http://www.afrol.com/articles/17553afrol News, 6 December - For the first time, Cuban President Fidel Castro has revealed details of the large Cuban military participation in the war against South African troops in southern Angola in 1987-88. Some 55,000 Cuban troops aided the Angolan counter-offensive, that drove South Africans back to the Namibian border and to the negotiation table. The result was the independence of Namibia, President Castro recalls.
Cuba's aging Dictator on Friday addressed the Caribbean nation's armed forces in a speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of its Angolan engagement. Going through the well-known history of the sending of Cuban 36,000 troops to Angola to defend the Marxist MPLA government against a South African invasion in 1975, President Castro also for the first time shed light on the scale of the 1987-88 operation.
In 1987, South African troops were again in Angola, aiding the rightist UNITA rebels in an attempt to overthrow the leftist MPLA government. According to Mr Castro, the Angolan army had been ill advised to its large September 1987 offensive against the assumed UNITA headquarters at Lomba River in the far south-east of Angola.
President Castro reveals that Cuba had advised the Angolan army against this large offensive due to the big risks involved. The battle at Lomba River also turned out to be a disaster for the government army, as it fell into a trap set up by UNITA and its allies from the apartheid state. The Angolan army suffered great losses, in particular of its heavy weaponry, and was forced to pull back to the air base in Cuito Cuanavale.
"The enemy, greatly emboldened, advanced strongly, towards Cuito Cuanavale," Mr Castro said. "Here it prepared to deliver a mortal blow against Angola. Desperate calls were received from the Angolan government appealing to the Cuban troops for support in fending off presumed disaster," he went on, adding Cuba "had no responsibility whatever" for the difficult situation the Angolan army found itself in.
The Cuban President goes on detailing the massive response immediately organised by Havana. The goal was not only hindering the enemy's advance on Cuito Cuanavale, but to "deliver a decisive blow against the South African forces," he revealed. "A flood of troops and weaponry rapidly crossed the Atlantic, landing on Angola's south coast in order to attack in the south west, in the direction of Namibia. At the same time, 800 km to the east, special units advanced towards Cuito Cuanavale, where they joined up with retreating Angolan forces to set up a lethal trap for the powerful South African forces heading for that large airbase."
The scale of the operation was enormous, much bigger than contemporary observers believed. "Cuban troops in Angola numbered 55,000," President Castro revealed. Assessments so far on the Cuban force have been closer to 30,000. Only in Cuito Cuanavale, there were 40,000 Cuban and 30,000 Angolan troops.
With this great Cuban force at its side, the Angolan army was able to win the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale. The Cubans had also brought some 600 tanks and heavy artillery. President Castro reveals that the Cubans also brought several MIG-23 unit, the South Africans thus losing their aerial supremacy. This probably secured the quick victory.
The Cuban-Angolan troops however did not stop at Cuito Cuanavale. With full control on land and in the air, they advanced towards the Namibian border, "ready to literally sweep up the South African forces deployed along that main route,2 according to Mr Castro. This advance, he added, "spelled the end of foreign aggression."
With the South African army in Angola beaten and Cuban-Angolan troops advancing towards South African-occupied Namibia, the power balance in the region had been turned upside-down over night. Suddenly, apartheid South Africa was no longer invincible. Its control over the Southern African region seemed to be more fragile than believed.
In that spirit, South Africa finally agreed to negotiate. "The enemy had to set aside its usual arrogance and sit down at the negotiating table. The talks culminated in the Peace Accords for Southern Africa, signed by South Africa, Angola and Cuba at the UN headquarters in December 1988," President Castro said. The Washington government "had no choice but to accept our presence" in the negotiations, the Cuban leader recalled.
The 1988 peace had great implications for the history of Southern Africa. While Cuba agreed to pull out of Angola, South Africa was forced to stop its campaigns against the MPLA government, which slowly led the the weakening of the UNITA rebels. Even more important, a plan to implement Namibia's independence was agreed upon by the Pretoria government. The power balance was changed in disfavour of the apartheid regime on a lasting basis.
The contribution of the Cuban army was "decisive in consolidating Angola's independence and achieving that of Namibia. It was also a significant contribution to the liberation of Zimbabwe and the demise of South Africa's repugnant apartheid regime," President Castro told his troops. "Rarely in history has war ... been accompanied by such humanism and humility on the part of the victors," he added.
The Cuban leader said it was now time, 30 years after Angola's independence, that the "heroic saga" of the Cuban contribution be "told in full." He lamented that when the region's history is told, "Cuba, it seems, never played any part at all in Angolan independence, Namibian independence or the defeat of the until-then invincible army of apartheid." Cuba, after all, he said, was "the only non-African nation that fought and shed its blood for Africa and against the shameful apartheid regime."