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.

In addition, Cuba’s Africa policy has clearly exacerbated its already strained relations with Washington. U.S.-Cuban relations were improving in 1977 with the opening of reciprocal Interests Sections in Washington and Havana and the signing of fishing, health and maritime agreements. Cuba had even begun to discuss the possibility of withdrawing troops from Luanda, Angola’s capital. When Cuba sent 12,000 troops to Ethiopia in 1977, however, its relations with the United States took another downward plunge.

Third, African nations’ true sentiments regarding Cuba’s military policies have become surprisingly difficult to gauge. Cuba’s stated goal is to support African liberation struggles against colonialist and racist regimes. To be sure, Cuba had the public and official support of over a dozen African nations as well as the Organization of African Unity in 1975 when it began assisting the eventually successful Angolan insurgency led by Agostinho Neto. But, privately, many of these same OAU supporters of Cuba regard Soviet policy in the Third World as colonialist and racist, and African perceptions of Cuba in many nations are often contrary to official policy. Almost a dozen African nations, while publicly supporting the government of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), reportedly send aid covertly to Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which is fighting that government.

Thus, although Cuba in the early years of its involvement in Africa had been lauded as a model Third World army supporting the continent’s liberation, nascent African perceptions of Cuba’s mission are less certain. Moreover, many African nations are integrally involved with international financial institutions such as the World Bank. After building state-directed socialist economies, they are now shaping indigenous, mixed economies. They want to open, or reopen, lines of communication with the West in order to improve trade and technology transfers. Angola in particular has sent numerous representatives to lobby in the United States for continued American investment.

In sum, Cuban military assistance has not yet tipped the African scales irrevocably toward the Soviet bloc. Nevertheless, Cuba most certainly derives a benefit: a strategic link to several African nations, as well as a foothold on the continent for itself and the Soviet Union. While Cuban and Soviet motives in Africa are compatible, it is likely that the Cubans initiated the major military programs. In any case Cuba, as a Third World nation, is a more acceptable presence to its hosts than the Soviet Union. But the cumulative and escalating cost of Cuba’s involvement there, at a time when its own economy is in trouble, is creating unprecedented pressure on Cuba to re-evaluate its program and thus its policy.


The strategic importance of Africa, politically and economically, should not be underestimated. The 51 nations of Africa comprise the second-largest continent in the world, with over twice the population of the United States. The value of mineral and oil resources is estimated at several trillion dollars. The Horn of Africa provides easy access via the Red Sea to the Middle East; the Ethiopian ports of Assab and Massawa allow Cuba and the Soviet Union access to the Gulf of Aden and the ports of South Yemen. In addition, the Red Sea passage to the Suez Canal is of vital importance for transporting Soviet goods. North Africa gives Cuba proximity to U.S. bases around the Mediterranean as well as to critical sea lanes. The southeast African states such as Mozambique and Tanzania afford the Cubans access to the Indian Ocean. Off the coast of southern Africa are the "choke points" of the Cape of Good Hope and the Channel of Mozambique. Thus, Cuba’s early support of the MPLA’s quick victory in Angola was fortuitous, giving Havana an ideal staging ground for the entire Cape region of Africa.

In geopolitical terms, Angola is a bull’s-eye. Angola’s strategic importance in southern Africa is the key attraction to the Cubans. Angola has over 1,000 miles of coastline south of the Congo River, which serves as part of its northern border. This extensive access to the South Atlantic makes Angola a significant outlet for iron ore, diamonds and coffee, in addition to minerals from the central African nations. Angola’s border abuts Zaïre on the northeast, Zambia on the east, and Namibia (South West Africa) to the south. Cabinda, an enclave of Angola to the north which is not contiguous to Angolan territory, borders Congo and Zaïre.

Angola’s area is almost one-half million square miles, roughly equal to the size of South Africa. Luanda is the principal port city in the north; Lobito and Benguela are the two major central Angolan port cities, and Namibe is the southern port. Major railroad lines run eastward from these Atlantic ports to the interior. Though these lines have only functioned sporadically during the civil war they are important links even to nonborder nations such as Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique. Angola’s rail connections are thus a vital, even though largely potential, part of an Atlantic-to-Indian Ocean route bypassing the South African transit system.

