Fifty Years of African Impact on Cuba:
By David González López

Amílcar Cabral Chair. University of Havana.
A CubaNews translation. Edited by Walter Lippmann.

Any accurate characterization of post-1958 Cuban society would have to include its extraordinary interaction with Africa. And this not only as a consequence of the strong contrast with respect to the republican decades prior to the of the revolution’s rise to to power –when official policies as well as the vested interests of the dominant social strata ignored and despised a continent that had made an enormous demographic and cultural contribution to Cuba. This is also due to the considerable renewed impact that the African continent has had on Cubans ever since, which has contributed to the formation of our present national and revolutionary profile in many ways.1

It is a well-known fact that in the almost four centuries of slave trade, Cuba experienced a strong human influx. The society built around slavery used blacks not only as a working instrument, but also –as Europe had also done— to construct in them the image of “the other” which would contribute to the strengthening of the white ego of the dominant classes, by attributing to Africans every defect and vice of which Europeans –and, to a lesser extent, their creole offspring— supposed themselves to be free by mere racial determinism. This did not prevent either the mixture of various colours nor the increasing closeness and, finally, the cultural fusion which occurred to create a new creole and racially-mixed reality. In certain cases it even produced the opposite effect and promoted this trend, due to the expectations and curiosities that the construct of the black myth would awaken.

The cultural fusion was to find its highest expression in the integration and convergence of ideals in our independence struggles of the 19th century which were to constitute –along the lines in which the Guinean revolutionary Amilcar Cabral defined this phenomenon a century later— the organized political expression of the culture of a struggling people, because it represented, on the one hand, a product or an act of culture and, on the other, a factor that would in turn produce, generate culture.

Nevertheless, with the frustration of the independence struggle following the US intervention in a war which creoles of different races, united, were already winning by far, the liberation ideals were also frustrated, starting out with those of building a republic of full racial equality. The so-called “little war” of 1912 signified a warning that blacks should accept their subordinate position, and everything black or emanating from some however far-away African origin would again become an object of rejection, contempt or mockery on the part of the dominant society. This was in spite, for instance, of its increasingly undeniable presence in the arts, literature and, most of all, music, and of the growing popularity –irrespective of racial barriers— of religious elements of African origin.

Although it is true that Africa practically did not exist as an independent political entity in the first half of the 20th century, it is also a fact that during the years of the frustrated republic formal diplomatic relations were established only with Ethiopia and, at a very late stage, with Egypt. Other developments closer to the grassroots cannot be overlooked, such as the return of a certain number of emancipated slaves to Africa, the popularity of Panafricanist ideas of the Garvey brand –with a greater influence, it is true, among Anglo-Caribbean immigrants— or meaningful albeit punctual events such as the mobilization of –mostly black and mulatto— intellectuals, led by historian José Luciano Franco, in reaction to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

The increasingly North-Americanized dominant culture reduced the image of Africa to what Tarzan films offered. A great many cultural contributions of African origin, such as the most popular forms of music, were despised or whitewashed by official culture or even simply banned, as happened most obviously in the case of many religious manifestations of the same roots, while overt and covert instances of racial discrimination tended to proliferate.

The policies which the triumphant revolutionary power began to implement after January 1959 would soon point in the direction of a redistribution of national wealth and, consequently, a remodelling of social –including racial— relations. The ambitious programs which were immediately put into effect, specifically in areas such as education, health, housing, employment, sports, etc., were to benefit, firstly, the poorest families, among which the black and mulato strata were over-represented in relation to their real demographic weight on the island. As for ethical principles, the new regime promoted the idea of a society directed by relations of solidarity among individuals, instead of the increasing mercantilization which had been the norm in pre-revolutionary society.

Those efforts in the sphere of internal policies were to find a perfect complement in the external projection of the revolutionary government. This was particularly in the inflexible defence of the principle of sovereign equality among nations, the extension of a constant and multi-faceted solidarity with underdeveloped countries, together with support for national liberation movements throughout the world. The deeply-rooted antagonism which successive US governments maintained toward Cuba had to do with the new Cuban project in internal policies as well as in its international actions, for which Africa would provide a privileged scenario for the following half century.

Many Cuban experts believe that one should not speak of a specifically post-1958 Cuban policy for Africa, arguing that what really exists is a wider policy encompassing the whole of the underdeveloped world. This has been expressed, for instance, in Cuba’s active participation Non Aligned Countries Movement–which is now chaired by Cuba for the second time since its inception in 1961.

Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons to support the view that there is a clear and precise Cuban policy for Africa. Firstly, there is the declared perception of the revolutionary leadership with respect to the role that Africans and their descendents have played throughout our history and, beyond, the coincidence in time and ideals of the triumph of the Cuban revolution and the first wave of African independence. Even though the proclamation of the Cuban process as the opening of the second wave of Latin-American liberation clearly defined the major terrain of action and association of the new government, the latter could not avoid contemplating with enormous interest the events occurring at the time –and which would become massive after 1960— in Africa. It was towards Africa, more particularly towards the Congo, that Che Guevara and a group of Cuban combatants moved a few years later to put internationalist ideals to the test, before departing for the Latin-American highlands of Bolivia.

When reviewing almost half a century of bonds established by revolutionary Cuba with Africa, several salient features emerge to characterize its African policy, among them three which have primary importance:

• Its coherence: that is, the correspondence which exists between Cuba’s official discourse and its concrete actions, or what is “said” and what is “done” throughout an extensive period of time; • • Its immutability: meaning the permanence of its basic principles throughout the years and in spite of certain adjustments and changes; • • Its adaptability: in other words, its capacity to operate in the changing scenarios and conditions that have affected Africa, Cuba and the world at large. • The praxis of Cuban foreign policy is predicated on its solidarity with the underdeveloped world, and even with humble social strata in the wealthy countries. The absence of profit or political, economic or other type of conditionalities when extending its solidarity has been one and the same for every region of the world. Nevertheless, the arguments which substantiate Cuban assistance to Africa have been clearly singled out by high Cuban officials. President Fidel Castro himself has argued in favour of “Cubans’ duty to compensate” Africa as a result of the crucial role played by Africans and their descendents in every independence and revolutionary war in the country, in their contribution to the construction of the Cuban nation and in the creation of wealth that successive generations of Cubans of various races have enjoyed. Therefore, years before African demands for compensation for centuries of slavery which they suffered began to gain momentum, Cuba –a small island which had not been among the colonial powers which extracted benefits from the extreme exploitation of African slaves— adopted a vanguard position with respect to that issue , setting an example which –up to now— no former metropolitan power has dared to follow.

Strikingly enough, the altruistic nature of Cuba’s African policy was an element that awakened a particular antagonism in the neo-conservative government of Ronald Reagan through most of the 1980s. The Reagan administration’s “roll-back” strategists did not challenge the Cuban commitment of only taking from Angola “the remains of our deceased” once a peace agreement was signed on the grounds that this could have been a lie; quite the opposite. They argued that it was precisely because Cuba did not have any national interests (one must read mines, factories, firms, railroads, etc.) to protect in Angola, its military presence in that country was “illegitimate” and therefore “subversive” vis- -vis the established international order.

By contrast, a few years earlier, in one of the brief moments of rationality in the White House, during the Carter administration, the US representative to the UN, Andrew Young, publicly expressed the view that Cuban troops provided a “stabilizing” factor in Angola.

Cuba never offered Africa leftovers, but shared what it had, even when not in great abundance. One first instance that was to set a precedent occurred in 1963, when practically half of the six thousand doctors the small island-state had in 1959 had emigrated. It was a moment when the revolutionary government had just began to implement ambitious plans to extend health services to regions of the country which lacked them since day one. At the very moment, recently independent Algeria –suddenly abandoned by almost all French specialized medical personnel— requested Cuban help. Cuba did not hesitate to immediately dispatch a health brigade which offered its vital services free of charge.

The praxis of supporting peoples in their just independence struggles was frequently costly because to a certain extent it antagonized certain European powers with which Cuba hoped to have good relations as a balance against US hostility. For instance, this happened with France and Spain as a consequence of Cuban support to Algerian patriots and solidarity with the Saharawi combatants. There have even been cases in which revolutionary Cuba has overlooked fairly essential aspects of its foreign policy when its close relationship with Africa required it to do so. One example was manifested when (countering its longstanding policy of not breaking off relations under any circumstance with any country whatsoever, thus rejecting the use of the same weapon that the US had used against Cuba when promoting the isolation of the revolutionary government in Latin America) Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Israel to join a concerted move by African nations to condemn the occupation of African territory –the Sinai peninsula— by Zionist troops in the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.

Twenty-one years later, in response to a request by the African National Congress, and taking into account the very special merits of the case, the Cuban government (which had consistently refused to take part in international operations of ballot observation, considering that this was solely the right and duty of the country which organizes the electoral process) agreed to send a group of Cuban experts to joint the UN Observer Mission in South Africa (UNOMSA) to supervise the first free elections in that country.

During its first decades, Cuban cooperation was, of course, more intense with a group of countries whose governments had greater political affinities with their Cuban counterpart. Nevertheless, since the final years of the 20th century a trend towards close cooperation with the whole continent became more apparent. At present there are very few African countries which have never received Cuban experts on their soil or returning nationals trained in Cuba.

