Top: Raúl Castro and Obama at Mandela memorial service
Bottom: Mandela with Fidel Castro in Cuba
At the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the media seized on the handshake between Barack Obama and the president of Cuba, Raúl Castro, as possible evidence of something more significant afoot in the relations between the two countries.
The handshake has taken on symbolic overtones and given rise to far-fetched speculation along with predictable denunciations. U.S. Republican rep lleana Ros-Lehtinen criticized Obama for shaking "the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator." Yet another case of an American politician failing to look in the mirror before pointing the finger. On a forum thread a commenter suggested that Raúl Castro should have stayed home.
Fact is Raúl Castro had more of a right to be at the Mandela memorial service than Barack Obama. Cuba earned that right with blood and treasure. It sent thousands of its fighters into battle in Angola against the apartheid regime and its allies.
By contrast the U.S. gave material support to the S.A. regime's ally, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and allied fighters... material support that included hundreds of Stinger surface-to-air missiles. Ronald Reagan went so far as to describe the apartheid state as "essential to the free world." U.S. ally Israel also supplied Pretoria with armaments. A large deal worth $1.7 billion was signed in 1988 for 60Kfir combat planes.
Given this historical background perhaps we should be expressing surprise that Raúl Castro was gracious enough to shake the hand of Obama.
It is no coincidence that one of the first countries Nelson Mandela visited after his release from prison was Cuba. Nor is it a surprise that during the visit he referred to the Cuban victories at Cuita and Lumbango as "a turning point for the liberation of my country and my people."
Here are some key excerpts from Mandela's 1991 address to the people of Cuba:
From its earliest days the Cuban revolution has itself been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign to destroy the impressive gains made in the Cuban revolution.We know that the revolutionary spirit of today was started long ago and that its spirit was kindled by many early fighters for Cuban freedom, and indeed for freedom of all suffering under imperialist domination.We also honour the great Che Guevara, whose revolutionary exploits, including on our own continent, were too powerful for any prison censors to hide from us. The life of Che is an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom. We will always honour his memory.The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors!
Cuito Cuanavale has been a turning point in the struggle to free the continent and our country from the scourge of apartheid!
Link here for the full transcript of the Mandela speech.
Cuban contacts with Angola's liberation movement, the MPLA, went back to the 1950's. In the 60's Cuban operatives trained MPLA guerrillas in Algeria. When Che Guevara was in the Congo establishing a military mission he met with MPLA leader Agostinho Neto for high level talks in Brazzaville, January 5 1965.
The constellation of forces in Angola saw battle lines drawn pretty much along ideological lines. Cuba, the Soviet Union and African liberation movements lined up on the side of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The anti-communists, notably the South African regime and the U.S. supported The Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and its allies.
The first Cuban intervention was triggered when the party supported by Cuba, the MPLA, was on the brink of winning a civil war in Angola. An MPLA victory was not in the interests of the S. Africa regime. The S.A. military (SADF) invaded Angola in October 1975 with the encouragement of Washington. Fidel Castro intervened in support of the MPLA. Cuban troops and their allies successfully resisted the invasion and drove SADF back into Namibia.
In 1987 during a later conflict, the Angolan government made an urgent request for Cuban assistance. Castro had no wish to see gains by the Pretoria regime and a growing threat to Angola's independence. He responded by dispatching troops and military hardware. With subsequent re-enforcements the Cuban force in Angola came to number around 50,000.
Cuban-Angolan Reconnaissance Platoon in Cabinda province Angola
Cubans training MPLA fighters
A key factor in the eventual defeat and withdrawal of SADF was an upgrade of Angolan defense capabilities. The S.A. regime's aging aircraft were vulnerable against the Soviet-supplied air defense system that came into play. Mig-23's also gave the Cubans an edge over S.A.'s older Mirage fighters.
The turning point of the critical battle of Cuito Cuanavale came in early 1988 when SADF was repeatedly frustrated in their assaults on Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA) positions. On February 25th the Cubans and their allies drove SADF back to positions east of the Tumpo river. After a final failed assault in March, S.A. forces withdrew leaving heavily mined territory behind them. The failure was commented on by SADF-colonel Jan Breytenbach who said that SADF "was brought to a grinding and definite halt." The successful defense was followed up in April with a Cuban-Angolan offensive in the southwest.
For a detailed analysis of the battle and its aftermath link here.
Some S.A. diehards with an attachment to the old era have their own spin on the conflict. They compare numbers of dead and hardware lost, often citing questionable stats in arguing that their side didn't actually lose. But the true verdict lies with history and is self evident. Losing by any definition infers retreat... failure to reach stated objectives... and Pretoria's preferred outcome wasn't the one that prevailed. After failing in Angola the regime was erased in South Africa. That would amount to a total eclipse, not merely a defeat.