Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Cuito Cuanavale and the triumph of third world solidarity

My last post reminded me of the importance of the Cuban victory against South African forces in Angola in the late 80's in and around the town of Cuito Cuanavale. Its a shame that when the issues of the Cold war in Africa or colonialism or even Apartheid itself are brought up that this event is overlooked. To me its a bit like discussing the Cuban Revolution while overlooking the role of the city of Santiago de Cuba you know the one were Fidel declared the victory of the Cuban revolution after Batista fled.

So perhaps a brief bit of background is in order. Angola a former Portuguese Colony had been suffering under a three way civil war (which officially ended in 2002) between the Communist Popular Movement For the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) which was the governing faction that controlled much of the country and had amongst its allies the the USSR, Mozambique and most importantly Cuba who had been invited into the country in 1975 to guard against previous South African vrntures into the countries southern territory. And there main enemies the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) Who were backed by the US and Apartheid South Africa, yeah a black African organisation that purports to be about the liberation of Africa took money and arms from the last white colonial remnant. On a personal note I once met a man who had spent time in Angola during the civil war running a charity school. He left after UNITA troops burned it to the ground along with all other education centres in the area. There was a third faction the National Liberation Front of Angola who were backed by the Peoples Republic of China(this was from the period were the Maoists lead by China and the Marxist-Leninists lead by the Soviet Union spent as much time fighting each other as the Imperialists lead by the US)but they don't really factor in to the battle of Cuito Cuanavale so I was just naming them for the sake of completion.

Anyway the MPLA was the beneficiary of a Soviet and Cuban solidarity mission both economic and military. However UNITA was based primarily in the South of Angola near the Namibian border where they were getting much of there support from South Africa, the South Africans had been illegally occupying Namibia since 1966. The MPLA as often happens in civil wars had been mounting several attempts to reclaim the South and defeat UNITA once and for all. One of these pushes happened in 87, however South Africa was becoming increasingly worried about the Angolan situation as the resistance groups in Namibia had been mounting a guerilla campaign that was becoming increasingly problematic for South Africa. It was hoped that by intervening directly in Angola they could put UNITA in power there by cutting off support for the Namibian and South African groups and confirm their belief in white superiority by showing a military victory against another African nation and bringing peace and stability to it something the native population had failed to do.

So the South African Defence Force (SADF) mounted an invasion in September 87 that broke most of the MPLA forces in and around the Lomba river where they had been attempting to crush the UNITA, the battles for the Lomba river proved to be early successes for SADF as the severe losses not only forced the MPLA to withdraw back to there main base in south the town of Cuito Cuanavale and convinced the Soviet Union to withdraw its military advisers from Angola effectively abandoning it. Remember that fact, the Soviets left.

Anyway SADF began besieging the town and it looked like once it fell SADF and UNITA would be free to continue there advance. For Angola this was a very serious threat. Castro decided that Cuba instead of following the Soviets into flight would honour its commitments to Angola and began deploying its armed forces to counter SADF, Cuban troop levels in Angola as a whole exceeded 50,000, and in the area around Cuito Cuanavale a reaction force was formed the lift the siege.

"The first thing we did was to send to Angola the most experinced pilots in our Air force, to begin aerial actions from the base at Menongue against the South African forces besieging Cuito Cuanavale. Meanwhile we selected and began sending from Cuba the combat units and necessary weapons to meet the situation and foil the enemy plans. The Air force had a certain effect, but it wasn't enough. We had to fly in a group of advisers, officers and Cadres to Cuito Cuanavale, plus artillerymen, tank crews, and operators of arms and equipment. About 200 in All were sent in to provide support for the Angolans, chiefly technical and advisory support. But that Wasn't enough, and by land we had to send tank, artillery, and armoured infantry units 200 kilometres away. We had to safe Cuito Cuanavale and prevent the enemy from wiping out Angolan forces and capturing the town, which was becoming a symbol of resistence and of the success or failure of South Africa". Fidel Castro, Speech As long as the Empire exists we will never lower are guard on December 5th 1988 Havana, Taken from In Defense of Socialism by pathfinder Press

The Cuban forces were able to successfully repel SADF with minimal loses (both South Africa and Cuba lost around 30 men) on their side driving them back across the border continually scaling back there operations until there only units still engaged were there long range artillery batteries operating on the other side of the Namibian border, and forcing them to sign the Tripartite Accords granting Namibian independence and denying them a base to easily intervene in Angola and setting Apartheid firmly on its course to dissolution as it effectively demonstrated that the Apartheid regime was not militarily unstoppable and showed the white superiority myth the backbone of the regime to be rather hollow.

