Fidel Castro, African hero

Cuban President Fidel Castro speaks to former South African President, Nelson Mandela at the World Trade Organization in Geneva in 1998. (Patrick Aviolat/European Pressphoto Agency)

Following his release after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela made sure one of his first trips abroad was to Havana. There, in the Cuban capital in 1991, Mandela lavished his host, Fidel Castro, with appreciation. Castro, said Mandela, was a “source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.”

The scene might seem paradoxical in some corners of the West. How could the global symbol of African liberation and democracy say such a thing about a man whose death last Friday provoked exiles who fled repressive Cuban rule to dance in Miami’s streets? How could Mandela — imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid rulers — find common ground with Castro, who cleared his way to absolute power in Cuba by jailing untold numbers of dissidents?

The answer lies in Cuba’s robust, and sometimes pivotal, support for many African groups as they fought to bring the era of colonialism to an end. And now, upon Castro’s death, many of the loudest and most unequivocal tributes to him have been voiced by African leaders who inherited the political movements stemming from the independence struggles spanning the 1960s to the 1980s.

Castro and his African allies saw fertile ground for the spread of communist “revolution” in these wars for independence. In turn, the Soviets provided arms and aid — turning parts of Africa into a stage for Cold War proxy battles.

In 1988, for instance, a deployment of 36,000 Cuban troops played a decisive role in beating back U.S.-supported South African apartheid-era forces stationed in Angola. Those battles precipitated neighboring Namibia’s independence from South Africa and reinvigorated anti-apartheid fighters at home. The United States, especially during the Reagan years, supported the apartheid government as a bulwark against communist expansion. All told, at least 4,300 Cubans died in the fighting in Angola.

But Castro’s troops weren’t just mercenaries for the Soviets. Castro intervened against apartheid largely out of his own convictions, not at Moscow’s bidding, historians note.

Cuban troops, as well as technicians, teachers and doctors, would end up staying in Angola for years, to defend against the possibility of another incursion and to build the beginnings of the post-colonial Angolan state. After Castro’s death, the secretary general of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which fought alongside the Cubans and has been in power since independence, said that Castro was his country’s Mandela.

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