Africa prays for Castro

Throughout the veteran Comandante’s 47-year rule, the world’s poorest continent has loomed large in his global outlook and it was the scene of his most ambitious overseas adventures.

From the deserts of Algeria and Ethiopia to the jungles of Guinea Bissau and Congo and the Angolan bush, close to half a million Cubans have fought and worked on African soil in the name of “revolutionary solidarity”.

More than 2,000 died there. Most served as soldiers in Cuba’s large-scale military interventions in Angola and Ethiopia. “I vividly remember the support Cuban troops rendered (to Ethiopia) during our struggle in beating back a Somali invasion of our east . . . I wish speedy recovery and long life to the great Cuban leader Fidel Castro,” retired Ethiopian brigadier-general Wasihun Negat said.

Cubans have served as medics and construction workers in Africa, benefiting the lives of ordinary people.

Nearly 2,000 Cuban doctors are still working in countries like South Africa, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Namibia and Mali. Tens of thousands of African students have also studied in Cuba. Fresh from his own 1959 Cuban Revolution which toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista, Castro threw himself with enthusiasm behind the liberation struggles of Africans fighting to end European colonial rule.

From the early 1960s, he sent Cuban military instructors to Algeria and Guinea Bissau. One of his closest comrades, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, tried and failed to ignite revolution in eastern Congo in 1965, leading a band of black Cuban soldiers. But it was Angola, the former jewel of Portugal’s African colonial empire, which saw Castro’s biggest foreign gamble.

When Angola’s Soviet-backed independence was threatened in 1975 by South African and Zairean forces and mercenaries, Castro launched “Operation Carlota”-a rush airlift of Cuban combat troops who defended Angola’s new Marxist rulers.

So began Cuba’s 16-year intervention in Angola, which culminated in 1988 with 55,000 Cuban troops armed with Soviet tanks and MiG fighters battling white South African soldiers and US-backed Angolan rebels in the southern bushlands. Thousands of miles from their Caribbean home in Angola’s “lands at the end of the earth”, young Cuban servicemen fought in what Castro dubbed “Africa’s Stalingrad”, the battle of Cuito Cuanavale which blocked the South African advance north.

Gleijeses says Castro often angered and alarmed the cautious Soviets with his daring deployments in Angola. The memory of Cuba’s help against colonialism and apartheid kept Castro’s star burning brightly in Africa. South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela calls him friend, so too does Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and a host of other African leaders. But analysts see Cuba’s influence in Africa waning.

“Without Castro, Cuban-African relations will deteriorate. When a new leadership comes in, there could be new priorities,” said Lyal White of the South African Institute for International Affairs. ‘ Reuters.

August 2006
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