« Program: Hip Deep Angola 4: The Cuban Intervention in Angola

conflicting missions

PIERO GLEIJESES: THE HIP DEEP ESSENTIAL INTERVIEW

Interviewed in Washington, D.C., November 24, 2012 for Afropop Worldwide Hip Deep Angola, Part Four: The Cuban Intervention in Angola.

 

NS:    I usually like to begin interviews by asking you to identify yourself, what your background is, and the general contours of your work.

 

PG: My name is Piero Gleijeses. I’m a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. I was born in Italy. I’m a graduate of University of Geneva, Switzerland. I started my academic career as a professor of Latin American studies, then I shifted to American foreign policy, and I’ve written books mainly on US policy in the Caribbean and Central America: one on the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic {The Dominican Crisis: The 1965 Constitutionalist Revolt and American Intervention}, another one on the Guatemalan revolution and the American overthrow of President Arbenz in ’54 {Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954.} Since 1994, I’ve been working on the clash between United States and Cuba in Africa. My first book on the subject was Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, and I’ve just finished working on a second book: Visions of Freedom, which is about the clash between Cuba, the United States, the Soviet Union, and South Africa in southern Africa between 1976 and 1991.

 

NS:    When is that book coming out?

 

PG: September 2013, from the same publisher, the University of North Carolina press.

 

NS:    What was involved in doing your research?

 

PG: Well, the sine qua non for me to decide – we’re talking about Conflicting Missions, the first one, since the second one is the same essentially – was whether I would get access to the Cuban archives, which are closed archives. Clearly, there is no way to write on Cuban foreign policy in a serious way if you don’t have access to the Cuban archives. So that was the first challenge, and it took me three years from the moment I made my first request in late 1991 to the moment in which a very senior Cuban official, Jorge Risquet, said, “I’ve spoken with the comrades,  and we have decided to give you access.”

And then once I had access to the given archives, then obviously the other thing that was indispensable was access to the US archives. And then there were other archives, less important but still significant — Belgian, British, West German, East German — but the key was the access to the archives.

Interviews are important. Interviews are texture, color, but they’re important to complement the documents, not to replace the documents. Because memory is faulty, because people make up stories, etc. etc. So if you do just based on interviews, you may end up saying a lot of lies, not because you want to. And so nothing. When you’re dealing with the Cuban archives, which are closed, you always have ups and downs. Every time you go to Havana, you are again fighting for your access. And you may think you’ve arrived, and then you have to start again from the beginning, and so it’s very, very time-consuming. With this other book I’ve just finished now, working in the Cuban archives was easier because they already knew me, they were willing to give me access for the second book, and the additional advantage I had was that by the time I was working on the second book, in late 2002, 2003, the South African archives were open. So this new book is really based on a triptych: South African archives, US archives, Cuban archives. Plus, again, the archives of other countries. But those are the main ones. And so it’s a very time-consuming work. You have to go back, go back, go back, go back, and try to interview someone, so I went back to Angola, for instance, for three weeks in Angola. But there mainly interviews, because unfortunately, the archives are closed.

 

It’s a fascinating work. Particularly when you’re working with closed archives, it’s fascinating, though it has its frustrations. You are telling a story which is completely unknown, so you’re really doing a job of pathfinder. The first task is not to have your conclusions. It’s really to find out what happened.

 

NS:    You had to get the Cubans to invent a declassification procedure?

 

PG: Yes. They were not used to this kind of work, and so, for instance, there would be a document I wanted, and the person in charge would tell me, I can’t give you this document because there is this sentence that cannot be made public. So I went back to Havana with some US documents that had been sanitized, and said, look, this is the way the Americans do. All you have to do is knock out this sentence, etc., etc., and that takes care of it. And as we were proceeding, we developed a lot of rules. For instance, one thing I made clear from the beginning – and they were very flexible in accepting it – was that, since I write for an American public, in the United States no one believes you, so I’m not going to take notes. I will use the document only if I can get the photocopy, because otherwise, if I don’t have the photocopy to show the document, people may think I made it up. And they agreed! And this made it much easier for them to allow me to read documents, because I might read the document, and they knew I would not use it unless they gave me the photocopy. So instead of them first looking at the document and then deciding whether I could see it, I would look at the document and then I would say, I’m interested in this, this, this, and then they would look at the documents. Either they would declassify it for me, or if they said no, I wasn’t going to use the document in any way because I wouldn’t have the photocopy. So we developed a kind of system, which worked overall fairly well. Then sometimes the mechanism would stop. I still have 500 or 600 pages of documents in Havana that I’ve read but that have not been declassified. For instance, there is a long document which has to do with Vernon Walters, Reagan’s special envoy, who went to Havana in the spring of 1982. And he has a very long conversation with Fidel – about 200 pages – and in these 200 pages there is a sentence, in which Fidel refers to the fact that Che Guevara went to Beijing in, I think it was late 1964, and had a huge quarrel with Mao Tse-Tung. And now the Cubans have excellent relations with China, and so the idea was, we probably can’t declassify this sentence. But even the importance of the document – they sent it up all the way to Fidel, and it’s still there, pending. So I never got the document, which they sent up to Fidel just because of this sentence. I told them, just delete the sentence, I’m not interested in the sentence. I was interested in the conversation with Vernon Walters where they were talking about the situation at the moment — the threat of the Reagan Administration and so on — not Che Guevara’s trip in 1964. I couldn’t care less for this book. But they decided, no, even so, they have to send it upstairs, and there it is. So –

 

But since I got 15,000 pages of documents for this book, the fact that I didn’t get those pages didn’t make any difference.

