Fidel Castro was the enduring face and voice of a Cuban internationalism forged at the height of the Cold War and still widely misunderstood by the global North.
In 1969, during a meeting with the Chilean foreign minister Gabriel Valdes, Henry Kissinger – who would later become the US secretary of state – declared: “Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance.”
This so-called South – the global South – had already proved Kissinger wrong, though he was not astute enough to recognise it. As well as the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement (of newly independent nations) at the Bandung Conference some 14 years earlier, post-revolution Cuba had been busy forging deep ties with countries that shared both its mistrust of US foreign policy and desire for true independence.
In the years that followed, Havana would provide not just symbolic but also military and economic support to peoples all over Asia, Africa and Latin America. This struggle for self-determination, which spread across the globe throughout the 20th century, is perhaps one of the most enduring legacies of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Nowhere has it had as deep an impact as in Africa, where Cuba helped consolidate the rule of socialist independent movements in several nations, and to bring about the end of apartheid in South Africa.
Cuba’s influence on the global South began, symbolically, with the Cuban revolution itself, in 1959. “The Cuban revolution provided a sort of language for which places like Guinea-Bissau could dream of their future as independent countries,” says Antonio Tomas, a biographer of African anti-colonial leader Amilcar Cabral.
It was an event which resonated with nations still fighting or only recently liberated from colonial occupations.
“I was a young student when I heard about it, and about Fidel, for the first time,” says Adriano Pereira dos Santos Junior, who was part of the liberation struggle in Angola, won by the socialist MPLA. “The Cuban revolution and the defeat of Baptista was hugely influential for us in Angola.”
The following year, with Cuba already under sanctions from the US, Fidel Castro travelled to New York to address the United Nations, and found that he would be confined to Manhattan island by security measures.
After a spat with a hotel that demanded a $20,000 deposit from the Cubans, Castro and his delegation left and moved to the black-owned Hotel Theresa, in Harlem, where they were welcomed by el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Malcolm X.
Rosemari Mealy, an academic, writer and Black Panther Party member, who has written about the encounter, recalls: “Activists, journalists and regular Harlemites … recalled witnessing thousands of pro-Cuba demonstrators in the streets in front of the hotel.”
At the time, as Mealy points out, “all across the United States, including Harlem, blacks and other people of colour were waging relentless struggles against racism and police violence, the fight for decent housing, jobs and the end to segregation of public schools and transportation”.
Castro’s decision to stay in Harlem, to meet so publicly with Malcolm X and, subsequently, to receive a host of foreign leaders who were at odds with American foreign policy – including Nikita Khrushchev, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru – antagonised the US administration but also served as a powerful example of how Cuba was positioning itself in relation to the rest of the world.
But the rest of the world was in a state of turmoil. The 1960 independence of the Republic of Congo was followed in January 1961 by the assassination of its new president, Patrice Lumumba, in which both the US and the United Nations played a role.
Then, just months later, in Cuba, the CIA orchestrated the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to unseat Castro. It was not hard, at the time, for Cuba to convince the global South of the facts of American imperialism.
With the controversial, US-imposed sanctions as his calling card, Castro declared solidarity between Cuba and other oppressed, colonised, and newly independent nations.
According to Raquel Ribeiro, who writes about the relationship between Cuba and Angola, “there was a wide and significant network of influence in the so-called Third World, which stemmed clearly from the Tricontinental conference in Havana in 1966 as a movement of the ‘global South’, an alternative to imperial, neo-colonial forms of domination”.
In its attempt to galvanise this movement, the Cuban government went beyond rhetoric and began to provide tangible support to those it counted among its allies. It was in this spirit that, in 1963, Cuba sent a delegation of 56 Cuban doctors to Algeria. Algeria was still recovering from a long war of liberation from France, and post-independence “white flight” had left the country desperately lacking in medical professionals.
This small, but symbolic, envoy from Havana was the beginning of a decades-long programme of Cuban “medical internationalism” which would leave a lasting legacy across Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, in particular. “The symbolic aspect was really the generosity,” says Tomas. “And I think this is the narrative Fidel wanted to write. The history of the little island doing great things in Africa, far greater than the resources they had and so on …. This internationalism was unprecedented.”
But from its inception, medical internationalism was not only part of a humanitarian campaign (which also provided teachers, engineers and technicians); it was also fundamental to the military interventions that Cuba was launching abroad, particularly in Africa, where ongoing independence struggles were fast becoming a live battleground for the Cold War.
From 1963, Cuba began to provide arms and weapons training to allied movements in Algeria, Yemen, and to Amilcar Cabral’s PAIGC movement for the liberation of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, then still Portuguese colonies. But the support wasn’t only practical. Rooted in a language of brotherhood and shared history, it was also emotional. “In a spirit of friendship,” declared Amilcar Cabral, “… the bonds of history, blood and culture unite our peoples with the Cuban people.”
Although outflanked by the Soviet Union in terms of the military and financial aid it provided, Cuba’s internationalist support continued to be of importance to the emerging political leaders of the global South (including Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah; Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser; Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara; Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane; and Angola’s Agostinho Neto – not all of whom were then in power).
While these leaders were courted by Raul and Fidel Castro, it was Che Guevara who provided the idealism and passion for the armed struggle on the ground. Che intended to put the guerilla warfare theories he had developed – based on his own experiences in Cuba – into practice. In 1965, he embedded himself with 100 Afro-Cuban soldiers in the Republic of Congo, to train guerilla fighters in support of the Marxist Simba movement.
The mission was disastrous; his men were soon outnumbered by apartheid South African- and CIA-backed mercenaries, and he retreated, having learned a painful lesson about wading into unfamiliar conflicts. While subsequently hiding in Dar es Salaam, he offered his services to FRELIMO (the National Front for the Liberation of Mozambique), but was turned down. Not all African liberation movements wanted – or needed – help.
After Che’s death in 1966, Cuban internationalism became more pragmatic. But over the following decade, the struggles for independence mutated into a series of bitter internal conflicts, heavily fuelled by foreign interests and Cold War politics.
At the request of the MPLA (the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), Castro sent tens of thousands of Cubans to Angola under “Operation Carlotta” between 1975 and 1991, many of whom would die fighting against rival, US-backed and South-African apartheid forces. The Cuban forces’ victory at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 was a watershed moment in southern African history, heralding independence for Zimbabwe and Namibia – and the beginning of the end of South African apartheid. It was also the moment for Cuba to begin withdrawing militarily from Angola – although the civil war there would not end for another decade.
Cuba’s decades-long involvement in Africa has left a disputed and complicated legacy; alongside the victory over apartheid sits their alleged involvement in the May 27 massacre in Angola; and the bloodshed from the 1977 Ethiopia-Somalia war, to mention just two examples.
The movements whose leadership Castro supported have not always fulfilled the hopes of the people they rule over, and some have morphed from socialism into something quite unrecognisable. But as Nelson Mandela – a lifelong friend of Castro – also remarked: “Cubans came to our region as doctors, teachers, soldiers, agricultural experts, but never as colonisers … What other country has such a history of selfless behaviour as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa?”
Even today, thousands of Cuban doctors are working all over Africa and beyond – providing vital medical services including most recently during the Ebola crisis; supporting infrastructure, education and culture. “Internationalism is ingrained in Cuban society and it’s a fundamental part of Cuban identity,” says Ribeiro. “It will continue to live on, beyond Fidel.”
Ana Naomi de Sousa is a filmmaker and journalist. She is the director of: Hacking Madrid; The Architecture of Violence; Guerrilla Architect; and Angola Birth of a Movement.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.