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Acting Alone? Fidel’s African Imperiadventures
Review by Margaret Hemenway

bookcoverConflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. By Piero Gleijeses. (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Pp. xix, 552. $34.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.)

Piero Gleijeses’ Conflicting Missions attempts to provide new insights into Cuba’s exploits in Africa through the author’s unique, although partial, access to previously closed Cuban “archives.” The author, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, seeks to chronicle Havana’s role in Algeria, Central Africa, Zaire, the Congo, and Angola, the site of the largest Cuban expeditionary force. It fails to provide an objective examination of Castro’s intervention in Africa because of selective sourcing, prejudicial terminology, and glaring omissions of critical information, sadly rendering the book a flawed, pro-Castro, revisionist history. Typical of the left-wing bias of this volume are references to “corrupt, pro-American” regimes, CIA “puppets,” “thuggish” white mercenaries, and subjective commentary unsubstantiated by evidence (e.g. the aid Cuba gave Algeria had nothing to do with the conflict between East and West).

Among the glaring omissions in this volume is the role white Portuguese communists played in the Angolan revolution. For example, Rosie Coutinho (the “Red Admiral”), named High Commissioner in Angola by the Portuguese government, is never mentioned as such; yet after the Caetano regime was overthrown in Lisbon, he facilitated critical weapons shipments to the Soviet and Cuban-backed Angolan communist faction, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). Gleijeses refers frequently to Cuban doctors and nurses, echoing Cuban propaganda in Africa. The “medical mission” was, of course, a mere sideshow compared to the guerrillas, military training, and Russian weapons that Havana dispatched to its African comrades. (Cuban official and Central Committee member, Jorge Risquet, interviewed by the author, admits the Cubans were training Rhodesian, Namibian, and South African guerrillas in the “largest school of this kind in the world.”) The author refers frequently to Cuban “scholarships” given to foreign students without identifying this “education” as political indoctrination in Marxist ideology. Gleijeses describes Havana’s medical practitioners in Africa as Cuba’s “peace corps,” thus invoking the same name given to the American entity and giving the false impression that Cubans volunteered to serve in humanitarian missions in war-torn Third World countries.

While white “mercenaries” are labeled “thugs,” Gleijeses is oblivious to Cubans behaving in Africa as if they were neocolonialists, engaging in corruption and smuggling of silver, ivory, and diamonds. General Ochoa, a hero of the Angolan war, was executed by Castro on smuggling charges stemming from his Angolan service. Buried in a footnote, the author mentions that, “members of the medical mission had volunteered to fight” in Algeria, begging the question of whether the doctors were actually soldiers or were deployed in a dual capacity.

One of Gleijeses’ recurrent themes is his effort to claim Castro acted in Africa often without consulting the Soviet Union, yet this theory is undercut by his own occasional divulgence: that Castro agreed not to ship Russian weapons to a third party without Soviet concurrence, that Cuba lacked an indigenous arms industry, and that Russian weaponry made a difference in post-colonial combat in Africa, particularly with the export of sophisticated weaponry like surface to air missiles. It therefore, becomes difficult to postulate that Castro could successfully operate independently of Moscow. The author acknowledges Russian weapons could only be used by the Cubans, but immediately following, sees no Soviet hand of influence. In yet another example, Gleijeses claims that Cuba’s support for armed struggle generated friction with the U. S. S. R., and in the paragraph, notes that Moscow and Beijing were major sources of aid to the Simba (Congolese) guerrillas.

The author admits that Castro used black Cubans in his African interventions because they blended into the native populations. But he fails to question whether using such a disproportionate number of them (7,000-11,000 of whom died in the Angolan war) was a racist policy.

African non-Marxists are predictably described in negative terms. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola ‘s Holden Roberto is labeled a “corrupt leader dancing to the tune of a foreign master.” Zaire’s Joseph Mobutu is described as a “child of the CIA” and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola’s (UNITA) Jonas Savimbi is accused of being a Maoist and collaborating with the Portuguese and the South Africans. It is an exaggeration to depict Mobutu as a U. S. puppet, given his celebration of Ho Chi Minh’s victory in Vietnam and his support for the PLO and the communist North Koreans. Gleijese fails to point out any major policy divergences between Castro and the Kremlin, and most of his evidence of splits or rifts between them are superficial or anecdotal.

