Late Cuban Leader, Fidel Castro
Late Cuban Leader, Fidel Castro

By Piero Gleijeses (09 July 2007)

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the opening of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, in south-eastern Angola, which pitted the armed forces of apartheid South Africa against the Cuban army and Angolan forces. General Magnus Malan writes in his memoirs that this campaign marked a great victory for the South African Defence Force (SADF). But Nelson Mandela could not disagree more: Cuito Cuanavale, he asserted, “was the turning point for the liberation of our continent — and of my people — from the scourge of apartheid”.

Debate over the significance of Cuito Cuanavale has been intense, partly because the relevant South African documents remain classified. I have, however, been able to study files from the closed Cuban archives as well as many US documents. Despite the ideological divide that separates Havana and Washington, their records tell a remarkably similar story.

Let me review the facts briefly. In July 1987, the Angolan army (Fapla) launched a major offensive in south-eastern Angola against Jonas Savimbi’s forces. When the offensive started to succeed, the SADF, which controlled the lower reaches of south-western Angola, intervened in the south-east. By early November, the SADF had cornered elite Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was poised to destroy them.

The United Nations Security Council demanded that the SADF unconditionally withdraw from Angola, but the Reagan administration ensured that this demand had no teeth. US Assistant Secretary for Africa Chester Crocker reassured Pretoria’s ambassador: “The resolution did not contain a call for comprehensive sanctions, and did not provide for any assistance to Angola. That was no accident, but a consequence of our own efforts to keep the resolution within bounds.” [1] This gave the SADF time to annihilate Fapla’s best units.

By early 1988, South African military sources and Western diplomats were confident that the fall of Cuito was imminent. This would have dealt a devastating blow to the Angolan government.

But on November 15 1987, Cuban President Fidel Castro had decided to send more troops and weapons to Angola — his best planes with his best pilots, his most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons and his most modern tanks. Castro’s goal was not merely to defend Cuito, it was to force the SADF out of Angola once and for all. He later described this strategy to South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo: Cuba would halt the South African onslaught and then attack from another direction, “like a boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and with his right — strikes”.

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Cuban planes and 1,500 Cuban solders reinforced the Angolans, and Cuito did not fall.

On March 23 1988, the SADF launched its last major attack on the town. As Colonel Jan Breytenbach writes, the South African assault “was brought to a grinding and definite halt” by
the combined Cuban and Angolan forces.

Now Havana’s right hand prepared to strike. Powerful Cuban columns were marching through
south-western Angola toward the Namibian border. The documents telling us what the South
African leaders thought about this threat are still classified. But we know what the SADF did: it gave ground. US intelligence explained that the South Africans withdrew because they were impressed by the suddenness and scale of the Cuban advance and because they believed that a major battle “involved serious risks”.

As a child in Italy, I heard my father talk about the hope he and his friends had felt in December 1941, as they listened to radio reports of German troops vacating Rostov on the Don — the first time in two years of war that the German “superman” had been forced to retreat. I remembered his words — and the profound sense of relief they conveyed — as I read South African and Namibian press reports from these months in early 1988.

On May 26 1988, the chief of the SADF announced that “heavily armed Cuban and Swapo [South West Africa People’s Organisation] forces, integrated for the first time, have moved south within 60km of the Namibian border”. The South African administrator general in Namibia acknowledged on June 26 that Cuban MIG-23s were flying over Namibia, a dramatic reversal from earlier times when the skies had belonged to the SADF. He added that “the presence of the Cubans had caused a flutter of anxiety” in South Africa.

Such sentiments were however not shared by black South Africans, who saw the retreat of the South African forces as a beacon of hope.

While Castro’s troops advanced toward Namibia, Cubans, Angolans, South Africans and
Americans were sparring at the negotiating table. Two issues were paramount: whether South Africa would finally accept implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 435, which prescribed Namibia’s independence, and whether the parties could agree on a timetable for the withdrawal of the Cuban troops from Angola.

