FIDEL Castro died over the weekend aged 90. Nearly 57 years ago, Cuban rebels led by Castro overthrew US-backed authoritarian president Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, replacing the government with a revolutionary socialist state.
It wouldn’t be the first or last ouster of a president in world history, but it would find its deepest resonance in Africa, and possibly no other figure would have as towering an influence on Africa’s revolutionary imagination than Castro.
Cuba is a small island nation in the Caribbean, with over 11 million inhabitants, but the country has had an outsized influence far beyond its borders.
Castro’s victory was to prove an inspiration to many revolutionary leaders across Africa – Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army/ Movement (NRA/M) 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.
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.
Even with Soviet assistance, the missions in Africa, cumulatively involving at least 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.[advanced_iframe securitykey=”68f51ed951ec4f22230bb7eb91315944cb08a912″ width=”400″ height=”325″ frameborder=”0″ scrolling=”no” marginwidth=”0″ marginheight=”0″ src=”https://www.google.com/publicdata/embed?ds=d5bncppjof8f9_&ctype=l&strail=false&bcs=d&nselm=h&met_y=ny_gdp_mktp_kd_zg&scale_y=lin&ind_y=false&rdim=region&idim=country:CUB&ifdim=region&hl=en_US&dl=en_US&ind=false&icfg”]
Although a drop in the international price of sugar, then one of Cuba’s leading exports was also to blame, the military expeditions represented a significant drain on the country’s financial resources.
Some 4,300 Cubans died in African conflicts, half of them in Angola — although experts say that number has been sharply underestimated. Cuban veterans have often complained of lack of care and benefits on returning home.
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.
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.
The Cuban presence was crucial to Ethiopia’s victory over Somalia. During Ethiopia’s early 1978 counteroffensive in the Ogaden, with Cuban support Ethiopian units quickly scored several impressive victories. As a result, on March 9, 1978, Somali president Mahammad Siad Barre withdrew his troops from the Ogaden.
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 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.
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, Namibia 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.
On March 23, 1988, the South Africans launched their last major attack against the southern Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale, where South Africa had cornered the best units of the Angolan army. The Angolans were supported by Cuban armoured and motorised units.
It was an abject failure 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.
But the end of the Cold War meant that Cuba was dealing with extensive economic problems at home, and with the international world order having shifted decisively towards Western liberal democracy, Cuba’s role in Africa was considerably diminished.
But that wouldn’t be the last Cuba was heard of in Africa. 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.
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.