The passing of Fidel Castro at 90 years of age provided opponents of the Cuban Revolution with an opportunity to pick up their ideological mantra in favour of some abstract notion of democracy, while ignoring the Revolution’s social achievements and human development. But Cuba’s foreign policy has also been of a remarkable consistency, and its impact has been lauded by many people, including its enemies. What were the revolutionary principles that guided Fidel Castro after 1959 and which remain the target of so much vicious coverage from the media? We posed this question, and many others, to Piero Gleijeses (1), a renowned expert on Cuban foreign policy.
(Interview conducted by Alex Anfruns and Ricardo Vaz)
In the Cuban Drumbeat your main message is that the Cuban foreign policy under Fidel Castro is unparalleled. Why is it so?
Well, because of its generosity. Because Cuba and Fidel Castro, for instance played a decisive role in changing the course of history in Southern Africa, in the struggle against apartheid. They saved Angola from the attack of apartheid South Africa, they helped the Namibian guerrillas, they helped the South Africans, asking for nothing in return. And when I say for nothing I really mean absolutely nothing. Not only this, but Cuba paid a high price to help the Africans, because that meant increasing the enmity of the United States. There had been secret negotiations to normalize relations between Cuba and the Ford administration. Obviously by sending troops to defend Angola from a South African aggression, that had actually been encouraged by the U.S., destroyed these negotiations. At the same time, Fidel Castro defied the Soviet Union, because USSR secretary-general Brezhnev was opposed to the dispatch of Cuban troops to Angola in 1975. He was obsessed by détente with the US far more than the Ford administration, and didn’t want to do anything that might affect it. On the other hand, the relations of the Soviet Union with the MPLA government in Angola were strained, they were not particularly good. And the same happened in 1987-88, when Fidel Castro sent important reinforcements to Southern Angola to chase the South Africans out of Angola once and for all and force them to agree to the independence of Namibia. But if I may add one thing, one focus is on the military contribution of Cuba, and it’s important, it was really decisive. But there is also another important component, which is the humanitarian assistance, that we can discuss later…
In contrast to what you’ve just said you find in the western press a widespread perception that Fidel and Cuba were just Soviet puppets. How would you describe the relation between Cuba and the Soviet Union?
Well, first of all, even the CIA concluded in 1981 that the dispatch of 25.000 Cuban troops to Angola in 1975 was a unilateral Cuban decision taken with great haste. Even the CIA acknowledged that it was a Cuban decision. And if you look at the memoirs of Kissinger, who was then secretary of state, and yelled from every rooftop that Cuba was a proxy of the Soviet Union, in the last volume of his memoirs, Kissinger makes a rare mea culpa. He actually says he was wrong, it was the other way around. It was Cuba that confronted the Soviet Union with a fait accompli. Then he asked the question: why did Fidel Castro do it? And the answer that Kissinger gives, I’m quoting verbatim mostly, is “Fidel Castro was arguably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power”. So when you had the CIA that said it was a Cuban decision that had nothing to do with the Soviet Union, when you have Kissinger saying it was a Cuban decision that confronted the Soviet Union with a fait accompli, only idiots can still argue that Cuba acted as a proxy of the Soviet Union.
Let us go into more detail on these African campaigns. What was the motivation for Cuba to do these campaigns in Africa? What was Castro’s worldview with regard to this?
Look, we have to take it from the beginning, from the 1960s. In the 1960s you have Cuba supporting guerrillas in Latin America, and Cuba already conducted a number of operations in Africa: in Algeria, in Congo-Brazzaville, in the former Belgian Congo, in Guinea-Bissau. In trying to understand the motivations of Cuba, of Fidel Castro, I took into account the intelligence reports and analysis of the CIA and State Department. There are a lot of reports. Not once do the CIA and State Dept. Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) analysts argue that Cuba acted at the behest of the Soviet Union. They say that there were two key motivations. One motivation was self-defence and that’s completely right. The United States refused Cuba’s offer for conversations for a modus vivendi in 61, 63, 64. And so the Cubans concluded that if the United States refused to negotiate and reach a modus vivendi, the best defence was the attack – supporting revolutionary movements in Africa, in Latin America, gaining friends, weakening American imperialism.