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The South Africans arrived with high hopes: Foreign Minister Pik Botha expected that Resolution 435 would be modified; Defence Minister Malan and President PW Botha asserted that South Africa would withdraw from Angola only “if Russia and its proxies did the same.” They did not mention withdrawing from Namibia. On March 16 1988, Business Day reported that Pretoria was “offering to withdraw into Namibia — not from Namibia — in return for the withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. The implication is that South Africa has no real intention of giving up the territory any time soon.”

But the Cubans had reversed the situation on the ground, and when Pik Botha voiced the South African demands, Jorge Risquet, who headed the Cuban delegation, fell on him like a ton of bricks: “The time for your military adventures, for the acts of aggression that you have pursued with impunity, for your massacres of refugees … is over.” South Africa, he said, was acting as though it was “a victorious army, rather than what it really is: a defeated aggressor that is withdrawing … South Africa must face the fact that it will not obtain at the negotiating table what it could not achieve on the battlefield.”

As the talks ended, Crocker cabled Secretary of State George Shultz that they had taken place “against the backdrop of increasing military tension surrounding the large build-up of heavily armed Cuban troops in south-west Angola in close proximity to the Namibian border … The Cuban build-up in southwest Angola has created an unpredictable military dynamic.”

The burning question was: Would the Cubans stop at the border? To answer this question, Crocker sought out Risquet: “Does Cuba intend to halt its troops at the border between Namibia and Angola?” Risquet replied, “If I told you that the troops will not stop, it would be a threat. If I told you that they will stop, I would be giving you a Meprobamato [a Cuban tranquilliser]. … and I want to neither threaten nor reassure you … What I can say is that the only way to guarantee [that our troops stop at the border] would be to reach an agreement [on Namibia’s independence].”

The next day, June 27 1988, Cuban MIGs attacked SADF positions near the Calueque dam, 11km north of the Namibian border. The CIA reported that “Cuba’s successful use of air power and the apparent weakness of Pretoria’s air defences” highlighted the fact that Havana had achieved air superiority in southern Angola and northern Namibia. A few hours after the Cubans’ successful strike, the SADF destroyed a nearby bridge over the Cunene river. They did so, the CIA surmised, “to deny Cuban and Angolan ground forces easy passage to the Namibia border and to reduce the number of positions they must defend.”  Never had the danger of a Cuban advance into Namibia seemed more real.

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The last South African soldiers left Angola on August 30, before the negotiators had even begun to discuss the timetable of the Cuban withdrawal from Angola.

Despite Washington’s best efforts to stop it, Cuba changed the course of Southern African history. Even Crocker acknowledged Cuba’s role when he cabled Shultz, on August 25 1988: “Reading the Cubans is yet another art form. They are prepared for both war and peace. We witness considerable tactical finesse and genuinely creative moves at the table. This occurs against the backdrop of Castro’s grandiose bluster and his army’s unprecedented projection of power on the ground.”

The Cubans’ battlefield prowess and negotiating skills were instrumental in forcing South Africa to accept Namibia’s independence. Their successful defence of Cuito was the prelude for a campaign that forced the SADF out of Angola. This victory reverberated beyond Namibia.

Many authors — Malan is just the most recent example — have sought to rewrite this history, but the US and Cuban documents tell another story. It was expressed eloquently by Thenjiwe Mtintso, South Africa’s ambassador to Cuba, in December 2005: “Today South Africa has many newly found friends. Yesterday these friends referred to our leaders and our combatants as terrorists and hounded us from their countries while supporting apartheid … These very friends today want us to denounce and isolate Cuba. Our answer is very simple: it is the blood of Cuban martyrs — and not of these friends — that runs deep in the African soil and nurtures the tree of freedom in our country.”

*Piero Gleijeses is professor of US foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC. His most recent book is Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-76. He is now writing a book on Cuban and US policy toward Southern Africa, 1975-94
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