Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976, 2001

Piero Gleijeses’s Conflicting Missions details Cuban foreign policy towards Africa and the US response to Cuban intervention from 1959 to 1976. Specifically, Gleijeses examines Cuba’s campaigns in Algeria, Zaire, the Congo (French), Guinea-Bissau, and Angola.

In 1961, during Algeria’s fight for independence, Cuba offered to send weapons, medical aid, and take in Algerian refugees and orphans. Upon gaining independence from France in 1962, (and most importantly, during the Cuban missile crisis) Algerian President Ahmed Ben Belle visited Cuba, deeply impressing Castro and infuriating Washington. It was not until 1963, however, that Cuba actually sent tanks, soldiers, and doctors to Algeria during its war with Morocco, risking Cuba’s relations with Morocco with whom Cuba had recently signed an important trade deal. Throughout, Gleijeses contends, the U.S. was aloof about the importance of Cuban support for Algeria in their fight for independence or the local dynamics of the Algerian-Moroccan War. Rather than seeing Ben Belle’s visit to Cuba as an expression of gratitude for its support for Algerian independence, the U.S. saw it as a slap in the face during a critical crisis with the Soviet Union. Likewise, Gleijeses asserts, the U.S. “berated him [Ben Belle] for receiving Cuban military aid when his country was attacked by Morocco—as if this elementary act of self-defense was an act of hostility against the United States.” (p. 56) It was not the first nor would it be the last time the U.S. mistook local dynamics of a crisis as only part of Cold War politics.

Upon gaining independence in 1960, Zaire’s six wealthiest provinces, Katanga, seceded. Since Katanga contained wealthy (white) Belgians, Belgium supported secession with the help of white mercenaries by propping up Moise Toshombe, a corrupt CIA asset responsible, along with Zairean Chief of Staff Joseph Mobutu, for assassinating Patrice Lumumba. In December 1962, Gleijeses recounts, despite American sympathy for Katangan Prime Minister Toshombe, the Kennedy Administration used U.N. forces to put an end to the Katanga rebellion and reintegrated the region with Zaire. “With the reintegration of Katanga,” Gleijeses notes, “Zaire settled into corrupt, oppressive, pro-American stability resting on two pillars: thousands of UN troops and the Zairean army (ANC), led by General Mobutu, the CIA asset who had been involved in the murder of Lumumba.” (p. 62) By the end of 1963, however, a rebellion, led by followers of the slain Lumumba, emerged and spread quickly in the western province of Kwilu. The rebels, known as the Simbas, were successful early on in large part because of the failings of the ANC, which the U.S. embassy ascribed “indiscriminate killing, looting and raping” as part of their “normal pursuits” and the CIA described as “hated and feared.” (p. 64) Also contributing to their success, Gleijeses notes citing U.S. intelligence reports, was the fact that the Simbas had significant support from the population.

Soon after U.N. forces left Zaire, Toshombe was appointed Prime Minister of Zaire by General Mobutu with the full support of the U.S. Once again, the U.S. was indifferent about the significance of supporting Toshombe to the Zairean population and Africans more generally,who regarded him a “walking museum of colonialism” for his “collusion with South Africans, Portuguese, and Belgians and his attempt to divide Zaire.” (p. 65) As the Simba rebellion gained ground the U.S. sent military aid to Tshombe and white mercenaries responsible for countless atrocities (the CIA reported mass “robbery, rape, murder and beatings;” at one point an Italian journalist reported looting and “Three days of executions, of lynchings, of tortures, of screams, and of terror;” pp. 71-72).

It was in this context that Che Guevara was sent to Zaire. Che was surprised by the lack of organization and competence of the rebels, but his main frustration came from the fact that he was not being put to good, or any, use. Gleijeses offers up numerous examples of Che being asked to wait (and wait and wait…) for instructions. The Cubans were careful not to turn this into a Cuban war and to only help when they were asked. The problem was, Gleijeses notes, that once Che arrived, the rebels did not ask for much help, perhaps because of fears as being seen as incompetent and disorganized. Another problem, Gleijeses argues, was that Cuba had overestimated the strength of the rebels. Early rebel victories, it seems, were due mainly to ANC incompetence, but once the U.S. began aiding Tshombe the tide quickly turned.

Lyndon B. Johnson, the president identified with passing civil rights legislation at home, saw Pretoria as indispensible in the fight for Zaire. It was not Johnson, however, who initiated contacts with the South Africa. “Unbeknownst to Washington, Tshombe had asked Pretoria for weapons as well as ‘white officers and white enlisted men.’” (p. 126) Although Pretoria was hesitant at first, it secretly provide some military aid and personnel in August of 1964. U.S. officials worried how this would play out in Africa and preferred to keep it secret. The Johnson Administration’s alternative plan was to push the Belgians (who eventually sent less than 200 forces), Italians, French, Spaniards, and Germans to send forces to fight, but they did not arrive until “late 1965, when the fighting was virtually over.” Since Johnson lacked European volunteers, “the white South Africans and Rhodesians would have to stay. In fact, for the duration of the war they constituted well over half the total.” (p. 127) With the U.S. tied down in Vietnam, Johnson made the decision that it was better to fund white mercenaries from apartheid states than allow Tshombe and Mobutu to fall to rebels with communist allies (though their own ideology was far more ambiguous).

