As Fidel Castro, who died on November 25 aged 90, is laid to rest in Cuba today, Africa will be saying goodbye to a liberator and a friend.
Castro epitomised the defiance of the global South against the global hegemony of the North.
In the version of the global North, Castro’s legacy is that of a proxy of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and an authoritarian whose one-party state ruled Cuba for five decades with few freedoms.
But Castro was a larger- than-life figure who walked the world stage in the 20th Century like a colossus.
As Piero Gleijeses, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, aptly remarks: “No other Third World country has projected its military power beyond its immediate neighbourhood”.
In Gleijeses’ two monumental books: Conflicting Missions (2002) and Visions of Freedom (2013), Castro emerges as a charismatic, master strategist and a man of conviction who is fittingly one of the greatest makers of the 20th Century.
Castro stirred the imagination of African freedom fighters as a man who presided over the Cuban Revolution against the corrupt dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Under Castro, Africa became central to Cuba’s foreign policy ideologically propelled by a form of internationalism that saw duty to help others facing oppression in the global South as the core of the Cuban Revolution.
From the early 1960s, Castro began deepening his relations with Africa and its black diaspora.
A year after the revolution, Castro lodged in the black-owned Hotel Theresa in Harlem, New York, where Malcolm X welcomed him.
He also met Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, a key supporter of liberation movements in countries like Kenya.
Castro’s internationalism emboldened Africa’s emerging political leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane and Angola’s Agostinho Neto.
Cuba’s foreign policy towards Africa had two main pillars: decolonisation and technical assistance.
In the early 1960s, Castro supported Algeria’s war of liberation (1954-1962) against France, which had already attracted many Caribbean intellectual revolutionaries such as Frantz Fanon.
In 1963, Cuba sent a team of 56 doctors to Algeria to deal with post-independence “white flight” which had left the country desperately lacking in medical professionals.
In 1961, after the assassination of Congo’s charismatic Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and the invasion of the Bay of Pigs in an attempt to oust him, Castro became convinced that the global South was facing a shared threat of American imperialism.
In 1964, he dispatched his personal emissary, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, on a three-month visit to Africa.
Che embedded himself with 100 Afro-Cuban soldiers in Congo to train guerrilla fighters in support of the Marxist Simba movement, but apartheid South African mercenaries forced them to retreat.
Between 1966 and 1974, Cuba sent a small force following a request for assistance from Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the PAIGC movement for the liberation of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau fighting against Portuguese colonialism.
Partly because of this force, the Portuguese lost the war and the colonies.
“In a spirit of friendship … the bonds of history, blood and culture unite our peoples with the Cuban people,” declared Amilcar Cabral.
Without Castro, Angola would, certainly, have taken a very different trajectory.
In October 1975, when South Africa invaded Angola to overthrow and prevent the left-wing Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) from taking over in the soon-to-be independent Angola, Luanda requested for Cuba’s Assistance.
Between 1975 and 1991, Castro stationed no less than 30,000 Cuban troops in Angola under “Operation Carlotta”, effectively preventing the apartheid army from easily overrunning Luanda, crushing the MPLA, and installing a puppet government friendly to the apartheid regime.
Cuba also supplied troops to support Mozambique’s ruling FRELIMO (the National Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) party in the mid-1970s.
In his message of condolence, Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi thanked Castro for “his incomparable and unforgettable contribution to the fight for the cause of independence.”
Castro has described Cuba’s role on resisting South African apartheid as “the most beautiful cause.”
This is a reference to a truly David versus Goliath conflict, the spectacular clash between Cuba and South African forces.
Twice – in 1976 and in 1988 – the Cubans defeated a combined force of South African apartheid army and Angolan “rebels”.
Specifically, Cuba’s victory at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (1988) set the stage for the independence of Namibia and the meltdown of apartheid in South Africa.
This victory effectively scuttled South Africa’s strategy of “the Constellation of Southern African States”, in which Pretoria and its allies planned to install in Southern Africa regimes that would be virulently anti-communist, tolerant of apartheid, and eager to persecute the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa and the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in Namibia.
It is because of this that in July 1991, during a visit to Cuba to mark the 38th anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Mandela hailed Castro as “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people”.
In 1998, while addressing the South African parliament during his first visit to the country, Fidel Castro noted that by the end of the Cold War, at least 381,432 Cuban soldiers and officers had been on duty or “fought hand-in-hand with African soldiers and officers in this continent for national independence or against foreign aggression”.
For this reason, and as Mandela rightly stated, “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa.”
Many Cubans also lost their lives. In 1987, the Los Angeles Times reported that “10,000 Cuban troops have been killed in Angola since 1976 … proportionately much higher than American fatalities in Vietnam”.
However, Cuba’s record in the Horn of Africa is mixed. Somali nationalists will not remember Castrol fondly.
Castro’s decision to deploy 15,000 troops to fight in the 1977-1978 Ethio-Somali war contributed to Somalia’s defeat.
As we bid farewell to Castro, the ties of friendship, freedom and mutual respect he left behind will continue to bind Africa and Cuba.