Victory at Cuito Cuanavale

December 4, 2013 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Twenty-five years ago in the forgotten world of the cold war, Ronald Reagan’s United States and its allies in apartheid South Africa suffered a stunning military defeat by Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the devastated remote Angolan town of Cuito Cuanavale.

It changed the history of the region and the continent. It is hard to recapture from this distance the extraordinary audacity of the Cuban Communist Party central committee’s decision on November 16 1987 to reinforce the 25,000 troops already in Angola by dispatching another 9,000 men, including their best pilots, with the best planes, the most modern tanks and the most sophisticated anti-aircraft equipment the island possessed from the Soviet Union to help the Angolan army counter a South African military build-up on Angola’s southern border.

For eight months the South Africans had been preparing a major invasion to expand their client Jonas Savimbi’s destructive reach against the MPLA (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola) government from his toehold in the south of Angola.

The South African military were planning to reverse their 1975 forced withdrawal from Angola at the hands of an earlier Cuban force, which had arrived in the nick of time to fight alongside the anti-colonial liberation movement at the moment of Angola’s independence from Portugal.

A decade later Savimbi and his Unita movement, militarily supplied and trained by South Africa and supported with a significant CIA propaganda and diplomatic campaign, were fighting the cold war’s most destructive proxy war on behalf of the United States.

Many millions of dollars of covert US funding were authorised by successive US presidents to crush a nationalist Third World independence movement that became a government.

The Angolan government’s only “threat” to the US was that – like the bulk of southern Africa and the rest of the world apart from most of the West – it supported an end to apartheid in South Africa and independence for Namibia, then occupied by South Africa.

After independence in 1975 thousands of Cuban technicians initiated the transformation of the Angolan capital Luanda with a building programme of flats. Thousands more volunteered as teachers, agricultural engineers, doctors and nurses.

Hundreds of Angolan children were sent to school in Cuba’s Island of Youth.

But independence was marked not by the development so sorely needed after Portugal’s lamentable neglect of its colony but by a creeping US-funded war waged out of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in the north, and from occupied Namibia in the south. After 10 years the country’s economy and infrastructure were unravelling.

Travelling in Angola’s central highlands in the mid-1980s was to find cities like Huambo and Malange under virtual siege from Unita forces.

Roads and bridges destroyed, local leaders assassinated, hospitals overflowing with peasant victims of Unita’s mines.

Everywhere holding the line against South African aggression were handfuls of Cubans in garrisons, schools, hospitals.

A symbol of their sacrifice was the unforgettable war memorial in remote Malange made of old AK47 rifles and spent rounds, commemorating some of the 2,070 Cubans who died for Angola’s independence between 1975 and 1988.

Hundreds of miles south I saw desolation in the town of Ngiva near the Namibian border after it was occupied several times over by South Africa Defence Forces (SADF) who killed peasants, destroyed their homes and drove their cattle south into Nambia.

The Cubans had not fought Unita in the south since the 1984 Lusaka agreement where the Cuban army pledged to stay north of the 16th parallel. In the south the Angolan army with the ANC armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe and Nambia’s liberation movement SWAPO had held Unita back, but the 1987 months of SADF build-up spelled real danger.

Against this background in November 1987 Fidel Castro (pictured) decided that the South African threat to crush the Angolan army at Cuito Cuanavale could be the opportunity to force the SADF out of Angola for good.

Linked to that decision was a commitment in Havana to see Namibia independent and a new world born in South Africa itself.

The previous year at a non-aligned summit in Harare Castro had raised spirits across a southern Africa destabilised by South African assassinations and bombings when he declared that Cuba would “remain in Angola until the end of apartheid.”

In Luanda in early 1988 Western diplomats were predicting a very different scenario – the imminent fall of Cuito Cuanavale, a new power base for Savimbi and pressure on a weakened Angolan government to send the Cuban troops home.

In fact with Angolan troops, the reinforced Cuban forces led by the veteran Cuban general Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, who had been a leader in the 1975 Angolan war as well as in Ethiopia and Congo, fought a brilliant campaign across an arc of southern Angola from March to July 1988.

The ANC and SWAPO fighters were integrated into the effort. The new Cuban MiG fighters quickly showed they more than matched South Africa’s previous air superiority and, using new Cuban-built airstrips on the Namibian border, they bombed the dams that provided power to the SADF bases in Namibia.

This dramatic turn in the military situation changed the balance of forces in tense negotiations ongoing in London and then Cairo.

Lead Cuban negotiator Jorge Risquet was finally in the position to demand and receive the exit of the SADF from Angola and Namibia, independence for Namibia, all before the withdrawal of Cuba’s own troops.

South Africa’s apartheid state was on the way out.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star

Victoria Brittain will be speaking along with over 50 other academics, journalists, activists and politicians from Latin America and Britain at the Latin America Adelante! conference on Saturday December 7 at Congress House, London. For tickets visit and for all the latest information follow us on Twitter @LatinAmerica13


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This post was written by Victoria Brittain

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