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The Untold Story of Cuba’s Support for African Independence Movements Under Fidel Castro

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Across the developing world, former Cuban President Fidel Castro was viewed as a hero who stood up to the United States and assisted Marxist guerrillas and revolutionary governments around the world. In the 1970s, he sent Cuban troops to Angola to support a left-wing government over the initial objections of Russia. Cuba helped defeat South African insurgents in Angola and win Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990, adding pressure on the apartheid regime. After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, he repeatedly thanked Castro. We feature excerpts of Castro speaking about Cuba’s role in Angola and South Africa, including a clip of his first meeting with anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, and speak with Bill Fletcher, a founder of the Black Radical Congress, and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project and co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana.”

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AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the relationship between Castro and Nelson Mandela—of course, the South African president imprisoned for decades himself. In 1991, a year after he was freed and a few years before he became president, Nelson Mandela visited Cuba to thank President Fidel Castro. This is when they first met.

NELSON MANDELA: Before we say anything, you must tell me when you are coming to South Africa. You see—no, just a moment, just a moment, just a moment.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] The sooner, the better.

NELSON MANDELA: And we have had a visit from a wide variety of people. And our friend, Cuba, which had helped us in training our people, gave us resources to keep current with our struggle, trained our people as doctors, and SWAPO, you have not come to our country. When are you coming?

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I haven’t visited my South African homeland yet. I want it, I love it as a homeland. I love it as a homeland as I love you and the South African people.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Nelson Mandela imploring Fidel Castro to come to South Africa. And this is Fidel Castro speaking in South Africa in 1998.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] Let South Africa be a model of a more just and more humane future. If you can do it, we will all be able to do it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Fidel Castro speaking in South Africa, and, before that, Nelson Mandela, just after he got out of jail, visiting Castro in Cuba to invite him to South Africa. Bill Fletcher, talk about the relationship of Cuba, Fidel Castro, with the continent of Africa and liberation struggles there.

BILL FLETCHER JR.: Well, you know, it’s interesting, Amy, because there was a special relationship that existed between the Cuban revolution and Africa from almost the beginning. The Cubans were very supportive of the Algerian struggle against the French, which succeeded in 1962. They went on to support the various anticolonial movements in Africa, including in particularly the anti-Portuguese movements in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique. And they were unquestioning in their support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

It’s the Angolan struggle that receives a lot of attention. And one of the things that was not understood at the time by many of us in the United States, including many of us on the left, was that when Cuban troops went to Angola, they did not go at the behest of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviet Union was not in favor of Cuban troops going there. The Cubans went there out of a sense of solidarity. I mean, they actually believed in solidarity. And they went there to stop the invasion that was in the process of taking place between—by the South African apartheid troops and their allies in the FNLA and UNITA. And so, this relationship has been very, very strong.

And you could tell in the words of the late President Mandela that this bond, this love for the Cuban people and for the Cuban revolution—that bond also translated into a feeling in black America of a certain kind of bond, a certain support for the Cuban revolution, feeling that this was a revolution that paid attention to Africa but also paid attention to the struggle around racism within Cuba, although, obviously, there were certain limitations to that, but I would say that Cuba probably made the greatest advances in the struggle around racism of any country in the Western Hemisphere.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn Cuba’s role in Angola. This is a clip from the 2001 documentary Fidel: The Untold Story, that was directed by Estela Bravo. You hear the narrator Vlasta Vrana first.

VLASTA VRANA: Right from the beginning, Cuba’s revolutionary ideals not only spread throughout Latin America, but also forged strong ties with national liberation leaders, such as Sékou Touré, Amílcar Cabral, Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel and Agostinho Neto.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] When the regular South African troops invaded Angola, we couldn’t stand by and do nothing. When the MPLA asked for our help, we offered them the help they needed.

VLASTA VRANA: In 1975, as Angola moved towards independence from Portugal, the CIA, along with the apartheid government of South Africa, tried to bring down the new Angolan government. At the request of the Angolan president, Fidel sent 36,000 troops to keep the South African forces from attacking Rwanda, the capital. For many Cubans, whose ancestors were African slaves, the fight in Angola was a way to repair a debt to history. In 14 years of war, over 300,000 Cubans—doctors, teachers and engineers, as well as soldiers—played an important role in Angola. More than 2,000 lost their lives. In 1988, Fidel sent in more Cuban troops for the decisive battle at Cuito Cuanavale and directed operations from Cuba. The defeat of the South African army drove a large nail into the coffin of apartheid and helped advance the struggle of the South African people.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from the 2001 documentary Fidel: The Untold Story, directed by Estela Bravo. Now let’s go to the film CIA & Angolan Revolution. In this clip, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explains why the U.S. was concerned about the Cuban troops that Fidel Castro had sent to fight in Angola. After Kissinger, you hear Fidel Castro himself.

HENRY KISSINGER: We thought, with respect Angola, that if the Soviet Union could intervene at such distances, from areas that were far from the traditional Russian security concerns, and when Cuban forces could be introduced into distant trouble spots, and if the West could not find a counter to that, that then the whole international system could be destabilized.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] It was a question of globalizing our struggle vis-à-vis the globalized pressures and harassment of the U.S. In this respect, it did not coincide with the Soviet viewpoint. We acted, but without their cooperation. Quite the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: That from the film CIA & Angolan Revolution. Bill Fletcher, as we wrap up this section on Cuba in Africa?

BILL FLETCHER JR.: There’s a story that I heard, Amy, about what happened in Angola on the night of independence. And there was panic in the capital. South African troops and their allies were approaching, and no one knew what was going to happen. And then, at midnight, people went down to the docks. And out of the darkness came Cuban troops, Cuban ships, that then landed troops. And the look on the face of the person who told me this story, who witnessed this, was something that I’ll never forget—the sense that they had been saved at a critical moment in an act that had not been driven by the Soviet Union, but had been driven by a belief in solidarity and a particular relationship between Cuba and Africa. And that’s something that the U.S. mainstream media is completely ignoring at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: And Che Guevara would be in Africa—right?—fighting for—


AMY GOODMAN: —leading Cuban forces, before he would ultimately die in Latin America.

BILL FLETCHER JR.: That’s correct. He went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was fighting a neocolonial regime that—ironically, he was working with Kabila, Laurent Kabila, in the beginning. But the forces there were very poorly organized. They weren’t really ready to carry out a revolution, and the Cuban advisers withdrew, ultimately, because the conditions were not right.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking about Che, I thought I would turn right now to Che Guevara. I want to turn to another clip from the film Fidel: The Untold Story, directed by Estela Bravo. This is Fidel Castro talking about Che Guevara following his execution in Bolivia in 1967.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I dream about him often. I dream that I’m talking to him, that he’s alive. It’s a very special thing. It’s hard to accept the fact that he’s dead. Why is that? I’d say it’s because he’s always present, always present everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: In 1997, three decades after he was killed, Che Guevara’s remains were found and returned to Cuba. Fidel Castro talked more about him in the film Fidel.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I dream about him often. I dream that I’m talking to him, that he’s alive. It’s a very special thing. It’s hard to accept the fact that he’s dead. Why is that? I’d say it’s because he’s always present, always present everywhere.

AMY GOODMAN: That from Fidel, by Estela Bravo. We’re going to go to break and then come back and talk about the effect of Cuba and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Latin America. This is Democracy Now!, as we look at the life and legacy of Fidel Castro. He died on Friday at the age of 90. Stay with us.

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