We do not fold our arms: Mandela and Cuba

Winter 2014

Despite Raúl Castro being one of the few world leaders invited to speak at his memorial service Cuba’s relations with Nelson Mandela and South Africa were notably absent from any media coverage writes, Bob Oram

A quick search of the Nelson Mandela posthumous word clouds show a man universally acknowledged as a ‘giant’, ‘statesman’, ‘hero’ and ‘legend’. Obituaries discuss his relationships with world leaders and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, but nowhere can we find mention of Cuba.

And yet the links between Cuba and Southern Africa are strong and their shared revolutionary history needs to be understood. As Raúl Castro, one of only five world leaders to speak at Mandela’s memorial said to huge cheers, “We shall never forget (his) moving tribute to our common struggle when he visited us on July 26 1991 and stated: “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of people of Africa”. He was “the supreme symbol of dignity and unwavering dedication to the revolutionary struggle for freedom and justice”.

As Che said “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love” and Tata Madiba, as he was known in South Africa, had them in abundance. But he was a brave soldier, a patriot and an internationalist as well, who always insisted he was part of a collective and that his role must never be placed above the organisation he was part of all his life, the African National Congress (ANC). His experiences of forming Umkhonto ne Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC, and being sent to prison as a result made him a man of the people who knew “It is not the kings and generals that make history but the masses of the people, the workers, the peasants...”.

It is this understanding and dedication to a cause that made him a close friend of Fidel. Cuba is renowned for its own unifying humanism and its internationalist spirit is a direct legacy from its own national hero, José Martí, who fought not only to liberate his continent, but the world. That tradition is instilled into every child in Cuba, guiding not only its domestic but all of its foreign policies.

Cuba’s medical and educational missions around the world are legendary. But the direct, costly and extensive role that the island played in the struggle against apartheid and for the liberation of the African continent has never been recognised by ‘the West’.

As Fidel made clear at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in 1995 during the United Nations 50th anniversary celebrations: “We have shed our blood to fight against colonialism and to defend independence. More than 2,000 Cubans gave their lives in internationalist missions, fighting colonialism. If there is something that makes us proud and makes us feel that we have discharged our duty to humanity, it is the 15 years that we have fought against South Africa, against racism and apartheid...... There were talks about the end of apartheid, like the work and miracle of the United Nations. There was no mention of a single Cuban, of the many Cubans who died. The name of Cuba was not even mentioned. Look at how sometimes people who intend to write history forget reality”.

Cuba’s involvement in the continent began as early as 1961 when a delegation from Cuba travelled to Algiers to build formal relations with the Algerian National Liberation Front. Che’s trip around the African continent in 1964 was a significant moment in strengthening relationships and led to him leading a guerilla group in the Congo, Cuba supporting Guinea-Bissau’s liberation struggle against Portugal and also providing support and training to Zairean and Angolan rebels.

Mandela speaks of the earliest contact with Cubans: “I must say that when we wanted to take up arms we approached numerous Western governments for assistance and we were never able to see any but the most junior ministers. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest officials and were immediately offered whatever we wanted and needed. That was our earliest experience with Cuban internationalism”.

Cuba’s long role in Angola was central to its policy towards the South African liberation movements, as it provided a territorial base of support to the ANC in exile and training its military wing.

In October 1975 South Africa launched a major invasion of Angola with the objective of overthrowing the elected government and installing the right wing Jonas Savimbi of UNITA in power. When the President of Angola, Agostino Neto, asked Cuba for help, ‘Operation Carlota’ was launched on 5 November 1975, whereby an all volunteer army from Cuba went to provide military assistance. Carlota was the name of an African slave who took up the machete and launched a rebellion in Cuba in 1843. Canadian academic Isaac Saney noted in 2005, “The Cubans saw support for Angola as not only as aiding an independent country in its defence against a foreign invader but also as a historical debt owed by Cuba to Africa as a result of slavery and the slave trade”.

Alfred Nzo, General Secretary of the ANC, reiterated its support for Cuba’s assistance in Angola fighting against the South African military invasion. He noted that Cuba’s assistance to the Angolans was “invaluable help for crushing South Africa’s evil racist and imperialist aggression”.

In 1975 Fidel said Angola “is rich in minerals - diamonds, copper, iron - this is one of the reasons why the imperialists want to seize Angola.....Some imperialists are asking why we are helping the Angolans, what interest do we have there? They are used to thinking that when a country is doing something it is because it is seeking....some natural resource. No! We are not pursuing any material interest.....we seek absolutely nothing. We are simply applying our political principles. We do not fold our arms when we see an African people, our brother - that the imperialists want devoured - suddenly and brutally attacked by South Africa. We do not fold our arms and we will never fold our arms”.

Three of the Miami Five served in Angola. Recently freed after completing his 15 year sentence, René González said after Mandela’s death:

“For me it was natural to go to Africa. I mean the Cuban people back then, we had that feeling of, you know, we had to do something for the world. Back then it was Africa, it was the whole colonialism issue. Everybody knows that the US government in spite of their rhetoric about democracy, they supported colonialism, they supported South Africa. We cannot forget they had Mandela on the terrorist list until yesterday. Now all of a sudden everybody loves Mandela there, but we cannot forget history. So I was 20 years old when I volunteered to go there and fight against South African apartheid and the invasion of Angola”.