Angola’s southern border with the former South African "mandate" territory of Namibia gives Angola additional strategic weight in East-West relations. The Namibian group opposing continued South African control, the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), established its headquarters in Angola, and Angolan involvement in Namibia’s fight for independence has inextricably linked the political fates of South Africa and Angola. If SWAPO were to win power, the South African government believes that the government on its northern border would be unfriendly, and South Africa would be susceptible to invasion by the Cubans from Angola through Namibia. Consequently, South Africa unswervingly demands the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola as a condition for Namibia’s independence. To force such a withdrawal, South Africa has repeatedly invaded Angolan territory, thereby increasing the perceived importance of Angola, and thus Cuba, in the geopolitics of the turbulent Cape of Good Hope.

Cuba’s interest in Africa is not only geopolitical; the value of southern and central Africa’s minerals (which are vital to industry, energy programs and modern weaponry) is of nearly equal importance. The economic stakes of the other African regions are much smaller: there is no major stake in the economically depressed Horn of Africa, which is of primarily strategic importance, but the former French and Portuguese colonies in the northwest support several small export industries as well as a lucrative fishing trade.

Angola’s largest income producers continue to be petroleum, diamonds and coffee (the largest cash crop), although the civil war prevents Angola from realizing full income from all three. But for the civil war, which has brought the economy to a standstill, Luanda would rank among the very richest of sub-Saharan African cities. Even with severely declining oil prices, Angola last year pumped over $2 billion in oil; it exported over half of that to the United States, with additional oil exports going to Brazil, Western Europe and Africa. Angola also exported between 1 and 1.5 million carats of diamonds (about ten percent of its export earnings), coffee, sugar, cotton and tobacco in 1986. Gold, uranium, copper and bauxite resources have never been fully tapped.

It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why Cuba chose to involve itself in the strategic southern cone of Africa. The opportunity was provided by the collapsing Portuguese rule of Angola in the 1970s.

In theory, 1975 should have been the year celebrating the birth of the free and independent nation of Angola. On January 15 the fading empire of Portugal signed the Alvor Agreement, which transferred power jointly to Angola’s three mainly Bantu political movements: the MPLA (mostly Kimbundu tribesmen from north-central Angola, led by Agostinho Neto); UNITA (representing the Ovimbundus of central Angola, the largest ethnic group at 37 percent of the population, led by Jonas Savimbi, then headquartered in Zambia); and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola or FNLA (the Bakongo of northern Angola, led by Holden Roberto, with headquarters in Zaïre). The transitional government, composed of these three parties, set November 11 as Angolan Independence Day, and constituent elections were planned for October 1975. Instead, the year 1975 witnessed the outbreak of a civil war that has drawn in China, South Africa, Belgium, Denmark, India, Nigeria, North Korea, Romania, Spain, Yugoslavia, Zambia and Zaïre, in addition to Cuba, the Soviet Union and the United States.

The three political groups had united against colonial rule, but as independence approached each began jockeying for the dominant position. The FNLA, founded by Roberto in 1954, originally included Jonas Savimbi, who was the foreign minister and secretary general of the party. But in 1966 Savimbi broke with the FNLA and established UNITA. Savimbi and his large Ovimbundu following set up UNITA bases in neighboring Zambia as the movements were driven out of Angola by the Portuguese "sweeps" against them. Savimbi, who had studied in Portugal, traveled the world meeting with international leaders and spent a year in China, under Mao’s direction, instructing troops in guerrilla warfare. Roberto and his FNLA established ties with newly independent Zaïre, ties which grew stronger after the successful military coup in November 1965 by Major General Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaïre’s commander of the army—and Holden Roberto’s brother-in-law.

The MPLA, led by Agostinho Neto, had been founded by a small group of urban intellectuals from Luanda in 1956. The MPLA’s Marxist-Leninist doctrine was set by Neto, one of the very few Angolan students invited to study in Portugal, where he participated actively in opposition movement politics and was frequently jailed by the Portuguese secret police.

The first stage of external involvement with these groups consisted of shipments of arms from around the globe. During 1970 and 1971 the Soviet Union took up the MPLA cause, supporting it vociferously in international forums and sending small amounts of arms. The Chinese hedged their bet by sending aid to both the FNLA (in 1973) and UNITA (in 1974). In May 1974, after the military coup in Portugal, the Chinese formalized their assistance to the FNLA by sending a team of advisers. In September the MPLA was significantly fortified by the Soviet Union, which sent several shipments of guns and ammunition to its forces in exile in neighboring Congo. About that time, Washington began covert funding of Roberto’s group. Fighting spread to urban centers by mid-February 1975, and the FNLA attacked Luanda, a stronghold of the MPLA.

