Newsletter #8: Cuba’s Key Role in Fighting Apartheid in Angola Is All but Forgotten Today
By Michal Schatz
The term “Cold War” is a misnomer. While open conflict never broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union directly in the roughly four decades after World War II, the two superpowers fought bloody proxy wars across the Global South, from Korea and Vietnam to Ethiopia and Southern Africa. Recent scholarship on decolonization in the twentieth century has shown that, contrary to conventional narratives which depict countries like Cuba as pawns working towards the Soviet Union’s ends in the Third World, the reality on the ground was far more complex.
In The Dig’s most recent two-part interview, Piero Gleijeses discusses this complexity in examining Cuba’s role in the Angolan War, based on extensive interviews and archival research he conducted for Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991.
The protracted war in Angola became the key battleground for influence in Southern Africa between the US and the Soviet Union from the mid-1970s until just before the Soviet government’s collapse in 1991. Cuba, too, deployed troops to Angola in 1975 — the country’s largest overseas military deployment in its history — at the invitation of the Angolan government, then controlled by the socialist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). This was not Cuba’s first time supporting revolutionary forces in a decolonizing African country: Cuba had provided support to the Front National de Liberation (FLN) in Algeria in the early 1960s, as well as sent troops to the Congo.
Drawing on sources from US, South African, and Cuban archives, Gleijeses argues that Cuban involvement in these African conflicts was motivated, above all, by a commitment to anti-imperialism, revolutionary internationalism, and, in the case of Angola, what Fidel Castro referred to as “the most beautiful cause”: anti-apartheid.
Having learned from their experience in the Congo, which they entered unprepared in their attempt to support revolutionary forces there, the Cubans understood the political situation in Angola far better than the Soviet Union and frequently disagreed with the Soviets on strategy and action. Gleijeses demonstrates how the Cubans did not make the same mistake again: Cuba played a crucial role in preventing US-backed apartheid South Africa from conquering Angola.
This interview also invites a discussion on socialist internationalism today. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the idea of an international socialist project has waned. Despite periodic outcries against US imperialism, the resurgence of today’s US left has overwhelmingly focused on domestic politics. Gleijeses’s work asks some key questions for today’s leftists: What should a global socialist movement look like? And what types of material commitments and sacrifices might it take from those of us in the heart of empire?
Cuba’s history and present are often wildly misrepresented in US popular media. For an accessible overview of Cuban history, read this interview with historian Antoni Kapcia or listen to it here. While Gleijeses’ book focuses specifically on Cuba’s foreign policy in relation to Angola, his previous book, , tells the story of the country’s revolutionary internationalism in the first fifteen years after the revolution. To learn more about imperialism and foreign policy, past and present, check out The Dig’s vast interview archives