West Africa: Homage to Havana

Cuba is reportedly sending the largest foreign medical team from a single country to West Africa to help fight the Ebola virus. Cuba’s contribution to the development and progress of African countries is often unacknowledged in the mainstream public discourse.

One is more likely to read about the United Nation’s condemnation of Cuba’s human rights record than about the vital role Cuba has played assisting African countries establish public health systems. Cuba has helped establish medical schools in several African countries such as Ethiopia, Gambia and Uganda.

Cuban professionals have worked in several African countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Tanzania and Congo Brazzaville. It was the Cuban doctors who organised the first vaccination campaign against polio in the Republic of Congo and not the French who had colonized the country. Historians estimate that more than 40,000 Africans have studied in Cuba on full scholarships funded by the Cuban government since the 1960s.

In Guinea-Bissau, Cuba didn’t only assist in the founding of a medical school, Cuba militarily supported Amilcar Cabral and the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in their struggle for independence against the Portuguese.

According to US foreign policy expert and academic, Prof. Piero Gleijeses, all but one of the foreign doctors in the liberated zones of Guinea-Bissau was Cuban from 1963 to 1974. Unlike Western countries that developed their economies through the colonisation of Africa, Cuba’s contribution to the development of post-independent Africa has always been based on principles of solidarity, liberty and anti-white supremacy.

It was the Cubans that forced the white supremacist regime, apartheid South Africa, out of Angola in 1976. That military victory against apartheid South Africa changed the course of Southern African history.

For example, because of that military victory, the African National Congress (ANC), the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) were able to set up military camps in Angola. While in Angola, the Cubans and the Soviet Union provided military training to these freedom fighters.

To retaliate, the white supremacist South African regime sent its planes to drop bombs over a Namibian refugee camp located in Cassinga, Angola. In response to this shameless atrocity the Cuban government opened its doors to about 600 Namibian children who had survived the massacre to study and grow up far from the South African bombs Gleijeses reports.

Meanwhile, the United States went out of its ways to ensure that it didn’t offend the white supremacist regime. According to declassified US documents, the US government made sure that “negro personnel have not been assigned to the U.S. mission and consulates in South Africa.” Additionally, the US government avoided any actions that would have created “the impression of a concerted attack on the racial system as such, for that could stimulate strong South African reaction and damage U.S. business interests.”

While Havana sent troops to Angola to oppose white supremacy, President Nixon found “poor, child-like Africans” exasperating. Havana assisted liberation movements in Southern Africa to fight for democracy and liberty, the US, on the other hand, was preoccupied with Robert Mugabe whom the US saw as “emerging as the apparent spokesman of the terrorists based in Mozambique.” The US was concerned that Mugabe wanted to “establish a Marxist-type military dictatorship in Rhodesia on the model of that in Mozambique.”

Instead of assisting freedom fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the US launched a covert operation in 1960, which facilitated Joseph Mobutu’s brutal rule. Havana sent Che Guevara to fight alongside the Simbas in the DRC. Havana’s efforts in Africa helped bring about democracy, while European colonialism in Africa led to the genocide of the Herero people by Germany.

Havana’s involvement in Africa has always been based on solidarity, while European colonisers like the Belgians, plundered Congo and murdered millions of Congolese in order to gain access to its natural resources.

Adam Hochschild writes that the West feels closer to the white victims of Stalin, Franco and Hitler than the victims of European colonialism. That partly explains why there is widespread consensus among Western societal institutions that fascism and Nazism were inhuman systems, whereas the jury is still out when it comes to the question of colonialism in Africa.

As far as I am concerned, Charles Mills’ thesis better explains the political attitudes of Western institutions towards colonialism in Africa. Mills argues that white supremacy is the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today. Further, this thesis partly explains why enlightenment thinkers who wrote during the Atlantic slave trade didn’t concern themselves with the ethical and political questions around the slave trade.

American feminist, Zillah Eisenstein, writes that the Haitian revolution exposed the hypocrisy of the enlightenment language of democracy while simultaneously challenging the accepted exclusive European authorship of human rights. I argue that Cuba’s contribution to the liberations of African countries sustains the spirit of the Haitian revolution. Furthermore, as scholars of the Cuban revolution often point out, through its moral defiance and its defence of its right to survive in the middle of the Western Hemisphere, Cuba has transcended history.

One of the reasons that Western societal institutions do not sufficiently celebrate Cuba’s contribution to the development of the Third World is that Cuba’s role in Africa effectively challenges the self-image of Western countries that is predicated on the belief that the West has inherently better values and political institutions than communist countries.

Moreover, for Western institutions to celebrate Cuba’s role in Africa would require a degree of acknowledgement on their part that black Africans have been historically excluded from equal status in Western liberal thought, to use Charles Mills’ insight. And that goes against the Eurocentric self-image that the West is inherently open-minded, fair and tolerant. At this point in our history, this is an image that the West is happy to defend.

Mandisi Majavu, allAfrica.com

Majavu is the Book Reviews Editor of Interface: A Journal For and About Social Movements. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

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