Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976; The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo

In This Review

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

By Piero Gleijeses
University of North Carolina Press, 2002
576 pp. $34.95

The African Dream: The Diaries of the Revolutionary War in the Congo

By Ernesto Che Guevara, translated by Patrick Camiller
Grove Press, 2001
304 pp. $14.95

Gleijeses has exhaustively reexamined the period between 1959 and 1976, when Havana, Washington, and Moscow (as well as European powers) interfered behind the scenes in Africa's independence movements. Most affected were the former Portuguese colonies. Congress and the Ford administration, particularly Henry Kissinger, often clashed over the propriety and effectiveness of U.S. covert operations in Angola, where outside interference had aggravated an already complex situation. In the long run, these policies perpetuated Angola's bloody internal warfare that continues today.

Gleijeses gained remarkable access to Cuban documents, and his major contribution lies in what he has discovered there. His central argument -- that the Soviets were slow to engage in Angola -- is not new, but he describes well how the first real power grab did not occur until South Africa's 1975 clandestine invasion (encouraged by Washington) on the eve of Angola's independence from Portugal. Cuba responded by sending troops, forcing a South African retreat and a humiliating U.S. setback. But Gleijeses ends the story in 1976, which is a pity. He would have done better to discuss how Cuba's role increased dramatically thereafter and brought on major international repercussions. (By 1978, 24,000 Cuban troops were either fighting or working in 16 African countries; in Angola, they remained a decisive force in the 1980s and helped justify the U.S. defense buildup under Reagan.) Like most accounts based on partially declassified U.S. materials and interviews with self-interested parties, this book does not end the controversy. Kissinger's most recent memoir suggests that the Angolan episode can still generate heat. Gleijeses' access to Cuban documentation does not make clear what either Cuba or Angola gained from the military intervention other than a legacy of war and destruction in Angola and continuing isolation for Cuba.

Gleijeses' chapters on Havana's early African engagements do provide vital context to Che Guevara's journals, which document his attempts to promote revolution in Africa in the mid-1960s. His unvarnished diary portrays a record of bitter failure, but it includes prescient insights as well. (For example, Guevara blames the erratic leadership of Laurent Kabila for a failed Cuban mission in eastern Congo and concludes that Kabila lacked "revolutionary seriousness.") A concise and informative introduction by the journalist Richard Gott sets Guevara's account into its Cold War setting. Together, these two books illuminate the clandestine struggles around the fringes of the great-power conflicts of the Cold War.

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