In the first months of 1975 both the Soviet Politburo and the Cuban leadership decided to increase military aid to the MPLA, and in March Cuba’s foreign military program began with the dispatch of a small team of advisers. Cuban Communist Party member Flavio Bravo, one of Fidel Castro’s early colleagues, was charged with heading the political-military arm of the Africa program. In May 1975 Bravo met with Neto in Congo; Neto requested and received increased Cuban military equipment and training officers. The following month, 250 Cuban military advisers arrived along with major increases in Soviet arms from Cuba. By July, with the help of advanced Soviet weaponry, the MPLA and the Cubans had seized control of Luanda from Roberto and his ailing FNLA, forcing both UNITA and the FNLA to retreat to the south.

Cuban combat soldiers first arrived in September 1975; by mid- October, over 1,000 Cuban soldiers and technical advisers from the special military security forces of Cuba’s Interior Ministry were on Angolan soil. On October 23 South African troops, in a campaign dubbed Operation Zulu, crossed the Namibian-Angolan border and headed for Luanda. Cuban forces responded immediately to the South African challenge. Four hundred Cubans died in fighting that month.

Despite the continuing turmoil the government of Portugal, its high commissioner and its troops completed their withdrawal by November 11, 1975, and the MPLA declared victory. In the second week of December, the most decisive clash occurred between South African and Cuban troops in the Battle of Bridge 14; the Cubans suffered heavy losses and were forced to retreat. Late that month, after Cuba signed a treaty of assistance with the MPLA, the arrival of Cuban troops escalated, and the MPLA started to take control of other key cities. In January 1976 South African troops retreated, and by February 1 the Cuban government had sent over 15,000 combat troops from the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces. By this time, the Cubans’ mission had shifted; they were assigned to the areas around Luanda, protected by MPLA troops who were doing the actual fighting—attempting to keep the FNLA in the north and to push UNITA south, while holding the South Africans beyond the Namibian border. South Africa responded by providing military and financial backing for both the FNLA and UNITA and by establishing its own bases within Angola.

The task of MPLA and Cuban troops was made easier in January through the banning of U.S. covert aid to both Savimbi and Roberto by the Tunney Amendment to legislation sponsored by Senator Dick Clark, which prohibited military aid to Angolan rebels without approval from a joint committee of Congress. On February 16 the secret Pike Report detailing the history of U.S. covert aid was leaked to the press.

Without continued resources the FNLA withered, but Savimbi and UNITA, already fighting for a decade and strengthened by the firm backing of the Ovimbundu, turned to South Africa for increased support. Nevertheless, on February 11, 1976, UNITA troops were forced to withdraw from their stronghold at Huambo; the Organization of African Unity then officially recognized the MPLA as the Angolan government. Recognition by a dozen African nations followed in March, and the United Nations, Portugal and the rest of Western Europe followed suit by year’s end. The United States, however, has continued to withhold formal recognition of the MPLA government.

In the years following its assumption of power, the MPLA, along with the Cubans and Soviets, fortified its position within southwest Africa. To consolidate its strength externally as well as from within, the Neto government, still antagonistic toward Zaïre for its past support of the FNLA, did nothing to prevent (and perhaps encouraged) the Angolan-based rebels of the Congolese National Liberation Front to invade their native Shaba (formerly Katanga) region of Zaïre. Zaïre’s President Mobutu, shocked by the destabilizing effect of such an active border conflict, offered to talk; as a result of this veiled threat Mobutu subsequently became a reluctant supporter of the MPLA government.

Inside Angola, an aborted coup in late 1977 from the left wing of the MPLA led by Neto’s own Interior Minister Nito Alves, a close confidant of the resident Soviet advisers, gave rise to speculation that the Cubans and Soviets were at odds. As a result of the coup attempt, Cuba reversed the scaling-down of its troop presence that it had begun in mid-1977, increasing the total number to the current level of 30,000-35,000. In all likelihood the Soviets had wanted to make it very clear to the Cubans that they needed to stay in force to ensure the MPLA’s continued hold on power.

The 80,000-strong MPLA army is supervised by Cuban instructors, 25,000 to 30,000 troops and 5,000 to 10,000 civilian advisers. The Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces based there are divided into 15 regiments, with all but six within the parameter of the capital; one regiment is assigned to Cabinda in the north and the remaining five are in the south. The Cuban effort in Angola has been directed by a small group of Cuban officers sent there to test their loyalty to the Castro government; among them are Commander Leopoldo Cintra Frías, a protégé of Castro’s brother Raúl, and Major General Senén Casas, a confidant of Fidel. Angola has also been a testing ground in military terms: Castro boasts of training over 400,000 Cuban troops there since 1975. Some military commanders have been forced to earn their stripes in Angola after military defeat elsewhere. For example, Colonel Pedro Tortoló, after being court-martialed and demoted to the rank of private for his defeat in Grenada, was assigned to Luanda.