Although white Rhodesians, South Africans, and Europeans helped execute Johnson’s policy in Zaire, a cooperative American press proved useful as well. Gleijeses reserves some of his most damning words for the New York Times and the Washington Post. Gleijeses recounts an incident in which the NYT was preparing to publish an editorial on Zaire when Deputy Assistant Secretary Wayne Fredericks visited the Times editorial page editor. Rather than reporting about the U.S. funding white South African mercenaries to prop up a ruthless dictatorship in Zaire, the Times profiled an individual South African soldier, Gary Wilson, noting that he volunteered to go to Zaire “because he believed Premier Moise Tshombe was sincerely trying to establish a multiracial society in the Congo [Zaire].” (p. 129) The Post similarly profiled, in their words, the “intelligent, poetry-reading Colonel Mike Hoare…”

After the failure in Zaire, Che moved on to the Congo where the results of Cuban involvement were mixed. Gleijeses describes the Congolese regime as part of a “verbal revolution;” that is, despite its leftist rhetoric, the Congo recognized its heavy dependence on West German and French aid (France still controlled virtually all sectors of the modern economy of Congo) and accordingly kept to fairly modest policies. Gleijeses debunks C.I.A. claims of Chinese training Congolese as “pure fantasy” and likewise notes that, contrary to its rhetorical courting of the Soviet Union, the Congo refused to establish relations with the German Democratic Republic. All this notwithstanding, the Cubans saw the regime as a revolutionary ally, and the U.S. saw it as a Soviet threat in the heart of Africa. The Cubans had already provided vast amounts of medical aid, including a major campaign to vaccinate all children under five in the most populous cities in order to prevent a major poliomyelitis outbreak, but it was not until 1966 that Cuba became more aggressive in its military aid to the Congo.

A revolt erupted in June 1966 after the dismissal of a popular captain by the Congolese Government (the Congolese military was created by the French, perennially leaving the government to be suspicious of them). This is where the Cubans came in. Gleijeses notes that although they encountered little fighting, Cuban soldiers essentially saved the Ngouabi government by intimidating the rebels. The results were mixed because the Cubans had essentially saved a government proclaiming to be revolutionary but in reality more concerned about its own survival, but maintaining the Ngouabi government did provide a buffer to Tshombe’s right-wing Zaire.

For Cuba, Guinea-Bissau provided a good contrast to the Congo. Although still under Portuguese colonial rule, by 1965 the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) controlled one-third of Guinea-Bissau and was recognized by the U.S. as “Africa’s most successful liberation movement.” (p. 185) The U.S., for its part, continued to assist Portuguese efforts to maintain control of Guinea-Bissau: first by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations somewhat indirectly, and then with full embrace by the Nixon Administration. Although not a Marxist organization, Cuba decided PAIGC was worthy of economic, medical, and military aid. Scandinavian countries followed suit, allowing PAIGC to successfully fight for Guinea-Bissau’s independence. PAIGC’s success, however, could hardly be attributed to Cuban aid alone: Gleijeses provides a plethora of evidence from various intelligence agencies noting the strength, competence, and charisma of PAIGC’s leadership. Nevertheless, Cuba deserves credit, one can infer from Gleijeses, for being on the right side of history.

An important thing to consider, Gleijeses contends, is that Cuba was operating in Africa independent of the Soviet Union, and in some instances despite the Soviet Union. Even during the Johnson Administration, Cuba had been providing limited support to various leftist groups throughout Latin America at a time when the Soviet Union wanted to avoid conflict with the United States in its own “backyard.” This conflict became even more pronounced under the Nixon Administration, when détente was the official policy and Cuba’s support for revolutionary groups undermined the Soviet Union’s understanding with the United States. Nevertheless, by the 1970s Cuba recognized the limits of its own power in Latin America and reduced or eliminated its support for Latin American revolutionary groups.

A good portion of Gleijeses’s book deals with Angola. Although space prohibits me to go on into detail about the Cuban and American campaigns there, the basics are as follows. Right after the 1974 coup, Portugal prepared for withdrawal from Angola. In this interim between occupation and independence, three major factions emerged in Angola: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The MPLA was the most popular, competent, and stalwart of the three. Although UNITA had a charismatic leader in Jonas Savimbi, they were severely hurt by the revelation that Savimbi cut a deal (collaborated) with the Portuguese colonial authorities in 1971 and were the weakest of the three with only 600 to 800 men. The FNLA was described by the CIA as “totally disorganized” and “led by corrupt, unprincipled men.” Moreover, even U.S. intelligence made note of Holden Roberto’s (the FNLA’s leader) subservience to Zaire’s Mobutu. Nevertheless, as Portugal was preparing to leave Angola, Gleijeses asserts citing American intelligence, “The FNLA had the military edge; the MPLA, the political and administrative advantage.” (p. 251)

The MPLA had received limited aid from the Soviet Union in the 1960s and even more limited aid from China around the same time, but they fell out of favor with both countries due China’s suspicion of the MPLA being pro-Soviet and the Soviet Union’s suspicion of the MPLA being pro-China (the MPLA refused to criticize either one publicly). Cuba did not play a serious role in Angola until after South African involvement, and, in fact, the MPLA’s closest ally was the relatively feckless Tito of Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, before Portugal left it was clear that a civil war was brewing, with the two main factions being the MPLA on one side and the FNLA (later joined by UNITA) on the other.

