Cuba in Africa
Pamela S. Falk is Associate Director of the Institute of Latin American and Iberian Studies at Columbia University, where she teaches U.S. diplomatic history and Latin American political economy. She is the author of Cuban Foreign Policy, and Superpower Conflict in Angola: A Case Study. She has recently returned from southern Africa.See more by this author
Cuba’s intervention in Africa, which began in earnest in the mid-1970s, has proved very costly. Cuban leader Fidel Castro, seeing opportunity in the turmoil resulting from African decolonization, decided to escalate his assistance. The economic drain, loss of life and domestic discontent in Cuba that have resulted from its involvement in 17 African nations and three African insurgencies suggest that Castro might re-evaluate his African agenda, particularly in Angola, where Cuban soldiers are now being called into frontline combat. But the gains Cuba has already realized for itself and the Soviet Union, coupled with the prospect of winning the long-term allegiance of large portions of the African continent, may cause him to disregard the continuing short-term dangers.
In the Americas, Castro’s reach is somewhat inhibited because he must operate in the shadow of the Monroe Doctrine. By contrast, Africa is a playing field without a referee. For the most part the independent nations of modern Africa have not declared themselves to be within particular East-West "spheres of influence." Yet Castro has shrewdly and effectively aligned Cuba with African insurgencies against colonial vestiges and against South Africa. By providing aid and personnel—military and civilian—Cuba has unquestionably won trading partners for the Soviet bloc as well as loyal friends if not full converts to Marxism. Given the resources and demographics of Africa—half of its population is under age 16—these relationships are likely to yield considerable future benefit. Whether Cuba can afford to wait is an important question.
First, Cuba’s foreign policy choices in Africa are taking a heavy toll on its domestic economic health. Even though the Soviet Union provides Cuba’s military hardware free of charge—valued at over $2 billion for 1982-84—the additional costs of maintaining an overseas army, which includes 65,000 Cubans (troops, and military and civilian advisers) spread over 17 African nations, consume 11 percent of Cuba’s annual budget. Military expenditures, including salaries and uniforms, travel and maintenance, logistical support and supplies, have crippled Cuba’s domestic development plans.