Even the exit from power of African governments in countries which had a longstanding relationship of cooperation with Cuba did not mean the cessation of the flow of assistance: it usually continued without any hiccups (these were the cases of the People’s Republic of Congo in the mid-1960s, Guinea-Bissau in 1980 and 1999 or Zambia, Cape Verde and São Tomé e Príncipe in the 1990s) or was re-established after a brief period of readjustments (as in Ethiopia).

Until the later half of the 1970s, Cuban cooperation was extended free of charge to recipient countries, including travel costs to and from Africa for Cuban experts. But its growing popularity made the number of requesting countries enormously increase, and this led to a variant that was implemented as of 1977: recipient countries with the financial capability to compensate at least part of the costs –and Angola was at that time the only case due to its extraordinary incomes from oil production— would make that contribution in order to allow Cuba to extend its assistance to other countries which were not able to pay.(2) The new arrangement, however, was short-lived, because as soon as the Reagan administration took power in early 1981, the intensified war devastated Angola’s economy and Cuba returned to the old practice of paying practically the total costs of the missions of cooperation.

During the years elapsed since then, and as the African wars gradually receded and Cuban cooperation expanded to other beneficiaries with greater financial capacity, other cost-sharing arrangements were tried out. For instance, at the South Summit of the Group of 77 held in Havana in 2000, several African countries with relatively solvent economies committed their support for a fund which would allow for three thousand additional Cuban doctors to serve in Africa. In general, in every case, the costs of the assistance continued to be very low for the recipient countries. In the field of health, until early August 2008, there were 1886 Cuban experts in thirty African countries, only 660 of which –slightly over one third— were involved in the so-called compensated cooperation missions, for a total of ten African countries –one third of the recipient countries [4]— but in three of the latter (Angola, Ethiopia and Nigeria) we can find both variants of cooperation.

We have dwelled more on the sphere of health because it constitutes the most emblematic sector of cooperation with Africa, to the extent that it overshadows other areas of cooperation that have a huge importance. Generally speaking, towards 1998, which was a period in which Cuba continued to experience considerable economic limitations following the abrupt disappearance of its major trading partners with the changes occurred in the so-called Eastern bloc countries, some 2 809 Cuban experts were working in 84 countries of four continents, most of them (1 157) in Africa. Up to the year 2000, a total of 38 805 Cuban civilian cooperation personnel had worked abroad in the years of the Revolution, 76 771 of them (or 55%) in Africa.[5].

In 2004, Cuba had established relations of cooperation with 51 African countries, taken part in 46 bilateral intergovernmental commissions of collaboration with them and in only one year had reached the record figure of 22 sessions of said commissions. On that same year, it managed to undertake 86 projects in 31 African countries.6

Many Western academics usually wonder and speculate about the economic cost of Cuban assistance to Africa. Total figures vary according to the pattern of calculations. A 1992 study estimated the total cost of Cuban cooperation with the whole of the Third World from 1963 to 1989 at an approximate figure around US$ 1,5 and 2 billion per year.8 Any one of those two figures represent a very high percentage of the Cuban GDP. Even during the critical years of the Special Period, between 1990 and 1998, the island-state made donations valued around US$ 22,3 million.9

Cuba’s close political bonds with Africa are also evident in the fact that the country has diplomatic relations with 53 of the 54 countries that make up that continent, [10] with embassies in thirty of them [11] and hosts diplomatic missions at the highest level of twenty-two African nations in Havana.[12] This is an unprecedented fact not only for a Latin American country, but also for the immense majority of non-African countries of the world.

Cuban cooperation –a reflection of the historic national struggle to uphold its sovereignty vis- -vis the hegemonic trends of successive US governments— has been totally de-linked from any political, ideological or economic condition. The reluctance to impose a particular “model” on recipient countries was obvious in the introduction of the curricula for thousands of –mostly African— foreign students on the Isle of Youth. Instead of including normal disciplines such as Cuban geography or history, it covered the need for the students to improve their proficiency in the official languages of their respective countries, together with lectures on the geography, history, etc., of their own nations, delivered by teachers of their own nationalities.

According to what we have been able to verify in polls undertaken by the Centre for Studies on Africa and the Middle East (CEAMO) among African graduates of diverse generations and countries— the majority of the former students feel deeply indebted to and identified with Cuba, its culture and its policies. There are even cases, such as that of the Ethiopians who graduated in Cuba, and who define themselves as “Ethio-Cubans” to underline their sympathies with respect to Cuba.