 

NS:    Looking at our narrative now, what did the world look like politically at the time of the Cuban Revolution?

 

PG: Well, you had the Cold War, meaning the clash between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was very much a bipolar world, and you had decolonization. The first country of sub-Saharan Africa to become independent after the second world war was Ghana in 1957, and then the next countries were in 1960, so when you have the Cuban revolution is when you have the wave of decolonization in Africa, which is the 1960s, essentially. And Latin America was essentially part of the sphere of influence of the United States, controlled by the United States.

 

NS:    How did the Cuban Revolution change that world?

 

PG: Well, Cuba largely failed in Latin America. Cuba fought to bring about revolution – what they thought would be a more just society in Latin America, and these attempts failed. The guerrilla camps in Latin America failed. What you have is a certain legacy of Cuba, an image of Cuba.

But where Cuba changed history was in southern Africa. Cuba changed history in southern Africa despite the best efforts of Washington to prevent it. That was the greatest success of Cuba, and then you know you could also say that Cuba played an important role in the war of independence of Guinea-Bissau.

But if one looks back now and says, okay, what is the legacy of Cuba? First of all, in concrete terms, is Cuba’s contribution in the struggle against apartheid, what Fidel called la causa más bonita, the most beautiful cause of mankind, the struggle against apartheid, and that cause includes Angola, Namibia, Rhodesia, and above all South Africa.

Then you have another thing, of course, which one is always tending to forget, which is Cuba’s technical assistance abroad. No country in the world has had a program of technical assistance abroad as generous as Cuba. It’s a kind of upper-level Peace Corps – the Cuban doctors, the Cuban teachers, medical missions, construction missions, etc. that went to help underdeveloped countries basically at no cost for the host countries. About 70,000 Cubans went to Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and this is an immense contribution. And about, I think it’s 50,000 foreign students, who went to study in Cuba all expenses paid by the Cuban revolution. Some of them went as children and left as doctors — for instance, one person I interviewed for this book I’m publishing now.

In 1978 you have a South African massacre at a Namibian refugee camp in southern Angola, Cassinga. The South Africans killed about 600 Namibians – children, women, men. There were Cuban soldiers at some distance, and they rushed to Cassinga, and basically the South Africans were forced to withdraw. And the Cubans took to Cuba quite a few of the children survivors of Cassinga, so that they would grow up and study in Cuba. And for instance, one of them, I met in Namibia — Sophia Ndetongo [SP?], A survivor of Cassinga. She arrived in Cuba in 1978 when she was 12 to study at school. She left Cuba in 1994 as a medical doctor. She was completely trained in Cuba. So this is a second way in which Cuba helped change the world. And the third one is a certain example of the Cuban revolution, a certain image of the Cuban revolution which has had a certain impact on people abroad.

 

NS:    So how did Cuba become involved in Africa? What was the role of Che Guevara, and why did Angola become the major commitment?

 

PG: Cuba became involved in Africa first through Cuba’s help to the Algerian war of independence, and in 1964, Cuba became involved in sub-Saharan Africa. Clearly, for the Cubans, and for every Cuban who volunteered to go on an internationalist mission, really the center was Latin America. The natural habitat of the Cuban is Latin America. But at the same time, in the internationalist view of the Cuban revolution, the struggle was not just in Latin America, it was in the Third World. So they should help Latin America the same way they should help Africa. And Cuba likes to consider itself Afro-Cuban, Afro-Latin American. So many Cubans come from Africa. Now – so, what do you have? You have three elements to take into account. One, you have a realpolitik consideration, which is that the United States was refusing any Cuban offer for a modus vivendi. So, as Che Guevara said in his speech at the United Nations in December 1964, if the United States refused any kind of modus vivendi with Cuba, Cuba would have to respond in some other way. And the other way was to try to weaken US influence throughout the world, to create allies for Cuba, friends for Cuba. It’s also a little bit that famous phrase of Che Guevara: two, three, many Vietnams – to decrease the pressure on Cuba. If you had a second Cuba in Latin America, a third Cuba in Latin America, this would distract the pressure of the United States that was just focused on Cuba. If you helped the liberation of African countries, you have friendly governments to Cuba and Africa.

But – and it’s very interesting to look at the analysis of the CIA – CIA analysts, when they were studying in the 1960s, looked at the motivation of this Cuban activism, one, they stressed the realpolitik argument, but they also stressed the commitment of the Cuban revolution to help other people. The CIA itself says that! That Fidel saw himself as someone who was involved in a crusade, that Cuba had a duty to help people to free themselves. The Cuban idea was that the struggle for liberation has to be waged by the people of a country, you cannot wage it for them, but you have to help them. But in that sense, Africa was the same as Latin America, and there was also a very practical consideration: that in Africa the dangers were fewer. In Latin America you were challenging the United States directly in its backyard, and the danger of a US response was much stronger. In Africa, the “provocation” to the United States was much less.

 

Now in 1964, and it was to degree a mistake, the Cubans came to the conclusion that central Africa was on the verge of exploding. You have the famous trip by Che Guevara in late 64, until March 65, and Che came back convinced that Africa, and central Africa in particular, was on the verge of exploding, and that it was really an opportunity.

