The Cuban Army Abroad – Fidel Castro’s Foreign Cold Warriors

A Cuban tank crew in Angola in 1987. Tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers fought in that country's civil war during the 1970s and 80s.

A Cuban tank crew in Angola in 1987. Tens of thousands of Castro’s soldiers fought in that country’s civil war during the 1970s and 80s.

“Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, Castro was only too eager to export revolution to the Third World. Often this support even came in the form of combat troops to lend a hand to various Marxist uprisings.”

AMERICA WAS STILL REELING from its humiliation in Vietnam in 1976 when hawks in the administration of President Gerald Ford were pushing for the United States to enter yet another war — this one much closer to home.

According to documents recently released by the National Security Archive and reported in The New York Times, U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger urged the 38th president to order a massive bombing campaign against Cuba. The air strikes were to be followed by an assault on the island nation using American ground forces including Marines stationed at Guantanamo Bay. The proposed hostilities came amid Havana’s brazen deployment of thousands of combat troops to the ongoing civil war in Angola.

In late 1975, as many as 5,000 Cuban army personnel had been airlifted to the African hotspot to support the leftist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) as it vied for control of the war torn region — the U.S. and South Africa had been backing the opposition UNITA faction and the right wing National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA) for years.

Kissinger was outraged by Havana’s sudden involvement in the smouldering Cold War hotspot. He blasted Fidel Castro for squandering the progress gained through years of secret bi-lateral negotiations aimed improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. In fact, documents reveal that the American foreign secretary was “apoplectic” over the communist deployment. He called Castro a “pipsqueak” and demanded that Ford use air power to “clobber” the country’s military infrastructure.[1]

Facing an election in November, Ford balked at the prospect of war with Cuba, but the entire episode highlights Washington’s disquiet over Havana’s often-forgotten foreign military adventures.

Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s, Castro was only too eager to export revolution to the Third World. Often this support even came in the form of combat troops to lend a hand to various Marxist uprisings. Here are some examples of Cuba’s foreign wars.

Che Guevara seen here in the Congo.

Che Guevara seen here in the Congo in 1965.

The Congo

While Havana had ordered military advisors into Africa as early as 1961, communist Cuba’s first sizeable international military foray was its involvement in the Congo Crisis. In 1965, Castro dispatched his favourite lieutenant, Che Guevara, with a team of a dozen crack revolutionaries to the war-torn former Belgian colony. The unit’s mission was to train and lead a grassroots insurgency against the western-backed strongman Mobutu Sese Seko. Within months, the guerrilla movement was in a shambles and Che, his body ravaged by tropical diseases, abandoned the campaign and returned to Cuba in despair. It was an inauspicious start to more than 20 years of foreign military intervention.

Bolivia

Two years later, Guevara and a handful of Cuban revolutionaries took part in yet another off-shore insurgency, this time against the Washington-backed Bolivian government of President René Barrientos. In 1967, a force of 17 commandos, along with several dozen local revolutionaries ran a six-month hit-and-run campaign against federal troops in the country’s rugged interior. By October, national army units under the direction of the CIA (and with the help of the notorious Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie), surrounded the guerrilla encampment and captured Guevara in a brief firefight. The famous revolutionary was interrogated and then promptly executed. It was the end of Che, but not of Cuba’s foreign wars.

Castro visits Vietnam.

Castro visits Vietnam.

Vietnam

According to a 2013 story on MilitaryHistoryNow.com, Cuba never has formally confirmed its participation in the Vietnam conflict. Yet despite the denials, several thousand military engineers are believed to have been sent to Southeast Asia to aid the Hanoi war effort. In addition, advisors from Havana are suspected to have taken part in the interrogation of at least 19 captured U.S. fliers. In fact, their supposedly brutal methods have since been dubbed “the Cuban Program”. Castro himself visited Quang Tri province in South Vietnam shortly after it fell to the communists in 1972.

Hundreds of Cuban tank crews took part in the 1973 Arab Israel War.

Hundreds of Cuban tank crews took part in the 1973 Arab Israel War.

The Middle East

Cuba also joined the multinational effort to aid Syria and Egypt in their 1973 surprise invasion of Israel. Havana dispatched as many as 4,000 combat troops along with tank commanders and helicopter crews to the region to take part in the three-week conflict. [2] Cuban personnel are believed to have even participated in combat operations against the Israeli army while stationed in the Middle East. Other contributors to the war included Iraq, Morocco, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and even North Korea.

