uba’s involvement in Angola occurred within a framework of North-South rather than East-West opposition, and ultimately as the result of a unique transatlantic South-South cooperation (Hatzky, 2005).
To appreciate the significance of this aspect, it is necessary to understand that Cuba’s connection with the MPLA was based on a condition best expressed by Piero Gleijeses (2002, p.377):
Cuba’s Unique Position
Cuba was non-white, poor, threatened by a powerful enemy, and culturally Latin American and African. It was, therefore, a special hybrid: a socialist country with a Third World sensitivity in a world dominated – according to Castro – by the conflict between privileged and unprivileged, humanity against imperialism, and where the major fault line was not between socialist and capitalist states but developed and underdeveloped countries.
The political and conceptual results of this status were two-fold; on one side, Cuba identified itself as inherently a member of the third world, with the mission of playing an exceptional role on its behalf (Fidel Castro in Waters, 2013; Gleijeses, 2002). On the other hand, the liaison between Cuba and its African ally was characterized by a mutual feeling of trust and confidence (Grabendorff, 1980).
South-South Cooperation and Cuban Internationalism
Surely, such atmosphere was partly the product of a long dated support of Cuba for the MPLA, as well as of a close personal affiliation between Fidel Castro and Agostinho Neto. Nevertheless, it was mainly the fruit of a perceived correspondence between Cuban intentions and African expectations: the MPLA was aware that Cuba not only lacked a power base from which to threaten Angola’s sovereignty, but also that it was not motivated by imperialistic ambitions (ibid).
Cuba’s Shared Identity with Angola
At the dawn of the mission in Angola, the Cuban leadership promoted an innovative, transatlantic Latin American-African identity, largely used as a legitimizing and founding principle for the Cuban presence in the region (Hatzky, 2008; 2013). De facto, Cuba ‘attempted to erase geo-political borders drawn by European imperialism, and aggravated by Cold War politics, in order to reconstruct non-geographic ideologically based borders’ (Almer, 2011, p.73).
The Role of Memory in Identity Construction
The construction of this shared identity was principally rooted in the memory of the transatlantic slave trade that shaped African and Caribbean histories from the 16th to the 19th century (Hatzky, 2013). With more than one third of the Cuban population descending from African slaves, the country’s leadership succeeded in grounding Cuban foreign policy not only on internationalist principles, but also on the blood relationship between its people and their Angolan counterpart (Hatzky, 2005).
The Cuban Call of Blood to Blood
The Cuban call of blood to blood not only operated as a harmonizing force within the Cuban society, but also created a historical linkage between Africa and Cuba on several levels; on one hand, recalling the shared bloodline initiated with the trade of slaves; on the other, evoking the African blood spared on the battlefields during Cuba’s struggles for freedom and independence (Almer, 2011).
Criticisms and Alternative Interpretations
Nevertheless, the major role played by ideology in the foreign policy of Cuba towards Angola has been challenged and criticized. For a number of scholars, Cuba’s commitment to internationalism, as well as the need to repay its historical debt towards Africa, were masks behind which to hide a pragmatic, opportunistic, and chaotic foreign policy (Eckstein, 1982; Wolfers, 2006; Fernández, 1987). Therefore, Cuba was acting mainly through a rationale based on cost and benefits rather than on genuine principles (Fernández, 1987). According to this line of thought, Cuba’s intervention in Angola was the result of numerous changes inherent to external conditions: in those years, Cuba had improved its security and managed to professionalize its armed forces, had grown economically and could therefore afford to commit itself to foreign missions (Eckstein, 1982).
External Factors and Opportunities
At the same time, the United States were undergoing a crisis of credibility after Vietnam, Watergate, economic recession, and therefore could not counter Cuba’s actions with ease. Furthermore, some argue that Cuba was motivated in its actions by foreseeable opportunities for investments (ibid).
A Last-Ditch Gamble
Finally, an innovative analysis of the launch of Operation Carlota claims that the initiative was far from being a selfless internationalist act, but stood rather as ‘a last-ditch gamble to avert military disaster’ (Wolfers, 2006, p.3), triggered by the fear that the forces headed by General Argüelles could be soon defeated by the enemy. Ultimately, it seems that Havana was driven more by self-serving political, economic, and social interests rather than by genuine ideological zeal (Hatzky, 2008).
Cuba’s intervention in Angola represents a unique case of transatlantic South-South cooperation, with its foreign policy driven by a blend of internationalism, shared identity, and historical connections. While critics argue that pragmatism and opportunism played a significant role in shaping Cuba’s actions, it is undeniable that the ideological discourse and shared identity with Angola played a fundamental role in sustaining the operation. This complex interplay of factors highlights the multifaceted nature of Cuba’s foreign policy towards Angola and the broader African continent.