 

It has to be made clear: when Che Guevara went, he didn’t go as Che Guevara. He went as a representative of the Cuban revolution, as a personal representative of Fidel Castro. What ever commitment he made was on behalf of Cuba, on behalf of Fidel Castro, never as an individual on his own. He went as a very senior Cuban official. And when he went back in April 1965 to lead a group of Cubans to fight in the former Belgian Congo when there was a revolt, and the United States had created an army of white mercenaries to put down this revolt, he didn’t go on his own. I say this because there is all this theory of a break between Fidel and Che Guevara, etc. etc. He went as a representative of the Cuban revolution, at the head of a group of Cubans, as part of the foreign policy of the Cuban revolution. And it is there that you have the development, in ‘64, ‘65, of the first contacts with the MPLA, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, led by Agostinho Neto. And so when Cuba intervenes in Angola in ‘75, in reality the Cubans have begun helping the Angolans already in 1964, 65. But in the period, say, ‘66-‘74, Cuba’s main focus was the war of independence in Guinea-Bissau, and that was Cuba’s major success. And Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1974. And then you have the decolonization in Angola, and a new chapter begins, and we can talk about it, but it’s a different phase.

 

NS:    So what happens to draw the Cubans into Angola?

 

PG: The Portuguese are going to leave Angola, and independence is set for November 11, 1975. You had three independence movements in Angola: the one of Agostinho Neto, the MPLA; the one led by Jonas Savimbi, UNITA; and the third one led by Holden Roberto, the FNLA. And you have a civil war, the MPLA against the other two movements. The other two movements are supported by the United States and South Africa. There is a parallel covert operation by the United States and South Africa, and what is interesting is that the MPLA is on the verge of winning this civil war, and you can see that they’re on the verge of winning through US documents, through South African documents, and by reading the Portuguese press and the South African press that were following the war fairly closely. And in order to prevent a victory of the MPLA, the South African government, urged on and encouraged by the United States, decided to invade Angola with regular troops from Namibia, which was controlled by South Africa, and which is immediately south of Angola.

This invasion began on October 15, 1975. There were already Cubans in Angola. Also, Cuba was intervening with military instructors, but they HAD just arrived. They were not fighting. They were just installing training camps to train the Angolans. They start fighting with the South African invasion. And there were just a few hundred. And basically it became clear very soon that if Cuba did not intervene, the South Africans would take Luanda, would crush the MPLA. When the invasion begins, the Civil War in a way ends, the Angolan phase of the story.

The technical superiority of the South African army over the MPLA was overwhelming. And basically they cut. If I can use the cliché, like a knife through butter. And they were advancing very fast toward Luanda, which was really a stronghold of the MPLA. And it is because of the situation that Fidel Castro decided on November 4, 1975 to send regular troops to Angola. And he did it without consulting the Soviet Union. And he didn’t consult the Soviet Union for a very simple reason, I think: because the Soviets were opposed, and he knew it. The Soviets were very focused on détente with United States. As the head of the CIA said at a meeting of the National Security Council in August 1975, the focus of the Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev was the conclusion of the SALT II agreement. He wanted this to crown the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that would take place in February 1976. Past Soviet relations with the MPLA were not very close. There were a lot of tensions. And so the Soviets didn’t want their allies the Cubans to send troops to Angola, and they didn’t respond in a favorable way when the Cubans did it.

I read a document – a speech that Fidel Castro gave to a group of special forces that were going to leave that evening by plane for Luanda. And as with what we were talking about a few minutes ago: a senior Cuban official who was my link with the declassification process left this document on my desk and said, well, I can’t let you make a photocopy of this document. What you can do if you want is to take notes. And I thought about it, because it was a fascinating speech – I will summarize it in a minute – and I really wanted to use it. And then I thought, if I take notes on this one occasion, then the next time the Cubans will say again, “Why do you want a photocopy? You took note of this other document, so you can keep taking notes.” So I didn’t use the document. I told the Cuban official I’m not going to use it at all. And what this document said was Fidel Castro talking to the Special Forces and telling them look, you are going to Angola now, it’s a very difficult situation. He explained the situation – the Zairian army advancing from the north, the South Africans from the South, and he said, look, if you cannot defend Luanda, if Luanda falls and the MPLA withdraws to continue the struggle in the countryside, you have to withdraw there with the MPLA and fight in the countryside. If the MPLA’s resistance collapses, then you should withdraw to some neighboring country. Then you can stop fighting. As long as the MPLA fights, you should fight. And in a way I feel very bad, Fidel said, to tell you this, because I know that many of you will die and I’m not coming with you. I cannot come because of my responsibilities, but I wish I could come. It was an impressive speech. And one of the officers who was there, whom I interviewed, told me, yeah, when Fidel said, withdraw to a neighboring country, we thought, where? They were all hostile to the MPLA. There was really nowhere to withdraw.

But in any case, that’s why the Cubans intervened, was to stop the South Africans. And my impression was essentially that if it’d been just a question of the Civil War between the MPLA, the FNLA, and UNITA, the Cubans would not have intervened. They intervened because it was against South Africa. It was the struggle against apartheid. Because it was clear, if the South Africans had been able to crush the MPLA, they would have installed their clients in power in Luanda – UNITA, the FNLA, and that would have strengthened the grip of apartheid over the people of southern Africa. And the victory of the MPLA had of course the opposite effect. And so that’s why Cuba intervened: to prevent one more victory of the apartheid regime.