The functioning of the schools in the Isle of Youth represented a unique experience in the solidarity extended to Africa by any extra-continental country, as well as the interaction of large numbers of young Africans of either sex and diverse national origins with the Cuban population in a given area of the Cuban archipelago[12], even if that presence has been significantly maintained at centres of learning throughout the country in the most recent decades. One can not overlook the fact that between 1961 and 2007 no less than 30,719 students from 42 countries of sub-Saharan Africa have graduated in Cuba, 17,906 of them in intermediate levels and 12,813 in higher education, while another 5 850 have received training from Cuban experts during this period. [14]

Cuban-African educational cooperation gained momentum with the experience of the Isle of Youth, beginning with the transportation to Cuba of hundreds of Namibian children who had been orphaned as a consequence of a South African attack on the Cassinga refugee camp in southern Angola. The Luanda government lacked conditions to care for them at that juncture. Later on, one or several high schools, technical institutes or teachers’ training colleges were opened on the Isle of Youth for each of about a dozen African countries, where several thousand youths were trained. Many of them remained long years in Cuba, where they studied at secondary as well as university levels. Some even undertook post-graduate courses.

Cuban solidarity efforts with Africa has resulted in numerous contingents of African graduates in Cuba, among which it is not rare to find nowadays political leaders, ministers, businesspeople and other figures of national or even international stature in each country, as is the case of the Tanzanian Salim Ahmed Salim, who once held the post of Secretary-General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The literacy program Yo sí puedo, designed by Cuban experts, is being implemented in five countries of sub-Saharan Africa [15], where over 73,000 people have graduated and over 7000 are attending classes. By simplifying the learning process, particularly when applied to very complex languages, and by shortening the required time for learning to read and write, this method significantly lowers the cost of literacy campaigns and makes the eradication of illiteracy accessible even to very poor countries with high levels of non-literate population.

In many nations of sub-Saharan Africa, a handful of Cuban experts can have an immediate impact on the social sphere. This has become apparent in the growing number of countries that have adopted the Integral Health Program (PIS, according to its Spanish acronym), designed and implemented first in Cuba. There are twenty-three countries that have followed suit [16], amounting to half of all those belonging to sub-Saharan Africa. There the Cuban medical presence quickly modifies the infant or maternal mortality indexes. The implementation of PIS allowed for the extension of health coverage to over 48 million people, almost 20% of the total combined population of those countries. The 5463 Cuban health experts applying PIS in Africa achieved, since they first arrived, over 42 million examinations. They undertook over six million field visits, attended to 600,000 births and 1.7 million surgical activities, administered over five million vaccines and saved over one million lives, or slightly over 2% of the population in their sphere of action

The Gambia offers one of the most dramatic examples, since the country counted barely on eighteen Gambian doctors –for a population of 1.8 million people— and twenty of other nationalities, practically all of them concentrated in the capital, until the arrival of the first Cuban medical brigade of 35 members. PIS went into full swing in The Gambia since June 1999 with 158 doctors and other Cuban health personnel. But, in general, the work of Cuban doctors had an immediate impact on –among other indicators— infant mortality, which dropped dramatically, from 121 per thousand live births in 1998 to 61 in 2001 [17]. By the year 2002, PIS had already extended to seven provinces, providing health coverage to 98% of the country’s population, with the presence of 246 Cuban health specialists, among them 193 doctors [18].

In this same sphere of health, the free ophthalmologic services of Operación Milagro (Operation Miracle) have also been recently extended to sub-Saharan Africa. Thanks to this, at a specialized clinic recently opened in Mali, 6247 patients from that country and 1065 Angolans have recovered their eyesight.

Cuban cooperation has two essential objectives which distinguish it from the type of assistance practiced by other countries: it avoids the brain drain once the foreign students have graduated in Cuba and, simultaneously, develops conditions to make that assistance unnecessary in the future. This has been constantly shown in both civilian and military cooperation, in which, for instance, the presence of Cuban troops has always been accompanied by the training of local forces. Intense medical cooperation made possible, from the first years of its implementation, the training of local health personnel and ultimately the opening of medical schools in which the teaching staff as well as the students alternate their classroom activities with the health services that they provide to the general population, just as it is Cuba.

Returning to the paradigmatic Gambian example, the creation of a small medical school with assistance from the World Health Organization (WHO) made it possible to begin the career training in that specialization of thirty young students. In other cases, they go to medical schools in Cuba: thus, although in August 2008 there were 167 Cuban health experts in Equatorial Guinea, around that same date twenty young Equato-guineans were studying at the Latin American Medical School (ELAM, according to its Spanish acronym); Mali, with 122 Cuban experts in the same sphere, had 51 students at ELAM.

