Cuba, Fidel Castro and Liberation of Africa

Mandela with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro Late South African President Nelson Mandela with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro[/caption] My hope for the legacy of Barack Obama’s presidency was dashed in 2012 when Obama launched what he called New Alliance for Food and Nutrition (NAFSN), a new program designed to feed Africa in a decade. NAFSN has been criticized for many reasons but its core crime was to open the door for American agribusiness corporations to enter Africa and to sanction the entry of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the continent. Obama was dishonest to the extent that he did this without mentioning the dangers inherent in GMOs and the controversy surrounding them in the US and around the world. Thawing of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US as announced on December 17, 2014 was a redeeming move because it is a wise gesture for all concerned. It was an act of good leadership that gives the Obama’s presidency a human face. Cuba and Fidel Castrol entered the world stage with a bang in October 1962. It was at that time that the US and the Soviet Union, then the uncontested global superpowers, stared at each other eyeball-to-eyeball with fingers on the buttons of their nuclear weapons. This is what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The showdown started when American spy planes discovered that the Russians were installing in Cuba nuclear missiles capable of striking mainland USA. To stop the venture, Americans resolved to stop and inspect Soviet vessels on the high seas if they were destined for Cuba. Before the dust finally settled, it was mankind who came to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. Was Cuba’s overzealous in inviting installation of nuclear weapons a mere ninety miles from Florida? To fair-minded critics it did not seem so. After all, Americans had nuclear bases in Turkey, within a striking distance of the USSR. Additionally, the weapons in Cuba were never intended to be used; they were meant to be mere deterrents to the mightier and provocative USA. The logic of ‘nuclear deterrents’ was commonplace among the nuclear nations of that time. Did Cuba need deterrence? It was US President Dwight Eisenhower who initially severed US-Cuba diplomatic relations in January 1961, two years after Fidel Castro took power. When John Kennedy became president shortly thereafter, he tightened tighter the screws on little Cuba. After all, the Cuban government had moved closer to a one-party communist state and had nationalized US assets on the island. It is no surprise that months after coming to power, JFK approved a CIA paramilitary initiative intended to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. The JFK-approved venture, known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, went terribly wrong and was indeed classified as one of the greatest military disasters of modern history. Many of the invaders were killed at sea and more than 1,300 CIA mercenaries were captured and imprisoned. From that point Cuba became a flash point, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. In that context, Cuba and Fidel Castro earned the dubious distinction of being the main actors on the stage that brought the world closest to an all-out nuclear holocaust. By introducing nuclear weapons in the Western Hemisphere was Cuba being provocative to the US? To objective sympathizers, the answer to this question was negative. In Castro’s view, the attempt to bring nuclear weapons to Cuba was a matter of survival for him and his regime. After all, American sustained provocative intrusions into his country’s affairs were unrelenting and had made deterrence essential. Indeed, a case can be made that since the 1959 Cuban Revolution until about a month ago, American foreign policy to Cuba has been unduly hostile. The US can brag of having imposed ruthless and longest ever economic sanctions on a small island of less than 12 million people. In addition, there have been hundreds of confirmed assassination attempts on the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, by the USA. What prompts such irrational and extreme behavior? Is the US alarmed by positive ‘demonstration effects’ of the Cuban socialist ideology? What accounts for this inhumane instance of the Cuban tail wagging the American dog? [caption id="attachment_15187" align="alignright" width="194"]Prof James N. Kariuki Prof James N. Kariuki[/caption] During the 1979 Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Havana, I personally witnessed the practical impact of the Cuban socialist ideology that so concerned the USA. On the streets of Havana there were makeshift healthcare shacks, including dental clinics, offering free medical services to the public for those who needed it. The US is still struggling to devise a universally acceptable health care coverage for its citizens. I do not speak Spanish, Cuba’s national language, but the sense of dignified affirmation was unmistakable among the ordinary Cubans. I remember clearly one black policewoman directing heavy rush-hour traffic of Havana. Unwittingly, her body language told it all. She knew that she was somebody, a Cuban by right and Cuba was her country. Subtly but unequivocally, she was affirmed; she knew that the color of her skin was not held against her. The sense of insecurity, alienation and corresponding defiance, commonplace among the Blacks of North America was conspicuously non-existent here. Absence of crime in Havana was startling. Obviously the security of foreign delegates to the