Upon (the MPLA leader) Neto’s request, Cuba somewhat unenthusiastically sent a limited amount of military aid to the MPLA in the summer of 1975. Although Gleijeses explains that the lack of documentation prevents him from concluding why Cuba initially lagged in its support for the MPLA, he speculates that Cuba “was reluctant to jeopardize relations with the West at a moment when they were markedly improving…” (p. 256) This hurt the MPLA early on as Savimbi obtained victories and engaged in “secret talks with Roberto, the South Africans, and Mobutu” in order to “[join] forces with the FNLA in early August. UNITA’s few troops remained in central and southern Angola, where they fought against the MPLA.” (p. 257) Although Mobutu’s support for the FNLA became increasingly limited due to the economic crisis plaguing Zaire, the Ford Administration picked up where Mobutu left off. This was to be crucial as South Africa’s involvement raised the stakes of the conflict.

The momentum for South Africa’s involvement in Angola increased in part due to concerns of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). Namibia (South West Africa) fell under South African mandate after World War I, but the ICJ and the UN declared the region illegally occupied by South Africa in 1971. By the time SWAPO had become the main Namibian liberation movement in the fight against South Africa many SWAPO fighters sought safe haven in Angola. In 1975, Savimbi of UNITA promised South Africa to fight SWAPO in Angola and Roberto of the FNLA offered a similar deal to South Africa in exchange for support. South Africa agreed to collaborate with the two groups because of their fear that an MPLA victory would help SWAPO fighters in Namibia. U.S. policy towards Africa under Nixon “had been characterized by apathy and a tilt toward the white regimes—South Africa, Rhodesia, and Portugal.” (p. 277) Given these dynamics, it came as no surprise when the U.S. chose to support UNITA and the FNLA.

Nevertheless, supporting the most corrupt and least popular factions (UNITA and the FNLA) was not the only option. In fact, Kissinger at one point ordered an NSC interagency task force to prepare a report with policy options in Angola. The report offered three options: (1) neutrality, (2) encourage peace through diplomacy, and (3) covert operations in support of UNITA and the FNLA. Most in the NSC’s Senior Review Group preferred option two. Kissinger chose covert operations. The U.S. was not alone in its support for the two groups: South Africa welcomed the opportunity to help anyone who might improve their position vis-à-vis SWAPO; France helped Mobutu, Roberto, and Savimbi in exchange for a promise for access to resource rich regions in Angola; and, sure enough, China also assisted the FNLA in its belief that this would somehow hurt the Soviet Union. Thus begun American and South African coordination to train UNITA and FNLA to fight against the increasingly popular MPLA.

In October of 1975, South African forces entered Angola. Once Castro realized that the U.S. and probably France urged South Africa to intervene, he decided to send forces to Angola without consulting the Soviets. At first neither South Africa nor the U.S. was overly concerned about the Cuban presence in Angola, for it was a limited presence. Nevertheless, as South Africa invaded, the MPLA’s resistance crumbled, thus forcing them to rely on the few Cubans available to fight. The Cubans held their own and fought valiantly, but Castro knew this would not be enough to hold off the South Africans and the U.S.-supported FNLA and UNITA. Thus, by late 1975 through 1976 Cuba dramatically dispatched 36,000 soldiers to Angola and forced a South African retreat. Once word got around that the U.S. was colluding with South Africa in supporting the FNLA and UNITA, the U.S. quickly denied the claims and condemned the South African invasion.

In retrospect, the Angola debacle seems rather strange. Gleijeses points out that the U.S. recognized it had essentially no vital interests at stake in Angola aside from prestige, but its support for ruthless, unpopular rebels, white mercenaries, and the South African invasion only hurt its prestige. Gleijeses sums up the aftermath well:

“Luanda’s economic ties continued to be with the West, the Soviet Union gained no naval bases, and the Angolan government soon sent signals of its willingness to improve relations with the United States. The real costs were self-inflicted: the United States had intervened and failed, it had clumsily, and—worse—it had been in cahoots with South Africa. The fiasco greatly strengthened the critics of détente and contributed to Ford’s decision to suspend the SALT negotiations and put détente in the deep freeze. The best epitaph to Kissinger’s Angola policy was offered by Kissinger himself. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time in history,’ he rued in January 1976, ‘that events that no one can explain afterwards give rise to consequences out of proportion to their intrinsic significance.’” (pp. 389-390)

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