Not divided into formal regiments are the 1,500 Soviet soldiers who provide technical support for the Soviet military equipment, and 3,000 East Germans who operate the railways, telecommunications and intelligence facilities. In addition, the MPLA gets support from its regional allies: 5,000 troops from SWAPO and 600 African National Congress troops fight alongside the army against UNITA.


While it was establishing Angola as its main Africa host, Cuba proceeded to make its presence felt elsewhere on the continent as well. In July 1977, Somali regular forces, with the aid of the Western Somalia Liberation Front and the backing of Saudi Arabia, entered the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, taking the towns of Jijiga and Harar. Cuba quickly gave assistance to Ethiopian leader Haile Mengistu, sending at first 50 advisers and then troops; the Soviet Union provided matériel. Between January and April 1978, Cuban troops arrived at an average rate of 6,000 a month; the Cubans launched a counterattack, and the Somali army withdrew. Since then, Cuba has visibly sought to make its aid to Ethiopia a model of peacetime economic assistance, gaining a permanent, strategically important ally through technical and economic cooperation and an extensive medical training program.

Nonetheless, 11,000 Cuban troops remain in the Horn of Africa, keeping a watchful eye over the still-contested Ogaden desert and defending Ethiopia from the insurgency of Eritrean rebels in the northern provinces of Tigray and Eritrea. The majority of Cuban troops, totaling over 24,000 during the 1977-79 peak of fighting with Somalia over the Ogaden region, returned to Havana as that conflict subsided.

In the north, the secessionists continue to wage regular skirmishes, two or three monthly, attesting to their resilience but not seriously threatening Cuban military stations. Cuba has made it publicly clear to Mengistu that the conflict with Eritrea is not one in which Cuba wishes to engage directly, particularly since the Cuban army trained many of the Eritrean insurgents in the 1960s when they were fighting Emperor Haile Selassie. At any rate, the 60,000-strong Ethiopian army is able to handle the current level of fighting. Overall, the costs to Cuba of its Ethiopian venture have not been high; the indirect cost—the Carter Administration’s immediate reversal of improving relations with Havana after the massive 1977 troop airlift—was significant, but not high enough to warrant cutting off aid to Ethiopia. By enabling the Marxist government of Ethiopia to hold its own against Somalia, Cuba strengthened an ally and gained a foothold in the strategically important Horn of Africa.

Cuba’s third-largest military assistance program in Africa is in Mozambique, where the socialist government of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) came to power with the help of the People’s Republic of China rather than the Soviet Union or Cuba. Today, however, there are 2,500 Cubans in Mozambique, including approximately 800 soldiers, and 300 Soviet military advisers. Their mission is to defend the government against the South African-supported Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), which has continuously bombed Mozambican ports and its oil pipeline since the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Numbers of both Cuban and Soviet troops increased during the last year amid heightened fears of attacks after the death of Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel. The FRELIMO government continues to investigate the circumstances of Machel’s death, including suspicions of South African involvement.

Cuba defends the FRELIMO government alongside Zimbabwean troops; both have helped protect the oil pipeline running from Zimbabwe to Mozambique’s port of Beira. Cuban troops also assisted in a dramatic military maneuver in Sofala province in July 1985, the capture of Casa Banana, the rebel headquarters of RENAMO. Cuba has gained three advantages through its aid to Mozambique. Its ties with Zimbabwe have been strengthened (Cuba provides it with technical assistance and over 100 military advisers); this was evidenced by Cuba’s hearty welcome to the 1986 Nonaligned Movement meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. While Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has been cautious about increases in Cuban and Soviet assistance, reports have persisted that Zimbabwe is purchasing from the Soviet Union a squadron of MiG-29s, sophisticated combat aircraft which would tip the delicate air-power balance in southern Africa in Zimbabwe’s favor.

Cuba’s alliance with Mozambique also gives it geopolitical benefits—access to the nation’s 1,500-mile coastline on the Indian Ocean and to the Mozambique Channel, which runs between Madagascar (whose socialist government maintains good relations with Cuba and to which Cuba has sent 150 troops) and Mozambique, and to the ports of Beira and Maputo (Africa’s second-largest port). Finally, Cuba did not have to compete for influence in Mozambique at a time when, because of FRELIMO’s definition as a Marxist-Leninist state, Washington had imposed a congressional ban on direct bilateral aid which was not lifted until June 1984.

