As Cuba returns to the fold, 15 things about Havana in Africa, plus how Congo broke Che Guevara's heart

Cuba was once a crucial external player in the liberation of southern Africa; at one point its Africa missions were spread over 17 countries

FOR decades, African countries that were either right wing or didn’t  want to get in the fight between the US and Cuba, kept away from Havana. The “radical” ones, though, maintained close diplomatic relations.

That is all about to change. The US flag flew above the country’s embassy in Havana, Cuba on Friday for the first time in 54 years, a symbolic end to one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.

It’s the latest feather in US president Barack Obama’s cap, cementing his legacy as his second term comes to an end – the thawing in diplomatic relations with Cuba comes just weeks after he secured a nuclear deal with Iran, and a crucial Supreme Court victory on gay marriage.

Cuba is a small island nation in the Caribbean, with over 11 million inhabitants, the second-most populated after the island of Hispaniola, comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

But the country has had an outsized influence far beyond its borders; barring Latin America, there is no place Cuba has shaped history more than in Africa.

During the Cold War, Africa was the battleground on which proxy wars between Cuba and the US were fought, and Cuba was once one of the most important external players in the liberation of southern African states like Angola, Namibia and Mozambique.

But it had slowly retreated from Africa with the end of the Cold War, due to economic problems at home and the demise of former socialist allies like the Soviet Union.

We take a look at 10 things you probably didn’t know about Cuba, its military interventions and spiritual influence of Africa, and how the Congo broke the great revolutionary Che Guevara’s heart:

1.   Cuban rebels led by Fidel Castro overthrew US-backed authoritarian president Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, replacing the government with a revolutionary socialist state. Castro’s victory was to prove an inspiration to many revolutionary leaders across Africa – Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army/ Movement (NRM/A) in Uganda, the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo) and the South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) in Namibia all counted the Cuban revolution as a source of inspiration.

2.   The Cuban Revolution was hinged on its “proletariat internationalism”; Cuba was to stand in solidarity with any country to advance the cause of socialism and defeat imperialists. This is what motivated Cuba to explicitly support national liberation movements in Africa, even though it did not bring any direct tangible benefit for Cuba, indeed, the military operations – particularly in Angola between 1975 and 1992 – came at a very high price for the island nation.

3.   Even with Soviet assistance, the missions in Africa, at one point spread over 17 countries, consumed 11% of Cuba’s budget, the country’s economic growth slowed from 16.3% in 1970-1975 to 4.1% in 1976-1980. Although a drop in the international price of sugar, then one of Cuba’s leading exports is also to blame, the military expeditions represented a significant drain on the country’s financial resources.

4.   Cuba began its support for liberation movements in Africa very soon after its socialist movement came into power – in 1960, the country sent aid to the Algerian National Liberation Front (known by their French initials FLN) in the form of military and medical supplies. Cuba also aided Kwame Nkrumah’s socialist-leaning government in Ghana in the early 1960s.

5.   In December 1963, the Sultanate of Zanzibar was granted independence from British rule; just a month later the government was overthrown and the Sultan deposed in a violent revolution. The new regime espoused the principles of African nationalism and radical socialism. 

It immediately sparked fears that Zanzibar might become an ‘African Cuba’, that could act as a base for insurgency operations and as a destabilising influence in East Africa; there were reports that the revolutionaries may have received military training from Cuba. The uprising was put down with help from British troops.

6.   In early 1965, a major figure of the Cuban Revolution, Cuban-Argentinian Ernesto “Che” Guevara travelled to the Congo to offer his support as a guerilla in the Congo conflict, along with a 12-man core group; approximately 100 Afro-Cubans joined him later. He supported the Marxist, anti-Mobutu Simba movement, and for a time they collaborated with guerilla leader Laurent-Desiré Kabila.

Congolese man Andre Shindano smiles after recognising Ernest “Che” Guevara, whom he met as a boy, in a picture during an interview with AFP in Baraka. (Photo: AFP)

7.   But his revolutionary expedition was to end in failure. Guevara became disillusioned with the poor discipline of Kabila’s troops and later dismissed him, stating “nothing leads me to believe he is the man of the hour”. In his Congo Diary book, he cites the incompetence, intransigence and infighting among the Congolese rebels as key reasons for the revolt’s failure, and concluded he left rather than fight to the death because: “The human element failed. There is no will to fight. The leaders are corrupt. In a word…there was nothing to do…We can’t liberate by ourselves a country that does not want to fight.” Some observers claim Congo remains unchanged from the one Guevara encountered.

8.   During the apartheid regime in South Africa, Cuba supported the African National Congress (ANC) in their armed struggle, providing both military and technical support; it also supported liberation movement Swapo in Namibia. From the 1960s-80s, smaller military operations were active in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Benin.

9.   In 1977, Somalia invaded southern Ethiopia and occupied the Ogaden region. At the time, Ethiopia was under a Marxist-Leninist regime led by Mengistu Haile Mariam; Somalia was supported by the US. Mengistu received military and logistical support from the Soviet Union and Cuba. From November 1977 to February 1978, Havana deployed some 24,000 troops to Ethiopia, including three combat brigades.

10.  The Cuban presence was crucial to Ethiopia’s victory over Somalia. During Ethiopia’s early 1978 counteroffensive in the Ogaden, Ethiopian units quickly scored several impressive victories with Cuban support. As a result, on March 9, 1978, Somali president Mahammad Siad Barre withdrew his troops from the Ogaden.

11.   Cuba’s most extensive military operation on the continent was in Angola, where it supported Agostinho Neto’s leftist MPLA against the two other liberation movements in the country, UNITA and FLNA, supported by the US and apartheid South Africa. By the end of 1975, Cuban troops in Angola numbered 36,000, and in April of the following year, the Cubans had pushed the South Africans out of Angola.

12.   But the skirmishes continued. From 1981 to 1987, the South Africans launched bruising invasions of southern Angola from their base in Namibia – at the time, Nambia was under the control of South Africa. It was a stalemate—until November 1987, when Castro decided to push the South Africans out of the country once and for all.

13.   On March 23, 1988, the South Africans launched their last major attack against the southern Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale, where apartheid South Africa’s troops had cornered the best units of the Angolan army. It was a disaster for South Africa. The Cubans demanded that Pretoria withdraw unconditionally from Angola and allow UN-supervised elections in Namibia, which they did, leading to the independence of Namibia in 1990.

14.  In 1991, Cuba was the first country Nelson Mandela visited outside Africa after he was freed the previous year. Mandela travelled to Cuba to thank Fidel Castro and the Cuban people for their support against apartheid and colonialism in southern Africa. “The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces [in Angola] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor,” Mandela said in Havana.

Mandela added that when the ANC wanted to take up arms, they approached numerous Western governments in search of help. “[But] we could only talk with the lowest level officials. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest authorities who immediately offered anything we wanted and needed.”

15.   In the recent Ebola outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Cuba was lauded for its “outsized” response to the crisis, by sending what was needed most -  medical professionals, when wealthier nations were content at just throwing money at the problem, and most of the rest of Africa banned flights from the affected countries.

Cuban doctors arrive in Freetown during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. (Photo: AFP)

Medicine has always been a big part of Cuba’s international diplomacy; in 2014, the country had more than 50,000 doctors and nurses posted in 66 countries around the world, including more than 4,000 in 32 African countries.

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