But there was a second key consideration, and this is something that is stressed very clearly in all CIA reports, they were the first to recognise it. And that is what they call revolutionary idealism. The fact that the Cuban leadership, Fidel Castro, felt the duty to help other people free themselves from the oppression that tormented them. Now, these two motivations, self-defence and revolutionary idealism, went along parallel tracks, because the United States refused to negotiate with Cuba, so there was no contradiction. This changes with the Cuban troop deployment to Angola in 1975.
This was of course a significant moment. Can you explain the context at the time?
Of course. The context behind it is that in 1974 the United States began secret conversations with Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, full normalization. These were under way in the fall of 1975, and it was clear that if Cuba sent troops to Angola this would torpedo the negotiations. At the same time, Fidel Castro sent the troops knowing that the Soviets were against it, for the reasons I already mentioned. And this can be seen in the fact that for two harrowing months, from November 1975 to mid-January 1976, the Soviets provided no logistic assistance whatsoever to the dispatch of the Cuban troops to Angola, it was a logistical nightmare for the Cubans.
At the same time, take into account another thing. For the first time, western European countries were willing to have friendly relations with Cuba. Cuba’s vice-prime minister Carlos Rafael Rodriguez went to western Europe in the spring of 75, he received important lines of credit from the French and British governments, West Germany was willing to offer a development loan of 15M$ as well. So in terms of narrow interests, in terms of realpolitik, the dispatch of Cuban troops went against Cuba’s interests. The reason why Fidel Castro decided to send the troops was indeed revolutionary idealism. Fidel Castro understood that a victory of axis of evil Washington-Pretoria in Angola would have tightened the grip of apartheid over the people of southern Africa. And the struggle against apartheid was something Fidel Castro and the Cuban people felt very strongly about. Fidel Castro called the struggle against apartheid “the most beautiful cause of mankind” (“la causa más bonita de la humanidad”). This was the key motivation, to save southern Africa from apartheid. Cuba gained nothing with this, but the Cuban victory had an immense impact.
The Cuban troops initially succeeded in pushing out South Africa and the FNLA and UNITA movements, but the war was far from over. What happened?
The Cuban troops remained in Angola after 1976, to protect the Angolan government from South Africa, which wanted to overthrow the Angolan MPLA government in Luanda and replace it with UNITA and Jonas Savimbi, a guerrilla leader who had promised his friendship to Pretoria. Even the CIA acknowledged in a secret report that the presence of Cuban troops was indispensable to protect the sovereignty of Angola. However the Cuban air force in Angola was less strong than the South African air force. The South Africans had modern military airports in northern Namibia, close to the border, while the closest Angolan airport was 300km north of the border. Since the Cubans did not have very good anti-aircraft weapons, they withdrew their troops to a defensive line about 250-300km north of the border that covered the Western half of Angola, was essentially covering the access to the heartland of Angola and the direct road to Luanda. The east was of much more difficult access for the South African troops.
So the conditions weren’t fulfilled to go on the offensive? What was the main reason?
The reason why the Cubans stuck to this defensive line was because when Reagan came to power, they rightly feared a U.S. attack. And indeed we know through the documents that the Reagan administration in 1981-82 seriously considered military strikes against Cuba. Therefore the Cubans kept their best planes, anti-aircraft systems, tanks, etc, in Havana. And so they stuck to the defensive in Angola. South of the defensive line the South Africans did what they wanted, and in the eastern half of Angola, in the southernmost province of Cuando Cubango, you had Savimbi operating with the protection of the South African forces. This stalemate continues through most of the 1980s.
Beginning in 1985 the Cubans start asking the Soviets to give them the sophisticated weapons for the troops in Angola, to launch an offensive in the southwest against the South Africans and kick them out of Angola once and for all. There was an important motivation for the Cubans. In the summer of 1984, there was an upsurge of the revolutionary struggle in South Africa, a wave of demonstrations. This greatly impressed the Cubans, as it greatly impressed a lot of other people. So the Cubans desperately wanted to do something to help the people of South Africa. Whenever a high level African National Congress (ANC) delegation went to Cuba, the Cubans always asked what it was they could do, they increased the training of guerrillas, etc. But the Cubans came to the conclusion that the particular help they could give to the South African people was to kick the ass of the South Africans in southern Angola. The expression the Cubans used time and again was “to cut the claws of the South Africans in southern Angola”. They asked the Soviets for the weapons, and the Soviets refused, since they feared that if the Cubans had these weapons and they pushed the South Africans out of Angola, they wouldn’t stop at the Angolan border. They would enter into Namibia to free Namibia from South Africa. And indeed this is something the Cubans would have liked to do. This would have interfered with the détente that Gorbachev was focused on.
