By the late 1980s, the world balance of power was changing. The Soviet Union was disintegrating, and along with it, Cuba’s capacity to continue its commitment to the MPLA. Throughout the 1980s, the MPLA grew weaker as the UNITA grew stronger, in large measure due to UNITA’s support from South Africa and increasingly the United States.

In November 1987 the MPLA was in full retreat following a defeat at Mavinga (650 mi SE of Luanda). Cuba’s most successful general, Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, and 15,000 Cuban reinforcements, including frontline pilots, were rushed to Angola. Ochoa remarked, “I have been sent to a lost war so that I will be blamed for the defeat.”

On January 13, 1988, South African-led forces attacked three MPLA brigades east of Cuito Cuanavale (580 mi SE of Luanda). The Cubans wanted these MPLA troops to retreat and then consolidate a new position; they were either unwilling or incapable of doing so. On February 15 the South Africans crashed through the MLPA’s defenses and encircled the 59th MLPA Brigade. Seven Cuban tanks counterattacked; all were destroyed but the 59th Brigade was able to escape. Cuban General Cintra Frias now arrived on the scene to take command of field operations (Ochoa remained the senior Cuban in Angola) and the defenses finally held at Cuito Cuanavale.

Both sides maneuvered on the battlefield to gain advantages at the negotiating table. Should the South Africans attack, Castro instructed Ochoa to “be ready to counter-attack with as many aircraft as possible to completely destroy the Ruacana water reservoirs and transformers [on the border with South African-controlled Namiba].” Apparently, the MLPA knew nothing of these orders; it had a tacit understanding with the South Africans that the Ruacana dam complex was off-limits. Finally, in late 1988 Cuba agreed to withdraw by July 1, 1991, leaving the MPLA to its own fate.


During 1975 the Cuban army saved the MPLA from defeat by its internal rivals and external enemies. However, Cuba’s military rescue committed that Caribbean nation to the long term protection of the MPLA regime which required not only military but also economic aid. In the long run, this was unsustainable. The MPLA’s internal rivals were numerically superior, although initially disorganized; but throughout the 1980s the MPLA’s rivals grew stronger as the United States and South Africa became increasingly willing to supply them with aid.

Cuba’s initial military success may be attributed to Castro’s willingness to raise the ante beyond what either the United States or the Union of South Africa was willing to do in 1975. The Cuban commitment probably peaked near 36,000 troops, and possibly 150,000 troops rotated through Angola.

Although Cuba has not released data concerning its casualties, they are estimated to be 3,000 killed (including Gen. Raul Arguello) and 3,000 wounded. These figures do not include the casualties related to disease. Although Cuban logistics were primitive, having to resort to a few aging commercial aircraft, small cargo ships, and large fishing vessels to support a major, long range military operation, nonetheless, these assets got the job done.

Castro’s massive military commitment to Angola revealed inequities within Cuban society. The commanding officer of Cuban air units in Angola during the mid-1970s, Gen. Rafael del Pino, revealed, after defecting to the United States in May 1987,

The people, the officers resist going to Angola. This is not only because … we have converted ourselves into a mercenary army … but it is that our officers see that the problem is that neither the sons of the members of the Politburo [n]or the sons of the principal leaders of the government go to Angola, do not go into military service.

Also, the Cuban economy was adversely affected. To fight on the scale required in Angola forced Cuba to call up its reservists. Many of these individuals were the most technically trained people on the island. As they were removed from their normal jobs, the economy suffered. For example, aircraft required two full crews to make the flight across the Atlantic. These additional crews came from small Cuban airlines, effectively shutting them down. And in spite of attempts to protect the sugar industry, as men were increasingly pulled from the fields, production dropped and, as a consequence, so did Cuban hard currency.

The intervention by the South African army was a political failure for that nation. Although it won battles in 1975, the Union of South Africa, possessing no international support due to its racist policies, could not take political advantage of these victories. During 1975 it committed perhaps 2,000 combat troops to Angola and held a reserve force of some 4,000 men near the border. The subsequent policy of providing support for the UNITA, which at times included employing South African armor and aircraft, was much more successful.


In 1974 widespread national strikes crippled Ethiopia as demonstrations and riots spread against the authoritarian regime of Haile Selassie. The military refused to take action against the people. The Dergue (Armed Forces Coordinating Committee) emerged out of the confusion as a powerful political element. By late summer the Dergue arrested the Prime Minister and over one hundred other officials of the government. The Dergue finally seized power on September 12, deposed the Emperor, and established the Ethiopian Provisional Military Government. Fidel Castro was the first foreign head of state to visit Ethiopia following these events.

