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.
In the ’60s and ’70s, Cuban troops — or African fighters trained by Cubans — also prevailed against the Portuguese in their former colonies of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. They fought against Mobutu Sese Seko, who led the Congo (later Zaire, then the Democratic Republic of Congo) after the killing of the country's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, who was perceived in the West as leaning toward the Soviets. And in 1977, Castro sent 17,000 troops to help Ethiopia's Communist leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, wrest control of the contested Ogaden region from neighboring Somalia. Castro would later claim that almost 400,000 Cuban troops served in Africa, “side-by-side with their African brothers for national independence or against foreign aggression.”
Piero Gleijeses, author of “Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991,” said that Mandela, upon hearing of the arrival of Cuban troops in Angola in 1975, wrote from his jail cell that “it was the first time that a country had come from another continent not to take something away, but to help Africans to achieve their freedom.” And of their Angola victory in 1988 against the regime that had imprisoned him, Mandela said it “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor and inspired the fighting masses of South Africa.”
And, to a lesser degree, Cuba's outsized influence continues — though not on the battlefield. Rather, as it does elsewhere in the Caribbean and Latin America, Cuba continues to send doctors from its nationalized health system to Africa. At one point during the beginning of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa two years ago, Cuba had the largest contingent of foreign doctors in the region. As of two years ago, more than 50,000 Cuban doctors work around the world, including in 32 African countries.
Today, the many failures of Castro's revolution at home have left it resembling many of the African countries where it intervened. Like in Cuba, one-party-rule is common across many so-called democracies, and the revolutionary ideals that Cuba helped engender decades ago have been often consumed by greed and incompetence.
It was not surprising to see presidents like Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi offer solemn tributes to Castro. They, too, have inherited his penchant for brutally stifling dissent, and staying in power at all costs.
But Castro will live on in Africa as an icon of freedom and struggle. In 1998, four years after Mandela became South Africa's first black president, Castro flew to the city of Durban and was given a hero’s welcome on the streets. He delivered a speech to a packed meeting of the African National Congress, Mandela's party.
Once reaching the podium, it was several minutes before Castro could begin his address, as the legislature thundered with cheers of “Cuba, Cuba,” and “Fidel, Fidel.”