If Africa is a country, then Fidel Castro is one of our national heroes.

After fronting the Cuban revolution against a corrupt, American-sponsored dictatorship in 1959, Cuba under Fidel worked hard to develop its own distinct foreign policy independent from its more powerful neighbor, the United States, or its supposed ally, the Soviet Union. Africa became central to that foreign policy.  For me, and people of my generation, Fidel Castro entered our consciousness as a hero of our liberation. He wasn’t just fighting for an abstract cause. He was literally fighting for us.

One of Castro’s central foreign policy goals was “internationalism” – the promotion of decolonization and revolutionary politics abroad. This involved sending troops to fight in wars against colonial or proxy forces on the African continent, as well as supporting those movements with logistics and technical support. Cuba sent troops, but it also sent tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, dentists, nurses, health-care technicians, academics, teachers and engineers to the continent and elsewhere. That a significant proportion of Cubans trace their ancestries to West and Central Africa (owing to slavery) contributes to this politics. It is important to note that critics of Cuba have pointed to the paradox of this policy: while Cuba has a progressive foreign policy on race, at home Afro-Cubans have often been at odds with the Communist Party’s failure to reflect the full range of Cuba’s racial diversity in its leadership structures or to fully address race politics. Nevertheless, this doesn’t detract from Cuba’s Africa policy.

Cuba’s involvement in Africa started with the Congo (later renamed Zaire and now the Democratic Republic of Congo or DRC) following the murder of Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, by a conspiracy of western intelligence agencies (the strong hand of former Belgian rulers), and local elites. In 1964 Castro sent his personal emissary, Che Guevara, on a three-month visit of a number of African countries, including Algeria, Benin, Ghana, Mali, Guinea, Congo-Brazzaville and Tanzania. The Cubans believed that there was a revolutionary situation in Central Africa, and they wanted to help, argued historian Piero Gleijeses, who studied Cuba’s Cold War foreign policy in his books, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa 1959-1976 and  Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991. Crucially, Guevara established relations with the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), then based in Congo-Brazzaville. In 1965 Cubans instructors trained MPLA fighters to fight Portuguese colonialism. Later that year, Guevara and a group of exclusively black Cubans joined Lumumbaists, led by Laurent Kabila, in a revolt against Mobutu Sese Seko’s government (then backed by South African and Rhodesian mercenaries). This revolt was crushed due to a mix of factors: naiveté, unpreparedness, and the poor quality and lack of commitment of Kabila and his men.

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