9 February 2009
Markus Weimer
(Former Chatham House Expert)


The recent visit of Cuban President Raul Castro to Angola marks a turning point in the long-standing relationship between Cuba and Angola. Angola's oil-rich economy of today, buoyed by windfall oil revenues, has moved on from the war-torn Angola of the past. Given the current international situation, it may be the right time for Cuba to call in a favour or two from an old ally.

Cuban engagement with Africa and Angola, started in the 1960s and gained its peak in the early years of Angolan independence. Over 250,000 Cuban cadres passed through Angola and at the peak of involvement in Angola's civil war over 26,000 Cuban soldiers were stationed and fighting in Angola. By 1991 Cuba had withdrawn all its troops.

The role of Cuba in securing the independence of the young Angolan republic, which was proclaimed by President Neto and his Popular Movement for the Independence of Angola (MPLA), is seen in Cuba as a point of great national pride and the height of third world solidarity. Not only was the independence of the MPLA's Angola upheld against the threats of other Angolan liberation movements, but arguably the defeat of the mighty war machinery of the South African Defence Forces in the Angolan theatre eventually spelt the end of the Apartheid Regime itself. Cuban forces were also instrumental in squashing the attempted coup d'etat in 1977 by the MPLA renegade Nito Alves.

Although decisive and instrumental in the rule of the MPLA in Angola, recently more critical perspectives have been voiced about Cuba's role in Angola. Many issues from the Cuban occupation resonate with other countries' experiences with expeditionary or occupying forces and allegations have included rape and the appropriation and illicit removal of property and equipment (including cars, clinical and hospital supplies, industrial infrastructure and timber, and other raw material).

Doubts have also been cast on the altruistic nature of Cuban motivations, prompted by reports of financial remuneration for Cuban assistance. At their highest, these are said to have amounted to $ 1,000 per soldier per month - surely a welcome source of revenue for cash-strapped Cuba at the time. The fact that a Soviet backed Nito Alves was opposed and undermined by Cuban forces gives credence to the view that Cuban interests in Angola were of a pragmatic, rather than altruistic, nature.

Nevertheless, many Cuban soldiers lost their lives in the fight against Apartheid forces and the defence of the MPLA's Angola and Agostinho Neto, and the fact remains that without Cuban involvement Angola and the Southern Africa region might look very different now.

Last week's meeting in Luanda between Raul Castro, successor of Fidel, and Jose Eduardo dos Santos, successor of Neto, is an attempt to reinvigorate and renew the two countries' relationship in the 21st century. Cuba desperately needs Angolan finance as well as political support to end US sanctions (and also, to some extent its oil). In return Cuba can once again offer its sons and daughters, only this time it will be teachers and doctors instead of soldiers.