History is now clear that this support was, as Fidel said “exclusively a Cuban decision”, with even the CIA accepting that the Cuban leaders “felt compelled to intervene for their own ideological reasons”. (For a definitive account of this period see ‘Conflicting Missions’ by Piero Gleijeses 2002).

Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, between October 1987 and June 1988, which saw some of the fiercest fighting in Africa since WW2. When the Angolans asked for more help Fidel observed “We simply could not sit back....We gave MPLA the necessary assistance to prevent a people fighting for their independence for almost 14 years from being crushed. It was our elementary duty, our revolutionary duty, our internationalist duty to give assistance to MPLA regardless of the price”.

The South African Defence Forces were comprehensively and humiliatingly defeated in the battle. It was the beginning of the end for apartheid and ‘The World’ (a Black South African newspaper) at the time said “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola. Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of realising the dream of ‘total liberation’”. Fidel also observed that “the history of Africa will be written as before and after Cuito Cuanavale”.

As Mandela would acknowledge on his historic 1991 trip to Cuba this marked the “turning point for the liberation of our continent and of my people from the scourge of apartheid.” He went onto say “without the defeat inflicted at Cuito Cuinavale our organisations never would have been legalised. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and injustice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character”.

Contrast Cuba’s record with that of the governments of USA and UK, both firm supporters of apartheid, and you understand why Raúl Castro was introduced on the Mandela memorial platform as from the “tiny island that fought for our liberation”.

Current US President Obama did not apologise for the CIA providing the South African government with the information that led to Mandela’s capture on 5 August 1962 and consequent 27 years in jail.

US President Reagan and the UK’s Margaret Thatcher not only covertly, but openly supported the white minority regime. While in South Africa’s Freedom Park, outside Pretoria, 2,070 names of Cubans who died in Angola are inscribed alongside those of South Africans who fell during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Ronnie Kasrils, formerly chief of intelligence of the ANC military wing and South African Minister, says of the Cubans: “Those patriots and internationalists were motivated by a single goal - an end to racial rule and genuine African independence. After 13 years of defending Angolan sovereignty, the Cubans took nothing home except the bones of their fallen and our gratitude.”

The first Cuban meeting with Mandela after his prison release took place at the Namibian independence celebration in Windhoek, in 1990, and then in Cuba in 1991 to celebrate the 38th anniversary of the storming of the Moncada barracks, and was a huge and significant show of solidarity. After the ANC triumph in the 1994 elections Cuba was the first country recognised diplomatically by the ANC government.

It is inevitable that the media canonisation of Mandela will continue. It will definitely not be the same when Fidel passes. The Miami mafia that snubbed Mandela when he visited the US in 1990 (and brought about a three year boycott of events in Miami-Dade County by many in the Black Community) will ensure none of the same respect is shown about Castro and socialist Cuba. The outpourings of hypocrisy from Obama and Cameron reflect the fact that Mandela extended the hand of friendship to white oppressors and ‘national reconciliation’ accepted no apartheid killers would ever be tried. But more importantly business was protected, often to flee the country with its wealth intact, and no acts of redistribution challenged class power structures. Contrast for example the media commentary on Chávez’s legacy with that of Mandela.

As Mandela became President he was accepted as the legitimate leader of the cause he had fought so courageously for all his life, precisely because he didn’t challenge neo-liberalism. As Ronnie Kasrils wrote in the Guardian in June 2013: “From 1991 to 1996 the battle for the ANC’s soul got under way, and was eventually lost to corporate power....We were entrapped by the neoliberal economy”.

The shameless efforts of hypocritical politicians and the monopoly media to present the South African black majority’s achievement with Mandela as its leader, as repudiation and rejection of revolutionary anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggle, will not survive scrutiny or constant repetition.

As his friend and fellow prisoner Dennis Goldberg said on 1 January 2014 “His life was one of inspiring and mobilising, with other great leaders and thinkers, tens and hundreds of thousands of people in South Africa and world wide for us to defeat apartheid. He was a determined and committed activist connected to a powerful liberation movement that shaped him and which he also shaped, that brought us on the first step of the long walk to freedom. Too many of the praises heaped upon him have the effect of saying that we need do nothing, and some saviour will set us free. That is the opposite of his whole life’s work”.

It is a message that Castro understood at Matanzas reiterating six times “How far have we slaves come”. Maybe Fidel had a sense of Mandela’s looming problems as he calls to the crowd: “Each and everyone of us must multiply our efforts...The cause that we defend deserves it so much!”

President Zuma, at Madiba’s memorial called on all his people to re-affirm Mandela’s “vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another”. Mandela will always be known as a great South African dedicated to revolutionary change. New generations have the task of continuing his work, inspired by his example. It is a ‘Long walk to freedom’.

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