Anti-American African leaders or communists are never referred to as Soviet clients, puppets, or collaborators. Gleijese neglects to mention that the revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist MPLA’s leader, Agostinho Neto, had been a member of the pro-Moscow Portuguese communist party since the 1950s and that many of his movement’s cadres had received both ideological and military training in the Soviet Union and Cuba. There is no reference to Neto’s mysterious death in a Moscow hospital while he was making peace overtures indirectly with other African leaders to rival Jonas Savimbi. Possible Kremlin complicity in his death goes unmentioned.

The massive corruption, party purges, and liquidation of political, ethnic, and religious opposition so characteristic of the author’s “eclectic” Angolan Marxists regime is absent from this substantively slanted work. Even the most egregious example of their misrule, the slaughter of tens of thousands of opposition party candidates and their supporters following the first (and seriously flawed U. N.-supervised) national elections in 1992, is nowhere to be found in these pages. In the author’s account of the post-election civil war–which he blames on the loser Savimbi–he fails to report that the required presidential run-off election between Savimbi and MPLA chief Dos Santos was never held. (Due to the MPLA’s attacks on UNITA outposts in Luanda under a white flag of truce at the onset of the nation-wide bloodletting that ended electoral negotiations between the warring parties.)

Gleijeses’ portrayal of U. S. officials is noteworthy in that he properly exposes their apparent ignorance of or indifference to Cuba’s involvement in Africa. Viewing Africa as only marginal to American strategic interests, despite its plentiful oil deposits and mineral wealth, they failed to realize that a Cuban victory in Angola would provoke militancy and radicalism in South Africa, the economic engine of sub-Saharan Africa. Foggy Bottom naively believed that Castro would do nothing to jeopardize normalization talks with Washington. (Future U. S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, Joseph Biden, admitted that he couldn’t distinguish Angola from Mongolia!)

The author’s ideological prejudices are clearly evident in his treatment of the Angolan civil war. He labels South Africa’s incursion into Angola an “invasion,” yet refers to Castro’s expeditionary force as composed of “technical advisors,” “specialists,” or “volunteers.” His contention that Havana’s presence in Angola (beginning in March, 1975) was minor prior to Pretoria’s intervention on 23 October 1975, conflict with previously published accounts that estimate the number of Soviet and Cuban “advisors” reaching 7,000 by the time of the South African incursion. (In August of that year, the Vietnam Heroico docked in Luanda with several hundred mostly black Cubans on board.) Gleijeses ignores the security threat that Pretoria perceived from the presence of Soviet “advisors,’ weapons, air support, and thousands of communist Cuban troops near their borders assisting the Marxist insurgency. Relying heavily on interviews with Cuban government officials and dissident CIA officers, as well as Cuban and East German archival materials, the author made no apparent effort to consult South African sources.

Gleijeses’ seeming lack of understanding of the nature of totalitarian regimes and his benign, even enthusiastic, portrayal of Cuba’s African adventures is disturbing, but even more alarming is that his radical views on Africa typify many of America’s African studies departments, and are being foisted on a generation of innocent young Americans without the intellectual background to dissect and refute such propaganda. His selective use of references and sources which bolster his natural biases undermine his work. The result is yet another politically correct, pro-Castro, revisionist history.


Margaret Hemenway, a graduate of both UNC-Chapel Hill and Georgetown University, handled defense and foreign policy matters for three years as senior legislative assistant for former U. S. Senator Bob Smith. She also served as a professional staff member for the U. S. House of Representatives’ Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and Human Events. As a Senate staffer in 1985, she worked successfully to repeal the Clark Amendment, thus paving the way for the Reagan Administration’s covert aid to the Angolan opposition movement, UNITA.


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