but of the Angolan soldiers, the Namibian freedom fighters of the South West Africa People’s Organization, and the rebellious masses of South Africa, led by the African National Congress, who were increasingly inspired by the Cuban-led victories. Cubans helped train ANC and SWAPO combatants.
“The South African people are showing courage and heroism that is truly astonishing,” Fidel Castro wrote in a 1985 letter to the president of Angola, referring to the upsurge of demonstrations, strikes, and school boycotts against the white supremacist regime. “It is clear,” he noted, “that a new situation has emerged and that the question of the final eradication of apartheid has moved to center stage.”
Gleijeses cites statements by Fidel and Raúl Castro that, as long as the Angolans wanted their help, Cuban volunteers would remain in that country until the apartheid regime was defeated. That revolutionary course led to a triple victory: Angola’s sovereignty was secured, Namibia won its independence from South African rule, and the apartheid regime itself was brought down.
Two conflicting coursesVisions of Freedom does an impressive job of documenting the sharp differences between the course followed by the Cuban leadership and the one implemented for many years by Angolan officials and their Soviet military advisers. Defending Angola against Pretoria depended on very substantial military and economic aid from Moscow. But the Cuban leadership did not hesitate to argue for and carry out a proletarian internationalist course.
Moscow’s main priority, Gleijeses notes, was seeking détente — arms limitation treaties and other diplomatic accommodation with Washington. They feared the popular struggles in Africa and elsewhere would derail those efforts.
“In November 1975 the Kremlin had been angered by the dispatch of Cuban troops to Angola,” Gleijeses writes. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev “was focused on the SALT II negotiations with the United States” and wanted to proclaim the success of détente at the upcoming Soviet Communist Party congress. Anticipating this reaction, the Cuban government sent troops to aid the Angolan government first and notified Moscow later.
In late 1987, when Cuba deployed tens of thousands of troops to Angola for the culminating battles, the Mikhail Gorbachev regime — infuriated because this might complicate U.S.-Soviet arms control talks — urged the Cubans to publicly describe the mobilization as only “a planned troop rotation.” Raúl Castro, Cuba’s minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, replied that they would not “say it is a troop rotation because this is a lie and we don’t tell lies.”
Throughout the war the Soviet advisers insisted that “Angola should build a conventional army with tanks and heavy weapons that would keep the South Africans at bay,” Gleijeses explains. The Cubans, on the other hand, argued that their forces should hold the line against foreign invasion, allowing the Angolans to concentrate on the war against the UNITA counterrevolutionaries, for which smaller units “with light equipment and training in irregular warfare” were needed.
The Soviet-backed strategy led to ill-conceived offensives and one demoralizing military setback after another, with unnecessarily heavy casualties. Finally, in November 1987, facing the potential annihilation of some of Angola’s best-trained forces in the remote southern town of Cuito Cuanavale, the Angolan leadership accepted Havana’s proposal that Cuba be given command of a military offensive that would bring the South African intervention to an end once and for all.
The Cuban-led troops halted the assault on Cuito Cuanavale, then attacked with overwhelming force in southwestern Angola. It was “like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right — strikes,” as Fidel Castro put it. Sending their best pilots and most modern equipment to Angola, the Cubans gained air superiority and drove toward the Namibian border with tens of thousands of Cuban, Angolan and Namibian troops. The apartheid rulers were dealt a resounding defeat and forced to the negotiating table, withdrawing from Angola by mid-1988 and ceding independence to Namibia.
Proletarian values of revolutionVisions of Freedom also illustrates the proletarian moral values that guide the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba — the opposite of those of the bourgeois officer castes of imperialist armies. In organizing to decisively defeat the enemy, Cuba’s leadership sought to avoid big, costly battles and minimize casualties on all sides, just as they had done in the 1956-58 revolutionary war in Cuba.
In a 1983 memo to the Angolan authorities, “the Cubans stressed, as they had time and time again, that it is ‘absolutely necessary’ to treat the enemy wounded and prisoners of war with humanity and also to pay more attention to the needs of the population,” Gleijeses notes.
