The most original and radical thing about the Cuban revolution has been its unconditional human and revolutionary solidarity. In the field of international relations, it was the international recognition of that commitment that frustrated the attempts of the United States and its allies to isolate Cuba from the rest of the world. Now it is the government of the United States that finds itself cornered, more and more entangled in the labyrinth of its lies and fantasies. The work of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara cleared the spaces and international relations with which Fidel and the Cuban leadership have successfully developed their extraordinary foreign policy to the present day.
Because this commitment to revolutionary solidarity is so bold, it is easy to underestimate the diverse historical continuities in which the Cuban Revolution has been a worthy and tenacious intermediary, despite almost 60 years of the U.S. economic blockade. In an exemplary manner, the life and work of Che Guevara express these continuities. Among them, because of the centrality of slavery in the colonial heritage in Cuba and the Caribbean, his role in the development of Cuban solidarity in Africa has proved to be the most emblematic. The Cuban contingent’s campaign with Che in the Congo in 1965 was the precursor of Operation Carlota in defense of Angola, which succeeded in defeating the racist regime of South Africa and its Western patrons.
Because it is so complex, the context of that 1965 campaign requires a broader approach than the brief period between the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and Che’s eventual martyrdom in Bolivia in 1967. This is an extremely important chapter in the struggle of the peoples of the majority world against the ruthless, genocidal and predatory rule of the Western elites. It is necessary to remember that the anti-colonial struggles of the period before the Second World War were later replaced by the imposition of neocolonialism in Africa by means of a permanently interposed decolonization by the imperialist powers. With different nuances, the same pattern of neocolonialism prevailed in Latin America and the Caribbean.
The International Context
Immediately before the Cuban Revolution in 1959, among the main international events of the four years from 1953 to 1956 were the coup d’état in Iran against Mohammed Mossadegh, the defeat of the United States and its allies in Korea by China, the war of independence in Algeria, the defeat of France in Vietnam and the defeat of the British and French aggression against the Suez Canal in Egypt. It was the first decade of the so-called Cold War of the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.
The Cold War imposed a new neocolonial logic to replace the brutal, sadistic, genocidal colonial repression of the period before World War II. In Africa, the imperialist powers ceded political independence to their former colonies, but in a way that secured their economic, technological, commercial and financial dominance. Speaking in Algeria in February 1965, Che explained:
“The struggle against colonialism has reached its final stages but in the present era, colonial status is but a consequence of imperialist domination. As long as imperialism exists, by definition, it will exercise its domination over other countries; that domination is today called neocolonialism”.
Neocolonialism first developed in South America, on an entire continent, today begins to be seen with increasing intensity in Africa and Asia. Its form of penetration and development has different characteristics; first, it is the brutal one we knew in the Congo. The brute force, without considerations or concealments of any kind, is its extreme weapon. There is another, more subtle method: penetration into the countries that liberate themselves politically, the connection with the nascent autochthonous bourgeoisies, the development of a parasitic bourgeois class in close alliance with metropolitan interests supported by a certain welfare or transitory development of the standard of living of the peoples.
In his February 1965 speech, Che focused on the fundamental importance of investment and solidarity trade for peoples impoverished by centuries of underdevelopment. He insisted on the importance of a supportive and complementary international cooperation policy to get out of the imperialist domination of the world economy. Now the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance with the leadership of Cuba and Venezuela are realizing that vision of solidarity cooperation promoted by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez that Che Guevara elucidated in 1965.
This has been achieved in a globalized world very different from the Cold War era and in much more adverse conditions for any socialist project. The current war against Venezuela and all the progressive forces in Latin America and the Caribbean is another historical continuity that demonstrates that Western elites will always react fiercely against the victories of emancipation and liberation, just as they did in the 1960s. In 2011, the destruction of Libya and the coup d’état in Côte d’Ivoire, both by the former colonial powers and with the active complicity of the UN, demonstrate that little has changed since the 1961 coup against the democratically elected prime minister in Congo, Patrice Lumumba.
The African Context
In North Africa, France abandoned the war for Algeria in 1962. Morocco and Tunisia had already gained their independence in 1956, Niger and Mauritania in 1960. By the end of 1960 almost the entire west and central Africa had become politically independent. In East Africa, Somalia became independent in 1960 followed in the coming years by Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Madagascar. In southern Africa only Botswana achieved independence, pressed between the racist regimes of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. Namibia, in effect, remained a South African province. Portugal maintained its colonial rule over Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and the Cape Verde Islands.
Some of the leaders of the newly independent countries declared their intention to pursue a policy of international non-alignment. They included Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Modibo Keita of Mali, Patrice Lumumba of the former Belgian Congo, Sekou Touré of the former French Guinea, Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria and Julius Nyerere of what became Tanzania. They all shared the anti-imperialist vision of leaders such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and President Sukarno of Indonesia. They were committed to the non-alignment of their countries at the international level in an attempt to move away from the Cold War. This complex history formed the context in which the international diplomacy of the Cuban Revolution had developed since its triumph on January 1, 1959.
In June 1959, Che Guevara visited President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Cairo. Che’s visits to Egypt between 1959 and 1964 also facilitated the development of Cuba’s historic policy of solidarity with Palestine. During the 1959 visit, Che happened to meet Abdallah Ibrahim, prime minister of the then left-wing government of Morocco who was on an official visit to Egypt. Through Abdallah Ibrahim, Che met with Abd el-Krim Khattabi, leader of the Rif revolution against Spain in Morocco between 1921 and 1926. Khattabi lived in Cairo in exile. Author of the historic defeat of the Spanish army at the Battle of Annual, Abd el-Krim Khattabi defended his people against a combined army of France and Spain of 250,000 troops in a guerrilla war that suffered aerial bombardment by imperialist forces against defenseless civilians, including chemical weapons.
This policy of total war against civilians was also applied at the same time by the British in Iraq, the Yankees in Nicaragua and the Italians in Libya and Ethiopia. Che became aware of Abd el-Krim Khattabi’s war through former Spanish general Alberto Bayo who, as Fidel explains in Ignacio Ramonet’s book “One Hundred Hours with Fidel,” taught tactics to Cubans in Mexico. Bayo considered Che “his best pupil” and in his classes he taught “how a guerrilla must proceed to break a siege, starting from the times that the Moroccans of Abdelkrim, in the Rif war, broke the Spanish sieges”. Che’s meeting with Abd el-Krim Khattabi is another example of how the Cuban Revolution exemplifies the historical continuities of the struggles for the liberation of peoples.
The relations established by Che Guevara and Cuban diplomacy in these years persist in the present. In 1963, Algeria’s economy had barely recovered from the devastating war of independence against France that had ended the previous year. Taking advantage of his moment, in September 1963, encouraged by the United States government, King Hassan of Morocco sent his army to attack Algeria on the basis of a territorial claim. While France and the United States supported Morocco, Egypt helped Algeria with its air force and Cuba sent military support in the form of 22 tanks with their crews plus an infantry battalion.
As the Algerian president at the time, Ben Bella, recalled, Cuban military support arrived on a ship with a cargo of sugar and a declaration of solidarity written with obvious haste by Raul Castro on a notebook page. The conflict was resolved with a ceasefire negotiated by the Organization for African Unity and then the signing of a peace treaty in February 1964. Since that conflict, Cuba has maintained a policy of solidarity support to the forces of what is now the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic which claims the independence of its territory still occupied by Morocco.
The Congo and its Global Significance
In 1964 during his visit to the United Nations in New York, Che communicated with radical Afro-descendant activist Malcolm X, although it was not possible for them to meet in person. Both Malcolm X and Che Guevara were deeply affected by the martyrdom of Congolese socialist leader Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and identified it as a key moment for anti-imperialist unity and solidarity. In his speech at the UN, Che told the governments of the world:
“Once again we raise our voice to alert the world to what is happening in South Africa; the brutal policy of “Apartheid” is applied before the eyes of the nations of the world. The peoples of Africa are forced to endure the fact that on that continent the superiority of one race over another is still being made official, that one race is murdered with impunity in the name of that racial superiority. Will the United Nations do anything to prevent this?
I wanted to refer specifically to the painful case of the Congo, unique in the history of the modern world, which shows how the right of peoples can be circumvented with the most absolute impunity, with the most insolent cynicism. The enormous wealth that the Congo has and that the imperialist nations want to keep under their control are the direct reasons for all this.
In the intervention he was to make, following his first visit to the United Nations, comrade Fidel Castro warned that the whole problem of coexistence among nations was reduced to the problem of the undue appropriation of other people’s wealth, and he advocated the following: “cease the philosophy of dispossession and the philosophy of war will cease.