Over the next few months, the military government systematically destroyed the remaining civil leadership. Executions were common. However, at the same time, Ethiopia was to fight ethnic Somalis who lived in the Ogaden Desert in its northwest corner and wanted to be made part of Somalia. This fighting had profound implications for Ethiopia, since many ethnic groups who desired independence were within its borders.

Somalia had renewed its interest in annexing the Ogaden Province in 1969. Gen. Mohammad Siad Barre, who had come to power in that year through a coup, desired to incorporate those regions outside the nation which had Somali majorities. These included parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya. In 1974 Siad Barre provided the Soviet Union a naval base at Berbera in exchange for weapons and training, which allowed him to aggressively pursue his ambitions. Some of these weapons and training ultimately reached the “West Somali Liberation Front” (WSLF), which was fighting to separate the Ogaden Desert from Ethiopia and join it to Somalia.

When the deposed Ethiopian Emperor died in August 1975, a number of grass-roots organizations demanded increased civil rights. The military government struck swiftly, openly murdering the opposition. These massacres intimidated those who survived. On February 3, 1977, Brig. Gen. Teferi Bante, head of the highly volatile Dergue, was killed in a coup led by Lt. Gen. Mengistu Haile Mariam—a gunfight literally errupted during a military council meeting. The Cuban news media hailed this as a great victory.

Later in February, Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, commander of the Cuban troops in Angola, headed a military delegation to Addis Ababa. This was followed by a two-day, unannounced visit by Castro, who tried in vain to resolve the border differences between Ethiopia and Somalia. In April Ethiopia asked the United States to withdraw its personnel from that country.

However, by April the Somali separatists won some clear victories in the northeast, and fighting also erupted in southeastern Ethiopia. In May Mengistu traveled to Moscow seeking military hardware; the request was granted. This infuriated the Somalis, who after all had a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. As a consequence, Somalia increased its aid to the WSLF and on June 17 Somali troops invaded Ogaden forcing the Cubans and Soviets to openly choose sides. Both Cuba and the Soviet Union believed that Ethiopia was more important to their long-term interests than Somalia.


In 1975 the Ethiopian army was composed of almost 41,000 troops. It possessed almost no armor or tracked vehicles, essential for desert fighting. Because of poor leadership, training, and equipment, it had little fighting ability.

The WSLF had about 6,000 fighters. Many had been trained by the Cubans before Castro chose to side with Ethiopia and were supplied from Somalia.

The Somali army was composed of 23,000 men. It possessed 250 tanks and 310 armored personnel carriers, mostly older Soviet equipment. Although its leadership, training, and equipment were poor, they were superior to those of the Ethiopian army.

Prior to December 1977, no Cuban combat troops were in Ethiopia.


In July 1977 Somalia chose to escalate the fighting from guerrilla actions to open warfare in order to take advantage of its superior army vis-a-vis Ethiopia. Its strategy was to seize the Ogaden Desert and then threaten the heartland of Ethiopia. Initially, Ethiopian strategy was purely defensive.


Throughout the summer of 1977, the Ethiopian army lost ground on both the northwest and southwest fronts against the guerrillas while Mengistu carried out bloody purges against those suspected of opposing his rule in Ethiopia. Guerrillas sabotaged the Addis Ababa-to-Djibouti single-track railroad, which carried over half of Ethiopia’s foreign trade, by destroying five bridges. Meanwhile, in July Somalia reacted to Cuban and Soviet assistance to Ethiopia by expelling its Soviet military advisors and accepting military aid from the United States and Great Britain.

On July 17 a Somali force of 250 tanks, twelve mechanized brigades, and thirty war planes invaded the Ogaden Desert. By August the Somali army had seized 112 hamlets and towns and much of the desert. On the eighteenth Ethiopia declared a mass mobilization, and in September Cuban military help to Ethiopia began to increase. These were not enough to reverse the defeats. As a consequence of Cuba’s actions, Somalia expelled the Cuban chargé d’affaires. Late in September the Somali army captured the city of Jijiga (375 mi N of Addis Ababa) and the Kara Marda Pass which was the gateway to central Ethiopia.

By October Ethiopia had received large quantities of military hardware from the Soviet Union, but the Ethiopian army was totally unprepared to employ these. The Ethiopian Foreign Minister traveled to Cuba to seek Cuban training and combat troops as a last resort. However, by October 31 the Somali advance had been halted.


