Cuito Cuanavale — Alive With Ambiguity

So the battle of Cuito Cuanavale is to become a tourist site. May I suggest a slogan? Southern Angola – Alive with Ambiguity. It will be interesting to see what the plaques say.

I wonder whether they will reflect what Fidel Castro told the Cuban Council of State on July 9, 1989, a year after the hostilities ended. It is not a version that reflects particularly well on anyone except, of course, Fidel himself.

His purpose in addressing the Council that day was to endorse the death sentence imposed on General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, Cuba’s top commander in Angola from November 1987 until his summons home in January 1989 to face charges of drug-running. For obvious reasons, the portrayal of Ochoa is not flattering.

The Angolans and their Soviet allies do not come off so well either. In fact, as the story opens in late 1987, they are in headlong retreat, smashed by the South African Defence Force, Unita and their own ineptitude after a lumbering thrust at the Unita base camp, Jamba.

“Everyone was asking us to do something,” Castro recalled. He, as ever, was decisive amid the panic. “We ourselves understood that even though we were in no way responsible for the errors that had led to the situation, we could not sit still and allow a military and political catastrophe to occur…Many problems had to be solved.”

These included the paucity of lead in everyone else’s pencil. The fleeing Angolan army had paused at Cuito Cuanavale, but, in Castro’s telling, would have scarpered on north with Ochoa’s blessing had he not overruled the pusillanimous joint command in Luanda and taken charge himself.

He describes the frustrations of trying to command Angolans from Havana. They simply would not close up their defensive line with the result the South Africans were able to slice through and pin them against the Cuito river. Only a Cuban counterattack, so we are told, preserved them from annihilation.

And after that, it was Cuban leadership (minus, of course, Ochoa) that stabilized the line, saving Cuito Cuanavale, and freeing up Fidel for the real masterstroke: a grand demonstration of martial intent towards the Namibian border through Cunene province which, we are told, finally convinced PW Botha to say basta.

The Angolans, whose sovereignty Cuba was nominally there to protect, do not feature heavily in Fidel’s narrative at this point. Absent is any mention of Umkhonto we Sizwe among the Cuito Cuanavale defenders.

Castro’s version of events served a purpose, as all legends do. It enabled him to pull his troops out of Angola with honour intact, even enhanced, while disgracing one of his greatest generals, who, for reasons still unclear, he wanted dead.

The ironies abound. Castro could declare victory and bug out looking like a hero because of a bargain framed by Ronald Reagan’s Metternich in Africa, Dr Chester Crocker. South Africa would leave Namibia if Cuba left Angola. Fidel understood he could don the laurels for Namibian independence so long as he could first persuade the world he had saved Angola. A credulous world bit.

A corollary of the deal, which Castro readily accepted once his own glory was secure, was the ANC’s ignominious expulsion from Angola. President Eduardo Dos Santos and the MPLA had to go along with this as well.

One day, when it is as matter of purely academic interest, we may reach a consensus on what happened at Cuito Cuanavale. Today, perhaps, it is still too much of a Rorschach test.

As I look at it now with El Jefe in his twilight years, I would say he played his hand in Angola extremely well. As always he punched way above his weight. He exploited opportunities. He did not get hung up on sophomoric solidarities, let alone anything so bourgeois as the truth. He demonstrated his great strategic gift. He marketed himself and Cuba brilliantly.

He has always been a master at that. He’s had to kill of lot of people, one way or another, along the way. Others he’s had to torture and reeducate. I wouldn’t say, having been there several times, that Cubans are the happiest people on earth.

But you have to love the way Castro’s communism keeps the proletariat off the nicer beaches.