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Cuito Cuanavale: How Cuba fought for Africa’s freedom
By Barry Healy
June 14, 2008 -- This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a heroic struggle in which, between October 1987 and June 1988, in some of the fiercest fighting in Africa since the Second World War, the South African Defence Force (SADF) were humiliatingly defeated by liberation forces in Angola.
Cuban assistance to Angolan resistance to the SADF invasion was vital. Defeat at Cuito Cuanavale spelled the doom of apartheid and the victory of the South African liberation movement.
Former Cuban president Fidel Castro famously observed that “the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale”. In South Africa’s Freedom Park, outside Pretoria, 2070 names of Cubans who fell in Angola are inscribed alongside those of South Africans who died during the anti-apartheid struggle.Angola’s sad history
Angola spent centuries under the colonial thumb of Portugal. To this day, it remains underpopulated due to slave-trader raids that transported millions across the Atlantic.
South African radical writer Horace Campbell, in the June 3 Pambazuka News (see Campbell's full article in the comments at the end of this article), observed that “the atrocities the Portuguese committed in Angola were so extreme that they proved to be a model for the genocidal Belgian colonialists in neighbouring Congo”.
Despite their country’s vast wealth, Angolans suffered terrible poverty and despotic rule until the collapse of Portuguese fascism in 1974.
Three separate political movements jockeyed for power: the leftist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), strong in the centre of the country; the Front for the National Liberation of Angola (FLNA) based in Zaire; and the southern-based Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Both the FLNA and UNITA were CIA-funded and UNITA degenerated into simply being an SADF puppet.
The United States was politically hamstrung by its 1975 defeat in Vietnam, so with the end of Portugese colonial rule, warfare via proxies was used by imperialism to prevent the country falling to the MPLA.
The SADF intervened in 1975 in a failed attempt to stop the MPLA coming to power after Zaire-backed FLNA forces were routed. Faced with a South African invasion, Angola invited the Cubans to help beat back the invading SADF, the Zairian army and CIA mercenaries.
Shortly afterwards, the 1976 Soweto uprisings shook apartheid South Africa and opened up a new era of international solidarity. South Africa responded with a massive military build up in Namibia, targeting the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO).US assists apartheid
Chester Crocker, a Reagan-era US diplomatic fixer who eventually negotiated the face-saving SADF exit from Angola, later wrote that the South Africans “confused military power with national strategy”. It was to be their undoing.
Angola became a rear base for the Namibian struggle, with the SADF using UNITA as a pawn against SWAPO. Following a 1978 murderous attack on a SWAPO refugee camp, the UN Security Council demanded withdrawal of the South African troops from Namibia .
From 1981-’88, the racist state’s army occupied the Angolan provinces of Cunene and Cuando Cubango. The Angolan army was in no position to repel the more than 11,000 SADF troops with their sophisticated artillery and air support.
A provincial capital was destroyed and more than 100,000 peasants fled their homes. The SADF stole cattle, which it carried off to Namibia to feed its troops.
With international outrage growing, the US government mobilised allies into “the contact group” (US, Canada, West Germany, France, and Britain) to protect Apartheid’s diplomatic flank.
The next major South African invasion was at Cangamba in August 1983. Campbell states: “Here UNITA had announced that Cangamba had fallen. But it was the SA air force that destroyed Cangamba and gave UNITA the rubble to showcase it as its victory to pro-western journalists flown in from Zambia and Johannesburg.”
Angolan forces pushed south in September 1985 against UNITA. The SADF intervened but domestic uprisings led by the United Democratic Front (UDF) in South Africa split the racist forces.
South Africa turned to the US for help and US president Ronald Reagan’s administration happily supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to UNITA. The US used a military base at Kamina in Zaire to build a northern front in the war against Angola and the CIA air-dropped supplies for the South Africans.
The US, combining with PM Margaret Thatcher-led Britain, funnelled both covert and open support to the SADF, UNITA and Mobutu’s brutal Zaire regime. All African freedom fighters, including Nelson Mandela, were labelled “terrorists”.
To provide political cover for direct US aid for UNITA, South Africa began Operation Modular Hope in 1987. The intention was to seize a provincial Angolan town and declare a UNITA provisional government.
In October, the Angolan army met the SADF at Jamba but was shattered by the superior forces. They retreated to Cuito Cuanavale where the 6000 survivors were besieged.Cuba assists Angola
For six months the SADF threw everything they had at the town. In December 1987, 1500 Cubans joined the defenders.
With the full power of the SADF aimed at Cuito Cuanavale, Cuban, Angolan and SWAPO forces prepared for a counter-attack. Fifty thousand Cuban volunteers went to Angola to help the fight.
Angolan and Cuban MIG 23 pilots swept the South African Air Force from Angolan skies. But SADF artillery superiority meant they could still rain 20,000 shells onto Cuito Cuanavale every day.
In major battles in January, February and March of 1988, the South Africans failed to take the town. Campbell claims that at this point, press-ganged black SADF soldiers began rebelling and SA president P.K. Botha flew to the front to stop the military command collapsing.
South Africa even considered the use of tactical nuclear weapons, according to Campbell.
In April, 10,000 Cuban, Angolan and SWAPO fighters outflanked the SADF from the west. Cut off 300 miles from their bases in Namibia, now it was the SADF who were besieged.
Rapidly constructing airbases, the Cubans demonstrated that they could cut deep into Namibia, if they chose. The SADF was routed.
Quickly, the US organised talks to allow the Apartheid army a way out. But nothing could save Apartheid, anymore.
Following the negotiations, Namibia gained its independence in March 1990, one month after Nelson Mandela walked free from prison and South African liberation movements were unbanned.
Mandela became SA president via democratic elections in 1994. He calls Cuito Cuanavale “a turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people”.
Ronnie Kasrils, formerly chief of intelligence of the ANC military wing and currently South African minister for intelligence services, says of the Cubans: “Those patriots and internationalists were motivated by a single goal — an end to racial rule and genuine African independence. After 13 years of defending Angolan sovereignty, the Cubans took nothing home except the bones of their fallen and our gratitude.”
From Green Left Weekly issue #755 18 June 2008.