How did the situation escalate up to the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, a moment that Nelson Mandela called “the turning point for the liberation of our continent and my people”?
What happens in late 1987, that leads to the escalation and then eventually to Cuito Cuanavale, was the following. Urged by Soviet advisors, the MPLA government launched an offensive to reach the Namibian border in the southeast of Angola, where you had the Savimbi territory, the mythical Savimbi capital of Jamba, and the largest town he controlled, Mavinga. This was in the southern half of Cuando Cubango. The Cubans were opposed to this. What the Cubans kept saying time and again was that, first of all, if this was successful the South African air force would intervene and would hit the Angolans very hard, and secondly that the real battle was in the southwest against the South Africans, not against Savimbi. The South Africans were the problem. But the MPLA decided to follow the advice of the Soviets and the offensive began in July 1987.
I followed this offensive through the South African documents. The South Africans were impressed by how well the MPLA was fighting, they were fighting better than Savimbi and advanced until they arrived 20km north of Mavinga. And then what happened was exactly what Fidel Castro said would happen – the South Africans struck. First with the air force, and then with South African troops, they pushed the troops of the MPLA government back to Cuito Cuanavale, which was the southernmost base of the MPLA in the southeast of Angola. The South Africans basically cornered the best units of the Angolan army in Cuito Cuanavale by late November 1987, and everyone was convinced that Cuito Cuanavale was doomed. It was all the more doomed because it was isolated. It could not be resupplied by air because by the South African air force ruled the skies. It could not really be resupplied by land because the only link by land was an 180km road that went from Cuito Cuanavale to the town of Menongue in the west. But the problem is that the South African air force would strike the Angolan convoys that brought supplies and ammunition.
So Cuito Cuanavale seemed doomed…
Yes. And Cuito Cuanavale would have fallen with the best brigades of the Angolan army if Fidel Castro had not decided to intervene. There was a key meeting in Havana on November 15, 1987, with Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, several generals, and Jorge Risquet, Fidel’s point-man in Angola. The meeting begins at 5.25 PM and ends 10 hours later. Two decisions were taken, one which was not controversial, since it was what the Angolans and Soviets were begging the Cubans to do, which was to save Cuito Cuanavale. But the other decision was controversial. The Cubans decided they were going to send important reinforcements, their best weapons, to Angola, to launch an offensive in the southwest and kick the South Africans out of Angola once and for all. What triggered this decision was the South African escalation in the southeast of Angola and Cuito Cuanavale. This escalation reflected the great desire of Cuba to go south from the defensive line and reach the Namibian border. But this escalation was made possible by the Iran-contra scandal that had rocked the United States beginning in late 1986, because it weakened Reagan and forced him to fire the most aggressive people in his national security apparatus. And so the Cubans came to the conclusion that Reagan had been defanged, that for the first time during the Reagan administration they no longer feared an American attack against Cuba itself. So they felt they could afford to send their best weapons to Angola. Fidel Castro kept saying in meetings with his close aides (I have seen the transcripts of these meetings) “we have to send everything, the war is there in Angola, it is no longer here”. Now, as in 1975, Cuba defied the Soviet Union. As Jorge Risquet told me, the focus of Gorbachev was the forthcoming summit in Washington with Reagan, where they would sign the INF treaty (Intermediate Nuclear Forces).
That was an important step towards détente…
Indeed, and what the Cubans were going to do went against détente, it was to push the South Africans out of the south of Angola for good. Therefore what the Cubans did was to inform the Soviets after the troops had started leaving for Angola, basically 10 days after the fact. The deputy minister of defence of the Cuban armed forces, General Ulises Rosado del Toro, arrived in Moscow 10 days after the decision had been taken, on November 25, 1987. He had a meeting with the chief of the general staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, Marshal Akhromeyev, where he read a long memo. And this long memo had two parts. The first part was to inform the Soviets of the Cuban decision, something the Soviets did not like. The second was a list of weapons the Cubans wanted for their troops in Angola and to resupply their defences in Cuba. And the response of Akhromeyev was basically “we will let you know, I cannot say right now”. And there was a very sharp exchange of letters between Gorbachev and Fidel. Gorbachev wrote, I’m paraphrasing, “I cannot understand how you could take such a decision without consulting us”, and Fidel Castro replied “the situation in Angola is dramatic, it is dramatic because of the Soviet military advisors, who urged this crazy offensive in the southeast. I want you to know we will do anything that is necessary to save Angola”. What follows is a Soviet silence that lasts 59 days until January 23 1988, before the Soviets decided that they would send most of the requested weapons. But in this period Cuba had nonetheless sent a force of 17.000 additional soldiers, their best planes, weapons, tanks, etc. Cuba makes clear to the Soviets that they will do whatever is necessary. There is a conversation between Raúl Castro and the chief of the soviet mission in Havana, General Zaitsev, in which Raúl tells him “we will send everything to Angola, including our underpants, but we will drive the South Africans out”.