It is interesting, because, you know, when one says, what were the motivations of Fidel Castro? And I say, well, that’s my impression. That’s why I believe he intervened. People can say, “well, this Gleijeses must be a leftist, and that’s why he says this.” But if one looks at the memoirs of Kissinger –

In 1975 Kissinger screamed from every roof that Fidel Castro had intervened as a proxy of the Soviet Union. In the third volume of his memoirs, he says, well, I was wrong. Actually it was the Cubans who presented the Soviets with a fait accompli. It was a Cuban decision. And then he asked the question: why did Fidel Castro do it? Because it was not in the interest of Cuba from a realpolitik point of view, not at all. And the answer Kissinger gives — I’m paraphrasing, but I think I’m actually quoting – is that Fidel Castro was arguably the most genuine revolutionary leader in power. So that according to Kissinger is what Fidel Castro intervened. And I think the Kissinger’s interpretation is correct, and that this decision was really triggered by this element of idealism which is very strong in the foreign policy of the Cuban revolution.

 

NS:    As this process went along, Cuba kept finding itself required to send more and more people, and by the 80s they had quite a large presence. How did that happen?

 

PG: The Cuban plan was to withdraw their troops in a period of three years.

First of all, let me say that the first Soviet response to the dispatch of the Cuban troops was one of irritation. So the Soviets did not help the Cuban air bridge to Angola until January 1976, for two months. And then, you know, what happens is, that the Soviets saw that the Cubans were successful in Angola. They pushed the South Africans out of Angola. At the same time, Ford froze detente with the Soviet Union, there was no conclusion of SALT II, so Brezhnev and the Soviets essentially accepted this Cuban policy in Angola of support for the MPLA, and made it their own. And there was an agreement worked out that the Cubans would withdraw their army within three years.

But then what happens is that South Africa’s attacks against Angola increase. The South African threat against Angola increased. Savimbi continued to fight. And in the South African documents which have been declassified and which I used, you have South African military intelligence, which was sent to speak to Savimbi already in 1976 after the South African troops had withdrawn, telling Savimbi, keep fighting and we will help you. And South African policy became to try to bring Savimbi to power in Luanda. South African military help to Savimbi kept increasing through borders that were virtually open.

The border of Angola with Namibia is about 1400 km long. It’s impossible to control. And South African help kept increasing. And the South Africans attacked directly Angola troops, Angolan positions, etc., etc. And even the CIA, for instance, in a report in 1979, from US documents that have been declassified, considered that the Cuban presence was necessary to defend the Independence of Angola. And so that’s why the Cubans had remain in Angola. The United States maintained an army in West Germany, troops in Italy, in Turkey, against a Soviet threat that was no longer real. In the case of Angola, there was a South African threat that was very real. And the presence of the Cuban troops, as long as the South African threat existed, was fully justified, because otherwise the South Africans would have overthrown the government, would have done what they tried to do 1975, install their friends in power in Luanda. And this again is clear through US documents, and through the South African documents that have been declassified, how the South Africans wanted to bring Savimbi to power.

 

NS:    What was the role of Namibia in all this?

 

PG: Namibia was South Africa’s last colony, and a former German colony. After the end of the first world war, Germany lost all its colonies, and they were distributed among those who had won the war against Germany, but as mandates –in theory, with an international control at the time and dates under the supervision of the League of Nations. And South Africa received control of Namibia, and it continued to control Namibia after the second world war. And they wanted to stay in Namibia. And eventually the International Court of Justice said that South Africa’s presence in Namibia was illegal, and they should turn Namibia over to the United Nations, which would supervise elections.

The South Africans considered, quite correctly, that if there were free elections in Namibia, people who were not the friends of South Africa would come to power in Namibia, and they wanted to retain control of Namibia through the client parties that they had created. But these parties would never win the elections if they were under international supervision.

So, to make a long story short, South Africa was doing everything possible to retain control of Namibia, which was also a buffer – a protection – for South Africa, and also the psychological impact that the independence of Namibia would have on the whites and the blacks in South Africa. It would have encouraged the blacks and demoralized the whites. And there was an independence movement in Namibia that fought a guerrilla war: SWAPO. And Angola, once it became independent, was the rearguard of SWAPO. And the idea of the South Africans was, if we can bring Savimbi to power in Luanda, Savimbi will help us destroy SWAPO, which Savimbi promised time and time again. And we will be able to crush the independence movement of Namibia. But this we can only do once Savimbi is in power in Angola, because we have to deprive SWAPO of its rearguard, which is so important in a guerrilla war, and then we can crush it. So the policy of South Africa was to prevent the independence of Namibia, and they were convinced that the easiest way, the best way, possibly the only way to retain control of Namibia was to have a friendly government in power in Luanda — Savimbi, who would help crush an independence movement.

 

NS:    Who was Jonas Savimbi?

 

PG: Jonas Savimbi was a charismatic man, a very good speaker. I’ve read some of the speeches he gave, because in 1975, until the Civil War really exploded, they were published in the Angolan press, and he was a much better speaker than Neto, for instance.