The same can be said of education. The dispatch of Cuban teachers to Africa was undertaken simultaneously (or replaced by) programs for training local teachers in the recipient country. An important achievement in line with this policy was –again— the opening of a teachers’ training college, exclusively for Zimbabwean students, on the Isle of Youth.

In 1975, the bonds of solidarity between Cuba and Africa experienced a spectacular increase. Angola’s independence, obtained on November 11 of that year represented a watershed of a sort in terms of human exchanges with the continent, since at a given moment after that date one might have found over 50,000 Cubans in internationalist civilian or military missions in Africa at a given moment.[19]

The dominant world media emphasized, ever since, the Cuban military presence, around which they made a great fuss, ignoring the civilian aspect of Cuban cooperation and overlooking two basic elements of military cooperation. The first element is that the very important presence of Cuban combat troops in Angola and a couple of years later also in Ethiopia did not come out of the blue as something unprecedented.

As early as 1963, Cuba had sent combat troops to recently-independent Algeria (a presence that did not awaken much attention in world media at the time) in circumstances that were comparable to the later cases of Angola and Ethiopia. What changed the most was probably the scale of the operation, because the main objective continued to be the same: helping to repel an aggression from abroad against the territory of the recipient nation.

The second aspect is that Cuban civilian cooperation in Africa has been more constant and permanent, and extended to a larger number of countries and areas than its military counterpart. Although from early on, Cuban civilian cooperation programs aimed at a wide variety of objectives (agricultural assistance, road construction, airports, housing, factories, or, what is more difficult yet, reconstructing them after the ravages of war), those in greatest demand were the ones related to social spheres in which Cuba experienced outstanding progress from the very first years of the Revolution: health, education and, later on, sports.

This type of cooperation with the Third World had its starting point in the agreement signed between Cuba and the Republic of Guinea in 1960 [20]. The exchange of Cuban teachers and African students occurred shortly after the dispatch of the first health experts. The first brigades of Cuban collaborators worked in Algeria, Guinea and Tanzania. In the mid-1960s Cuban teachers could be found anywhere from Mali to Congo (Brazzaville). Not long afterwards, the first student interns arrived in Cuba, from Guinea, Congo (Brazzaville) and, later on, Angola [21].

Among the features which have distinguished Cuban cooperation with Africa from the cooperation extended by other countries of the world, we have already underlined its adaptability to local conditions, expressed in the modest way of living of Cuban technicians and specialists and the high level of integration and acceptance that they achieve among the local population. This capacity to adapt was put to a hard test in the difficult years of the so-called Special Period, when Cuba underwent a dramatic collapse of about 40% of its production.

In contrast to developments in Eastern Europe at the time –late 1980s and early 1990s—, when African and other foreign students saw their grants being cancelled overnight, in Cuba the curricula were gradually extinguished as each group of students graduated and returned home. On the Isle of Youth and at other places where they studied in Cuba, thousands of young Africans shared with the local population the shortages and limitations of basic products until they finished their courses. In some cases, such as that of the Zimbabwean Teachers’ Training College, the project was re-based in the students’ country of origin, where it continued to operate with Cuban teachers, a less expensive solution.

Since the mid-1990s, even though the difficult conditions of the Special Period continued to be felt in Cuba, collaboration with Africa experienced a new upturn and only a few years afterwards reached unprecedented levels. This striking development reaffirmed the solid base on which Cuban bonds with Africa stand.

One important and peculiar characteristic of these links has to do with the exceptional cases of the presence of military advisers and combat troops on African soil and it reveals clear, precise and permanent principles in its implementation. One of the most significant features is that military assistance has always been extended in answer to the request of a legally established government or a liberation movement recognized by the African continental organization –the OAU at the time.

It must be borne in mind that, between 1960 and 1963 (the year in which the OAU was founded) African countries stood divided basically in two groups: the Casablanca Group (composed of a small number of countries whose governments displayed more progressive or radical policies), and the Brazzaville Group, where the majority of less radical or openly neo-colonial governments could be found. It only seemed natural that young Revolutionary Cuba would feel an inclination towards the former group (which included by Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana, Sékou Touré’s Guinea, Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Modibo Keita’s Mali).

Through those governments, Havana made contact with diverse national liberation movements, such as the ones organized by the freedom fighters of Algeria, South Africa and the Portuguese colonies among others. Nevertheless, when the OAU was founded and the precedent groups were disbanded, Cuban policy always took firmly and clearly into account the positions of that organization and extended a strong support to the unity efforts of the continent in the framework of the Third World and the de-colonizing and anti-apartheid struggles.