How would describe the Cubans’ military strategy in this context?
The Cuban military strategy is summarized very well several months later by Fidel Castro in a conversation with Joe Slovo, who was the secretary general of the South African Communist Party. And Fidel tells him “our strategy was just like a boxer. With the left hand he stops the blow, and with the right hand he strikes”. The left hand stops the blow is the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. What Cuba did first of all was to send its planes to Cuito Cuanavale. Cuba gains air superiority over Cuito Cuanavale. What does it mean? What I’m telling you is based on South African documents, by the way. It means the route from Menongue to Cuito Cuanavale becomes available as the South Africans can no longer strike the supply convoys. Because the air is dominated by the Cubans. It also means that until the Cubans arrived, the South African troops were ready to attack Cuito Cuanavale and could be resupplied by air from Mavinga. Now they can no longer be resupplied by air because the air belongs to the Cubans. They had to be resupplied by land over a very difficult territory. And it also means another thing. The South Africans had a special gun, the G5, which had a longer range than anything the Angolans or Cubans had. But now the G5 can no longer fire against Cuito Cuanavale because when a G5 fires, the Cuban planes immediately see where it is and fire at it. And for the first time since the second world war, the South Africans troops fight without air superiority. The South African commander of the taskforce against Cuito Cuanavale had a war diary which I saw in the South African military archives. And in this war diary the fall in the morale of the South African troops is chronicled, the troops become increasingly demoralized. Now, second point, the Angolans had a bridgehead east of the Cuito river. The Cubans sent 1500 soldiers to Cuito Cuanavale, some in small units, Cuban tanks, Cuban artillery. Others to stiffen the Angolan brigades. To make a long story short, the South Africans launched three major assaults against the bridgehead and they all failed. When the last attack on the bridgehead fails on March 23rd 1988, the U.S. joint chiefs of staff write in a memo that “the war in Angola has taken a dramatic turn, and for the South Africans a very dangerous turn.”. This is the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which is won by the Cubans. But it is a defensive battle. You don’t win wars with defensive battles. What forced the South Africans to accept the Cuban demands was the offensive in the southwest.
This is the right hand that strikes…
Exactly. On March 9 1988, while the South Africans are still fighting against Cuito Cuanavale, powerful Cuban columns start advancing south of the line towards the Namibian border, and they had air superiority. Meanwhile the quadripartite negotiations (South Africa, United States, Cuba and Angola) begin, to solve this problem of the southwest of Africa. And there was a meeting, which is considered the key meeting, in Cairo, on June 24 1988. The plenary session was scheduled for the afternoon. In the morning, the South African delegation goes to the American embassy (this is again from South African documents). This is a very high level delegation, with the foreign minister, the minister of defence, the commander of the South African armed forces, various generals, etc. They want to know two things from the Americans, because the Americans had better information, they had satellites. They want to know what is the strength of these Cuban columns, and secondly, if the Cuban columns will stop at the border with Namibia. And the deputy assistant secretary of defence, James Wood, replies, first of all reading a very impressive list of the weapons that the Cubans have. And then he says “we don’t know whether they will stop at the border or not. This is a campaign which is completely directed by Fidel Castro, it’s very difficult for us to know… But one thing I can tell you”, and now I’m paraphrasing, “is that the Cuban columns are strong enough to cross the border into Namibia, to seize the South African bases in northern Namibia and push further south”. The assessment of the Americans, the assessment of the Department of Defence is that the Cubans are strong enough to advance into Namibia.