Cuba has small amounts of troops, military advisers and technical advisers in several other sub-Saharan African nations, including: Zambia (200 troops), Uganda (250 troops), Tanzania (100 military advisers), Congo (3,000 troops and advisers), Equatorial Guinea (240 troops), São Tomé e Príncipe (500 military security personnel) and Lesotho, where seven Cuban military training officers represent a goodwill gesture rather than a military outpost. In northern Africa, Cuba has 3,500 troops stationed mainly in Libya and Algeria, giving Havana Mediterranean access. It also provides support to the Polisario rebels fighting for Western Sahara’s independence from Morocco. In the former colonies of French, British and Portuguese West Africa, Cuba has stationed civilian advisers in Benin (50), Sierra Leone (150), and Guinea-Bissau (125).

Far more important to Cuba are the ties it has successfully forged with the opposition movements of two nations in the turbulent Cape region: Namibia’s SWAPO and South Africa’s African National Congress. SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma makes frequent trips to Cuba and has met with Cuban Politburo member Jorge Risquet in Angola. The ANC’s Oliver Tambo, while more cautious, continues to maintain strong ties of solidarity with Cuba. Though they know it may take years, Cuban leaders are banking on an eventual change of government that will bring these groups to power in their respective nations.

None of these Cuban aid programs is likely to decrease in the short term. The white colonial exodus in Angola and in most of Africa drained the continent of many medical and technical personnel. Given the youthfulness of the continent’s population, the impact of Cuba’s heavily ideological literacy programs and public health training is far-reaching. Cuba’s vice president summed up Cuba’s role as a question of perspective: "We see things differently," Carlos Rafael Rodríguez explained in an interview; "America looks to win, and we look to the future."


The continuing costs of the war led Angola to the negotiating table in the early 1980s. These incentives still persist, and to them have been added Savimbi’s recent gains, made possible by increased aid to UNITA. Though obstacles remain, the negotiation route is at least as viable as ever.

Cuba’s activity in southern Angola came under increased international scrutiny in September 1978 when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 435, which called for the withdrawal of South Africa from Namibia, a timetable for free elections there, and SWAPO’s observation of a cease-fire. Halting the Namibian-Angolan border incursions thus became a point of multilateral concern affecting not only the MPLA and UNITA but Cuba, the Soviet Union, South Africa, the United States, Namibia (and SWAPO), and the Frontline States. MPLA leader José Eduardo dos Santos, who succeeded Neto after his death in 1979, responded to the U.N. resolution with a willingness to negotiate the withdrawal of Cuban troops once the resolution was implemented. It was the first acknowledgment by the Angolan government that it might reduce the Cuban troop presence as a way of gaining South Africa’s acceptance. The South Africans condemned the resolution and the Angolan offer, calling instead for prior withdrawal of all Cuban troops, thus establishing the linkage concept.

In 1981 the new Reagan Administration offered to serve as an intermediary between the Angolan and South African positions. The U.S. approach included taking into account the South African fear of SWAPO troops based in southern Angola. The years 1981-83 reflected a pattern of fight and talk, with the South Africans intervening to shore up Savimbi, and the Cubans backing Angola, though not on the front lines of the fighting. The high rank of negotiators named indicates the importance that the talks were given by Cuba and Moscow, as well as Angola. Angolan representatives included Minister of Defense Pedro Maria Tonha and External Relations Minister Afonso Van Dúnem. Cuban Politburo member Risquet has overseen the political direction of Cuba’s program; Cuban and Soviet involvement behind the scenes enabled them to monitor any agreement that might result.

The U.S. Administration began a careful program of meetings with Angolan officials to lay the groundwork for the negotiations. In 1981 Angolan Foreign Minister Paulo Jorge and U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig met, and informal discussions were held at the United Nations when Angola’s Interior Minister Alexandre Rodrigues visited New York for the General Assembly session in September. But, as if intending to stymie the effort, South Africa invaded Angola in a military maneuver called Operation Protea and occupied a section of Cunene province in southern Angola.

Nonetheless, U.S. negotiations with Angola and other regional parties continued into 1982. Even after a second South African incursion into Angolan territory to strengthen UNITA, Angola and South Africa held a series of meetings to ensure the continuation of the discussions. By 1983, while several U.S. negotiators were meeting in Luanda and later in Paris, UNITA forces, with South African help, made several successful drives farther north. The Cubans, in logistical rather than direct combat positions, were attacked several times in 1983-84, and several thousand Cubans died. Nervous about the new advances, and wanting U.S. help in stopping South Africa’s incursions, Interior Minister Rodrigues met in Washington with a State Department team.