He was a very intelligent man, and he was a man with only one consuming passion in life, and that was absolute power. And in order to achieve absolute power, he was ready to inflict any pain, any suffering, on the people of Angola. Which he did. Look, the MPLA was not a democratic government by Western standards, not at all. But compared to Savimbi, they were really a beacon of democracy. Savimbi’s rule in the areas he controlled was totalitarian to the hilt. If you read the memoirs of the British ambassador in Luanda, the ambassador of Margaret Thatcher, who is a very intelligent man – Golding, who followed Angola very closely, he called Savimbi a monster who inflicted immense pain to his people. What impressed me is, when I interviewed US officials of the Reagan administration, and most of them had no problem in considering what they called the dark side of Savimbi, that Savimbi was ruthless. So that was Savimbi essentially, he burned people at the stake, not only what he considered the guilty one, but the families with children, wives, by now it is publicly acknowledged, so he was a monster. But he was a charismatic monster, and a very intelligent monster.

 

NS:    It seems that in this story, individual personalities looms very large. Savimbi seems to have single-handedly prolonged the agony for many years after 1992, when he refused to accept the results of the election, and then more years of war ensued. But all of these people with outsized personalities – Fidel Castro, Che Guevara — it’s hard to imagine how history could have been if they had not been who they had been. And then there are these other figures that are easier or harder to understand and the angle of struggle. You have, you just described Savimbi. You have Holden Roberto. You have the present president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos. The more I learn about each one of them, in a way the more mysterious they become.

 

PG: Well, in the case of Savimbi, again, the motivation was absolutely clear: absolute power, and nothing else. In the case of the MPLA, there were generous ideas, particularly at the beginning. Neto was someone who really had a strong desire to improve the lot of the Angolan people. I don’t think this is a particularly controversial statement. He was an authoritarian leader, he didn’t believe in political democracy, etc., etc., but he had this desire. It’s painful to say, but after the death of Neto, the MPLA became increasingly corrupt, and there was a strong element of corruption in the MPLA, and increasingly repressive.

Again, there is no comparison with Savimbi. There is no moral equivalence, because the defense of US officials is moral equivalence – each side was equally bad. This is not true. On one side you had a monster without any redeeming quality in terms of the interests of his people. And now, going back to the leaders of the MPLA, you had a strong element of corruption, opportunism, etc., but you still had a desire at some level to improve the lot of the Angolan people, and you don’t have an absolute leader, a towering figure like Savimbi. Even in terms of the leaders of the 1980s, José Eduardo dos Santos is the leader of a movement, he is not the movement. Savimbi really was UNITA, he was everything.

You know, you have some figures who are particularly interesting and attractive. You have a leader, Lucio Lara, the closest aide of Agostinho Neto. I interviewed him four times. I was terribly impressed by him. I spent ten, twelve hours with him. He was someone extremely honest. You know, you can get a feeling in Angola. You go to the houses of people, there are some people who live in luxury, or they have relatively modest houses. And Lucio Lara represented the best of the MPLA. The problem was that he was a light mulatto, in a black country where there is a lot of hostility towards mulattos. Neto would have liked to have had him as his successor, but when Neto died, he asked not to be considered for the succession, because he knew this would create a lot of problems. Perhaps he made a mistake, because I think he was the best leader Angola could have hoped for. And through the 1980s he eventually lost influence, etc., etc. So you have some figures who were really very impressive. And others that are less impressive, quite frankly.

 

NS:    What is the role of petroleum in all this?

 

PG: Petroleum was where Angola got its foreign currency. I’m thinking now of the period I know well – ‘75 through, say, ‘90 – in charge of the extraction of petroleum was Gulf Oil, and then it became Chevron. That was the source of income of the Angolan government, and of course also an immense source of corruption. The oil of Angola was sold to the United States largely, and the United States had very good economic relations with Angola, while at the same time the United States was supporting Savimbi.

You know, when we say, Savimbi is a monster, etc., etc., it’s also important to talk of the responsibilities of the United States — beginning with Carter, by the way. Because President Carter refused to establish diplomatic relations with Angola unless the Cuban troops left Angola. But the CIA was telling the US government in its report that the Cubans were who was protecting Angolan independence from South Africa. And the Carter administration demanded that the Cubans leave Angola, even though they knew that this was the only defense against South Africa, and the Carter administration never said, we can offer the Angolan government another defense against South Africa if the Cubans leave. Carter’s position was that the Cubans have to leave Angola regardless of whatever the cost may be for the Angolan people. We, who keep hundreds of thousands of troops throughout the world, say that the Cubans don’t have the right to keep troops in a country which really faces an outside threat. Not only that, but the Carter administration actually gave aid to Savimbi. There is no clear evidence what kind of aid. There are two US documents by [then National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski that say very clearly that the United States was giving aid, but this aid may be just suggesting to third countries to give help to UNITA — that’s what Brzezinski told me when I interviewed him — or maybe direct US aid to Savimbi.

And then the assistance escalated under Reagan. The Reagan administration gave important aid to Savimbi in its war against the Angolan government, but really it was a war against the Angolan people. So it’s really a paradox, and it’s an example of US arrogance, and in a way stupidity.

The president of Angola, Eduardo dos Santos, came to the United States in early 2002. And he was received at the White House. And President Bush urged him to be a good president for the Angolan people, etc., etc. He gave him a lecture, and this was reported in the US press, but no one in the US press pointed out that actually the United States should have asked the forgiveness of Angola for the crimes that the US government perpetrated against the people of Angola. First of all, in 1975, and after ‘75, in working with South Africa against Angola. We were the ally of South Africa in South Africa’s war against Angola, and then in supporting Savimbi. So, you know, when we’re talking about – never would Bush have thought that he actually should have apologized to Dos Santos rather than giving a lecture to go Santos, that the United States has perpetrated crimes against the Angolan people, and that these crimes were absolutely unnecessary, because no US interests were at stake in Angola. This is the most absurd part of the entire story! So when we talk about Angola, we have to take into account the foreign dimension. Fortunately for the United States, it is so powerful that there isn’t much that other countries can do to punish the United States.

