Friday, April 27, 2018
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Book review: Conflicting Missions

A Colossus who bestrode the Third World is gone. Fidel Castro has retired.


But what drove him to step onto that stage? Some years ago US academic Piero Gleijeses sought to answer that question and Conflicting Missions was the result. Gleijeses was the first Western scholar given access to the archives of the Cuban armed forces and he had access to some top Cuban officials – although not Fidel or his brother Raul.




Access to the archives reportedly after several years of pestering the Cuban authorities through the 1990s and was in part a Cuban reaction to their former African allies airbrushing them out of history. "The Africans are not rushing to tell Cuba`s story. In the official history of the Angolan Armed Forces, for example, the Cuban role in 1975-6 is virtually overlooked. And in a Portuguese documentary on the war of independence in Guinea-Bissau, not one of the former PIAGC guerrillas mentioned Cuba`s contribution. I watched the programme with Victor Dreke, the discreet and stoic man who had created the Cuban military mission in Guinea, and I wondered what he must have felt."


South Africans generally know Cuba for its role in the Namibian-Angolan "Border War", which culminated at Cuito Cuanavale in early 2008 – exactly 20 years ago, a fact mentioned in the ruling ANC`s annual "January 8" statement this year: Among the events the party plans to celebrate this year is "the 20th anniversary of the defeat of the SADF at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale", which the ANC says "marked a turning point in the apartheid war of aggression against the people of Angola, contributing to the achievement of Namibian independence, and providing impetus to the process that led to the negotiated end of apartheid."


The statement then adds: "We use this occasion to salute the sons and daughters of the Cuban people who laid down their lives in the fight for our freedom." Of interest is the absence of mention of the Angolan Armed Forces. Angolan troops made up the bulk of the forces at Cuito Cuanavale and the fighting preceding it. Whether the ANC`s silence is a reflection of its warm ties with Cuba or the country`s cool       relationship with Angola falls beyond the scope of this review.


This vibrant amnesia means Cuba`s role in the Algerian war for independence and in Guinea Bissau is now generally forgotten. Dreke not only led that mission but had also been Ernesto "Ché" Guevara`s deputy in the Congo in 1965. Cuba sent troops via Tanzania to help the Simba rebels – who numbered Gucci guerrilla Laurent Kabila among their number – in the east of Congo-Kinshasa while also deploying soldiers to help the government of neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville.


Gleijeses writes that Castro was a main driver of these interventions, which nearly always had three legs: military assistance, scholarships and civil aid, mostly in the form of medical doctors. The US CIA, Gleijeses says, correctly summed him up, saying he was driven by "his sense of revolutionary mission" as well as the need for self-preservation. Henry Kissinger later acknowledged Castro as the "most authentic" revolutionary of his time. As a result Cuban aid came free to the recipients – a shrill contrast to Soviet and East Bloc aid that often came with a price tag even higher than that attached to Western aid.


Gleijeses reveals a Castro concerned about a fickle Soviet Union. They had left him in the lurch during the 1962 missile crisis and also opposed his ventures in Latin America in the name of accommodation with the US. Castro, typecast as the De Gaulle of the socialist block, was deeply critical of the half-hearted Russian support for North Vietnam against the US. He argued such indifferent support could next befall him. As a result aid was dispatched to North Vietnam. After assistance to Latin America was curtailed for fear of antagonising the US and alienating the USSR, Castro turned to Africa to seek political and psychological leverage against both superpowers: "idealism and pragmatism were the engines behind Cuba`s activism in the Third World."                       


Conflicting Missions cover the period 1962 to 1976, ending just after the withdrawal of South African troops from Angola after Operation "Savannah" that year. Gleijeses is currently preparing a second volume covering the period up to 1990. But until that becomes available those among us who have not read this first volume would be well advised to do so. It casts a completely different light on 40 years of African history. "Cuba made no demands; it gave us unconditional aid," a PIAGC leader told Gleijeses. A fine epitaph indeed.    


Conflicting missions

Piero Gleijeses






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