Cuba and the MPLA before the Civil War
Cuba’s first informal contacts with the MPLA dated back to the late 1950s. MPLA guerrillas received their first training from Cubans in Algiers starting in 1963 and Guevara met MPLA-leader Agostinho Neto for the first high-level talks on 5 January 1965 in Brazzaville where Cuba was establishing a two-year military mission. This mission had the primary purpose to act as a strategic reserve for the Cuban operation in eastern Congo. It also was to provide assistance to the Alphonse Massemba-Débat government in Brazzaville and, at Neto’s request, to the MPLA with its operations against the Portuguese in Cabinda and in northern Angola where its major foe was the FNLA. This co-operation marked the beginning of the Cuban-Angolan alliance which was to last 26 years. The MPLA-Cuban operations in Cabinda and northern Angola were met with very little success and the Cubans ended the mission to Brazzaville as planned in July 1966. The MPLA moved its headquarters to Lusaka in early 1968. A few MPLA guerrillas continued to receive military training in Cuba but else contacts between Cuba and the MPLA cooled as Havana turned its attention to the liberation struggle in Guiné (Guinea-Bissau). Following Castro’s tour of African countries in May 1972 Cuba stepped up its internationalist operations in Africa starting a training mission in Sierra Leone and smaller technical missions in Equatorial Guinea, Somalia, Algeria and Tanzania.
In a memorandum of 22 November 1972 by Cuban Major Manuel Piñeiro Lozada to Major Raúl Castro it says: “For some time now we have discussed the possibility of entering Angola and Mozambique with the objective of getting to know the revolutionary movements in those countries. These movements have been a mystery even for those socialist countries that give them considerable aid. This research would help us give more focused aid to those movements. I don’t consider it necessary to delineate the strategic importance of these countries, it takes only pointing out that a change in the course of events of the wars that are developing in both countries could signify a change in all the forces in the African continent. For the first time two independent countries in Africa from which a bigger war could be waged would have common borders with the region with the principle investment and the strongest political-military knot of Imperialism in Africa exist: South Africa, Rhodesia, Zaire, and the Portuguese colonies.
Our comrades in the MPLA solicited us this May for the following:
a) That we train 10 men in Cuba in guerrilla warfare ….
b) That we send a crew to fly a DC-3 ….
c) They want to send a high level delegation to Cuba ….
… Both movements will coordinate with the governments of Tanzania and Zambia for safe passage of our comrades through their territories”.
These considerations in 1972 bore no fruit and Cuba’s attentions remained focused on Guinea-Bissau. It was only after the Portuguese Revolution that an MPLA delegation brought a request for economic aid, military training and arms to Cuba on 26 July 1974. In early October Cuba received another request, this time more urgent, for 5 Cuban military officers to help organize the MPLA army, FAPLA. In December 1974 / January 1975 Cuba sent Major Alfonso Perez Morales and Carlos Cadelo on a fact finding mission to Angola to assess the situation. In a letter of 26 January 1975, handed to Cadelo and Morales, Neto listed what the MPLA wanted from Cuba:
“1. The establishment, organization, and maintenance of a military school for cadres. We urgently need to create a company of security personnel, and we need to train military staff. 2. A ship to transport the war materiel that we have in Dar-es-Salaam to Angola. The delivery in Angola, if it were in a Cuban ship, could take place outside of territorial waters. 3. Weapons and transportation for the Rapid Deployment Unit (Brigada de Intervencion) that we are planning to organize, as well as light weapons for some infantry battalions. 4. Transmitters and receivers to resolve communication problems of widely dispersed military units. 5. Uniforms and military equipment for 10,000 men. 6. Two pilots and one mechanic. 7. Assistance in training trade union leaders. 8. Assistance in organizing schools to teach Marxism… 9. Publications dealing with political and military subjects, especially instruction manuals. 10. Financial assistance while we are establishing and organizing ourselves.”
Although Cuba was considering the establishment of a military mission (military training) in Angola, again there was no official response to this request. It was only reiterated by the MPLA in May 1975 when Cuban commander Flavio Bravo met Neto in Brazzaville while the Portuguese were preparing to withdraw from their African colonies. The MPLA’s hopes for aid were turned to the eastern Bloc countries from where not enough help materialised according to their wishes. Neto is quoted in a Cuban report complaining about Moscow’s lacklustre support. He also expressed hope that the war in Angola would become “a vital issue in the fight against imperialism and socialism”. But neither the USSR nor the MPLA itself expected a major war to break out before independence. In March 1975 the MPLA sent ca. 100 members for training in the Soviet Union and the requested financial assistance (100,000US$) it received from Yugoslavia.
In November 1975, on the eve of Angola’s independence, Cuba launched a large-scale military intervention in support of the leftist liberation movement MPLA against United States-backed invasions by South Africa and Zaire in support of two other liberation movements competing for power in the country, FNLA and UNITA.
Following the retreat of Zaire and South Africa, Cuban forces remained in Angola to support the Angolan government against the UNITA insurgency in the continuing Angolan Civil War.
In 1988, Cuban troops intervened a second time to avert a military disaster in a Soviet-led FAPLA offensive against UNITA which was supported by South Africa, leading to the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale. This turn of events is considered to have been the major impetus to the success of the ongoing peace talks leading to the New York Accords after which Cuban and South African forces withdrew from Angola while South West Africa gained its independence from South Africa. The War in Angola ended in 1991.
In addition to the Cuban military, from 1976 to 1991, 430,000 Cuban foreign aid volunteers served in Angola. At one point, two-thirds of all doctors in Angola were Cuban.