 

NS:    And at the same time, there’s this petro link. At one point, you had Cubans guarding American oil installations against guerrillas that the Americans were backing. Today the only US city that has a direct flight to Luanda is Houston. There’s a strong link now between Luanda and Houston. Two of the biggest artists in Angola – Yuri da Cunha and Titica — just performed in Houston, a concert for the Angolan community that was not otherwise publicized.

 

PG: Well, again, the economic relationship has been very strong throughout the war. As you said, when United States was supporting Savimbi, Chevron was there, to the fury of the far right in the United States, who wanted Chevron to leave Angola. And the economic relations were excellent. And the United States was Angola’s major commercial partner.

 

NS:    So we have this case of US economic and political interests being dissonant…

 

PG: Absolutely. It’s a very interesting case. And from the very beginning – look, for Chevron, Gulf oil, who are serious companies, the best partner was the MPLA rather than the FNLA and UNITA because the MPLA was more efficient and more honest than the FNLA and UNITA, who were a disaster. And you have testimonies to Congress by representatives of Chevron, or first of Gulf oil, saying, our working relationship with Angola is excellent. US businesspeople would like United States to establish diplomatic relations with Angola. It’s really an interesting case that goes against the stereotype, because business was the least aggressive in this story. They absolutely were not interested in relations with Savimbi, they were not interested in the US creating problems in Angola, they had a good business relationship with the Angolan government.

 

NS:    It’s clear also that Africa itself was of very little political interest. It seems that the United States barely had a concept of what was happening.

 

PG: Africa for the United States was important only if there was a Communist threat. The Communist threat being in the 1960s the Soviet Union or China, and the Chinese become more or less our friends, and the Communist threat means the Soviet Union and Cuba. So, for instance we paid some attention to Africa in the early to mid-1960s because of the Communist threat. By 1967, more or less, we came to the conclusion that the Communist threat had been defanged and we forgot about Africa. And we remember Africa again beginning in 1975 when the Cuban troops began arriving in Angola to defend Angola from the South African invasion, and you end up in a situation where by April 1976 you have 36,000 Cuban soldiers in Angola. And then we rediscover Africa.

When does Kissinger make his first trip to Africa as a US official? In April 1976. Why does he make his first trip to Africa in April 1976? It’s a response to the Cuban intervention in Angola. Until that moment, he only laughed about the Africans, and then he got concerned. When Carter came to power, for the Carter administration the most important area in terms of a foreign threat for the United States was southern Africa, again for the same reason. And the Carter and the Reagan administrations were obsessed by the presence of these Cuban troops in Angola. I mean, it was an insult to the imperial pride of the United States, and the Cubans had to leave Angola. Again, in the most absurd situation, because there was the South African threat. It’s like telling the American troops you have to leave South Korea at a moment in which there was really a North Korean threat against South Korea. It’s something that’s completely absurd, that didn’t make any sense whatsoever.

 

NS:    What was the significance of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale?

 

PG: Cuito Cuanavale is a small town in the southeast of Angola. It was three things. Cuito Cuanavale was the site of a major defensive victory of the Cuban in the Angolan armies in the early months of 1988, but Cuito Cuanavale has become much more. It has become the symbol of the Cuban military campaign in Angola in 1988.

What you have, to use an expression of Fidel, is like the boxer. With the left hand he stops the blow and with the right he strikes. The left hand is the Cuban defense of Cuito Cuanavale. The right hand is the following: in March 1988, when the South Africans were launching their last attack against Cuito Cuanavale, which was a total failure, the Cuban troops began their advance in southwestern Angola from a defensive line that they occupied which was about 300 km north of the border. The Cubans had created a defensive line about 250, 300 km north of the border because the South Africans had a very strong air superiority. This changed in early 1988. And the Cuban troops began their offensive in the Southwest, forcing the South Africans to withdraw. What really forced South Africa to come to the negotiating table, to give up its dream of installing Savimbi in power, to agree to free elections in Namibia, is the Cuban advance in the Southwest. It’s not Cuito Cuanavale. You don’t win a war with a defensive battle. Because this advance in the Southwest, the fear of the Americans, the fear of the South Africans, was that the Cuban troops might enter Namibia. There is a dramatic confrontation in June 1988. You have an important round of the negotiations which had begun in May. Cuba, Angola, South Africa, the United States – so you have this round in Cairo. And the negotiations began. First of all, in the morning of June 24, there is a meeting in the US Embassy. The South African delegation, which includes the Foreign Minister, which includes the Minister of Defense, a covey of generals, marches into the American Embassy, and they asked the American assistant secretary for Africa, Chester Crocker, who led the American delegation in this round of negotiations, how did the Americans assess the Cuban advance in the Southwest? And Chester Crocker said, well, I will ask our deputy assistant secretary of defense, Jim Woods, to give the assessment of the Pentagon. And Jim Woods said – I paraphrase now – that essentially the American Defense Department believed that these troops were strong enough to enter Namibia and to occupy key South African positions in northern Namibia, and that it’s possible that the Cubans might do it. And this was also the assessment of the South Africans. The assessment of the South Africans, and the assessment of the Pentagon by the early summer of ‘88, by June 1988, was that the Cubans had gained air superiority in southern Angola for the first time ever, that the Cuban anti-aircraft weapons were so powerful that there was no way South Africa’s planes could launch an offensive, and that the Cubans were in a position to occupy northern Namibia. I have a South African document written by General [Johannes] Geldenhuys, who was the head of the South African Defense Force, saying that if we get in a full-fledged clash with the Cubans, we have to be aware that within a few days we will lose our Air Force. And so this is what you have: you have the conclusion of the South African Armed Forces, which is also the conclusion of the US Defense Department, that the Cubans have gained militarily the upper hand, and that therefore they have to abandon their dreams and negotiate in a serious way.

