“Bits of Cuban History” is a new series of weekly publications highlighting historical events and information from Cuba’s colonial and national periods.
We hope you enjoy this new publication.
Following is the 22nd in this new series.
BITS OF CUBAN HISTORY
Portuguese slavers brought Angolans to Cuba where they were known as Bantus or Congolese. In the mid-1960s, Angola became a focus of Soviet and Cuban attention as three different guerrilla groups fought for the independence of this Portuguese colony. The Communist-supported Movimiento Popular par a Libertação de Angola (MPLA), led by Agostinho Neto, took over from the Portuguese colonial administration in the capital Luanda when independence was granted in1974, but it could not impose its authority on its rivals, particularly Jonas Savimbi’s South African and United States-backed UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola) in the south and east. By August 1975 South African troops were at the gates of Luanda and Cuban troops with Soviet military equipment were dispatched at Neto’s invitation to prevent a UNITA victory. Cuba also sent in 9,000 doctors and teachers, while thousands of Angolans attended schools or training establishments in Cuba. In response to a warning by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Cuba informed Sweden that it would withdraw half its forces by December 1976, but nothing came of this. In 1980 Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos visited Cub and signed an agreement establishing bilateral exchanges between Cuba and Angola.
In a decade of bloody fighting, the Cubans lost heavily- 2,016 deaths were admitted (787 in combat, 524 through disease, and 705 to accidents), but United States sources claimed 6,200 casualties (killed and wounded) by 1984 and, according to Cuban deserter Rafael del Pino, there were 10,000 deaths by 1989, attributed more to disease than the actual fighting. But the Cubans proved themselves a match for UNITA’s South African allies, whose own strength had reached 25,000 by 1978. In 1984 Cuba made a heavily conditioned offered to withdraw its then 25,000 troops from Angola, which South Africa labeled “unacceptable.” By 1986, about 35,000 Cuban troops (16 motorized infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, an anti-aircraft brigade and five hundred airmen) remained in Angola, mainly as a static defense force for the diamond mines and oil fields. A tripartite peace signed in December 1988 led to the removal of all Cuban troops by May 1991. Meanwhile the dissolution of the Soviet Union had ended Russian interest in supporting the MPLA, while simultaneously ending United States interest in aiding UNITA. And although a now impoverished Cuba could no longer afford to participate in the struggle, the downfall of white rule in South Africa denied UNITA its main foreign support. With both sides bereft of outside aid, the ghastly civil war continued its destructive course as a purely Angolan affair.
The war (and particularly the victory of Cuito Cuanavale) had gained Cuba considerable international prestige, but at the cost of very heavy casualties and the spread of AIDS among its troops and of corruption among its army commanders.