Now, in fairness, one has to take into account one thing. The South African government is fighting a war on two fronts. One front is against the Cubans in southern Angola. The other front is in South Africa itself, against their own people, the uprisings in townships. So when the South Africans are thinking of the war in southern Angola, they have to keep in mind that they cannot send their entire army to southern Angola, they need to keep troops in South Africa to face the other front. And this you find in every South African assessment of the situation. But to make a long story short, the South African assessment, which I quote verbatim from a memo by General Geldenhuys, the commander in chief of the South African armed forces, to president P. W. Botha, around July 1988. He says “we have to do the utmost to avoid a major confrontation with the Cubans. If we have to have this major military confrontation we will have to use our air force knowing that it will be neutralized within a few days.”.
The South Africans are aware and are convinced that now the Cuban air force is stronger than theirs, and that their air force will be destroyed if they engage in a major war with the Cubans. Furthermore the South Africans do not have strong anti-aircraft weapons, because it never crossed their minds that they might have to fight an enemy that would have superiority in the air. So it’s a dramatic situation, made worse by the fact that the Cubans are moving south with very strong anti-aircraft defences. The South Africans admit “we can no longer fly over the Cuban troops”. And at the same time, Cuban MIG-23 planes start flying over the skies of northern Namibia. The South Africans do not respond, do not dare to challenge, and this is said openly in the South African press! You have a declaration of the South African administrator general of Namibia, Niekerk, who says “Cuban planes are flying over northern Namibia”. This creates a lot of anxiety. General Geldenhuys says exactly the same.
It seems like the main question confronting the South Africans at this time is “will the Cubans cross into Namibia or not?”
Precisely. The Americans and the South Africans could not guess what the Cubans would do. The head of the American delegation at the Cairo conference, assistant secretary of state Chester Crocker, after the plenary sessions were over, sought out Jorge Risquet, the head of the Cuban delegation. And he more or less said: “I want to know what your intentions are. Do you intend to cross into Namibia? Because your troops are very close to the border.”. And Risquet, who was a master in the art of sarcasm and a very charismatic guy, replied “I cannot give you a tranquillizer. If I told you that our troops would stop at the border, I would be giving you a tranquillizer. If I told you they would enter Namibia, I would be threatening you. I neither want to threaten you nor do I want to reassure you. The only thing I can tell you is that the only guarantee that we will not enter into Namibia is to accept our demands.”.
And the demands were: the end of South African aid to Savimbi, this criminal they were supporting, and free elections in Namibia under UN supervision. This was something the South Africans absolutely did not want to do, because they knew the SWAPO, the Namibian rebel movement, would win. Every South African and American report since the mid 1970s said that if SWAPO won elections this would be a terrible psychological blow for the apartheid regime in South Africa, because it would encourage the blacks and demoralize the whites (2). But confronted with the threat that the Cubans might enter into Namibia, and the superiority of the Cuban air force, the South Africans surrendered, and in December 1988 in New York, they signed an agreement whereby they agreed to these free elections in Namibia and to end all assistance to Savimbi. So going back to your point, when Nelson Mandela talks about Cuito Cuanavale, he doesn’t mean, I think, just the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, but the campaign as a whole.
Let us now switch to the other component you mentioned of the Cuban foreign policy – humanitarian aid. What are the main components of this policy?
Well, the main components are very simple, we can do it quickly. One is that during the Cold War, about 30.000 Cuban aid workers went to Africa, with all expenses paid by the Cuban government (3). They went where there was war and where there was peace. What I mean is this: you had a war in Portuguese Guinea between 1966 and 1974. Over 90% of the doctors with the guerrillas in Guinea-Bissau were Cuban doctors. There were no other foreign doctors, and there were very few Guinean doctors. Amílcar Cabral, the leader of the guerrilla, had a policy of sending newly graduated doctors, who had studied in Eastern Europe for example, to do specialized courses, building for the future. But in the meantime it was the Cuban doctors who assured healthcare for the guerrillas, risking their lives. The flag bearers of Cuban humanitarian assistance were doctors, teachers, construction workers. And if you want to make a quick comparison with the American Peace Corps, the Cuban “Peace Corps” was of a much higher level, because the US Peace Corps are kids, while the Cubans sent first rate doctors. To give you an example of the significance of this aid, take the town of Benguela in Angola in 1987-88. It is a large town, it had about 300.000 people by then. Well, there were 2 Angolan doctors. One of them was the director of the hospital, who was just busy in administrative duties. There was a small Soviet medical mission, which included 4 doctors, and there was a Cuban medical mission of about 25 members. Of these, 12 were doctors. So you can see what it means.