So, to go back to your question, Cuito Cuanavale is a defensive battle. It is not what broke the back of the South Africans. What broke the back of the South Africans is the offensive in the southwest.

And why was this offensive in the southwest possible? Because in November 87, the South Africans were on the verge of capturing Cuito Cuanavale, where you had a group that included the best troops of the Angolan army. There were no Cubans in that area. And Fidel Castro made a decision, again without consulting the Soviets, at a meeting that began at around 5 o’clock on November 15 and ended in the early hours of November 16, to send reinforcements to Angola. In men, but above all in weapons. They said reinforcements of 17,000 soldiers – essentially, all the mobile antiaircraft systems of Cuba, the best tanks, the best weapons, in order not just to go and save Cuito Cuanavale, but in order to push the South Africans out of Angola once and for all. It took me years to get the minutes of this conversation, which runs for about 180 pages, where they discussed this. And again the Soviets were confronted with a fait accompli.

And you have an exchange of letters, which I have, between Fidel and Gorbachev, which are pretty tough, because the Soviets were not happy. Gorbachev was preparing to come here for the summit with Reagan on December 7, and the Cubans escalated Angola. It’s very interesting, the clash that you have between the Soviets and the Cubans, but this is what made this Cuban offensive possible. That Cuba sent every – there is an expression by Raúl Castro, we are sending everything including our underpants.

And the reason why Cuba felt it could do it, is because from a Cuban’s perspective, Reagan had been defanged, because of the Iran-Contra scandal, and this weakens Reagan, and Reagan has to get rid of some of his closest advisers who were far right-wingers, and for the first time under Reagan, the Cubans felt that there was not an immediate military threat against Cuba.

And so when you have this meeting of Fidel with his top generals and Raúl Castro and one civilian, Jorge Risquet, on November 15, you have an expression of Fidel where he says, the war is in Angola, it is not here. They’re not going to attack us here. And so that made it possible for the Cubans to send everything to Angola. Until that moment, the Cubans had been telling the Soviets, give us weapons for southern Angola. Give us weapons that would allow us to get the upper hand in the air, gain control of the air, which was key in southern Angola. Because we are fighting a war on two fronts. We have to maintain our defenses in Cuba, and therefore we cannot send our best weapons to Angola, so you have to do it for us, and the Soviets were not doing it. And so now the Cubans could do it from the arsenal, from Cuba they sent everything.

 

NS:    You mentioned earlier how Kissinger kept shouting from the rooftops that Cuba was a Soviet proxy. It wasn’t just Kissinger, this was a very widely held opinion. And it seems that your work has, through what a historian would consider proof, definitively dismantled that notion.

 

PG: Well, look, to dismantle that notion, all you have to do is read the reports of the CIA! Because the CIA kept saying that the Cuban foreign policy was not a function of the Soviet Union, that these were Cuban decisions, even when the Cubans sent the troops to Angola in 1975. In 1981 you have a CIA report saying exactly what Kissinger said later in his memoirs, that this was a Cuban decision taken in great haste, and without informing the Soviet Union. So even the enemy was saying this. The CIA was saying this.

George Ball, who was Undersecretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson, wrote something very interesting in his memoirs, which I paraphrase. He said, myths exist to give solace, to comfort. And this myth, that Cuba was a proxy of the Soviet Union, had a huge psychological significance. It made things a little bit less painful for US policymakers, that they could at least insult Fidel Castro. And so they kept – you have a very interesting memo, for instance, by a guy who is very intelligent, Robert Pastor. He was the Latin American staff person for the National Security Council, and in 1978 he wrote a memo to Brzezinski saying, we have to stop saying that the Cubans are acting as proxies of the Soviet Union, because it doesn’t make any sense and it is not true. And he goes on to explain to Brzezinski why it is not true. Anyone who wanted to understand it in the US government could understand it. There was enough evidence. The CIA was saying it. But it was so much more comforting to say, oh, the guy is a proxy of the Soviet Union. It irritated Fidel Castro. So it’s a myth that has absolutely no basis in reality.

 

And let me add one thing: Fidel Castro in the 1960s criticized the Soviet Union, in 1966, ‘67, in a way that no European government dared criticize the United States, and I don’t mean just my government, the Italian government, which was servile to a degree that was pathetic. But not even De Gaulle would deal with United States the way Fidel Castro dealt with the Soviet Union. He criticized them openly on every issue, including domestic policy in the Soviet Union. So it didn’t require genius to realize that this guy was not a proxy of the Soviet Union.

 

NS:    But that was the script: the Soviet Union had its satellites.

 

PG: Absolutely! It was a very comforting script — again, at least you insulted the guy. You can’t kill him, you’re not able to overthrow them, at least let’s insult him.

 

NS:    What was the outcome of all of this? What were the main results of it? Who were the winners? Who were the losers? What did Cuba get out of it?