Havana Summit was critically important to the Cuban authorities. Yet, we were not assigned protection, armed or unarmed, on the streets of Havana or elsewhere. And no place was no-go zone for us at any time, day or night. Amid all this, I kept remembering that Cuba was the only country in the world that exported medical doctors as an official state policy. By all external indications, the Cuban socialist system was not so bad after all; it seemed to work for the Cubans. Should they have dropped it just to suit the whims of the USA? The impact of the Cuban Revolution on the entire society is obvious. During the regime of Fulgencio Batista who was overthrown by Fidel Castro, Cubans suffered from abject poverty, had scant access to education, healthcare and dignified jobs. In addition the Batista regime ruled with an iron fist. It was known for brutal and arbitrary arrests, torture and rampant executions. Corruption was commonplace and Batista was well connected to the US mafia. He was a major beneficiary of American-ran rich hotels and casinos in Havana. Contemporary Cuba enjoys identical life expectancy as the US and has lower infant mortality. Cuba’s literacy rates are some of the highest in the world; the US is 21st. Cuba has one of the best disaster response medical systems anywhere. It has recently sent 250 doctors to West Africa to combat Ebola. All this has occurred despite the American-imposed economic embargo. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, Cubans indeed offered to send 1, 500 Cuban doctors to assist. The George W. Bush administration was too embarrassed to respond. Relative to Global Africa, Cuba’s foreign policy has been guided by two convictions. First, that Cuba’s liberation from Spain in the 19th century needed and got active cooperation of Afro-Cubans. Second, the Cuban society is what it is today because of inputs of Afro-Cubans. They injected vital elements into the Cuban way of life. For these reasons, the Castro leadership felt a profound sense of indebtedness to contemporary Africa. On Nelson Mandela’s 1994 inauguration day as the first democratically elected President of South Africa, Fidel Castro was the guest of honor at the ceremony and one of only four heads of state who spoke. On that occasion, Mandela gave Castro a big bear hug and whispered to his ear, “We owe this day to you.” These were words of profound gratitude and deep affection. Was Mandela overstating his case? In 1987-1988 Cuban, along with Angolan MPLA forces, engaged apartheid South African troops for 137 days in southern Angola, ultimately driving them back to Namibia. Though not entirely crushed, the apartheid war machine was profoundly humiliated by the defeats in Cuito Cuanavale. The myth of invisibility of the white military might in Southern Africa was forever shattered. The Cuban triumphs so embarrassed and shocked the apartheid regime that its eventual liquidation was a matter of time. Various sources have indicated that the Cuito Cuanavale military confrontation was important enough to the apartheid regime that use of nuclear weapons was considered. In a 2007 autobiography, Fidel Castro: My Life, the Cuban icon revealed that he was aware of the nuclear factor in the Angolan confrontation. As he stated, “for Angola’s freedom, Cuban and Angolan troops fought against an apartheid army and government that had eight Hiroshima/Nagasaki-size atomic bombs secretly provided by the US through … Israel.” The political fallout of the Cuito Cuanavale military encounters was indeed far-reaching. With South Africa’s intrusions out of the way, Angola was able to focus on consolidating its independence. The way for Namibia’s independence was also paved. Equally critical, military action inside South Africa itself was intensified. These and other pressures hurried the post-apartheid days for South Africa and its white supremacists allies in Southern Africa. It is against this background also that Nelson Mandela was released. Meanwhile the West continued to see the world through the lenses of the Cold War. The ANC was classified as a terrorist organization and, accordingly, Western support went unhindered to the apartheid regime. On the other hand, Cuban support to the African cause proceeded without reservation. As Fidel Castro has noted, Cuba had staked everything, including the existence of its own Revolution in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. Meanwhile, both US President Ronald Reagan and British Margaret Thatcher made no bones about branding Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. This dubious distinction was sustained until 2008. All that time Mandela’s visa to enter the US, even as president of South Africa, had to be approved by the US Secretary of State, personally. Yes, Mandela meant every word that he whispered to Castro’s ear in 1994, that he had played a pivotal role in his nation’s liberation. And all that Cuba expected in return was for its soldiers to be allowed to “bring home the remains of their dead.” *James N. Kariuki is a Kenyan Professor of International Relations (Emeritus), now an independent writer based in South Africa. He was a professional and personal friend of Professor Ali Mazrui. He runs the blog Global Africa]]>

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  1. Prof. Kariuki, thank you for bringing this message of historical importance to our notice. Such roles are important history that every African must know. Oftentimes, we forget the pivotal roles played by other people in our quests. Africa in general owe Fidel Castro and his country a huge gratitude.

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