Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Angolan War Memories Live On

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Nov 30 2005 (IPS) - The arrival of December in Cuba, as well as signalling the end of the hurricane season and the scorching temperatures of summer, is also a time for remembering one of the most dramatic periods in recent Cuban history: the country’s 13-year-long participation in the war in Angola.

Between 1975 and 1988, some 350,000 Cubans took part in the civil war in the southern African nation, which was also the last time Cuba’s military forces were involved in an armed conflict.

“I went because I wanted to, I really wanted to take part in an internationalist mission,” said Rubén Jiménez, a 62-year-old retired Cuban armed forces officer who wrote “Al sur de Angola” (In Southern Angola), a book about the final stages of the war.

In an interview with IPS, Jiménez said that enlisting in the units that went to fight in Angola was strictly voluntary, even for members of the armed forces.

But refusing to participate in Operation Carlota, as active duty in Angola was known, brought expulsion from the party ranks for members of the ruling Communist Party and the Communist Youth Union.

In addition, in a heavily “machista” society like Cuba, those who chose not to go to Angola risked being labelled cowards.

The first Cuban military contingent was sent to Angola in October 1975 at the request of Agostinho Neto, leader of the leftist rebel Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), who became the country’s president upon the declaration of independence from Portugal on Nov. 11 of that same year.

During the previous decade, Cuban advisors had provided assistance to MPLA combatants in what was then known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and was subsequently renamed Zaire.

The arrival of Cuban troops was considered decisive in preventing Luanda, the Angolan capital, from falling into the hands of the MPLA’s opponents, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which was backed by Zaire, the United States and apartheid-era South Africa.

But while the heroic battles waged by this Caribbean island nation’s troops are now being celebrated in daily spots on state-run national television and radio, the thoughts of many Cubans turn to the war’s effects on those who took part.

“My brother never even mentions the war,” said Ángel Santiesteban, who added that his stepbrother Jorge Luis Villazón was changed forever by his experiences in Angola.

“Reading his letters, we began to realise that he was becoming lost in time, that each existential horror he suffered stripped away more of his essence, his personality. I learned that death is not only physical, that a person’s spirit can die as well,” Santiesteban told IPS.

Retired army officer Rafael Alemañy, 60, maintains that most of the troops who saw action in Angola did not suffer this kind of psychological trauma. “I believe that the Cubans held up and made the best of the most difficult conditions in the most remote places,” he said.

Alemañy himself lived through some harrowing moments during the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale in early 1988, when Angolan and Cuban troops were bombarded day and night by South African artillery and he was in charge of anti-air defence.

But 10,000 kilometres away, far from the gunfire and explosions, the war’s effects were also felt in Cuban homes.

Jiménez’s wife Miriam Cruz, now 57, remembers how she used to take her eight-year-old son down to the Havana waterfront in the evenings to look out at the sea, “so that we weren’t stuck in the house fighting all the time.”

For her part, Villazón’s mother used to cry every time she opened her son’s closet or cooked his favourite foods.

“We spent two years waiting for news of my brother’s death,” recalled Santiestebán. “Every time the mailman came, my mother would get all tense, and couldn’t bring herself to go out and collect the letter or telegram he’d brought,” he said.

According to Cuban government figures, during all of the “internationalist” missions carried out in Africa from the early 1960s to the withdrawal of the last soldier from Angola on May 25, 1991, a total of 2,077 Cubans were killed.

The remains that could be recovered were not brought back to Cuban soil until December 1989, when they were repatriated during the so-called Operation Tribute.

There are no official statistics on the war’s consequences with regard to those who were wounded or disabled or contracted serious illnesses while serving in Africa. What is known, however, is that the first cases of HIV/AIDS reported in Cuba were detected in troops returning from Africa in the mid-1980s.

>From the 1960s to the 1980s, Cuba provided support to rebel movements and leftist governments in numerous African countries, including Algeria, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau and the Congo.

Aid to Angola was not limited to military assistance, but also extended to health care, education, construction and other sectors, with initiatives involving over 50,000 civilian participants from Cuba.

Professor Olga Zayas, 62, spent two years in Angola – 1977 to 1979 – training Angolan teachers to work as headmasters. “Never before had I felt so useful, so needed as a human being,” she told IPS.

Her time in Africa was rewarding in another way as well, she added. Despite having been diagnosed by doctors as sterile, she returned to Cuba in 1979 five months pregnant.

Angola was also considered a battleground in the Cold War between the United States and the now defunct Soviet Union. The United States backed UNITA troops – who fought until 2002 -with military advisors and weapons, while the Soviets provided the same support for the Angolan army.

In the final stage of the conflict, there were around 53,000 Cuban troops fighting in the southern African nation.

On Dec. 22, 1998, Angola, Cuba and South Africa signed a peace agreement in New York that was brokered by the United States, through which South Africa granted full independence to neighbouring Namibia, while Cuba agreed to withdraw its troops.

In July 1991, African National Congress (ANC) leader and future South African president Nelson Mandela travelled to Havana to personally thank Cuban President Fidel Castro for his country’s pivotal role in the fight against apartheid. The military defeat suffered by South Africa in Angola and Namibia, largely thanks to the contribution of Cuban troops, was considered a decisive blow in bringing down the racist apartheid regime.

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  • Stephanus Swart

    I am a South African who fought in the war 1975 -1976 and would like to make contact with Cuban soldiers who fought over the same period. I have a lot of questions regarding certain incidences.

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