Castro has stamped his mark on Africa’s history
By Pascal Fletcher
DAKAR (Reuters) – As the world wonders about Fidel Castro’s
health, Africa remembers him as the foreign leader who most
invested his personal effort — and Cuban lives — to help end
colonialism and apartheid.
Throughout the veteran Comandante’s 47-year rule, the
world’s poorest continent has loomed large in his global
outlook and it was the scene of his most ambitious overseas
From the deserts of Algeria and Ethiopia to the jungles of
Guinea Bissau and Congo and the Angolan bush, close to half a
million Cubans have fought and worked on African soil in the
name of “revolutionary solidarity.” More than 2,000 died there.
Most served as soldiers in Cuba’s large-scale military
interventions in Angola and Ethiopia.
“I vividly remember the support Cuban troops rendered (to
Ethiopia) during our struggle in beating back a Somali invasion
of our east … I wish speedy recovery and long life to the
great Cuban leader Fidel Castro,” retired Ethiopian
brigadier-general Wasihun Negat told Reuters.
Castro’s critics say he fought as a Cold War proxy in
Africa for the Soviet Union, sacrificing Cuban and African
lives as cannon fodder in Moscow’s superpower tug-of-war with
But Cubans have also served as medics and construction
workers in Africa, benefiting the lives of ordinary people.
Nearly 2,000 Cuban doctors are still working in countries
like South Africa, Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mali. Tens of
thousands of African students have also studied in Cuba.
“The Cubans had a huge influence in southern Africa, they
helped to shape history there. … There are Africans who
remember this,” Piero Gleijeses, professor of American Foreign
Policy at Johns Hopkins University, told Reuters.
Fresh from his own 1959 Cuban Revolution which toppled
dictator Fulgencio Batista, Castro threw himself with
enthusiasm behind the liberation struggles of Africans fighting
to end European colonial rule.
From the early 1960s he sent Cuban military instructors to
Algeria and Guinea Bissau. One of his closest comrades, Ernesto
‘Che’ Guevara, tried and failed to ignite revolution in eastern
Congo in 1965, leading a band of black Cuban soldiers.
But it was Angola, the former jewel of Portugal’s African
colonial empire, which saw Castro’s biggest foreign gamble.
When Angola’s Soviet-backed independence was threatened in
1975 by South African and Zairean forces and mercenaries,
Castro launched “Operation Carlota” — a rush airlift of Cuban
combat troops who defended Angola’s new Marxist rulers.
So began Cuba’s 16-year intervention in Angola, which
culminated in 1988 with 55,000 Cuban troops armed with Soviet
tanks and MiG fighters battling white South African soldiers
and U.S.-backed Angolan rebels in the southern bushlands.
Thousands of miles from their Caribbean home in Angola’s
“lands at the end of the earth,” young Cuban servicemen fought
in what Castro dubbed “Africa’s Stalingrad,” the battle of
Cuito Cuanavale which blocked the South African advance north.
Gleijeses says Castro often angered and alarmed the
cautious Soviets with his daring deployments in Angola.
African leaders, and many historians, say Cuba’s military
muscle — personally directed by Castro from Havana — kept
Angola free, won independence for Namibia and hastened the end
of apartheid rule in South Africa.
“When Angola was invaded by the Boers, Comrade Castro sent
his troops to assist his brothers here in Africa,” Zambia’s
former President Kenneth Kaunda said recently.
After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the cash-strapped
island pulled its last combat troops out of Africa in May 1991.
The memory of Cuba’s help against colonialism and apartheid
kept Castro’s star burning brightly in Africa. South Africa’s
former President Nelson Mandela calls him friend, so too does
Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and a host of other African leaders.
Castro has extended this goodwill by replacing Cuban
soldiers with doctors — albeit in fewer numbers.
But analysts see Cuba’s influence in Africa waning.
“Without Castro, Cuban-African relations will deteriorate.
… When a new leadership comes in, there could be new
priorities,” said Lyal White of the South African Institute for
(Additional reporting by Tsegaye Tadesse in Addis Ababa and
Andrew Quinn in Johannesburg)