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September 2002 • Vol 2, No. 8 •

Book Review

Secret Cuban Documents Released
on African Involvement

By Peter Kornbluh

Conflicting Missions:
Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976

By Piero Gleijeses
The University of North Carolina Press.

The National Security Archive today posted a selection of secret Cuban government documents detailing Cuba’s policy and involvement in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. The records are a sample of dozens of internal reports, memorandum and communications obtained by Piero Gleijeses, a historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, for his new book, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976.

Peter Kornbluh, director of the Archive’s Cuba Documentation Project, called the publication of the documents “a significant step toward a fuller understanding Cuba’s place in the history of Africa and the Cold War,” and commended the Castro government’s decision to makes its long-secret archives accessible to scholars like Professor Gleijeses. “Cuba has been an important actor on the stage of foreign affairs,” he said. “Cuban documents are a missing link in fostering an understanding of numerous international episodes of the past.”

Conflicting Missions provides the first comprehensive history of the Cuba’s role in Africa and settles a longstanding controversy over why and when Fidel Castro decided to intervene in Angola in 1975. The book definitively resolves two central questions regarding Cuba’s policy motivations and its relationship to the Soviet Union when Castro astounded and outraged Washington by sending thousands of soldiers into the Angolan civil conflict.

Based on Cuban, U.S. and South African documents and interviews, the book concludes that:

  • Castro decided to send troops to Angola on November 4, 1975, in response to the South African invasion of that country, rather than vice versa as the Ford administration persistently claimed;

  • The United States knew about South Africa’s covert invasion plans, and collaborated militarily with its troops, contrary to what Secretary of State Henry Kissinger testified before Congress and wrote in his memoirs.

  • Cuba made the decision to send troops without informing the Soviet Union and deployed them, contrary to what has been widely alleged, without any Soviet assistance for the first two months.

Professor Gleijeses is the first scholar to gain access to closed Cuban archives—a process that took more than six years of research trips to Cuba—including those of the Communist Party Central Committee, the armed forces and the foreign ministry. Classified Cuban documents used in the book include: minutes of meetings with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara’s handwritten correspondence from Zaire, military directives from Raul Castro, briefing papers from intelligence chieftain, Manuel Piniero, field commander reports, internal Cuban government memoranda, and Cuban-Soviet communications and military accords.

In addition to research in Cuba, the author also worked extensively in the archives of the United States, Belgium, Great Britain, and West and East Germany, teaching himself to read Portuguese and Afrikaans so that he could evaluate primary documents written in those languages.

Gleijeses also interviewed over one hundred fifty protagonists, among them the former CIA station chief in Luanda, Robert Hultslander, who spoke on the record for the first time for this book.

“History has shown,” Hultslander noted, “that Kissinger’s policy on Africa itself was shortsighted and flawed.” He also commented on the forces of Jonas Savimbi, the rebel chief recently killed in Angola: “I was deeply concerned ... about UNITA’s purported ties with South Africa, and the resulting political liability such carried. I was unaware at the time, of course, that the U.S. would eventually beg South Africa to directly intervene to pull its chestnuts out of the fire.”

In this first account of Cuba’s policy in Africa based on documentary evidence, Gleijeses describes and analyzes Castro’s dramatic dispatch of 30,000 Cubans to Angola in 1975-76, and he traces the roots of this policy—from Havana’s assistance to the Algerian rebels fighting France in 1961 to the secret war between Havana and Washington in Zaire in 1964-65 and Cuba’s decisive contribution to Guinea-Bissau’s war of independence from 1966-1974.

Conflicting Missions is above all the story of a contest, staged in Africa, between Cuba and the United States,” according to its author, which started in Zaire in 1964-65 and culminated in a major Cold War confrontation in Angola in 1975-76. Using Cuban and U.S. documents, as well as the semi-official history of South Africa’s 1975 covert operation in Angola (available only in Afrikaans), this book is the first to present the internationalized Angolan conflict from three sides—Cuba and the MPLA, the United States and the covert CIA operation codenamed “IAFEATURE” and South Africa, whose secret incursion prompted Castro’s decision to commit Cuban troops.

Conflicting Missions also argues that Secretary Kissinger’s account of the U.S. role in Angola, most recently repeated in the third volume of his memoirs, is misleading. Testifying before Congress in 1976, Kissinger stated “We had no foreknowledge of South Africa’s intentions, and in no way cooperated militarily.” In Years of Renewal Dr. Kissinger also denied that the United States and South Africa had collaborated in the Angolan conflict; Gleijeses’ research demonstrates that they did. The book quotes Kissinger aide Joseph Sisco conceding that the Ford administration “certainly did not discourage” South Africa’s intervention, and presents evidence that the CIA helped the South Africans ferry arms to key battlefronts. Contrary to what Kissinger alleges in his memoirs, the first Cuban military advisers did not arrive in Angola until late August 1975, and the Cubans did not participate in the fighting until late October, after South Africa had invaded. The book also reproduces portions of a declassified memorandum of conversation between Kissinger and Chinese leader Teng Hsiao-p’ing to show that China had refused U.S. entreaties to continue participating in Angola because of South Africa’s involvement, not because the U.S. Congress refused to allocate further funding for the covert war, as Kissinger claimed.

In assessing the motivations of Cuba’s foreign policy, Cuba’s relations with the Soviet Union, and the nature of the Communist threat in Africa, Gleijeses shows that CIA and INR intelligence reports were often sophisticated and insightful, unlike the decisions of the policymakers in Washington.





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