THE PRESENCE of President Raúl Castro of Cuba among world leaders invited to speak at the funeral of Nelson Mandela would not have surprised anyone who is aware of the decisive role played by Cuba in forcing the end of South African apartheid.

In 1991 Nelson Mandela himself travelled to Cuba to thank Fidel Castro and the Cuban people for supporting the fight against colonialism in southern Africa. The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale he refers to in his speech at Havana (below) was in fact a series of battles fought in Angola between December 1987 and March 1988 in which the white South African army was defeated by the Angolan army, reinforced by Cuban army and air force units, whose role in the battle proved decisive.

The results of this battle proved to the apartheid establishment that they could no longer hope to dominate Southern Africa and that the time had come for them to engage in peace talks to salvage what they could from an unsustainable military situation.


Excerpts from Mandela’s speech:


“We have come here today recognising our great debt to the Cuban people. What other country has such a history of selfless behaviour as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa? How many countries benefit from Cuban health-care professionals and educators? How many of these volunteers are now in Africa? What country has ever needed help from Cuba and has not received it? How many countries threatened by imperialism or fighting for their freedom have been able to count on the support of Cuba?

I was still in prison when I first heard of the massive help which the Cuban international forces were giving to the people of Angola. The help was of such a scale that it was difficult for us to believe it, when the Angolans were under attack by the combined forces of South Africa, the FALA [“Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola”], who were financed by the CIA, mercenaries, UNITA [“National Union for the Total Independence of Angola”] and Zaïre in 1975.

In Africa we are used to being victims of countries that want to take from us our territory or overthrow our sovereignty. In African history there is not another instance where another people has stood up for one of ours. We also acknowledge that the action was carried out by the masses in Cuba and that those who fought and died in Angola are only a small portion of those who volunteered to go.

To the Cuban people, internationalism is not only a word but something which they have put into practice for the benefit of large sectors of mankind. We know that the Cuban forces were ready to retreat after driving back the invasion in 1975 but the continued aggressions of Pretoria did not allow them to do so. Your presence there and the reinforcements sent for the battle of Cuito Cuanavale has a historical meaning. The decisive defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for all Africa. This victory in Cuito Cuanavale is what made it possible for Angola to enjoy peace and establish its own sovereignty. The defeat of the racist army made it possible for the people of Namibia to achieve their independence.

The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor. The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa. Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organisations would not have been legalised. The defeat of the racist army in Cuito Cuanavale made it possible for me to be here with you today.

Cuito Cuanavale marks the divide in the struggle for the liberation of southern Africa. Cuito Cuanavale marked an important step in the struggle to free the continent and our country of the scourge of apartheid.

It is well known that the response of the state to our legitimate democratic demands was, among others, to accuse our directors of treason and subject our people during the 1970s to indiscriminate massacres. These facts, and the banning of our organisation, left us no other road than the one followed by any self-respecting people, including Cuba, that is, to rise up in an armed struggle to retake our country from the hands of the racists.

I should mention that when we wanted to take up arms, we approached numerous Western governments in search of help, and we could only talk with the lowest-level officials. When we visited Cuba we were received by the highest authorities, who immediately offered anything we wanted and needed.

That was our first experience with Cuban internationalism. Even though we took up arms, it was not our preferred option. It was the apartheid regime that forced us to take up arms. Our preferred option has always been to find a peaceful solution to the apartheid conflict. The combined struggle of our people in the country, as well as the growing international battle against apartheid during the 1980s, made possible a negotiated solution to that conflict. The decisive defeat in Cuito Cuanavale changed the status of forces in the region and reduced considerably the capacity of the Pretoria regime to destabilise its neighbours . . . within the country.

It is in this context that we value our friendship with Cuba very, very much. When you, Comrade Fidel, yesterday said that our cause is your cause, I know that that sentiment came from the bottom of your heart, and that that is the feeling of all the people of revolutionary Cuba. [TMS]


from Socialist Voice January 2014


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