Cuban official discourse always expressed admiration and respect for the OAU, and frequently Cuban leaders lauded –in spite of its shortcomings— the absence, within this organization, of extra-continental and former colonial powers, in contrast with the case of the Organization of American States, in which the US presence turned the regional organization into a sort of ministry of colonies for Washington.

Another reason of admiration for the Cuban leadership was the unflinching support that the OAU extended to African liberation movements and the firm postures that it adopted vis- -vis matters touching upon issues of sovereignty, non-intervention in the internal affairs of nations and other principles of international law. Shortly after the foundation of the OAU, and with the blessing of its Liberation Committee, Cuba began to extend active support to the patriots grouped in the Partido Africano para a Independência de Guinea e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) in Guinea-Bissau. By 1973, the extension of liberated territory to practically the whole country and the operation of a virtual struggling state in those areas determined the unprecedented development of its admission as full member of the United Nations.

Again, we must bear in mind that, when Cuba has sent troops to Africa at the request of a legally established government, the role of those contingents has been strictly limited to the defence of the country and not to be dragged into internal struggles nor counter-insurgency missions. When the aggression or threat of aggression has ceased, or when the recipient country would request it, Cuban troops have punctually returned home.

Ethiopia is a case in point, as Cuban troops defended the territorial integrity of the country against the Somali invasion, but were never caught in the complex web of civil conflicts to fight against internal rebel movements which later on took power and formed a government that today maintains excellent relations with Cuba and highly values the military support it extended to the Ethiopian nation in the past.

The historical links of solidarity that Cuba maintained with the Movimento Popular para a Libertação de Angola (MPLA) are paradigmatic. Although in Angola two other anti-colonial movements existed, MPLA was not only the closest to Cuba from an ideological viewpoint, but also the one that undoubtedly counted on the greatest amount of internal support and therefore was the most interested in competing with its two political adversaries in the ballot box and not on the battlefield.

But those adversaries, the Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FNLA), militarily supported by Mobutu’s Zaire, and the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA), with considerable South African backing, also knew this, and that is why they made the Alvor Agreements inoperable and opted for a military outcome. Thirty three years later and hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths after November 11 1975, Angolan independence date, the multi-party elections held in Angola in October 2008 confirmed the MPLA in power with well over 80% of the popular vote, leaving tiny figures of votes going to the moribund FNLA and UNITA.

Cuban troops remained in Angola for fifteen years and only clashed with UNITA forces when these attacked Cuban contingents or fought alongside invading South African forces. During that decade and a half, the Cuban government permanently expressed its disposition to repatriate its military contingents as soon as South Africa evacuated southern Angola and offered solemn guarantees of never again attacking its territory.

Cuba never linked the presence of its troops to other extraneous matters (such as the independence of Namibia and/or the elimination of the apartheid system in South Africa), even though at one point during the most crucial stage of the war in the days of heroic resistance of its forces alongside Angolan troops in Cuito Cuanavale, the highest Cuban leadership declared the country’s disposition to have its troops remain in Angola to safeguard its independence, if it were necessary, until the very demise of apartheid.

It was in fact the US government of Ronald Reagan which established, as a condition for granting Namibia its independence, the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. However, the apartheid regime had become so weak in the final stage of the war, that the Agreements of South-West Africa, negotiated by Angola, South Africa, Cuba and the US, and finally signed in December 1988, opened the way for the speedy independence of Namibia and the beginning of substantive internal negotiations in South Africa even before the total withdrawal of Cuban troops. Slightly five years after the signing of the agreements, the 1994 general elections in South Africa marked the final collapse of the apartheid regime and the access to power of the African National Congress (ANC).

One final characteristic of Cuban policy for Africa that has been very seldom considered abroad has to do with the degree of internal support that said policy has enjoyed, among the Cuban population at large. Beyond the education around principles of solidarity and selflessness that the leading forces of the Cuban state have strived to convey to their citizens, a strong campaign was launched in every sphere of Cuban society to endow Cubans with a deeper knowledge of that continent.

During these years, Africa has occupied a place in the Cuban much more in accordance with what it deserves than in any other printed, radio or televised media in any other place of our sub-continent. Since the 1960s, African history emerged as an independent discipline in Cuban universities, and ever since, the number of institutions involved in the study or promotion of that continent have multiplied: just to mention two of them, CEAMO and the House of Africa of the Historian of the City of Havana.