Somalia vs. Ethiopia

Four years later, Cuban troops were in east Africa, this time to take part in one of the most bizarre dust-ups of the Cold War. Following the outbreak of hostilities between Ethiopia and Somalia in 1977 over the disputed Ogaden region, Havana dispatched 15,000 troops, along with armoured vehicles, helicopters and even artillery to shore up Addis Ababa’s Derg regime. Ethiopia’s ruling party, a one-time U.S. ally, had just turned its back on Washington and announced it had zealously embraced Marxism. Meanwhile, the pro-Moscow government of Mohamed Siad Barre in Mogadishu renounced communism, severed its ties with the Soviets and became an ally of the United States. As the fighting raged between these ideologically flexible foes, Cuban troops suddenly found themselves in the thick of the action repelling a Somali offensives and mounting full-scale combat operations of their own. Castro’s forces were soon joined by Soviet combat advisors and even military personnel from East Germany. The fighting ended when Somali troops withdrew from Ogaden in 1978.

Cuban MiG-23 warplanes performed airstrikes against South African forces in Namibia during the 1987 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

Cuban MiG-23 warplanes performed airstrikes against South African forces in Namibia during the 1987 Battle of Cuito Cuanavale.

The Battle of Cuito Cuanvale

More than a decade after sending its first combat troops to Angola, Cuba returned to southwest Africa with a vengeance. The crisis, known as the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, began in the summer of 1987 with an assault by Soviet-equipped national army troops against anti-communist UNITA forces in the country’s south. Soon, South African forces invaded to support the beleaguered U.S.-backed faction and the Angolan offensive stalled. Acting independently from Moscow, Havana reinforced its African ally with a surge of 15,000 combat troops, tanks, artillery and even MiG-23 fighter-bombers. Over the next six months, Cuban troop levels in Angola topped 55,000 [3]. The fighting, which featured some of the most intense conventional combat seen on the continent since the Second World War North African campaign, soon spread to neighbouring Namibia. Cuban troops and warplanes hammered South African forces prompting Pretoria to call up more than 140,000 reservists [4]. By the spring of 1988, both sides had suffered heavy casualties and were ready for peace talks. Negotiations continued throughout the summer and a peace treaty was signed in September of 1988. Within two years, the Cold War was over and Cuba’s foreign policy shifted away from military intervention. All told, as many as 5,000 Cuban troops died in Angola during the 1970s and 80s. [5]

(Originally published on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Oct. 8, 2014)

18 comments for “The Cuban Army Abroad – Fidel Castro’s Foreign Cold Warriors

  1. Alex E
    8 October, 2014 at 11:40 am

    Cuito Cuanavale was not “the bloodiest combat seen on the continent since the Second World War North African campaign”. It is generally acknowledged to have been the biggest armoured battle in Africa since WWII but the death toll was not particularly high by the standards of African wars.

    • Razak
      27 January, 2017 at 11:23 am

      I find it difficult to believe that Cuba contributed to Namibia’s independence and eventually the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, Where was the United States Of America the beacon of democratic values? Will some one explain to me what exactly happened?

  2. admin
    8 October, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    It’s a fair point… “bloodiest” isn’t the right word. I revised it to say ‘the most intense fighting’, which is probably more accurate. But tens of thousands of troops engaged in conventional warfare, with air support — there was certainly nothing of that magnitude being fought on African soil since 1943 (unless of course we could the Sinai as Africa).

  3. Alex E
    8 October, 2014 at 4:58 pm

    Thanks, that’s about the size of it.

    • admin
      8 October, 2014 at 5:07 pm

      Thanks for contributing!

  4. Veritas
    29 January, 2016 at 12:11 am

    The general haplessness of the Cuban air force and army was demonstrated in Angola where the SAF outfought it despite heavy odds. The Cubans were unable to cope with irregular forces and employed their troops in a conventional mode near roads, allowing them to be ambushed with alarming frequency.

    Although the SAF increased its forces in response to Cuban involveement in southern Africa, I doubt their increase in forces totalled an additional 140,000 troops. This would have involved a major mobilization on their part, one that would have had a significant impact on their economy. I wonder if you would cite your source for this. I was in Southern Africa during this timeframe.

    • 29 January, 2016 at 8:52 am

      Why are not writing for us????

    • Razak
      27 January, 2017 at 11:37 am

      Thank you for your article Veritas, but I find hard to believe that Apartheid South Africa had an upper hand, if so why could they not sent up DR Jonas Savimbi of Unita as the president of Angola?

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