As the fighting became more intense at the beginning of 1984, U.N. Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar agreed to serve as intermediary between the Angolan and South African governments. While the world watched, South Africa agreed to withdraw from Cunene. Negotiations continued, with the United States mediating, and in February of 1984 an agreement was reached in Lusaka. In it South Africa agreed to withdraw its forces from southern Angola in exchange for SWAPO’s pledge not to occupy the area vacated by South Africa. The terms of these accords were met to some degree, including a limited South African withdrawal from southern Angola.

A further elaborate series of agreements was proposed when U.S., Angolan and South African representatives met in Luanda in September 1984. These agreements would have kept the Cubans above first the 16th parallel and then the 13th (closer to Luanda), kept SWAPO out of the south of Angola, begun a cease-fire and given the Cubans a timetable to leave once Resolution 435 was in progress. Angola proposed to send most of the Cubans home over the course of three years, leaving 6,000 to 10,000 Cuban soldiers in Angola during a transition period. After the third year the remaining Cuban troops would stay above the 13th parallel to protect the MPLA government in Luanda. The South African position was still to insist on an immediate withdrawal of all Cuban troops before Resolution 435 would be implemented and elections held in Namibia.

In March 1985 Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester Crocker submitted a compromise proposal, but that summer, to Crocker’s dismay, the South Africans established an "interim government" in Namibia, which many feared would undercut a democratic transition. Two months later, South Africa attempted to blow up the U.S.-owned Gulf oil installation in Cabinda. Talks between Washington and Luanda were indefinitely suspended. In testimony before the U.S. Senate in the fall of 1986, Crocker laid out the U.S. negotiating plan and the critical point at which the South Africans undercut the effort.

Four years of secret and gradual negotiations were thus derailed. The Cubans blamed the South Africans; the United States, particularly the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, blamed Moscow for bad-faith bargaining and the Cubans for deception, as well as South Africa.

At the same time that South Africa was undercutting the talks, so were the Cubans and Soviets. Secret negotiations had taken place in January 1984 in Moscow among Cuba, the Soviet Union and Angola, resulting in an escalation of military aid from Moscow to a level that Angola had not previously seen. By year’s end it included $2 billion in military equipment and, from Cuba, 7,000 additional soldiers. Domestically, Havana fortified its military readiness and increased its total military expenditures by 20 percent in 1984. The level of fighting had increased even before the negotiations ended, as a result of the new aid from Moscow. In the summer of 1985 a major offensive by the MPLA began to eliminate Savimbi’s headquarters in Jamba and continued through October, while Luanda negotiated with Washington and Pretoria.

This prompted a reaction in Washington during the summer of 1985, when the congressional debate began over repealing the Clark Amendment, which banned covert aid. By July both houses of the U.S. Congress voted to repeal the ban (effective in October). In October Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze met with Castro in Havana to discuss Angola. Luanda then broke off the suspended negotiations. In January 1986 Savimbi was received at the White House, and a proposed House Resolution (4276), which would have reinstated a ban similar to the Clark Amendment, was defeated shortly thereafter. U.S. aid to Savimbi, $15 million in 1986, undercut Washington’s credibility as a mediator.

What became apparent during the course of the 1983-85 negotiations was the MPLA’s lack of autonomy and the increasing control by the Cuban military officers in the battlefield. Cuba was not party to the Angolan negotiations with the United States, and all along it was fortifying its military position. Cuba’s official stance is that it will withdraw its troops if and when Angola asks it to; more recently, however, Cuba has added another precondition for withdrawal: the end of apartheid. In a speech widely reported to have surprised the Angolan leadership at the Eighth Nonaligned summit meeting in Harare in September 1986, Castro spoke of the Cuban troops in Angola. Part of his position had not changed: the Cuban troops would leave only after Namibia received its independence. But, he added, Cuba would stay as long as necessary, a thousand years if need be, until apartheid was dismantled in South Africa.

Talks began anew in 1987 at the initiative of Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso, acting in his capacity as OAU chairman. A meeting was held in Congo on April 5-6 between Washington, represented by Chester Crocker and Henry Cohen of the National Security Council, and Luanda, led again by Interior Minister Rodrigues and the vice minister of foreign affairs, Venâncio de Moura. While Luanda was suggested as the venue of the next meeting, a schedule for the resumption of talks was not set.

