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Review by Ambassador (ret.) Herman J. Cohen

CoverVisions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa by Piero Gleijeses University of North Carolina Press, 2013, ISBN-13 978-1469609683, 672 pp., Hardcover $40.00, Amazon hardcover $32.00, Kindle $18.19.

The United States did its best to keep the Cold War out of its relationships with the newly independent African states. In 1958, President Eisenhower decided that African neutrality, or non-alignment in the Cold War, would be perfectly acceptable. He wanted to emphasize economic development, and “winning their hearts and minds.” Subsequent administrations continued this policy. Significant economic assistance went to African nations that proudly adopted “non-alignment” or just plain neutrality.

In 1974-1975, the Cold War reared its ugly head in Africa, and the United States was unable to dodge it. Surprisingly, the Cold War thrust did not come from the Soviet Union that was only mildly interested in Africa, apart from its support for the liberation movements operating against white Portuguese and South African control over majority African peoples. It was that dirty rat Fidel Castro in Cuba who upset the apple cart, and gave the US heartburn in Africa for thirteen years.

France and England gave their African colonies independence smoothly after long transitions during the 1950s. For Portugal, the independence process for their five colonies in Africa was catastrophic. They waited until the mid-1970s when the newly independent African nations were supporting nationalist insurgencies against them. It took a military coup in Lisbon in 1974-1975 to persuade the Portuguese to give up their colonies.

Independence for the colonies of Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verdi and Sao Tome went well because single nationalist movements were available to take power. But in Angola, there were three nationalist movements that started fighting each other as soon as the Portuguese left. The MPLA was an offshoot of the Portuguese Communist Party. The UNITA group was favored by apartheid South Africa. The FNLA party was supported by Zaire to the north.

In the Angolan internal war, what caught Fidel Castro’s attention was the injection of South African armed forces into Angola to fight along side the UNITA guerrillas. With more sophisticated arms, and control of the skies, South Africa was threatening to destroy Cuba’s brother Marxist party, the MPLA, and install those UNITA “fascist” bandits in control of the Angolan capital city, Luanda. Above all, Castro could not stand the idea that the white racists of South Africa could decide the fate of Angola.

Without consulting big brother in Moscow, Castro decided to mobilize and transport a Cuban expeditionary force to Angola to prevent the defeat of the MPLA. With an all volunteer force, the Cubans managed not only to prevent an MPLA defeat, but also pushed the South Africans and their UNITA surrogate back to the southern part of Angola. This action resulted in the MPLA taking power in Luanda and becoming the recognized government of Angola.

Needless to say, this Cuban action, coming after the disgrace of President Richard Nixon, and the US departure from Vietnam, caused President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, to become virtually hysterical. He immediately started a covert action program to destabilize the MPLA, but the Democratic Congress enacted legislation, known as the Clark amendment, preventing all US involvement in Angola, covert or overt.

In the succeeding Carter administration, the United States was able to enact Resolution 435 by the UN Security Council demanding that South Africa give independence to Namibia without delay. This delegitimized South Africa’s control of Namibia, and made its use of Namibia as a base for interference in Angola all the more illegal.

Meanwhile, the Cubans shamed the Soviets into coming into Angola with major military assistance and military advisors to bolster the fight against South African destabilization efforts in support of UNITA.

The Reagan Administration came into office in 1981 with Georgetown Professor Chester A. Crocker appointed as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. Crocker established a policy called “Constructive Engagement” that entailed the opening of pragmatic dialogues with both the South African apartheid regime and the Marxist government in Angola, both of which had many enemies in Washington. His objective was to have both the Cuban and South African troops depart Angola, and to persuade the South Africans to implement UN Resolution 435 by granting independence to Namibia. His methodology for achieving these goals was to link the troop departures to Namibian independence. Both his “constructive engagement” and “linkage” policies stimulated much criticism from both liberals and conservatives in the United States and abroad.

Crocker’s eight-year saga was filled with false starts, frustration, and domestic political ambushes. But he persisted, and finally achieved his objectives in the New York Agreements signed at the United Nations in New York in December 1988, one month before the Reagan Administration completed its second and last term of office.

The entire process involving the Cuban intervention in Angola and the long marathon negotiations leading to the December 1998 agreements is magnificently detailed and analyzed in this volume by Professor Gleijeses of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. For an Africa policy junkie like me, this volume has all of the aspects of a detective thriller. The author’s massive research has answered a lot of questions that have been hanging out there for decades, and has provided new information about a number of key subjects.

  • What was behind Castro’s decision to send troops and equipment to install the MPLA in power in Angola? He apparently made the decision without outside influence.
  • What was the state of relations in Angola between the Cuban and Soviet military advisors? They basically disagreed profoundly on tactics, but remained cordial as Marxist colleagues. In addition, the Soviets were leery of Cuba’s intervention because they were looking to improve relations with the United States in order to achieve arms control agreements and begin to wind down the very expensive Cold War. The prospect of a full-scale war between Cuba and South Africa close to the Namibian border threatened to destabilize the warming US-Soviet relationship.
  • What was the balance of power in South Africa between the security forces and the civilian political elites? Until 1998, the military and intelligence people were dominant.
  • How was Secretary Crocker able to maneuver on the home front between the hard right critics who hated him for dealing with those “commies” in control of Angola, and the anti-apartheid liberals who hated him for “constructive engagement” toward South Africa? It was not easy, but he had support above all from Secretary of State Shultz and sympathetic members of the National Security Council staff who had his back in the corridors of the White House (i.e. Ambassador Herman J. Cohen and senior career USAID official Alison Rosenberg).
  • What were Fidel Castro’s true objectives in his intervention in Angola? Was it just to make sure that the MPLA could win the internal war and become the government of Angola, or did he have greater ambitions? The author demonstrates that Castro wanted, from his firm military position in Angola, to liberate Namibia from South African control, and thereby begin the process of ending the hated minority apartheid regime in South Africa. His Angola caper, combined with his extensive support for “revolutionaries” in Latin America, demonstrated that Castro was thinking big.

This volume is a masterpiece of thorough research. The author developed access to archives in Cuba, the United States, South Africa and the Soviet Union. He conducted hundreds of personal interviews, and delved into many oral histories. His detailed accounts of conversations, between diplomats and political decision makers, as well as military commanders, astonish even knowledgeable readers like myself.

Because of the book’s fascinating analysis of how military facts on the ground, combined with changes in political climates in the homelands, can influence negotiations in many ways, it should be part of any curriculum designed to train senior diplomats and flag rank military officers.bluestar

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

imageA 38-year veteran of the State Department Foreign Service, Ambassador (ret.) Herman J. Cohen has devoted his professional career to African and European affairs. He worked in Africa for twelve years in five countries, including three years in Senegal and the Gambia as the American Ambassador. His Washington assignments included four years as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research, two years in the National Security Council as President Reagan’s Senior Director for Africa, and four years as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under President George H.W. Bush (1989-1993). Mr. Cohen was Senior Adviser to the intergovernmental forum Global Coalition for Africa from 1994 to 1998, and is currently President of the Africa-oriented consulting firm Cohen and Woods International.

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