What I feel makes the Cuban commitment to Angola so worthy of admiration is the international circumstances that they occurred. At the time the Soviet Union and America were in the process of signing a number of conciliation gestures that the conflict in Angola would threaten. They also occurred when the US was keen to fund and support Right wing movements in Latin America such as the Contra's in Nicaragua
and the Salvadoran military Junta. They also had to fill the void of the Soviet Union as well as supply there previous commitments to prevent a flanking manoeuvre this was quite a tall order for a small Caribbean nation.

Spanish language report of the battle.


  1. Having experienced the battle first hand I have to make the following military comments.
    1.The author obviously was not present at he battle. The Cuban air force was completely ineffective and as far as I am aware of never destroyed anything of value.
    2.How do you win a battle when your forces are completely destroyed on the ground in battle. Look at equipment losses etc. The Cuban forces had the latest in Soviet arms and still suffered huge military losses.
    3.For info purposes the FNLA were present in the form of 32 BN - without doubt the BN of the conflict. So effective that they were known as " the terrible ones'.
    4.The only battle lost by the approximately 5000 SADF soldiers versus 50000 plus Cuban soldiers was a political one.
    5.Maybe the author of this article should do some more military study before he makes political biased statements.

  2. Ok since you were there perhaps you can explain how a force can win a siege which was what Cuito Cuanavale was, when they did not take the town and in fact began a prolonged withdrawal all the way back to beyond the Angolan/Namibia border? You seem to be ignorant of how a military categorise victories (surprising since you claim to have been in a military engagement) its based on who achieves there objectives. I can only assume the objective of SADF was to take the town since they attacked and started encircling it.

    And I would also like to know how losing 39 soldiers constitutes "being completely destroyed" and how a completely destroyed military force could continue to keep a presumably non destroyed South African force on course for a withdrawal after failing to achieve its military objectives like take the town you were fighting over. Again if the SADF were doing so well why begin the process of retreat?

    Oh and you mean to inform that an opposing military had derogatory names for there opponents well thats news to me. Also given that they were able to hold an important town from a combined army of UNITA and the great SADF they couldn't have been that bad unless the SADF referred to themselves self deprecatingly as the "useless".

    And also how exactly do you account for the political loss if the battle was a military success? Were not talking about diplomats not taking full advantage of a bested enemy here, South Africa lost everything in the aftermath of this conflict. Is this the Africaan stabbed in the back myth?

    Maybe you should stop living in a dream world and accept reality. The South African military aided by thousands of UNITA failed miserably in a battle against the Angolans and Cubans.

    1. What I don't understand is how an offensive by superior and brave MPLA/Soviet/Cuba forces to crush Unita in southern Angola could turn into a brilliant defense of a town by MPLA/Cuba forces thereby defeating Unita/SADF from conquering Angola from the MPLA.

  3. "What I don't understand is how an offensive by superior and brave MPLA/Soviet/Cuba forces to crush Unita"

    First their were no Soviet or Cuban forces attached to the MPLA's operations against UNITA, When South Africa invaded Soviet advisers were withdrawn whilst the Cuban contingent reinforced and then tasked with a direct combat role.

    "in southern Angola could turn into a brilliant defense of a town by MPLA/Cuba forces thereby defeating Unita/SADF from conquering Angola from the MPLA."

    Then you must not be too bright. The town in question Cuito Cuanavale was besieged when the SADF crossed the Namibian border into Southern Angola linking up with UNITA to begin their offensive to overthrow the MPLA. The South African military was obsessed with encirclement by hostile African regimes and viewed Angola as the weak link, hence its constant interference in its civil war.

    If you really have a hard time seeing how the halting of invasion, followed by making the invader withdraw back to its original positions in another country, whilst its political leadership conceded everything at the negotiating table then I'm sorry but your beyond help.

    Of course I don't think your that stupid, no doubt your one of those "Cold Warrior" types whom can't handle a simple military humiliation.

  4. Oh now I get it. First MPLA attacked Unita because they don't like Unita. then SADF invaded Angola because they like Unita and want to give Angola to Unita, then Russians withdraw from Angola because they are scared of SADF and Unita, then Cubans start to fight with SADF because they like MPLA and they not scared of SADF. Cuba then bravely stop SADF advance into Angola at Cuito Cuanavale by defending Cuito brilliantly before SADF can take rest of Angola, then SADF run away to South Africa and the apartheid regime collapse a few years later because of Cuba winning SADF at Cuito.

    This is a very interesting piece of history. I will try to find more about it

    Thank you

    1. Well I can recommend some sources, Another Day of life goes into detail about the declonising of Angola and the Civil War between MPLA UNITA and the FNLA and ends with the first botched invasion of Angola by South Africa. The Reagan Doctrine for how the US in the 80's supported paramilitaries in Southern Africa like Mozambique and the Hot Cold War for the Soviet involvement in the region.


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