The epic story of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in southern Angola in 1987/89 is little known in Britain. But the events leading up to it show how small yet decisive actions by workers can bring about massive changes in the world…
You could argue that the battle of Cuito Cuanavale all started with the actions of Cuban workers through their trade unions, that led first to the Cuban revolution of 1959, and then through their crucial role in Africa to the establishment of independent Guinea Bissau, Angola, Mozambique and Namibia, handing a decisive defeat to Portuguese and US imperialism in Africa and contributing to the victory against apartheid in South Africa.
Without the Cuban revolution, one Jorge Risquet would not have led an armed column to Congo Brazzaville in 1965 at the request of the newly independent Congolese government. Here contact was made with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) who were fighting for independence from Portugal.
Neither would one Ernesto Che Guevara have led another column to Eastern Zaire via Guinea where he talked with Amilcar Cabril, the leader of the independence movement for neighbouring Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) that was conducting armed struggle against the Portuguese colonialists and who were considered to be the best organised liberation movement in Africa.
The consequences of these engagements were very significant. Cuba sent to Guinea Bissau 31 volunteers – 11 mortar experts, 8 drivers, 1 mechanic, 10 doctors and an intelligence officer, all of them black to be unnoticed and all in time for a battle to take the Portuguese fortified camp at Madina de Boe.
The doctors were to go to the liberated areas and the mortar experts were sent to instruct on the use of artillery that Cuba would send along with trucks, munitions, olive uniforms, medicines and, of course, cigars and brown sugar! Cuba also trained 31 students from the Cape Verde islands in guerrilla war tactics and returned them to fight with PAIGC. By 1967 there were 60 Cubans in Guinea Bissau.
In 1969, US Ambassador Dean Brown reported from Dakar “The war in Portuguese Guinea has gone from bad to worse for the Portuguese during the past three years despite increased Portuguese troop strength from 20,000 to 25,000. PAIGC controls 60 per cent of the country”. In November 1970 the Portuguese resorted to attacking the capital of neighbouring Guinea hoping to overthrow that government and so end its backing for the PAIGC’s anti-colonial struggle.
The attack was a fiasco and the writing was now on the wall. With Portugal about to lose Guinea Bissau to PAIGC and fighting the MPLA in Angola and Frelimo in Mozambique its army was set to mutiny. On 25 April 1974, revolution overthrew the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, whose troops were withdrawn from Guinea Bissau by November.
In 1975, Portugal was set to hand over power to Frelimo in Mozambique and to a combination of three independence movements in Angola: the MPLA; the FNLA funded by the CIA and Mobutu’s Zaire; and Unita, backed by apartheid South Africa. In July 1975, the US agreed secretly to fund both the FNLA and Unita.
Fighting broke out in 1975 between the deeply unpopular but well armed FNLA, whose Zairian leader had not stepped foot in Angola since 1956, and the MPLA. At the same time Zairian troops entered Angola from the north and South African forces from the south to support Unita. Eventually the MPLA would take control of the whole of Luanda, the huge capital city, where it had mass support.
|Angolans bid farewell to Cuban troops in 1989.|
As Independence Day approached in November 1975, the MPLA appealed to Cuba for military instructors, weapons, clothing and food as Zairian and South African forces headed towards the capital.
Cuba sent 480 instructors who would create four training centres that opened in October 1975. They also sent weapons, clothing and food and were set to train 5,300 Angolans in three to six months. However, as the South Africans and Zairians advanced, they found themselves having to go into action themselves to defend their training camps.
Cubans were queuing up to volunteer to go to Angola, but the USA did not find out about this until weeks after the first Cubans arrived. It was described as the world’s best kept secret – only eight million Cubans knew about it! They crossed the Atlantic on old Britannia planes dressed as tourists, with weapons in their suitcases and in the hold of the planes. They went by ship as well. Jorge Risquet was politically in charge of the military and civilian Cuban missions.
As the South Unita and Zairians/FNLA closed in, all seemed lost. But with the MPLA fighting on their own turf, Soviet military equipment arriving and Cubans going into action straight from their plane, Independence Day came with the MPLA in control of Luanda and the joint Cuban/Angolan forces pushing back the South Africans and Zairians. Victory was sealed after a few months. However, FNLA and Unita continued a slash and burn war.
Cubans began to help Angola build health and education services, carrying out vaccination and anti illiteracy campaigns and training the Angolan Air Force and Army (FAPLA). Whilst Cuban and Angolan forces still had to battle with Unita and FNLA, the South West African Peoples Organisation (SWAPO), fighting for Namibian independence from South Africa, set up bases in southern Angola with Cuban and Angolan support.
The South African Defence Force (SADF) set up what it called the 32nd Battalion, comprising ex-FNLA soldiers who had fled to occupied Namibia plus other black mercenaries under white SADF officers, who murdered and sowed terror in Angola. South African bombers frequently attacked Angolan towns, cities and Namibian refugee camps. Invasions of southern Angola were frequent.
Eventually, after another South African invasion of southern Angola in 1987, the combined forces of Cuba, Angola and SWAPO forced the South Africans back to the Namibian border taking the strategic Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale. The South Africans responded with airpower and tanks and tried to retake the town, knowing its strategic importance. Cuba sent reinforcements, tanks plus Cuban and Angolan MiGs.
As Jorge Risquet said, “There were negotiations going on between Angola and the US, who was after all behind the South African government. In southern Angola, the SADF responded with aircraft and stopped the FAPLA offensive. FAPLA withdrew to Cuito Cuanavale where elite Angolan troops were gathered. The SADF laid siege to Cuito Cuanavale aiming to liquidate the Angolan troops in the midst of negotiations. If they won they would have demanded Angola’s full surrender.
“The US had refused to allow Cuba to participate in the negotiations and Cuba had said that it was prepared to stay in Angola until apartheid was defeated, but would only stay as long as Angola wanted them to. However, the SADF launched an attack on Cuito Cuanavale on January 13 1988. By then Cuban reinforcements had arrived and Cuba’s best pilots were flying sorties against the SADF inflicting heavy casualties. The South African attack was defeated. This changed the balance of forces and the US agreed by the end of January to the participation of Cuba in the negotiations.
“In March another meeting was held between Angola, Cuba and the US after the South Africans suffered another defeat in their second attack on Cuito Cuanavale in February. Five attempts to take Cuito Cuanavale were made by the SADF and all failed. We built an airstrip in record time and our planes could now reach SADF bases in northern Namibia and this forced South Africa to accept the first four-party negotiations in May. It was time for the US to stop serving as a messenger between Angola and Cuba on the one hand and South Africa on the other. It was time to seat the declared enemy at the table and seek a negotiated settlement.
“So Cuito Cuanavale was decisive. The negotiations came later. The battle of Stalingrad took place three years before the fall of Berlin, but it was at Stalingrad that the outcome of World War II was decided. The South Africans arrogantly used delaying tactics but the die was cast after two more defeats at nearby Tchipa and Calueque. They realised that a frontal war in southern Angola and Northern Namibia would be the swan song for apartheid. So they were forced to negotiate.”
The result was full independence for Namibia, no further South African or US support for Unita, withdrawal of all SADF forces to within South Africa’s borders and withdrawal of Cuban troops. The SADF was broken and so was apartheid.
In April that year, Nelson Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison from Robben Island and in December to Victor Verster Prison to negotiate the end of apartheid, followed by his release on 11th February 1990. In 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa sweeping Mandela and the ANC to power.
No wonder so many ANC activists and trade unionists said at the time that those elections were made possible by not only their struggle but by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale.