How Castro's foreign policy, overlooked in US, won African admirers

El Caballo, as Cubans knew him, became an international icon through his support to liberationist causes across the developing world.

Jose Goitia/AP/File
Former South African President Nelson Mandela (l.) and Cuban leader Fidel Castro embrace during a visit by Castro in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Sept. 2, 2001.

After Fidel Castro’s death, old debates are getting new life.

On one side are critics of his government’s repressive measures against dissidents, whether political or cultural. On the other are defenders of Cuba's health care and literary programs. But Castro's imprint on Africa is perhaps most indelible.

In the US, the postmortem debate over Castro’s legacy has centered mostly on his domestic policies. That may overlook much of what distinguishes him as a head of state, and what helped boost his status as an international icon: an unusually assertive foreign policy, forged in a cold war crucible, that saw Cuba become a champion of anti-colonial causes in the developing world, at times against the wishes of the Soviet Union.

It is well documented that Castro’s revolution provided political inspiration to leftists throughout Latin America, across which his government also dispatched doctors and military advisers to aid allies and incipient liberationists – in exchange for oil and other goods in short supply on the Caribbean isle. 

"I don't think there was a single young person across Latin America who did not feel sympathy for what was happening here, or who did not see this as an interesting and unusual process," Jorge Manuel Toha, a former Chilean ambassador to Cuba who was in his 20s when Castro came to power, told NPR in 2006.

In the Middle East, too, Castro’s government made common cause with the Iranian revolution and pan-Arabists like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and offered military aid to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, notes The Washington Post.

But nowhere was Castro’s foreign policy so effective and aggressive, or the ideals that fired his first decades in power so apparent, as in Cuba’s campaigns in Africa. 

"He inspired a lot of Latin American youths, but most guerrilla movements in Latin America failed. In Africa, he succeeded," says Piero Gleijeses, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies and author of "Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991."

Inspired by what one CIA report from the period described as "a messianic sense of mission," Castro embarked on a kind of crusade on behalf of liberationist causes in Angola and Ethiopia, where he deployed more than 300,000 troops from 1975 to 1990, according to a study by Harvard professor and Cuba expert Jorge Domínguez. That’s more than the Soviet Union, Cuba’s benefactor, sent during that same period.

The troop dispatch to Angola in 1975 (and again in 1976), Dr. Gleijeses tells The Christian Science Monitor, was "done without even informing the Soviets until eight days later," precipitating "a moment of crisis" in relations with a Soviet Union that was keen on détente with the US. 

That’s not to say that decades of military ventures didn’t take their toll on Cubans.

"In Cuba today the veterans of Angolan service are commonly referred to as the 'generation of disenchantment,' and they regard themselves much the way that Vietnam veterans did in the United States in the 1970s," wrote the Atlantic in a 1988 article.

But unlike with the United States' war in Vietnam, Cuba eventually triumphed in all three of the wars in which it intervened in Angola and Ethiopia. It also sent tens of thousands of doctors, teachers, construction workers and other aid workers to African neighbors, and trained guerrillas in present-day Zimbabwe. It also had a hand in winning Namibia’s independence, by staving off or forestalling actions by South Africa’s apartheid military, earning it the gratitude of South Africa’s African National Congress.

"The decisive defeat of the aggressive apartheid forces [in Angola] destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor," Nelson Mandela declared in a 1991 speech in Cuba. "The defeat of the apartheid army served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa." 

"What other country," Mr. Mandela went on to ask, "has such a history of selfless behavior as Cuba has shown for the people of Africa?"

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