Cuba and Africa; an Endearing Solidarity

By Tanalís Padilla on September 5, 2023

Cuban and Angolan soldiers. courtesy: Gerardo Hernandez

Last month, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel visited Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa. In the latter country he participated in the summit of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in the capacity that Cuba holds as president of the grouping of G-77 nations and China. The trip was significant both for the historical solidarity between Cuba and Africa and for the possibilities of strengthening relations between the countries of the global south.

In a continent so besieged – trafficking of millions of human beings as slaves, the distribution of territory by Europeans at the end of the 19th century, U.S. intervention against national liberation movements, its support for South Africa’s inhuman apartheid and its current militarization of the territory – Cuba’s actions in Africa stand out for their humanism and solidarity.

In 1961, when Algeria was fighting for its independence from France, Cuba – barely liberated from U.S. neocolonialism – sent military support to the liberation forces. In the ship in which armament arrived, 78 wounded Algerian guerrillas and 20 orphaned children returned to the island to be treated. In 1963, already independent, Algeria, whose majority of doctors had left for France, received 55 Cuban doctors. In 1964 Cuba would send another brigade to help establish the Algerian health system. “What we were offering was very little, like a beggar offering help,” said José Ramón Ventura, head of the mission and later Minister of Health, “but we knew that Algeria needed that assistance more than we did, and we knew they deserved it.

In his book Missions in Conflict, Piero Gleijeses, a historian at Johns Hopkins University, lists Cuban actions in Africa. In addition to Algeria, he details Cuba’s work in support of Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, its participation in the Congo against the corrupt regime imposed by the United States and, above all, the indispensable military actions in Angola to repel the South African invasion in the 1970s and 1980s. Thanks to Cuba, the South African forces -supported by the United States- failed in their attempt to dominate Angola. The failure would be key in the fall of apartheid and the independence of Namibia, which until 1990 was dominated by South Africa.

In 1991, released after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela traveled to Cuba, where he said: “We come today acknowledging our enormous debt to the Cuban people. What other country can show a record of greater interest than Cuba has exhibited in its relations with Africa? How many countries benefit from the work of Cuban health workers and educators? How many are currently in Africa? Where is the country that has asked for Cuba’s help and been denied? How many countries threatened by imperialism fighting for their freedom have been able to count on Cuba’s support?”

Between 1975 and 1991, in addition to the 300,000 Cuban soldiers who fought in Angola, 50,000 Cubans worked in education, health and infrastructure construction. In Gleijeses’ interview with a health worker in Guinea-Bissau, she says: “The Cuban doctors worked a miracle. I will be eternally grateful to them. They not only saved lives, they also risked their own”. In a continent that, as Mandela said, “we are used to being victims of countries that want to break up our territory or subvert our sovereignty”, Cuba is known as the only country that arrived to leave with nothing but the coffins of its sons who died in the struggle to liberate Africa.

Cuba’s solidarity with Africa did not cease when its countries won their independence. “The struggle is not over,” declared a Botswana official, “it is now a different war.” In addition to the thousands of Africans who have studied for free in Cuba, the island has sent doctors to multiple countries and helped establish medical schools in Gambia and Equatorial Guinea. Cuban professors have also participated in the training of health personnel in Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa. Where Cuban medical professionals work, infant mortality has dropped dramatically. From every thousand in Ghana it went from 59 to 7.8, in Eritrea from 48 to 10.6 and in Equatorial Guinea from 131 to 35.5.

Why this policy towards Africa, asks Gleijeses. His answer: “Cuban leaders were convinced that their country had a special empathy for the Third World. Cuba was racially mixed, poor and threatened by a powerful enemy. Culturally it was Latin American and African […] a special hybrid: a socialist country with Third World sensibilities in a world that, as Castro said, was dominated by a conflict between the privileged and the poor, a struggle of humanity against imperialism and where the main dividing lines were not between socialist and capitalist states, but between developed and underdeveloped countries.”

Tanalís Padilla is a professor-researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Author of the book Lecciones inesperadas de la revolución. A history of rural teacher training colleges (La Cigarra, 2023).

Source: La Jornada, translation Resumen Latinoamericano – English