 

PG: Nothing. The winners: Angola didn’t get a monster for president, Savimbi. It helped the liberation of Namibia. According to Nelson Mandela, it helped the liberation of South Africa. Nelson Mandela spoke very eloquently of the impact of Cuito Cuanavale, and Cuito Cuanavale was the symbol of an entire campaign for the liberation of his people from the scourge of apartheid, because of the psychological element for the blacks in South Africa to see the South African army forced to withdraw by a nonwhite army. So the impact of the Cuban revolution in South Africa, I think, was very strong. And in some cases, like Guinea-Bissau. And the impact of the Cuban humanitarian assistance.

 

Now, in terms of what Cuba got: nothing. Except psychologically. They didn’t get any benefit of this during the period the Cuban troops were there, and they got no benefit after. You have some countries like Namibia, who have shown gratitude, in the sense that in Windhoek you have a street which has the name of Fidel Castro. When you walk around the Namibia, everyone acknowledges and is very grateful for the Cuban help, etc., etc. But when Cuba went through a terrible economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union, obviously Namibia didn’t give any assistance. No African country has ever sent a shipment of something free to Cuba to thank Cuba for what Cuba did on behalf of the liberation of Africa. In material terms, nothing. Cuba got nothing, absolutely nothing. You have Cubans in Cuba who say, well, we shouldn’t have done what we did in Africa, because it cost us a lot, and it gave us no benefits. And other people are still proud of what they did in Africa. But if you walk around in Havana, you will find people who will be critical of what Cuba did – again, not because it was wrong, but because, well, it cost us and we got nothing in return.

In theory, this is the idea of internationalism. You help without getting something in return. Although in the case of Angola, one wishes that Angola would be a little more generous in acknowledging what they owe Cuba. Because the Angolan government has been a little bit miserly in acknowledging its debt to Cuba. Not Namibia, and not the South African leaders. There is a huge difference between these countries.

 

NS:    There was a great deal of personal sacrifice on the part of Cubans. Hundreds of thousands of families who had to do without one of their family members at home for years. The evidence I’ve seen on the ground is that the experience of Angola is very deep in the Cuban people.

 

PG: Look, you had about 400,000 Cuban soldiers in Angola – rotating, obviously. Or 350,000. I don’t remember the exact figure, but that’s more or less. And as you say, how many families does it involve? And, again, in many cases it is bittersweet or bitter, because there is a sense – well, what did we get in return? And a certain sense of a lack of gratitude on the part of the Angolans. Which is different from Namibia. And, yes, a Cuban who went to Angola stayed in Angola for two years on military service. Civilian aid workers, essentially the same. More than 2100 Cubans died in Angola. It’s almost as many in proportion as Americans died in Vietnam.

 

NS:    Is there anything else you would like to address that I have neglected to ask?

 

PG: I guess one might say, to make it clear, obviously Cuba could not have kept its troops in Angola without the help of the Soviet Union. What Cuba could do was at one particular moment to send troops, but Cuba didn’t have the strength to maintain an army in Angola for years without the support of the Soviet Union. As a senior Angolan official told me, the Soviet Union helped us in two ways: one, by giving weapons for the Angolan army, and, two, by helping Cuba help us. It is true that the Cubans presented the Soviets with a fait accompli, and there was a clash for several months, tension, etc., etc. But overall – again, the Soviet assistance was there, and without the Soviet assistance Cuba would have had to withdraw its troops pretty quickly. I think that Cuba played a positive role in southern Africa, so I would say that in the case of the Soviet Union in southern Africa, the Soviet Union was on the side of the angels. What they did was positive. Perhaps I should also add, because there are so many myths here, there is the myth that the Cubans were paid for their troops in Angola, for the Angolan government, and this is such a lie that it is pathetic. Cuba, until 1978, maintained its troops in Angola, not only without receiving a penny, but feeding them and paying all the costs. In September 1978, you have finally an agreement between Cuba and the Angolan government whereby the Angolan government would pay the cost of the presence of the Cuban troops, meaning it would feed them, would give the clothing necessary for the soldiers, and would pay for the transportation. And this is the agreement that remained in force until the last Cubans left Angola. The problem is that the Angolans did not fulfill this agreement all the time. If they were supposed to give 100 defeat the Cuban troops, they had the tendency to give 50, and Cuba made up the difference. So not only Cuba got nothing for the presence of its soldiers in Angola, and not only there is the problem you mentioned of the families, etc., etc., but on top of it, it cost them to maintain those troops in Angola. Not only this but keep in mind that if you send a recruit to Angola, fine, you are paying the miserable salary a recruit received, which was the equivalent of three dollars a month. But if you send a professional soldier, in the 1980s, you are paying a higher salary. But if you send a reservist – let’s say you send someone who was a technician who would make a salary of 250 pesos – pesos and dollars were the same at the time – you know, Cuban salaries, the minimum salary was about 80 pesos, the highest salary was essentially 500 pesos. If you send a reservist, and half of the troops in Angola were reservists, you keep paying the reservist the salary he was earning in his civilian job. It is either deposited in his bank account in Cuba or it is paid to his family. So there you are paying a serious salary for someone who is not doing any work, and that’s a burden. So there was actually a financial burden on top of the psychological burden and the lives of the families, and the cost in terms of the relationship with the United States, so all this is there.

 

NS:    Thank you very much, Dr. Gleijeses.

 

PG: You’re very welcome.