The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid in South Africa

As the world focuses on Tuesday’s historic handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, we look back at the pivotal role Cuba played in ending apartheid and why Castro was one of only five world leaders invited to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. In the words of Mandela, the Cubans ‘destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor … [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa.’ Historian Piero Gleijeses argues that it was Cuba’s victory in Angola in 1988 that forced Pretoria to set Namibia free and helped break the back of apartheid South Africa. We speak to Gleijeses about his new book, “Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991,” and play archival footage of Mandela meeting Fidel Castro in Cuba.


Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the historic moment Tuesday when President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro as both men participated in the memorial service for anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The White House said the handshake was unscripted. It marked the first time a U.S. president has shaken hands with a Cuban leader since 2000. In Washington, Republicans expressed outrage over the exchange. During a hearing in the House, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida sparred with Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it did not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Mr. Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake. But when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raúl Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant. Raúl Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates. In fact, right now, as we speak, Cuban opposition leaders are being detained, and they’re being beaten while trying to commemorate today, which is International Human Rights Day. They will feel disheartened when they see these photos. Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that a handshake nonwithstanding, the U.S. policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened? Thank you.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Ladies and gentlemen, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela. And the president is at an international funeral with leaders from all over the world. He didn’t choose who’s there. They’re there to honor Mandela. And we appreciate that people from all over the world and from all different beliefs and walks of life who appreciated Nelson Mandela and/or were friends of his came to honor him. And I think, as the president said—I urge you to go read his speech, or if you didn’t see it or haven’t read it, because the president said in his speech today honoring Nelson Mandela, he said, “We urge leaders to honor Mandela’s struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people”—

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: And would you say Raúl Castro is upholding their basic human rights?

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: No, absolutely not.

AMY GOODMAN: The uproar over President Obama’s handshake with President Raúl Castro has drawn attention to the close relationship between the South African anti-apartheid movement and Cuba. In 1991, Nelson Mandela visited Cuba with then-President Fidel Castro. This is a clip when they first met.

NELSON MANDELA: Before we say anything, you must tell me when you are coming to South Africa. You see—no, just a moment, just a moment, just a moment.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] The sooner the better.

NELSON MANDELA: And we have had a visit from a wide variety of people. And our friend, Cuba, which had helped us in training our people, gave us resources to keep current with our struggle, trained our people as doctors, and SWAPO, you have not come to our country. When are you coming?

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] I haven’t visited my South African homeland yet. I want it, I love it as a homeland. I love it as a homeland as I love you and the South African people.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more on Cuba’s key role in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, we’re joined now in Washington, D.C., by Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He uses archival sources from the United States, South Africa and Cuba to provide an unprecedented look at the history in his latest book, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991_. You can read the book’s prologuepretoria on our website at democracynow.org.

Professor Gleijeses, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about this key relationship, why Cuba was so seminal to the anti-apartheid movement.

PIERO GLEIJESES: Cuba is the only country in the world that sent its soldiers to confront the army of apartheid and defeated the army of apartheid, the South African army, twice—in 1975, 1976, and in 1988. And in Havana, when he visited Havana in July 1991—I won’t to be able to repeat exactly the words of Nelson Mandela, but Nelson Mandela said, “The Cuban victory,” referring to the Cuban victory over the South Africans in Angola in 1988, “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor and inspired the fighting masses of South Africa. Cuito Cuanavale,” which is a victory of the Cubans in Angola, “is the turning point in the liberation of our continent and of my people from the scourge of apartheid.” So, in—

AMY GOODMAN: For a country that knows very little, Professor Gleijeses, about the Cuban experience, its military intervention in Angola, can you step back for a moment and explain what President Castro—what Fidel Castro and these Cuban soldiers did?

