Fidel Castro supported Third World struggles in many areas, especially in the battle against apartheid and decolonisation in Africa, particularly in South Africa, and Angola.
As Cuba’s Prime Minister and President for nearly five decades, Castro’s Cuban soldiers and officers fought side-by-side with their African counterparts against western imperialism and for national independence.
First, who was Fidel Castro?
Who was Fidel Castro?
Born Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz on August 13, 1926, Fidel Castro grew up on his family’s sugar plantation near Biran, Oriente Province. His father, Angel Castro y Argiz was an immigrant labourer from Galicia, Spain, who later became a fairly prosperous sugarcane farmer, owning a 23-acre plantation.
As a young boy, Castro worked on his father’s plantation. However, unlike many young Cubans at the time, he was the recipient of excellent education at Jesuit institutions – Colegio La Salle and Colegio Dolores in Santiago, and finally Colegio Belen in Havana.
At Colegio Belen, he was voted the school’s most outstanding athlete. He excelled in track and field events, specifically high jump and middle-distance running. He also excelled in baseball, basketball and table tennis, with his forte being baseball.
Castro proceeded to the University of Havana where he worked on procuring a law degree. At the university, he got actively involved in politics and was a part of the attempt to overthrow the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic in 1947. However, this attempt failed and Fidel Castro fled, avoiding capture. He eventually returned to Havana to complete his degree and finally graduated in 1950.
The 1959 Cuban Revolution
After Fidel Castro graduated from the university, he joined a small law firm that defended the poor and people with political difficulties. His political affiliation was with the Orthodox Party, which was positioned against Fulgencio Batista’s Authentic Party.
Batista’s corrupt administration created social problems in which the blacks were at the pedestrian level of society. The issue of open unemployment further intensified these social problems. Poverty was equally widespread with a large fraction of the population that was illiterate and undernourished, especially in the large rural families.
Fidel Castro was projected to be an Orthodox candidate for Congress in the 1952 elections. However, those elections were cancelled by Batista and they never held. Castro challenged this decision by going to court and charged the dictator with violating the constitution, but the Court rejected the petition. It was at this point that Fidel Castro began his career as a revolutionary leader.
Following the rejection of his petition in court, Castro, together with his brother Raul, organized 165 men and women who carried out an armed attack on the Moncada army barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. The attack which was intended to spark a general insurrection throughout the island failed miserably. Castro and his brother Raul were taken prisoners and half of the attackers were killed. The date of this attack would eventually become the name of their revolutionary movement – the July 26th Movement.
Castro and his brother were sentenced to 15 years in prison. However, in an amnesty programme that took place in 1955, just two years after, the brothers were released. They moved to Mexico where they began earnest preparations to dislodge the Batista-led tyrannical Authentic Party.
Another attempt by Fidel Castro failed woefully with almost all members of the attack killed, leaving only Fidel, Raul, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and nine others. They fled into the mountains and again, continued plotting a revolutionary movement against Fulgencio Batista.
Together with a growing number of revolutionary volunteers, Fidel Castro was able to win several battles against Batista’s army and eventually, on January 1, 1959, he declared the victory of the Cuban Revolution as Batista had fled into exile the previous evening.
The Cuban Revolution birthed Fidel Castro’s vision to expand his frontiers abroad, especially in Africa. He had a “global vision of a world free of empire, free of capitalist domination, free of racism, with solidarity and self-determination for people’s movements.”
According to Fidel Castro, his belief was “Socialismo O Muerte!” which is translated to mean “Socialism or Death!”
While Castro supported Third World struggles in many areas, a few stand out – Latin America of course, Vietnam, Palestine and the battle against apartheid and decolonisation in Africa, especially in South Africa and Angola.
Fidel Castro and Africa
One of Castro’s central foreign policy goals was internationalism – the promotion of decolonisation and revolutionary politics abroad. This involved sending troops to fight in wars against colonial or proxy forces on the African continent, as well as supporting those movements with logistical and technical support.
Cuba sent troops to Africa but it also sent tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, dentists, nurses, healthcare technicians, academics, teachers and engineers to the continent and elsewhere. That a significant proportion of Cubans trace their ancestries to west and central Africa (owing to slavery) contributed to this politics.
The Cubans believed that they had a responsibility to take on the forces of imperialism, capitalism, Zionism, apartheid and injustice internationally. So, while Castro will always remain, first, a Latin American Revolutionary, his contributions were so much more extensive than that.
Cuba played a much larger and ultimately more determinative role in Africa, both in support of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) in their fight against apartheid in South Africa. According to Fidel Castro, in a 1998 speech, rendered to the South African Parliament during his first visit to the country, he said that by the end of the cold war at least 381,432 Cuban soldiers and officers had been on duty or “fought hand-in-hand with African soldiers and officers in this continent for national independence or against foreign aggression.”
Furthermore, Fidel Castro extended his frontiers to several other African countries.
In 1961, he set up a guerilla training base in Ghana. The base stayed in operation until Ghana’s president, Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown by the military in February 1966.
From 1963 to 1965, Cuban combat troops were deployed in Algeria during the country’s border conflict with Morocco. Also, Che Guevara led a contingent of Cuban guerrillas into Zaire and into the Congo-Brazzaville between 1965 to 1966.
In addition, Cuba established a large advisory military mission in Congo-Brazzaville. This mission quashed a Congolese army revolt in July 1966. Moving on from Congo-Brazzaville, Cuba dispatched new military missions to Sierra Leone as well as Somalia in 1974 and Algeria in 1975.
In fact, Cuba, in collaboration with Algeria, backed up Polisario, the Liberation Movement fighting for the independence of mineral-rich Western Saharawi, now called Sahara Ahab Democratic Republic.
