With Fidel Castro gone, Africa’s liberation leaders lose a loyal friend and a hero of the people.
When Africa was a battleground between the Cold War powers, Cuba emerged as a friend of liberation movements. Cuba’s involvement in Africa went beyond the ideological standoff between right and left to a real helping hand: sending soldiers, doctors and teachers when post-colonial Africa was perhaps at its most vulnerable.
Some critics saw Castro’s role on the continent as a shrewd power play. An independent, post-colonial Africa with socialist leanings would have fortified Cuba and the power bloc led by the Soviet Union. Many African nations formed part of the Non-Aligned Movement in a bid to remain above the fray of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union.
In Castro, nonetheless, African activists found a leader willing to share flaming rhetoric as well as practical guidance to freedom at a time when Africans had few political allies. Those liberation leaders became the founding fathers of modern Africa, and they never forgot Cuba’s help.
In grainy black and white images, Castro is seen smiling with Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Angola’s Augustinho Neto and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere. Castro’s influence can be seen in Mozambican independence leader Samora Machel’s army fatigues and vociferous speeches. Cuba also became home to young African activists in exile.
In his own country, and to many in the West, Castro’s regime was a repressive, single-minded pursuit of a communist revolution, no matter the human cost, even while acknowledging his dynamic impact on the course of history over the last six decades. Many Africans, however, look to his leadership as one that sought equality and development, and they joined Castro in blaming sanctions for Cuba’s difficulties.
It was perhaps Cuba’s willingness to fight side-by-side with Africans that made him such a towering figure on the continent. In 1975, as Angola gained independence from Portugal, it offered a safe haven to then liberation movements hunted in their own countries: the African National Congress, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union and Namibia’s South West African People’s Organization.
When the apartheid government, aided by the United States, attacked Angola, it was Castro who came to the Africans’ aid. He sent 36,000 troops who succeeded in pushing the South African soldiers back while also training African fighters. Cuban troops remained in Africa until 1988, when an apartheid South Africa agreed to withdraw and grant independence to Namibia. Castro’s defiance of the United States was seen as defiance of imperialism and neo-colonialism by African freedom fighters.
Nelson Mandela once reportedly said that when he heard of the Cuban army’s victories in Angola, he was heartened by the idea of a non-white army out-maneuvering a white army. Upon his release, Castro was one of the first leaders Mandela met with, and dismissed criticism of his friendship with the politically isolated Castro.
“We are now being advised about Cuba by people who have supported the apartheid regime these last 40 years,” he said on a visit to Havana in 1991. “No honorable man or woman could ever accept advice from people who never cared for us at the most difficult times.”
Archive footage shows just how wide Mandela grinned and how tightly he embraced his friend Castro. South Africa’s parliament broke out in song when Castro visited and an emotional Sam Nujoma, the founding president of Namibia, thanked Castro for helping to free his people. Even among ordinary Africans, Castro remains a hero with many babies bearing the name Fidel or Castro.
Castro’s backing of some African leaders, however, alienated others. In 1977, Castro sent as many as 15,000 troops to back Mengistu Haile Mariam’s fight against Somalia. The Cuban involvement forced Somalia to cede control of the Ogaden region—a blow to an army that believed victory was in their grasp. Some Somalis are still bitter.
Castro’s commitment to Africa continued in post-liberation Africa. The country still trains African doctors, and continues to send doctors here. When Ebola ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, Cuba lead international aid efforts when other world powers fretted. It is a relationship likely to continue long after Castro’s death.