On November 13 Somalia expelled all Soviets, took back its base concessions, and aborted its 1974 friendship treaty. It also broke diplomatic relations with Cuba. On the twenty-second Somalia launched a second offensive; the objective was the city of Harar (250 mi E of Addis Ababa). On December 22 Cuba began a secret, massive airlift by Soviet aircraft of its combat troops from Angola, the People’s Republic of the Congo, and the Caribbean to Ethiopia. The Cuban combat force grew from 400 men in December 1977 to 16,000 men in April 1978.


In January 1978 Raúl Castro flew to Addis Ababa and then on to Moscow. On January 24, the Ethiopian and Cuban troops counterattacked from Harar. The Somalis sustained 3,000 casualties and began to retreat. In February Cuban troops launched a major offensive and recaptured much of the lost desert. On March 5 the Kara Marda Pass was recaptured and by the eighth the Somali army had been driven back into its own territory and was in a state of shambles. The fighting was over.

In 1981 Ethiopia, supported by Cuban and Russian advisors (but not combat troops) invaded Somalia, attempting to drive Siad Barre from power. This failed in part because the United States provided Somalia $50 million in military aid. By 1984 the Ethiopian army was fighting six separatist guerrilla movements and the country was in chaos. Peace between Ethiopia and Somalia was agreed to on April 6, 1988, and the last Cuban left Ethiopia on September 9, 1989.


In 1977 Cuban combat troops were able to snatch victory from defeat because of the introduction of an overwhelming force (16,000 men) against Somalia in a little more than seven weeks. Although farther from Cuba, logistics were easier than the Angolan operation because many Cuban troops were pulled from Angola and the Republic of the Congo, and more importantly, the Soviet Union provided most of the air transportation. Cuban casualties are cited as being high, although no numbers are offered.

As in Angola, Fidel Castro attempted to direct combat operations from Cuba. Division Gen. Leopoldo Cintra Frías stated:

We maintained permanent contact with the Commander in Chief; daily he was sent cables with information. He replied to everything and gave pertinent instructions. … He would order you to place a cannon in a place, how to do it, with how many men, etc. He had it all at his fingertips.


Foremost, Cuba’s fighting in Africa was at its own intiative and not that of the Soviet Union. General Cintra Frías, who served in both Angola and Ethiopia, stated, “The Soviets were never able to control us although I think that was their intention on more than one occasion.” José Raúl Alfonso, a former member of the Cuban intelligence community, stated, “the opinion [of those going to Angola in 1975] was that the Soviets did not know what we were going to do, so much so that Fidel told us that if things went wrong, we should not expect aid from them, not even from the Socialist camp.”

In some respects, the Cuban experience in Africa paralleled that of the United States in Vietnam. The Cuban army could win battles, but because Cuba did not understand the nature of the struggle, these victories did not lead to political success. In Angola particularly, Cuba saw this as a struggle against colonialism and capitalism where, in fact, it was primarily an internal feud between competing tribes. And, like Lyndon Johnson for Vietnam, Fidel Castro for Africa attempted to fight the war from his command post at home.

In the context of the cold war, Cuba’s efforts in Africa were a waste of resources. Cuba’s interventions were costly in men and treasure, contributing to a sharp downturn in its domestic economy. Additionally, Cuba’s military actions in Africa cost Cuba any possible rapprochement with the United States. Far less significant, these military actions did win Castro the good will of some black Africans who perceived neocolonialism as their greatest threat.

By late 1977 Cuba and the Soviet Union more clearly agreed upon foreign policy, as was demonstrated by their cooperation in Ethiopia, which had been somewhat lacking in Angola. One consequence of Cuba’s troops fighting in Africa was that Soviet pilots and technicians replaced Cubans in the defenses of the Caribbean island so that the Cubans could serve in Africa. Also, from 1970 to 1979 Soviet troops in Cuba increased from 1,000 men to some 5,000 men, and in 1979 Cuba acknowledged that a Soviet combat brigade was stationed on the island. Sarcastically, the People’s Daily of Peking wrote:

Question: What’s the largest country in the world?

Answer: Cuba. Its heart is in Havana; its government is in Moscow; its graveyards are in Angola and Ethiopia; and its people are in Miami.

One essential psychological, and therefore also political, factor in the Cuban involvement was the fact that many Cuban soldiers were either black or of mixed race.

One source states that over 300,000 Cuban military personnel and civilian experts served in Africa. It also states that of the 50,000 Cubans sent to Angola, half caught AIDS and that 10,000 Cubans died as a consequence of Cuban activity in Africa, although these numbers seem high. All Cubans had left Africa by May 1991.


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