>From very early on, Cubans have had a privileged access to the ideas of the greatest personalities of African politics, such as Amilcar Cabral, or African arts, such as South African singer Miriam Makeba or the National Ballet of Guinea, or even the best samples of African cinema. The installation in Havana of a Park of African Founding Fathers, to honour the founders of those young nations –an indispensable stopover for high level African visitors— is an unprecedented initiative in the world. The amount of literary works of that continent published in Cuba, most of them in first translations to Spanish, do not find an equal in any other Latin American country and even in many of the so-called First World. This explains why such outstanding personalities, such as Nobel Prize winners Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer, to mention only two, manifest such a complete solidarity with Cuba.

Still much more could be achieved, it is true, but what has been done to the present time is indeed impressive, as well as its results in the familiarization that Cubans have acquired with respect to Africa. Furthermore, the practical bonds that developed between Cubans and Africans already constitute a crucial element of people-to-people contact. Almost half a million Cubans have lived in Africa for extended periods, in civilian or military missions of cooperation, an extraordinary figure and an unprecedented one for a non-African country of only eleven million inhabitants which never was a colonial power. Equally astounding is the figure of over 30,000 Africans graduated in Cuba during these five decades –counting only those of sub-Saharan Africa, because if we add those of North Africa, the total figure would approach 40,000.

Some people in the world wonder: What has Africa provided Cuba with during these past five decades? What has Cuba obtained or expected to obtain from Africa? Not much in the economic sphere, although there is a significant fact that the contribution of those countries that can pay for compensated medical services has allowed Cuba to extend assistance, free of charge, to others who cannot, and this has gradually increased the number of African beneficiaries of assistance in the field of health.

Because these are not rich countries, or have small scale economies, decisions such as those taken by Ethiopia when cancelling a Cuban debt for US$ 2.5 million [22], or the donations of Equatorial Guinea to the Latin American Medical School in Havana or, more recently, its contribution of € 2 million for recovery after hurricanes Gustav and Ike affected Cuba in 2008 [23], to mention only a few cases, are particularly appreciated in Havana.

Similarly, in spite of the fact that our economies are generally not complementary, there have been outstanding instances of experiments to increase bilateral trade. One of them was the barter exchange –early in the difficult 1990s— that was agreed to with Uganda, to receive Cuban drugs and other products in exchange for black beans: this agreement highlighted mutual confidence between the two countries, due to the fact that Ugandans did not consume nor had any experience in the cultivation of that type of beans.

The most evident asset that Africa has given Cuba in these past decades has been its enormous and increasingly constant and generalized solidarity, a contribution that is crucial for a country that suffers constant threats from the largest world power by far. Africa is probably the continent whose representatives vote in a firmer way in favor of Cuba in international fora, even if the majority experiments strong US pressures and frequently pays the cost of that solidarity in the form of some suspended credit or other facility.

Furthermore, cooperation with Africa has allowed Cuban technicians and professionals to learn to work in very difficult conditions of living and labor, and to be exposed to the roots and extreme consequences of colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. This constitutes a valuable contribution to the professional and political formation of the younger generation of doctors, teachers and other Cuban personnel, that thus to become better trained to confront difficulties when they return home and to put into practice the creativity which has been enriched by praxis during their sometimes-demanding African experiences.

Perhaps most importantly, Africa made it possible for Cubans to test the depth of their internationalist commitment and of their human values, as well as their spirit of solidarity, of sharing with other peoples and individuals in need.

In the late 1980s and the early 1990s Cubans experienced the profound and shocking unpleasantness of the collapse of the European socialist camp, the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the severe consequences of both facts on the spheres of the economy and everyday life. Meanwhile, events around that same date were developing in Southern Africa which allowed for an important moral compensation, for we were able to contemplate the fruits of a longstanding effort of our military presence in Angola and we acknowledged ourselves as agents of a radical change in the course of history in a far-away region of the world.

>From the early 1960s and until 1989, 2289 Cuban men and women lost their lives while on military missions, and another 204 while on civilian missions in Africa. [24] Most of them –1426— were victims of diseases or accidents. All of them voluntarily opted to accomplish their internationalist duties, more pressing in the case of Africa, because they died convinced of the crucial role that Africans played –also at a very high risk for their lives— in the construction, consolidation and defence of our nation.

Africa has become an important passage in personal and family history, at the same time as national history. The African experience has allowed Cubans, once again, to close ranks around what has been, and still is, a monumental scale national project based on the recognition of the strength of moral values that have forever placed Cuba on the history books of other regions of the world.