Unlike other foreign officials and businessmen, “the Cubans offered no bribes and no expensive gifts,” and Cuban officers in Angola lived in modest conditions.
The Cuban leadership always collaborated with the Angolans as equals — with respect for their sovereignty, never trying to dictate to them how to conduct their affairs, even when they disagreed.
World context of Angolan missionOne of the things I had not fully appreciated until reading Gleijeses’ account was the political complexities of the class struggle — in Africa and elsewhere — within which the Angolan internationalist mission unfolded. The way the Cuban leadership under Fidel charted a course through these challenges is a powerful confirmation of its revolutionary capacities.
Among the developments Gleijeses highlights:
♦ In Ethiopia, where an anti-feudal land reform and anti-imperialist struggle was unfolding in 1977-78, some 12,000 Cuban volunteers responded to the Ethiopian government’s plea for help to repulse a U.S.-backed Somali invasion. Cuba did so without weakening its military commitment in Angola.
At the same time, to the dismay of the Ethiopian government and their Soviet advisers, the Cubans refused to deploy their military forces against the Eritrean people, who were waging a war for independence from Addis Ababa.
♦ Havana’s defense of Angola gave more breathing room to Zambia, Mozambique and other “front-line” countries threatened by apartheid South Africa. The Cuban-led victories in Angola and Ethiopia were a decisive factor in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) throwing off a white-supremacist regime in 1980.
♦ The Cuban government sharply disagreed with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When Fidel Castro met with Soviet leaders in early 1980, among the several disagreements he expressed, “the main item in Castro’s indictment was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan,” Gleijeses writes. “The Cubans disapproved of the decision, of how it had been carried out,” including the fact that Moscow had invaded a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, of which Cuba was then president.
“Afghanistan created a great strain in our relations,” Cuban leader Jorge Risquet told Gleijeses.
♦ Cuba did not pull back from its defense of Angola despite growing U.S. military threats it faced in the early 1980s. Responding to the 1979 revolutionary victories in Grenada and Nicaragua, Washington sharply escalated its war drive in Central America and the Caribbean, providing massive support to the contras (counterrevolutionaries) in Nicaragua and invading Grenada in 1983.
At the same time, Soviet officials had made it crystal clear that, “if the imperialists attack Cuba, we can count only on ourselves,” as Fidel Castro put it.
♦ The exposure in late 1986 of secret U.S. funding of the Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, financed partly through clandestine arm sales to Iran, politically weakened the Reagan administration. The Cuban leadership, Gleijeses notes, correctly judged that with the Iran-contra scandal, “the danger of a U.S. military attack against their country receded.” The decision to commit massive troop reinforcements to Angola, along with the best military equipment at Cuba’s disposal, in response to the 1987 South African escalation was based on that assessment.
And the Cubans put everything on the line — including the Cuban Revolution itself. Gleijeses quotes Raúl Castro in November 1987: “I told the Soviet [General Zaitsev] that we’ll go without underpants if we have to. We will send everything to Angola.”
To get the most out of Visions of Freedom, two additional books complement Gleijeses’s account. One is Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own, published by Pathfinder Press. It includes speeches by Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, and Nelson Mandela, as well as accounts by the three of the Cuban Five who served in Angola.
Cuba and Angola adds substantially to the story, mostly in the words of leading actors in these historic events. It underscores an important element that does not come through clearly in Visions of Freedom: how Cuba’s internationalist mission in Angola politically strengthened the Cuban Revolution. The confidence that Cuban workers and farmers and several generations of youth gained in their own capacities helped make it possible for Cuba to survive the sharp economic crisis of the 1990s, when it lost 85 percent of its foreign trade as the Soviet Union imploded.
As Raúl Castro put it in a May 1991 speech included in the book, “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. ”
The other book is My Life by Fidel Castro (Penguin Books, 2007), especially the chapter “Cuba and Africa.” In it, Castro notes that Washington has tried to rewrite history to cover up “the honorable role that Cuba played” in the southern African freedom struggle for more than a quarter century. That was possible in large part, he said, because “the true history of those events has never been written.”
Fortunately, with Visions of Freedom, the true history is beginning to be told.
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