During 1986-87 on the battlefront a changing relationship of Cuban officers to Angola’s 15 garrisons has become clear: the Cuban military is beginning to replace the Angolan military units in the battlefields of the south. Unlike the Ethiopian army, the Angolan army has not been trained abroad, and Cuban troops are needed to master the increasingly sophisticated Soviet weaponry that has been arriving since 1984. The Angolan leadership is also taking its lessons from the Cubans in government leadership. The 1985 MPLA Congress increased its membership by one third—all military officers. Another sign of the escalating war, and Cuban and Angolan anxiety over it, was a reshuffling of Cuban military officers in Angola that took place in late 1986 after the failure of the latest government offensive.


The Angolan experience holds two instructive precedents for other southern African nations and, indeed, for most of nonaligned Africa. First, a large Cuban military presence in and of itself provokes a wider conflict of East-West dimensions; second, when Cuban involvement reaches this level its aims come to dominate over host-country objectives. In every sense, the stage is set in Angola for a solution that can only come about with the consent of all the actors. Key international players are already involved—Cuba, the Soviet Union, South Africa and the United States. The issues of the conflict are clearly defined: dos Santos needs economic stability and relief from the Savimbi-led insurgency in order to maintain power; Savimbi wants to gain or share power. The Cubans and Soviets want an economic and ideological ally. The United States wants to protect its oil companies, oppose the Marxist government, get the Cubans out and establish a neutral, if not friendly, government which in the short term will have a stabilizing effect in a volatile region—or at least will not add to the turmoil of southern Africa—and one which in the long term can demonstrate the viability of trading with the West and remaining out of the Soviet sphere.

These separate issues motivate each of the nations to behave differently: for some, namely the United States and Angola, final resolution is a desirable end. For others, namely the South Africans and the Cubans, a negotiated resolution—which of necessity involves compromise—presents real dangers: a stable, unified Angola would render the Cubans less necessary (and perhaps unwelcome) and the South African government vulnerable to concerted opposition from its northwestern neighbor. Thus, when delicate and protracted negotiations have taken place around the bargaining table, Cuban and South African troops have managed to derail diplomatic efforts by their actions on the battlefield. The time is right to negotiate a resolution, and the requirements of that resolution are easily outlined—in fact, the previous talks provided a workable structure. The open question is how to bring the parties back to the bargaining table and prevent yet another disruption of talks.

Three factors make now the time to negotiate a resolution: (1) a higher battlefield toll as the end of the rainy season is bringing renewed fighting and bloodshed; (2) the decline of the Angolan economy (and Angola’s ability to support the Cuban forces) and the depletion of Angolan troops; and (3) the effect of Cuban soldiers being sent to the front lines and facing loss of life in large numbers. But there remain three impediments to renewing negotiations: (1) Angola’s inability to "control" the Cubans; (2) the inability of the United States to "control" the South Africans—underscored by a South African attack on Zambia on April 25, 1987; and (3) the weakened posture of the United States as an international negotiator. Aggravating an already tense U.S.-Angolan relationship, in April 200 U.S. troops joined the Zaïrian military in a series of maneuvers called Operation M’bote along Zaïre’s southwest border with Angola. Because of the increasing costs, on balance the pressures to negotiate on those who stand to lose the most—the MPLA and the Cubans—are greater now than they have been for some time. Thus the time is right for diplomatic action.

It should not be thought that the renewed fighting will in itself make either side relent. Military analysts on all sides believe that neither Savimbi nor the MPLA can win militarily and that a continued stalemate will be the result. Assistant Secretary Crocker has publicly conceded that the chances for outright military victory by either side are "remote," and he has asserted that Jonas Savimbi is "realistic" in sharing this judgment. Likewise, some Angolan officials reportedly believe, with good reason, that a decisive military outcome is unlikely.

The war has taken an enormous toll on the Angolan nation. Dos Santos calculates material losses at $12 billion; the number of dead is said to be "incalculable"; over 500,000 have been crippled and 600,000 people, or ten percent of the population, displaced. The Angolan government has a strong incentive to negotiate with its opponents, and the party knows it: at the last party congress, those considered opposed to negotiations (including former Foreign Minister Paulo Jorge) were demoted or asked to leave the congress altogether. After these changes Lisbon radio reported in December 1985 that

the Angolan President now enjoys the support of a majority within the Central Committee [and] he might receive U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker. Unlike previous occasions, this will not prompt the opposition of or criticism by a strong internal wing of the party. He will be able to negotiate with greater ease than before the independence of Namibia and the development of the political situation in southern Africa.

