Fidel Castro himself was keeping up to date on the smallest details of the war. He was at the sendoff for each troop ship, and before it sailed he would call together the combat units in the theater at the Cabana. He sought out the commanders of the special forces battalion that went on the first flight, and drove them to the steps of the plane in his Soviet-made jeep. It is probable that then and in every one of the other farewells, Castro had to hide an envy for those going off to war he could not be in.
By then, there was not a spot on the map of Angola that he could not identify, not a quirk of the land that he did not know by heart. So intensely and meticulously did he follow the war that he could cite any statistic of Angola as if he were talking about Cuba. He spoke of Angola's cities, its customs and its people as if he had lived there all his life.
At the start of the war, when the situation was especially pressing, he stayed in the general staff common room as long as 14 hours at a stretch, without eating or sleeping, as if he were on the campaign.
He followed the progress of battles, using colored indicators on wall-sized tactical maps, and was in constant contact with the battlefield high command (of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, which Cuba had allied itself with).
Some of his reactions during those days of doubt reflected a certainty of victory, as when an UPLA unit was forced to dynamite a bridge to delay the advance of South African armored columns.
"Don't blow up any more bridges," Castro said in a message. "Otherwise you won't have any way to pursue them."
He was right: Only a few weeks later, the Angolan and Cuban engineering brigades had to repair 13 bridges in 20 days to catch the retreating invaders . . .
The difficulties of December were due in the first place to the tremendous firepower of the enemy, which by this time had received more than $50 million in military aid from the United States. In the second place they were due to Angola's delay in asking for help and the time it took to get the help to Angola.
Finally, they were due to the miserable conditions and cultural backwardness left by half a millenium of soulless colonialism. That, even more than the first two factors, posed the greatest obstacle to a decisive integration between the Cuban troops and the armed people of Angola.
In Angola, the Cubans found the same climate, the same vegetation, the same apocalyptic downpours and the same evenings fragrant with molasses and fruits that they were used to at home.
The Potuguese colonialists . . . had built beautiful, modern cities to live in, with air-conditioned glass buildings and stores with huge electric signs. But these were cities for whites, like those the gringos built around Old Havan . . . Beneath the mask of civllization lay a vast and rich land of misery: The natives' standard of living was one of the lowest in the world . . .Old superstitions not only complicated daily life, but also hindred the war effort. The Angolans had been convinced that bullets would not penetrate white skin, they feared the magic of airplanes and they refused to go into the trenches because tombs were only for the dead . . . .
Angola was a dirty war in which one had to watch out as much for snakes as for mercenaries, as much for cannibals as cannonballs. A Cuban commander, in the midst of a battle, fell into an elephant trap.
At first, the black Africans, conditioned by generations of resentment against the Portuguese, were hostile to the white Cubans. Many times, especially in Cabinda, Cuban scouts felt betrayed by the primitive telegraph of the talking drums, whose thumpthump could be heard for as much as 20 miles.
South Africa's white troops, who fired on ambulances with 140 mm. cannons, threw up smoke-screens on the battlefield to collect their white dead, but left the black bodies for the vultures . . .
In Cuba, all the news coming from Angola was bad.
On Dec. 11, in Hengo, where the MPLA's armed South African invaders, a Cuban armored car with four officers in it set out along a path where some mines had been found.
Although four others cars had already passed through safely, the scouts advised against the route, which cut only a few unnecessary minutes off the trip. Ignoring the advice, the car was almost instantly blown up. Two special forces battalion commanders were gravely wounded, and Commandant Raul Diaz Arguello - commander of international operations in Angola, a hero of the struggle against Batista and a man widely loved in Cuba - died instantly.
That was the bitterest news for the Cubans, but it was not to be the last. The next day came the disater at Catofe, perhaps the worse set back of the entire war . . .
A South African column had managed to repair a bridge under the cover of the morning mists and had surprised the Cubans, who were in the midst of a withdrawal. The analysis of this defeat showed that it was due to an error on the Cubans' part . . .
On Dec. 22, at the closing of the party congress, Cuba gave its first official indication that it had troops in Angola.
The war was still not going well. Fidel Castro, in the closing speech, reported that the invaders in Cabinda had been defeated in 72 hours; that on the northern front the troops of Holden Roberto (leader of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola) who had been only 15 miles from Luanda on Nov. 10, had been forced to retreat to more than 60 miles away, and that South Africa's armored columns, which had advanced more than 400 miles, had been blocked more than 120 miles from Luanda. The detailed report was comforting, but it was far from a victory . . .
Cuban aid reached such a level that at one point there were 15 Cuban ships on the high seas bound for Luanda. The unstoppable offensive of the MPLA on all fronts turned the tide, once and for always, in its favor . . . In January, it was conducting operations originally planned for April . . .
(With a great disadvantage in air power) Angola did have a squadron of Mig-17s with Cuban pilots, but these were held in reserve by the high military command to be used only for the defense of Luanda.
After mid-March, the South African troops began their retreat . . .
On April 1, at 9:15 a.m., the advance of the MPLA troops under the command of Cuban commandant Leopoldo Cintras Frias arrived at the dam at Raucana, next to the chicken-wire fence marking to fronfier with Namibia. An hour and a quarter later the South African governor of Namibia, . . . accompanied by two of his officers, asked permission to cross the border to begin talks with the MPLA.
Commandant Cintras Frias received them in a wooden shed in the 10-yard-wide neutral strip between the two countries, and the two groups gathered around a large dining table . . .
Agreement took only two hours to reach, but the meeting lasted longer, for the South African general ordered a succulent dinner, prepared on the Namibian side. As they dined, he offered several toasts in beer . . .
Afterward, the program of the withdrawal of CUban troops from Angola was agreed to by Castro and (Agostinho) Neto (leader of the MPLA) during their meeting March 14, in Conakry, after victory was achieved. They decided that the withdrawal would be gradual but that as many Cubans as needed would remain in Angola as long as needed to build a modern and strong army, able to guarantee the future internal security and independence of the country without outside help . . .
For security reasons, the Cuban press had not published any mention of the participation in Angola. But, as usually happens in Cuba, even with military subjects as delicate as this, the operation was a secret carefully kept by 8 million persons. The first congress of the Cuban Communist Party, which was to be held late in December and which was a sort of national obsession all year, took on a new dimension.
The volunteer units were formed was private messages to members of the first reserve, made up of all males between 17 and 25 and those who had been members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. They were summoned by telegram to report to the appropriate military committees, with no word of why they were called. The reason was so obvious that everyone who believed that he had military skills hastened to his military committee without waiting for a telegram. It took a great deal of effort to keep this mass concern from turning into a national disorder.
Insofar as the emergency permitted selection criteria were quite stringent. Not only were military qualifications and physical and moral condition taken into account, but also work background andpolitical education.
Nevertheless, there were innumerable cases of volunteers trying to sneak through the filtering process. A qualified engineer tried to pass himself off as a truckdriver, a high official pretended to be a mechanic, a woman almost got away with passing herself off as a recent army recruit.
A youth who joined without his father's permission met his father in Angola, because his father had also gone without telling his family.