PIERO GLEIJESES: Sure. In 1975, you have the decolonization of Angola, Portuguese colony slated to become independent on November 11, 1975. There is a civil war between three movements: one supported by the Cubans, the Cubans that supported over the years in its struggle against the Portuguese; the other two supported by South Africa and the United States. And the movement supported by the Cubans, the MPLA, which is in power in Angola today, having won free election, was on the verge of winning the civil war. And it was on the verge of winning the civil war—a paraphrase from what the CIA station chief in Angola at the time told me—because it was the most committed movement with the best leaders, the best program. And in order to prevent their victory, the victory of the MPLA, in October 1975, urged by Washington, South Africa invaded. And the South African troops advanced on Luanda, and they would have taken Luanda and crushed the MPLA if Fidel Castro had not decided to intervene. And between November 1975 and April 1976, 3,6000 Cuban soldiers poured into Angola and pushed the South Africans back into Namibia, which South Africa ruled at the time.

And this had an immense psychological impact—talking of South Africa—in South Africa, both among whites and among blacks. And the major black South African newspaper, The World, wrote in an editorial in February 1976, at a moment in which the South African troops were still in Angola, but the Cubans were pushing them back—they had evacuated central Angola. They were in southern Angola. The writing was on the wall. And this newspaper, The World, wrote, “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban victory in Angola. Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of achieving total liberation.” And Mandela wrote that he was in jail in 1975 when he learned about the arrival of the Cuban troops in Angola, and it was the first time then a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom.

This was the first real contribution of Cuba to the liberation of South Africa. It was the first time in living memory that the White Giants, the army of apartheid, had been forced to retreat. And they had retreated because of a non-white army. And in a situation of internal colonialism, this is extremely important. And after that, the Cubans remained in Angola to protect Angola from the South African army. Even the CIA acknowledged that the Cubans were the guarantee for the independence of Angola. And in Angola, they trained the ANC, the African National Congress, of Mandela. And very close relations developed between the two. I don’t know if you want me to go on and talk about the next moment, or you want to interrupt me with some questions.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Yes, Professor Piero Gleijeses, if you could speak specifically about the role of Che Guevara in Africa?

PIERO GLEIJESES: Yeah, Che Guevara had nothing to do with South Africa. The role—


NERMEEN SHAIKH
: In Africa, though, in the Congo and Angola.

PIERO GLEIJESES: Yes, I understand. The role of Che Guevara in 1964, 1965—in late 1964, Che Guevara was sent by Fidel Castro as Fidel Castro’s top representative to Sub-Saharan Africa—it was the first visit by a top Cuban leader to Sub-Saharan Africa—because the Cubans believed that there was a revolutionary situation in central Africa, and they wanted to help. And Che Guevara established relations with a number of revolutionary movements. One of them, the MPLA, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola, that was based in Congo-Brazzaville. And in 1965, the first Cubans fought in Angolan territory together with the MPLA. But the major role played by Che Guevara is that he led a group of Cubans into Congo, the former Belgian Congo, where there was a revolt by the followers of the late Lumumba against the central government enforced by the United States. And the United States had created an army of white mercenaries, the White Giants, mainly South African and Rhodesians and then Europeans, to crush this revolt. And the Cubans went at the request of the rebels, at the request of the government of Egypt, Algeria and Tanzania to help the rebels.

AMY GOODMAN: Uh—

PIERO GLEIJESES: And—yes?

AMY GOODMAN: Professor, I wanted to go back to Angola—

PIERO GLEIJESES
: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —and this time bring in former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. This is Kissinger explaining why the U.S. was concerned about the Cuban troops that Fidel Castro had sent to fight in Angola. After Kissinger, you’ll hear Fidel Castro himself.

SECRETARY OF STATE HENRY KISSINGER: We thought, with respect to Angola, that if the Soviet Union could intervene at such distances, from areas that were far from the traditional Russian security concerns, and when Cuban forces could be introduced into distant trouble spots, and if the West could not find a counter to that, that then the whole international system could be destabilized.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] It was a question of globalizing our struggle vis-à-vis the globalized pressures and harassment of the U.S. In this respect, it did not coincide with the Soviet viewpoint. We acted, but without their cooperation. Quite the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Fidel Castro and, before that, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger from the film CIA & Angolan Revolution. Professor Gleijeses?

