Visions of Freedom – Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991
By Piero Gleijeses
A basic question that we might ask is, why do we study history? One reason why I study history to learn what were the strategies used in the past that either benefitted or harmed the interests of working people. Looking at history from that perspective, Piero Gleijeses has written a book that documents one of the most important wars of the 20th century.
When Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison to become the President of that nation, the entire world took notice. Anyone who has studied this inspiring chapter of history will come across the following narrative. The people of South Africa became intolerant of the apartheid system and made that nation virtually unmanageable. Nations from around the world also protested and instituted economic sanctions against South Africa. While all of this is true, there is another narrative that is rarely mentioned in the mainstream press.
In the early 1970’s, the relatively small nation of Portugal was the colonial power for vast areas of Africa. For years the African people struggled against this colonial rule. The only way Portugal was able to maintain an army to put down this resistance was because of massive aid it received from the United States government. Then, in the mid-1970’s the Portuguese dictatorship was overthrown and Portuguese colonial rule of Africa was over.
Angola and the MPLA
In Angola the MPLA was the most respected of the liberation groups and took over the government in Luanda. The other so-called liberation group was UNITA. It’s leader was Jonas Savimbi. Savimbi was an opportunist who worked with the Portuguese colonialists, as well as the apartheid government of South Africa.
At this time the apartheid government of South Africa based itself on the minority Caucasian rule of that country. Since Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress supported the interests of all South Africans, this organization was a target of those who favored the continuation of apartheid. The MPLA in Angola allowed the ANC to organize in their country.
Then, there was the nation of South West Africa. Today that nation is called Namibia. This nation was also run by a Caucasian minority regime. Namibia is located between South Africa and Angola. The liberation group of Namibia was called SWAPO and it’s leader was Sam Nujoma. SWAPO’s headquartered its forces in Angola with the support of the MPLA. The United Nations eventually voted to demand elections in South West Africa that would place SWAPO in power.
The apartheid government of South Africa resented these changes and mobilized their armed forces to impose a solution. In the mid 1970’s South Africa invaded Angola and marched all the way to the outskirts of Luanda. They were confident that they could replace the MPLA with their own client government headed by Savimbi.
The Cubans intervene
Then, something unexpected happened. The Cuban government saw these developments and mobilized over 30,000 soldiers to stop the South Africans. The South African offensive was pushed back and the MPLA remained in power.
However, South Africa didn’t give up their goal of overthrowing the MPLA. For years the South African armed forces stationed themselves in Southern Angola. The Cuban Armed forces established a military line preventing the South Africans from launching another offensive.
For over ten years the Cuban troops remained in Angola. They lived under difficult conditions knowing they could be attacked at any time by the South Africans. This was all made possible because of the enormous material support the Cubans and Angolans received from the Soviet Union.
However, government and military officials of the Soviet Union had other priorities and repeatedly gave bad advice to the Angola. In 1985 and 1987 Soviet military officials promoted the idea of an Angolan offensive against UNITA in the Southeast of the country.
The Cubans opposed this strategy arguing that South Africa would intervene and the Angolans would not be able to defeat that army. Both these offensives ended in Angolan defeats because of South African intervention. At this time, both the governments of the United States and South Africa demanded that the Cubans leave Angola.
Understanding that this was a crisis situation, the Cubans again acted on their own and increased their military presence in Angola. Most of the Cuban air-force went to the Southeastern part of Angola to do battle against the South Africans. Because of this strategy, the Cubans were able to launch an offensive with MPLA and SWAPO forces that ran South Africa out of Angola.
The defeat of South Africa brings about change
Because of these defeats and the uprisings of the South African people, the apartheid government began to understand that its days were numbered. Elections finally took place in Namibia and SWAPO took political power. Then, the apartheid government released Nelson Mandela from prison and he became the President of a new South Africa.
Piero Gleijeses has shown how Nelson Mandela and the new South African government thanked the Cuban government for the immense contributions they have made. The Cuban defense of Angola literally helped to change the face of Southern Africa.
Gleijeses also gives a useful comparison between the Cuban support of Angola and the United States war against Vietnam. In Angola Cuba supported a popular government against a thoroughly discredited and ruthless apartheid regime. In Vietnam the United States supported the forces of repression against the NLF that won independence from both France and Japan.
In today’s world, when we read the pro-capitalist press it is easy to through up our hands and wonder what the future will bring. Gleijeses quoted the commercial newspapers in the United States. They made the absurd claim that the so-called negotiating skills of U.S. government representatives were the only reason why change came to Southern Africa.
However, in reading Gleijeses’ book we find that there are clearly forces of good and evil in this world. Those forces are the exact opposite of the U.S. government’s point of view.
The Cuban government has proven that it will do virtually everything it can to advance the living standards of people throughout the world. On the other hand, the U.S. government has shown over and over again that it will use its immense resources to block any genuinely progressive change in the world.