Castro’s Role in Angola
Fidel Castro’s greatest role in the decolonisation and liberation of Africa was definitely in Angola. It was the Angolan war of independence which began in the middle of 1970 and in which Cuba successfully participated with the former Soviet Union that provided logistic support for Angola that popularised Cuba as a force to reckon with in the history of “Liberation Struggles” in Africa.
This heroic involvement in the fight for the independence of Angolans endeared Fidel Castro and the people of Cuba to the hearts of many Africans, especially as the Cubans fought gallantly alongside the Angolans for the attainment of Angolan independence.
Prior to their independence, Angola, along with Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde Island, Sao Tome and Principe, had all remained under Portuguese colonialism for centuries.
In Angola, the national liberation movement there, unlike those in the other Portuguese African territories, consisted of three rival sub-movements: the Frente National de Libertacao de Angola (National Front for the Liberation of Angola or FNLA), Union National Pro-Independence Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola or UNITA) and Movement Popular de Liberation of Angola (Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola or MPLA).
Of all the three parties, the MPLA found massive and grassroots support in Angola.
The MPLA, founded by Agostino Neto, who eventually became the first President of Angola, enjoyed great support from Fidel Castro who had not only been a close friend of Neto but also a supporter of the MPLA.
When the South Africans who were supported by various U.S. governments and agencies would not go away gently, and began to intervene with army, naval and air force units, as well as mercenaries funded by the CIA, Neto had no choice but to request military assistance from Cuba, on the basis of his friendship with Castro.
Fidel Castro and the people of Cuba responded swiftly.
In November 1975, Angolan and Cuban forces began OPERATION CARLOTA, which stopped the South African movement toward the capital at Luanda and pushed them out of Angola all together. The Cuban and Soviet support assisted the MPLA in defeating the combined forces of FNLA, UNITA and the South African forces.
The Cuban soldiers were instrumental in facilitating the independence of Angola that was attained on December 12, 1976, by enabling other African countries, in fact, the OAU to back the MPLA government led by Agostino Neto.
Unfortunately, the Cubans suffered great casualties in the Angola debacle. In fact, according to a report by the Angolan Government, about 3,400 Cubans died in three years between 1986 and 1989. However, in the 11 years Cuba fought in Angola, the country reportedly suffered close to 10,000 casualties.
Castro’s Role in Namibia
Another prominent intervention of Fidel Castro and the Cuban forces is the attainment of Namibian independence.
After the intervention by the Cuban forces in Angola, the country became a Cold War hotspot, attracting significant U.S. support for UNITA, the MPLA’s main rival in Angola, and the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a series of conflicts that Cuban-backed MPLA forces fought against South African forces and UNITA rebels. The battle was thought to have been the largest on African soil since the World War.
At the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the Cubans, in early 1988, outflanked the South African forces to the West and along the Angola-Namibia border with 40,000 troops and marched toward Namibia. By June of 1988, the South Africans had been defeated. Consequently, Angola remained sovereign and Namibia gained independence. The South Africans suffered a huge loss of credibility across the globe and this hastened the end of apartheid. Fidel Castro and the Cuban forces played an immense role in all of those conflicts.
It is pertinent to note that one of the greatest foreign influences on modern Angola was Cuba’s socialist policy of internationalist solidarity. The Cuban-Angolan alliance transcended the Cuito Cuanavale battle. As a reinstatement and further demonstration of Castro’s commitment to assist African countries, Cuba stationed new economic and technical aid missions in several African countries.
Fidel Castro also prepared technical training grounds for Angola and other African school children. This resulted in the education of 2.4 million Angolans by Cuban teachers. Between 1977 to 2003, almost 140,000 scholarships were granted for Angolans to study at Cuba’s Isle de la Juventud, an island dedicated to education for students from socialist countries.
In addition to the intervention of the Cuban forces in the decolonisation and independence of some African countries, as well as educational and technical training of Africans, the health sector of some African countries was advanced tremendously through Fidel Castro’s vision of national integration and development.
Castro helped develop advanced medical services that also benefited African countries. For instance, countries such as Niger and Burkina Faso benefited tremendously from these medical services. Also, Cuban doctors assisted in the training of paramedical staff and ancillary personnel, especially in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Gambia.
Fidel Castro’s Death and Legacy
On November 25, 2016, Fidel Castro died of natural causes. He was 90. Castro was Prime Minister of Cuba from 1959 to 1976 and President from 1976 to 2008. He was succeeded by his brother, Raul Castro.
Castro’s death brought out an untold litany of homages and tributes. During his lifetime, Fidel Castro was committed to the development of several African countries and he was close friends with several African leaders such as Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Sam Nujoma of Namibia, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
Nelson Mandela referred to him as “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”
According to Manuel Vicente, the Vice President of Angola, he says: “Fidel is a friend, a comrade. He is an unforgettable figure to us. His memory will be always remembered in Angola.”
Upon his death, world leaders, the media and most importantly the people in the streets – in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and throughout the Third World – spoke movingly of the model he provided for revolution and the aid he gave to revolutionary movements, especially in Africa.
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Adebayo, P.F. (2004, March). The Cuban Revolution and Africa: A Retrospect. The Constitution. Vol. 4. No. 1. 107-119.
Alex, V. (2016, December 6). Fidel Castro’s Greatest Legacy in Africa Is in Angola. Chatham House. Retrieved from https://www.chathamhouse.org/2016/12/fidel-castros-greatest-legacy-africa-angola
Lyndsey, C. (2016, November 26). A Friend of Africa. Quartz Africa. Retrieved from https://qz.com/africa/846337/cuban-leader-fidel-castro-was-a-liberation-icon-in-africa-and-remained-committed-to-the-continent/
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