1. The main ideas put forth in this text gradually developed through individual or collective works drafted mostly since the first half of the 1980s at the Centre for Studies on Africa and the Middle East (CEAMO), in particular: David González & Armando Entralgo, «Cuban Policy Toward Africa», in W. Smith & E. Morales, eds., Subject to Solution: Problems in Cuban-US Relations, Lynne Rienner, Inc., Boulder & London, 1988, pp. 47-57; «Cuban Policy for Africa», in Jorge Domínguez & Rafael Hernández, eds., US-Cuban Relations in the 1990s, Westview Press, Boulder, San Francisco & London, 1989, pp. 141-53; «Southern Africa and Its Conflicts: The African Policy of the Cuban Government», in L. A. Swatuck & T. Shaw, eds., Prospects for Peace and Development in Southern Africa in the 1990s, Centre for African Studies, Dalhousie University, University Press of America, New York & London, 1991, pp. 117-32; «Cuba and Africa: Thirty Years of Solidarity», in J. Erisman & J. Kirk, eds., Cuban Foreign Policy Confronts a New International Order, Lynne Rienner, Inc., Boulder & London, 1991, pp. 93-105; «Cuba et l’.Afrique: Quel Avenir?», Aujourd.hui l’.Afrique, n. 42, París, September 1991, pp. 16-19.

2. Edith Felipe, «La ayuda económica de Cuba al Tercer mundo: evaluación preliminar (1963-1989)», Boletín de Información sobre Economía Cubana, v. I, n. 2, CIEM, Havana, February 1992.

3. Angola (342 experts), Botswana (53), Burkina Faso (9), Burundi (8), Cape Verde (37), Eritrea (50), Ethiopia (11), Gabon (29), Ghana (185), Gambia (138), Guinea (12), Guinea-Bissau (35), Ecuatorial Guinea (167), Lesotho (12), Mali (122), Mozambique (126), Namibia (146), Niger (1), Nigeria (5), Rwanda

(31), São Tomé e Príncipe (9), Seychelles (22), Sierra Leone (4), South Africa (144), Sudan (1), Swaziland (20), Tanzania (13), Uganda (5), Djibouti (16) and Zimbabwe (133). These figures, as well as the others referred to cooperation and container in the present article were taken from the data summary of the Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) on Cuban cooperation with countries of Sub-Saharan Africa for the month of August of 2008, except the cases in which a different source is indicated.

4. Angola (312), Cape Verde (37), Ethiopia (3), Mozambique (126), Nigeria (1), São Tomé e Príncipe (9), Seychelles (22), South Africa (144), Sudan (1) and Uganda (5).

5. Hedelberto López Blanch, «Cuba y África están eternamente unidas», Granma, Havana, 20 July 2008, p. 7.

6. «Cuba abre al mundo su corazón solidario», Weekly Publiction of the José Martí National Library, a. 1, n. 1, Havana, 9 January 2004.

7. Edith Felipe, op. cit.

8. Ivette García González, «Esencias, principios y práctica de la política exterior de Cuba», available on the net, in

9. «Cuba y la cooperación internacional en ciencia y tecnología»,available in

10. Morocco is the only exception.

11. Angola, Algeria, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Democartic Republic of Congo, Ecuatorial Guinea, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Senegal, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and the opening of several more is being considered.

12. Angola, Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Democratic Saharaui Arab Republic, Djibouti, Ecuatorial Guinea, Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

13. There were also schools of Nicaraguan and Corean students, but due to their volume and national diversity the African schools were the ones that left the deepenst imprint on that island.

14. Hedelberto López Blanch, op cit.

15. , Ecuatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania. Conditions are being prepared for the program to begin in another four: Angola, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Swaziland.

16. Botswana, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Ecuatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho, Mali, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zimbabwe continue to implement the program. It was implemented for some time in Chad and Liberia, but it was suspended due to various difficulties.

17. Patricia Grogg, «Ayuda cubana reduce mortalidad infantil en dos países», Asheville Global Report Online/ Noticias en Español, n. 84, Asheville, 24-30 August 2000.

18. «Cuba y la cooperación.», op. cit.

19. Ivette García González, op. cit., p. 6.

20. Eugenio Espinosa, «La cooperación internacional en las relaciones internacionales de Cuba», available on the web in

21. «Cuba y la cooperación…», op. cit., p. 5.

22. David González, «Civilian Cooperation Between Cuba and Ethiopia (Summary)», in Muestra fotográfica y evento académico preparados en el marco de las jornadas de celebración por la amistad entre Etiopía y Cuba, bilingual Spanish-Amharic publication, AAU Printing Press, Addis Abeba, 2007, p. 34.

23. «Gobierno de Guinea Ecuatorial dona a Cuba dos millones de euros», Granma, Havana, 28 October 2008, p. 4.

24. «Total de caídos durante el cumplimiento de misiones militares y civiles, así como las causas de su muerte», Bohemia, v. 81, n. 50, Havana, 15 December 1989, p. 33.

© , 2008