But not only has the philosophy of dispossession not ceased, but it remains stronger than ever, and that is why the same people who used the name of the United Nations to perpetrate the assassination of Lumumba, today, in the name of the defense of the white race, assassinate thousands of Congolese.
I do not know if they used it, those who say (and can tell the truth) that Tshombe killed him do not add that he did it using the name of the UN, because Tshombe was an enemy of the UN. The United States and Belgium and some Congolese eager for power were looking for his death, but the murder was probably committed by Belgian and Congolese soldiers.
How is it possible that we forget the way in which the hope that Patricio Lumumba placed in the United Nations was betrayed? How is it possible that we forget the games and manoeuvres that followed the occupation of that country by the United Nations troops, under whose auspices the assassins of the great African patriot acted with impunity?
How can we forget, Delegates, that it was Moise Tshombe, who disregarded the authority of the United Nations in the Congo, and not precisely for patriotic reasons, but by virtue of battles between imperialists, who initiated the secession of Katanga with Belgian support?
And how to justify, how to explain that, at the end of all the United Nations’ action, Tshombe, evicted from Katanga, returns master and lord of the Congo? Who could deny the sad role that the imperialists forced the United Nations to play?
In short, there were big mobilizations to avoid the split of Katanga, and today Katanga is in power, the wealth of Congo in imperialist hands… and the expenses must be paid by the worthy nations. What good business do the merchants of war!”
As Che explained at the UN, the immediate antecedents of the Cuban campaign in the Congo were the secessionist rebellion of Moise Tshombe with the support of the Belgian government and its European allies along with the U.S. government that promoted the overthrow and assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and the seizure of power by Tshombe in July 1964. In response to this brutal intervention by Western countries, Algeria and Egypt called for international support for the forces fighting Tshombe and his imperialist masters.
“How can we forget, Delegates, that it was Moise Tshombe, who disregarded the authority of the United Nations in the Congo, and not purely for patriotic reasons, but by virtue of battles between imperialists, who initiated the secession of Katanga with Belgian support?”
Progressive Governments in Africa
It is important to understand the continental scenario of Africa at this historic moment. Algeria had just gained its independence after forcing France to negotiate peace at a terrible cost in human lives and material destruction. Several Arab countries, mainly Egypt, Syria and Iraq, were consolidating their status as secular republics. In Libya, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddhafi’s revolution had not yet been achieved. In West Africa, only the governments of the former European colonies of Guinea, Mali and Ghana promoted an anti-imperialist vision of solidarity among peoples, and in East Africa, only Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.
After a brief visit to Mali in December 1964 where he met with the government of socialist president Modibo Keita, Che visited Ghana in January 1965. There he met with Kwame Nkrumah to discuss the international situation with special reference to Congo. That meeting strengthened Cuba’s relationship with Ghana, which Fidel had promoted by supporting Nkrumah’s proposal to make Africa a nuclear-weapon-free continent in his intervention at the UN in 1960. Apart from his meetings in Mali and Ghana, in January 1965 Che also met in Congo Brazzaville with Agostinho Neto, leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola and in Conakry, capital of former French Guinea, with Amilcar Cabral, leader of the African Party for the Independence of Portuguese Guinea.
Later on, Cuba’s support for the revolutions of both countries was going to be decisive. Che’s conversations with all these African leaders contributed greatly to shaping Cuba’s policy in Africa in a way that focused on technical, medical and educational aid, as well as military support, both for independent states and for liberation movements in Portuguese colonies and peoples under racist regimes. Since then all military solidarity support and cooperation for Cuban development in Africa, from Angola to Ethiopia, has operated on the basis of these principles established by the tireless work of Che and his comrades in Cuban diplomacy in those early years of the Cuban Revolution. The most recent example has been the heroism with which Cuban doctors helped African countries hit by the worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in history between 2014 and 2016.
The governments of Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere facilitated the passage of troops from the two groups of Cubans who were going, one to the former Belgian Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the other to the former French Congo, Congo Brazzaville. Within the former Belgian Congo, a Cuban force led by Victor Dreke, José Martinez Tamayo and Che Guevara supported Congolese and Rwandan forces loyal to movements related to the assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. In Congo Brazzaville, the Cuban forces led by Jorge Risquet supported the progressive government of Alphonse Massemba Debat in its defence against the aggression of the puppet regime of Moíse Tshombe and his European mercenaries and also trained the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola.
The Campaign in Congo
The events of the Cuban campaign in support of the revolutionary struggle in the Congo in 1965 are well known. In early April, a small advance group of Cuban fighters arrived in Dar es Salaam, capital of Tanzania, independent since 1961 under the leadership of Julius Nyerere, a leading exponent of African anti-imperialist socialism. In mid-April a group of 14 Cubans including Che crossed the enormous Lake Tanganyika into Congolese territory and began to prepare the conditions for their military operations in the southeast of the country.
From the beginning of May, other Cuban fighters began to arrive until they formed a group of around 120 troops. However, the conditions for their guerrilla campaign were not favorable. It was a small group of foreigners who found it difficult to collaborate with a population heavily influenced by the tribal and superstitious legacy of the past and with little revolutionary awareness and discipline in the present.
His presence was unannounced and unexpected in the Congo, which caused discomfort among the Congolese, which could not be overcome between the two parties. A fundamental fact was that 70 years of Belgian colonialism had bequeathed a nation of 14 million with fewer than 20 university graduates and barely 200 bachelor’s degrees. Congolese leaders were not consistently present on the ground and when they did, they did not relate well to their combatants. A contingent of Rwandans showed good combative qualities but had their own political-military agenda.
On the other hand, the enemy had all the support of the European imperial powers, they were well armed, with good equipment and logistics, adequate air forces and, in addition, their regular forces were led by numerous experienced and well paid European mercenary officers and non-commissioned officers. Subsequently, after barely four months of unequal fighting, the political situation changed radically when a national coalition government was proposed to replace the government of Prime Minister Moise Tshombe, responsible with the Belgian authorities for the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. This change led African socialist leaders, including Julius Nyerere, to moderate their support for the armed struggle in Congo. The Cubans accepted this new reality and withdrew.
Seen in this way, it is evident that in the scant seven months of the campaign the Cuban contingent did more than would have been thought possible under such adverse conditions. There is no point in talking in terms of success or failure about the events of a dialectical process of advances and setbacks in the struggle for the emancipation of the peoples of Africa and other parts of the world from the domination of Western powers. It is from this perspective that we must reflect on the development of relations between Africa and the Cuban Revolution at that time and afterwards.
As García Marquez put it,
“That fleeting and anonymous passage of Che Guevara through Africa sowed the seed that no one would eradicate. It is a very human error to value as failures the disappointing experiences that do not produce the expected results at the time. We do not know the future consequences of our actions. Even the most disappointing moments of our lives are valuable when the will that motivates them is pure, clean of hypocrisy and vanity. Che Guevara’s life is further proof that the actions of some individuals can trigger processes or inspire actions that, some time later, contribute markedly to the progress and victories so longed for by peoples and humanity.’
It can then be understood that Che Guevara, reflecting only a few months after the events, opens his account of the armed struggle campaign in the Congo with the words “This is the story of a failure”. But a broad retrospective look shows that by putting international solidarity into practice in Africa from another continent, Fidel, Che and the Cuban Revolution initiated a process of solidarity cooperation unprecedented in human history. For the first time in history an ancient colony still under permanent assault by the imperialist powers had the vision and courage to offer its solidarity and join the struggle of the peoples on another continent. That fact alone indicates the dimensions of the challenge that Che Guevara and his comrades took on at that moment of profound significance for humanity. They made the permanent nightmare of the Western elites a reality: unity and solidarity among the peoples of their former colonies.
In 1987, twenty years after Che Guevara’s assassination in Bolivia, Thomas Sankara, another African giant of anti-imperialist socialism, paid tribute to him:
“Today we want to tell the whole world that for us Che Guevara is not dead, because wherever in the world there is a place where men and women fight for more freedom, more dignity, more justice, more happiness, dear friends, we add our voice to the voices of everyone in the world who remembers that one day a man named Che Guevara with all the faith of his heart, stood beside other men and women and managed to create that spark of light that so defies the occupation forces of the world… Che Guevara was hit by imperialist bullets in Bolivian but we say that for us Che Guevara is not dead… In almost all of Africa he made himself known with his own star… Africa, from north to south, remembers Che Guevara.”