The Angolan government is at a turning point. It cannot defend itself on the battlefield without the massive assistance of Cuban troops, and even so it cannot win militarily. Even if it could, it would be at the price of independence: Cuban and Soviet influence over policy—already high—would ripen into domination. The alternative, to reach a negotiated accommodation with Savimbi, may seem equally unappealing to the MPLA government, but in the end it cannot be denied that Savimbi has an Angolan constituency. (His major base of support is eroding, however, due to recent UNITA attacks on Ovimbundu villages sympathetic to the government.)

From Savimbi’s point of view, negotiation is appealing. His heavy reliance on aid from the United States and South Africa undermines his credibility with black African states. He has declared his interest in sharing power and, although that may be easier said than done, it is also easier won in negotiations than in battle. Savimbi recently offered to allow the Benguela railroad to reopen, provided it would not transport war-related goods: although he might not follow through, the initiative may signal a new flexibility. Such a move would improve his standing in a region seeking to reduce its dependence on South African transit routes.

The interest of the Cubans is more difficult to discern. Although the economic cost of Cuba’s involvement in Angola has been great, so has the political benefit. Cuba has gotten good mileage out of its victory in 1975. Now, however, the costs will go much higher. Cuban troops are beginning to join the Angolan army in the main infantry force, south of Luanda, rather than staying in their previous advisory roles in the more protected perimeters of the capital. Also, Savimbi’s troops have begun attacking Cuban soldiers in northern Cabinda. This time, Cuban troops could suffer losses in the tens of thousands. That is causing Castro’s foreign program to wear thin at home, especially in combination with the other problems faced by today’s younger, nonprofessional Cuban soldiers, including distaste for the climate and distance from home, the increasing fear of AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) and other diseases of the African continent, the fear that they will, like soldiers before them, be reassigned outside Cuba if they are seriously wounded in order to shield the domestic population from the grisly reality—and the visceral reaction to being buried 5,000 miles from home, as the majority of Cuban fatalities have been thus far.

Finally, in addition to the high human cost, Cubans are paying more money for their Angolan involvement. Although exact figures are impossible to come by, in the past Angola paid Cuba much-needed hard currency for assistance, both military and civilian, estimated at over $300 million annually. But, with the dramatic price drop of petroleum from $45 to as low as $13 per barrel, Angola’s ability to contribute its annual $400 million to $500 million to Cuba for its services in Angola dried up early last year. Arms, supplies and equipment are provided by the Soviet Union, totaling $4.5 billion since 1976, with $2 billion—almost half—supplied since 1984. But the cost to Cuba, without the hard currency from Angolan oil, is growing.

The initiative on this side to restart talks of course must come from Angola, not Cuba; if the MPLA is firm, Cuba would not block their resumption. But, notwithstanding the ominous signs of its own difficulties, Cuba will be loath to withdraw from Angola without some tangible and lasting benefit. Clearly the independence of Namibia is one possible benefit for which Cuba might be given some credit. Additionally, improved relations with the United States would have some benefit. Cuba is unlikely to leave without some such diplomatic victory, a fact that may rankle some policymakers but one which must be recognized.

The South African agenda is the most complex and the least commanding of sympathy. While any nation might claim the right to defend its borders, South Africa’s concern about SWAPO’s movements within Angola is not genuine; it should not be taken as sufficient justification for its actions. South Africa’s activities constitute aggressive interference in the affairs of a neighboring state, and South Africa should not be permitted to disrupt again the prospects for a negotiated peace in southern Africa. Here Washington can use leverage more effectively to influence Pretoria than it has to date.

For one thing, Washington can support the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, which represents nine African nations (including Angola and Mozambique) trying to divert their trade links from South Africa, and the Export-Import Bank aid projects on the continent, not to mention education and medical aid for both emergency and nonemergency assistance. The United States can also encourage legislation permitting aid for the reopening of the Benguela railroad. Finally, it can exert pressure on allies such as Israel to cut off trade that is important to South Africa.

The United States, for its part, must navigate a very narrow passage in trying to reconcile its various interests in Angola and balance them with other regional interests. It should work for a resumption of negotiations between South Africa and Angola. The overriding aim should be to seek a long-term benefit in a stable democratic, representative government in Angola and to persuade the Cubans that by staying too long they are ignoring danger signs to their own future ability to achieve the Cuban agenda in Africa.

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  • 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.
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