PIERO GLEIJESES: OK, two points. One, Kissinger didn’t mention that the Cubans intervened in response to the South African invasion and that the United States had connived with the South Africans and urged the South Africans to invade. So here, there is a rather important issue of chronology.

The second point is that in the last volume of his memoirs, Kissinger, who in general is a very arrogant person, acknowledges that he made a mistake. And the mistake he made was in saying that the Cubans had intervened as proxies of the Soviet Union. And he writes in his memoirs that actually it had been a Cuban decision and that the Cubans had intervened and confronted the Soviets with a fait accompli. And then he asks a question in his memoirs: Why did Castro take this decision? And Kissinger’s answer is that Fidel Castro was probably—I’m quoting—”was probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power.” So, there are two Kissingers, if you want, and there is the Kissinger of his memoirs, where he says a few things that actually are true.

AMY GOODMAN: Piero Gleijeses, what do you make of the furor right now? You just heard Congressmember Lehtinen from Florida attacking John Kerry, you know, the significance of the handshake between President Obama and President Raúl Castro right there at the Soweto stadium at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

PIERO GLEIJESES: I think it’s pathetic and reflects the ethics of the United States and the policy of the United States. Obama, President Obama, was received with applause in South Africa when he spoke, etc., because he is the first black president of the United States. But the role of the United States as a country, as a government, past governments, in the struggle for liberation of South Africa is a shameful role. In general, we were on the side of the apartheid government. And the role of Cuba is a splendid role in favor of the liberation. This handshake—going beyond this particular issue, the handshake was long overdue. The embargo is absurd, is immoral. And we have here a president who bowed to the king of South Africa—of Saudi Arabia, I’m sorry, which certainly is no democracy. I mean, even Obama should know it. So it’s an absurd situation. The problem with Obama is that his speeches are good, his gestures are good, but there is no follow-up. So, unfortunately, it is just a gesture, a long-overdue gesture that does not change a shameful U.S. policy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Piero Gleijeses, before we conclude, let’s turn to Fidel Castro speaking in South Africa on his visit in 1998.

PRESIDENT FIDEL CASTRO: [translated] Let South Africa be a model of a more just and more humane future. If you can do it, we will all be able to do it.


NERMEEN SHAIKH
: That was Fidel Castro speaking in 1998 in South Africa, with former president, who just passed away, Nelson Mandela applauding him. Piero Gleijeses, we just have a minute. Could you talk about what most surprised you in your research in the Cuban archives about this history?

PIERO GLEIJESES: Well, there are a lot of things. One is the independence of Cuban policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. There are clashes between Fidel Castro and Gorbachev. There are clashes between the leaders of the Cuban military mission in Angola and the Soviet leaders, which I quote actually in my book and which make really fascinating reading. This is one thing.

But another thing that impressed me very much is the respect with which the Cubans treated the Angolan government. This is very important, because the Angolan government really depended on Cuba for its survival, the presence of the Cuban troops as a shield against South African invasion, which was a constant threat, and the very large and generous technical assistance that Cuba was providing to Angola. And the tendency would be to treat a government that’s so dependent with some kind of superiority. And this is something I’ve never found in international relations, this kind of respect with which Cuba treated what, by all objective counts, should have been a client government. And it’s particularly striking for someone who studies the United States and lives in the United States, because seriously the United States government does not treat government that depends on Washington with much respect.

AMY GOODMAN: Piero Gleijeses, thank you so much for being with us.

PIERO GLEIJESES: My pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor of American foreign policy at SAIS, the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. We will post the prologue of your book on our website. The book is just out; it’s called Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991, just published by University of North Carolina Press. Go to democracynow.org to read that prologue. When we come back, we’ll talk about Russia and gay and lesbian policy. Stay with us.

Originally posted by DemocracyNow.org

214 thoughts on “The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid in South Africa

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