Cuba was also known for taking in students from Africa and Latin America and providing them with education and training…
Let me give you another example. In May 1978 there was a South African airborne attack against Cassinga. Cassinga was a Namibian refugee camp in Angola about 300km north of the Namibian border. The South Africans attacked and there was a small Cuban camp with some troops 20km south of Cassinga. And the Cubans advanced to help the refugees. A South African historian of the apartheid period, Steenkamp, wrote in a book he published in 1983, that the South African soldiers who were at Cassinga still marvel at the heroism of the Cuban soldiers who advanced on Cassinga even though they were defenceless against South African air attacks. This is an historian of the apartheid saying it. Now, when the Cubans arrived the South Africans fled and the Cubans saved the refugees. Many of these were children, and a few weeks later 600 children from Cassinga were taken to Cuba, to grow up and study. I was in Havana on the day of the armed forces in 2005 or 2006 and the Namibian ambassador spoke. She started her speech by saying “I am alive because of the Cuban soldiers”, as she had been wounded by the South African soldiers at Cassinga. And there are lots of other stories, when I went to Namibia I could find one survivor after another. When I was there I interviewed a woman, a General, who was the head of the medical services of the Namibian army. We started the interview in English, and I had the feeling the interview was a little stilted, her English seemed to me a little stilted. Then I said “listen, how about if we speak Spanish?”. My Spanish is virtually perfect, but hers was even better than mine, tinged with a light Cuban accent! She was a survivor of Cassinga. She was taken to Cuba, studied in Cuban schools, graduated from high school, then went to the university to study medicine, she became a doctor, and then she went back to Namibia. Recalling the Cassinga attack, she told me that when she opened her eyes and saw a white soldier near her, she froze. Because she thought the whites were South Africans, and the South Africans were bad. But it was a Cuban soldier. The Cubans had come to save them. This is the Cubans in Africa!
The Cubans took about 30.000 Africans who studied in Cuba during the Cold War. Some beginning in primary school, all the way to the university. This is the other main component of Cuban humanitarian aid. Let me tell you another story. I was once in Conakry (Guinea) with a Cuban friend, Victor Dreke, and he had to go to the ministry of agriculture. I went with him because I had nothing else to do. And in the ministry of agriculture there were a lot of people who were talking to him in Spanish! I said, “Victor, what’s going on? Here they speak French.”. And he laughed and said “Yes, but they are graduates from the Faculty of Agronomy of Cuba!”.
After the demise of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, Cuba lived through very hard times. How were these humanitarian programs affected?
What happened was the following. The Cuban government made a decision, which was that they were not going to accept any more scholarship students, they could not afford to pay for the studies of Africans and Latin Americans in Cuba. But those who were in Cuba would be allowed to finish their studies. The would share the same food and live in exactly the same conditions as the Cuban students, because they had a commitment to them. And they would stay until they finished. I spoke in Namibia with another doctor, who graduated in 1994. And she told me, “only people like the Cubans, only someone like Fidel Castro could have done something like this”. This was a time when the African students were being kicked out of all the countries in Eastern Europe and Russia. Cuba took this very noble position. I was once in Cuba in 1995, at a ceremony at ICAP (Institute for Friendship with the Peoples) I think, and this was for a group of African students who had finished their studies, and they were going back to their countries. And there were speeches, the usual stuff. And then for the celebration everyone received a small glass of juice and a very little pastry, very very little, but it just struck me as something so noble. This country, in the midst of a terrible economic crisis, had kept these people there.
And what about the missions abroad?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, all the Cuban missions, medical and otherwise, returned to Cuba. The only exception was a medical mission in Guinea-Bissau, because some Dutch organization paid for the most the expenses. I happened to be in Guinea-Bissau around 1996 and I met these doctors. And it was a very poignant situation, because they were not welcome. The local doctors had discovered the beauty of private practice, of charging their patients. So they didn’t like the Cuban doctors. For them it was unfair competition because the Cuban doctors didn’t charge! So these poor Cuban doctors lived in a building in the middle of nowhere, and there was a little bus that came to pick them up in the morning and to take them to work. And in the evening it would take them back to their place. But on the weekend, or whenever it was they didn’t work, no bus came to take them anywhere. They were totally abandoned there. Still they continued doing their work, and they believed in what they were doing. And they made a difference with the people they were helping.
