Fidel Castro's Vietnam: Thousands of Cubans Were Sent More than 6,000 Miles Into a Bloody Civil War

Iraqi BMP-1 IFV sits in a field after being destroyed during Operation Desert Storm. Wikimedia Commons/Department of Defense

In the Angolan Civil War, Cuba played the role of foreign interventionist—to little effect.

Fidel Castro is still dead. I say that only partway in jest, since the Cuban Americans I’ve spoken to this week are almost uneasy in their jubilation, as though El Comandante’s demise could prove a cruel joke and his hirsute countenance could reappear tomorrow on a balcony in Havana. Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, palled dungeons, concentration camps, squalid collective farms, the abrogation of essential freedoms, the annihilation of an economy, the luxuriant profiting of a regime at the expense of its people, the glazed eyes of useful idiots being shown around Potemkin hospitals and the omnipresent specter of a mushroom cloud.

It’s also one of foreign intervention, though you wouldn’t know it from Castro’s stridently anti-imperialist rhetoric. Cuba readily inserted itself into a number of foreign conflicts during the 1960s and 1970s, usually under the command of T-shirt tactician Che Guevara, whose modus operandi of “internationalism” compelled the fomenting of revolutionary movements towards the realization of a world workers’ paradise. These interventions took Cuban fighters to Bolivia, Guinea-Bissau and Somalia, but Havana’s heaviest investment was in Central Africa. Guevara viewed the Congo, located at the heart of the continent and roiled by violence, as a fulcrum that could be used to leverage revolution throughout Africa. He was both ambitious and naïve, superimposing his ideological vision on one of the world’s most turbulent regions without ever understanding the myriad conflicts that raged underneath.

In January 1965, Guevara convened with a leftist group called the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which he asked to deploy guerillas to the Congo. The MPLA declined, too preoccupied with its own insurgency in Angola, which had gotten it expelled to neighboring Congo-Brazzaville (today the Republic of the Congo). So Guevara pressed on into the Congo with his fellow Cubans, where the intervention quickly turned into a debacle, stymied by unreliable Congolese who he later claimed didn’t understand how to shoot guns. The attempt to spark a revolutionary war failed and Guevara left Central Africa in ignominy. He later wrote a diary of the Congo campaign that began: “This is the story of a failure.” But while Guevara’s reputation was tarnished (he would die less than two years later in Bolivia), Cuba’s relationship with the MPLA emerged intact. Havana shifted its African focus to Congo-Brazzaville, where the MPLA was operating, and the two began a decades-long alliance there.

Angola, a vast mineral-rich nation on Africa’s west coast, was at the time colonized by Portugal. The left-leaning Carnation Revolution changed all that, deposing the Portuguese regime and liberating all of its African colonies. Angola declared independence in 1975, but the MPLA was not its only heir. The group was challenged by both the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), right-wing militias supported variously by Zaire, South Africa, and the United States, which viewed them as bulwarks against the Soviet-backed MPLA. Tensions mounted and the Portuguese exacerbated them by high-tailing it out of Angola after independence, with little effort expended towards a transition or a truly durable peace. The fragile power-sharing armistice they’d drafted collapsed almost immediately, UNITA declared war on the MPLA, and a civil war began that would stretch for the next twenty-seven years.

Cuba, eager to bolster its old stalwart the MPLA, expeditiously deployed troops to Angola, a move that incensed then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Where Guevara had his ideological internationalism, Kissinger had his calculated global chess: he was haunted by the prospect of a communist vantage point in Central Africa, as well as the threat posed by a muscular Havana. Kissinger drew up plans for the United States to bomb Cuban forces in Angola, only to have them scuttled when the more dovish Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election. America and the Soviet Union, chary after the bloodletting in Vietnam, would abstain from another direct war and instead limit their roles to providing military aid, ceding Angola to Cuban troops as well as those from nearby South Africa.