For many in Africa, Fidel Castro was a champion of the Third World, an advocate of socio-economic justice, vanguard of African liberation and model of people-centred leadership. To me, he is one of the icon and intellectual towering figure, a selfless leader and resilient fighter for social justice who defined the last part of the 20th Century.
He was indeed a thorn in the flesh of the USA and a reliable shoulder for African liberation movements, a legacy that came about from his charismatic, iconic and legendary revolutionary leadership of Cuba against Western Imperialism and Capitalism, and struggle for self-determination, national sovereignty, social justice and International solidarity. Thus, while others saw him as a villain, we in Africa see him as a saint. His journey to African sainthood started in the late 1940s when as a Law undergraduate at the University of Havana, he became a vocal critic of the corruption and human rights abuses of the then Cuban Government, led by President Grau.
This political activism, against corruption, elitist domination and economic inequality, would follow Castro through his brief legal career as an attorney for poor Cubans to his long revolutionary warfare for a new Cuban social order built on social and economic justice. Many Cuban elites fled 90 miles north to Miami, where they spent decades in exile and after his death some celebrated. Some of those who fled to Miami had looted Cuba and exploited the poor making Cuba a backyard playground for the elites. Now they are twisting the story to demonize Fidel Castro in death.
His achievement on social and economic justice, manifested in his leadership of Cuba from 1959, when he launched the next phase of his ambitions to fight imperialism and colonialism across third world countries and to promote international solidarity through the Cuban Model of Medical Internationalism as a viable means to socio-economic justice. Such objectives made the USA and much of the West turn their backs on Castro, but it also led liberation movements across Africa to embrace him as one of their own. For this reason, more than anything else, Fidel’s was a life dedicated to the genuine independence of all countries and true liberation of each people from the scourges of poverty, hunger, disease, ignorance and underdevelopment.
While at the Island of Youth, I remember Harry Belafonte and Reverend Jessie Jackson visiting us at the Hendrick Witbooi Senior Secondary School where I attended school from grade four to grade twelve before I went to pursue university studies in France.
It is important to recall here that at daybreak on 4 May 1978, the minority apartheid South African planes and paratroopers attacked the largest Namibian refugee camp in Angola, 250 kilometres north of the Namibian border and cold-bloodedly murdered more than 600 innocent civilians Namibians. The assault on Cassinga marked the first time ‘that Cubans and Namibians shed their blood together fighting against the South African racists’, as the late comrade Jorge Risquet, as head of the Cuban Civilian Mission in Angola, rightly put it. The children who survived the Cassinga massacre were taken to Cuba. Two schools were set up at the Island of Youth where thousands of young Namibians were educated at the Hendrik Witbooi and Hosea Kutako high schools as well as other institutions of high learning in Cuba. Cuito Cuanavale did not fall because on 15 November 1987, El Comandanté Fidel Castro had ordered reinforcements to Angola of 40 000 Cuban Internationalists combatants, several MIG-23 units with the best pilots, 1600 most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, artillery pieces and mortars and more than 900 most modern tanks.
El Comandanté Fidel Castro himself set the record straight and revealed how he deployed the troops and equipment across the Atlantic Ocean at the battle site of Cuito Cuanavale in an extraordinary act of selfless international solidarity ever witnessed on the African Continent.
The battle was fought on the banks of the Lomba River in the vicinity of Cuito Cuanavale, in South-Eastern Angola. The stakes were high for both sides and the battle involved the biggest conventional operations of the white minority regime of South African forces since World War II. mThe prelude to the battle started in July 1987 when Angolan government forces (FAPLA) advanced on Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA stronghold at Mavinga and the strategic key to his base at Jamba near the former Caprivi Strip. With FAPLA gaining the upper hand, inflicting heavy casualties on UNITA, driving them south towards Mavinga, the white minority regime of South African troops were rushed in to support UNITA. In October FAPLA’s advancing 47th Brigade at the Lomba River, 40 kilometers South-East of Cuito, was attacked by the white minority regime of South African troops hastening to UNITA’s rescue. The apartheid’s troops’ decision to launch the attack was influenced by their intention to rescue UNITA and their want to seize the town of Cuito Cuanavale through the capture of the air force base and ultimately install Savimbi as the leader in Southern Angola in order to prevent SWAPO and the ANC from fighting from Angola. Several other FAPLA brigades wilted under heavy bombardment but managed to retreat to Cuito, a minor town near the confluence of two rivers that constitute its name, set in the remote expanse of south-east Angola, a region the Portuguese referred to as the Land at the End of the Earth. The apartheid forces attacked Cuito with the massive 155mm G-5 guns and staged attack after attack led by the crack 61st mechanized battalion, 32 Buffalo battalion, and later 4th SA Infantry group. On the 23rd March the battle reached a halt when the apartheid forces’ intention was successfully thwarted by the combined Angolan FAPLA forces, the Cuban Internationalists and the combatants of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) SWAPO’s Military wing. For over five years the United States refused to let the Cubans participate in the tripartite talks between Cuba, Angola, the United States of America and the Apartheid regime of South Africa, but in early 1988, confronted by the evidence of growing strength of the combined forces of the Cuban internationalist troops together with the Angolan FAPLA Forces and PLAN Combatants, SWAPO’s Military Wing, in Southern Angola, the Americans finally agreed to allow the Cubans to join the quadripartite negotiations which began with a first meeting in London on 4 May 1988. Four months later when the four powers met in London, the situation on the ground had reversed with the Cubans on the offensive.
Therefore, the Cuban delegation headed by the late Risquet demanded that, before anything else is discussed, the apartheid SADF must withdraw from Angola and grant the independence of Namibia. On the evening of 26 June 1988, the minority South African colonial authorities’ tanks attacked a Cuban patrol near the border and their artillery unleashed a merciless bombardment of the Cuban positions along the front. A few hours later, in the early morning of 27 June 1988, 10 Cuban MIG-23s responded by attacking the minority oppressive South African forces’ positions near Calueque, a dam 12 kilometres north of the border.
With that, Pretoria’s edge through all the years of the conflict had evaporated as the Cuban internationalist troops had achieved air superiority in Southern Angola and Northern Namibia flying even over Rundu, Ondangwa and Grootfontein bases. A few hours after the Cubans’ successful strike, the SADF destroyed a span of the nearby bridge over the Cunene River because never had the danger of a Cuban advance into Namibia seemed more real. On 30 August 1988, the last South African soldiers left Angola. The army of apartheid had been defeated and forced to the negotiation table. On 22 December 1988, the New York agreements stipulated that Namibia would become independent and that the minority South African colonial authorities’ army would leave Namibia within three months. Thus, it was under the able leadership of Comandanté Fidel Castro that the revolutionary people of Cuba were steadfast in their support for SWAPO and instrumental in forcing Pretoria to accept the independence of Namibia.
Farewell mi Comandanté, La Patria os contempla orgullosa, No temáis una muerte gloriosa, Que morir por la patria es vivir! Hasta la Victoria Siempre! Seremos commo el Ché y Fidel!