Then of course the tide changed, and Cuba began to send medical missions again. Now they charge sometimes, but a fairly low price. I was in South Africa last week, I think there are 400 Cuban doctors there. At the same time they created something which again is very generous, the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (Latin American School of Medicine), near Havana. This is mainly for Latin American students, but there are also some students from Africa, and all the expenses are paid by Cuba. And many of the students they select are people from very poor backgrounds, for instance Guatemalans. The Cuban hope is that they are creating a new kind of doctor, as they have largely succeeded in doing so in Cuba. This is someone who sees being a doctor as a social mission, whose main focus is not making money, like for instance American doctors. You go to an American doctor, there is a dollar sign immediately in his eyes! But create doctors who would really care about their patients. In some cases it will fail, but in others it will succeed. And in theory this is the pledge of the students, that they will go where the poor people are.
You talked about these Cubans living in very tough conditions, but the people in these missions are volunteers. How do you get these people to volunteer to go to these conditions so far away from home?
Look, there is a very nice report of the CIA from the 1980s, talking about this humanitarian assistance, that more or less said “this is a new generation of Cubans, who have grown under Fidel Castro, and who have a different conception. They are internationalists, they are committed, there is this strong element.” Let me give you an example. I met a Cuban doctor in Benguela in 1988, and we sympathized, we had a good relationship. At a certain point I asked her if she kept a diary or something. She laughed and told me “my letters to my mother were my diary”. She loaned me about one year’s worth of letters, I could photocopy them, about 227 pages. She was not a member of the Communist Party by the way, but you could see this sense of commitment, this desire to help. Of course there are tough moments, moments of frustration and of course not everyone is a hero. Some volunteer because they know this looks good, or because there is a social pressure from family or neighbours to do this. But there is in many a very sincere commitment, which is recognized even by the CIA – “This is a new generation of Cubans, it’s the Cubans of Fidel Castro!”.
And do you feel this continues to this day?
Yes. I’m sure that things have changed to some degree, because the special period and hardships have taken a toll. I have a friend for instance, who is a doctor, anaesthesiologist, and she was in Venezuela for 3 years. And there is no question that there was a financial consideration, as they a receive a little stipend in dollars, which she used when she needed, but there was also a strong commitment. This element remains present. In the period of the Cold War, you had only that element, of doing your international duty, because you had no material benefit as such. You know something very beautiful about this? Imagine a surgeon and a carpenter go to Angola. While they are there the Cuban government pays their salaries in Cuba, whether to the families or to their bank accounts. Let’s say the surgeon will get 400 pesos and the carpenter will get 150 pesos. But in Angola, they all share exactly the same conditions. They receive exactly the same small stipend, to buy something, from the Cuban government, because they don’t receive anything from the Angolans! If you are a carpenter or if you are a surgeon, it makes absolutely no difference.
To finish, let’s look back at relationship with the U.S.. You have called U.S. policy towards Cuba as just a “desire for revenge”. And recently there were these declarations by president-elect Trump after Fidel’s passing. How do you think the relation between Cuba and the U.S. is going to evolve?
Well, obviously I don’t think there will be any progress. And you know, if Hillary had come to power there might have been a slow progress, but nothing dramatic. I don’t think Trump will break relations with Cuba, although right now they have that stupid rhetoric that “Obama established relations with Cuba receiving nothing in return, now we want something in return, or else!” I mean, what Obama did was to recognise that American policy had failed utterly, and top of that it was a moral turpitude. And the Cubans owe them nothing in return, absolutely nothing. And I don’t think the Cubans will concede anything in return to Trump either. I would be surprised if Donald Trump broke relations with Cuba, but I was someone who believed Trump would never win the election! So my predictions in what concerns Donald Trump are totally worthless. What is important is this: that the American people are so ignorant that they don’t realise the crimes that the United States has perpetrated against Cuba. And they really think that the U.S. is the victim of Cuban aggression!
Cover photo: Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela during Mandela’s 1991 visit to Cuba. It was one of his first visits abroad after being released from prison (source: Cubadebate)
(1) Piero Gleijeses is a professor of United States foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He is an expert in Cuban foreign policy, particularly in Africa. His work on the subject includes the following books:
– The Cuban Drumbeat: Castro’s Worldview (Seagull Books, 2009)
– Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959–1976 (UNC Press, 2002)
(2) This prediction was indeed very accurate. In 1990 negotiations between the South African government and the ANC began, and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994.
(3) Taking into account Cuban missions in Latin America and Asia as well, this number rises to 70.000 (The Cuban Drumbeat).