Cuba, An African Odyssey (Cuba, une odyssée africaine)

by Cynthia Fuchs

11 July 2011

El-Tahri's fascinating documentary traces the complicated history of Cuban efforts to help African independence movements during the Cold War.
Poster of President Agostinho Neto and Fidel Castro after Angolan independence celebration. 

A Test of Manhood

Cuba, An African Odyssey (Cuba, une odyssée africaine)

Director: Jihan El-Tahri
Cast: Jihan El-Tahri (narrator)

Global Voices: 10 Jul 2010

I had some people who were, shall we say, in contact with the rebels, and working with them part of the time and part of the time against them.
—Larry Devlin, CIA Station Chief in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1960-1963

“Cuba was living proof that David could beat Goliath,” narrates Jihan El-Tahri at the start of Cuba, An African Odyssey (Cuba, une odyssée africaine). And as such, the tiny nation became an emblem—for others seeking liberation from colonial rule, for world powers seeking to confirm or expand their status, and for Cubans themselves, imagining themselves a bold, maybe not so new paradigm for independence.

El-Tahri’s fascinating documentary, produced in 2007 with the French-German television network Arte and premiering in two parts on ITVS’ Global Voices this month, traces the complicated history of Cuban efforts to help African independence movements during the Cold War. From Congo to Angola, Africans were rising up against colonial powers, and many rebels saw the Cuban Revolution, and Fulgencio Batista’s ouster in 1959, as a model. As Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were also feeling the effects of their success, they designed to help spread the movement to other oppressed peoples. “Humanity has said, ‘Enough, and has set itself in motion,” Che pronounces as he makes a case for Congo’s struggle. “Its giant steps will not stop until they lead to true independence.”

In this and other instances, the film pieces together archived speeches and battle footage, along with interviews with participants, including the CIA’s Station Chief in the Congo when Patrice Lumumbo was assassinated in 1961, former South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha, Vladimir Shubin, Director of African Development for the Politburo during this period, and Victor Dreke, commander of Cuba’s Congo mission. The range of interviewees is impressive in itself, as each man submits pieces of a very large puzzle. Their stories suggest that operations on all sides were frequently brutal and calculating, but were also sometimes haphazard, bumbling, and even surprising.

Stories of the clumsy and illicit jockeying for positions by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during this period are well known by now (CIA schemes to use poisoned toothpaste to kill Castro or Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba, for instance). Cuba, An African Odyssey looks at some specific contexts for these ambitions, as well as their outcomes. While the U.S. sought access to natural resources (both Devlin and Herman Cohen, then the National Security Council’s Africa Director, submit that cobalt, available only in the Soviet Union and Congo, was a primary American objective at the time), the Soviets were apparently dedicated to spreading Communism—and so their own material influence—in Africa (Karen N. Brutens, Director of the Politburo’s Foreign Policy Department, says flatly, “The Third World was a hunting ground, if you like”).

According to the film, Castro and Che were more focused on broad ideals, like helping “local liberation movements” overthrow their white oppressors. At first, the film observes, the Cubans had broad outlines of a plan, if not specific strategies: “Che knew revolutionaries [across the world] had to create at least two or three Vietnams, to keep their common enemy occupied on different fronts.” How Cuba might achieve this end was uncertain. Che’s Cuban Expedition, the nation’s first military overseas mission, trained rebels to fight Joseph Mobutu’s army, after Lumumba’s assassination.

Fidel Castro with Angolan President Agostinho Neto in Havana.

Fidel Castro with Angolan President Agostinho Neto in Havana.

The mission involved some poor planning, underestimation of resources, and ridiculous efforts to disguise the Cubans (Erasmo Vidiaux, here captioned as an “internationalist fighter,” remembers that he and the other men were dressed in wholesale suits that all looked alike, and so, he sighs, “We attracted attention”). As Mobutu’s forces, armed by the U.S., began bombing the area where it was rumored Che might be hiding—and Che refused to leave, despite entreaties by his African comrades, the Congolese became worried. “We had to pray that Che wouldn’t die on Congolese soil,” remembers Placide Kitungwa. “If that happened, we’d be condemned by revolutionaries the world over. We’d be cursed to high heaven.”

The concern speaks to the sorting out that had to be done, by Cuba and emerging African nations, of their places in the world and specifically, their relations with one another. If they were largely unable to present the united front Castro hoped for, or even to realize principles, however naïve or abstract. “We were socialists,” says Jorge Risquet, head of Cuban military mission in Angola. “We didn’t like the Chinese or the Russians telling us what to do. We believe that each country should be run by its own people.” Indeed, Cuba was finding its footing on the world stage, coming to understand its own influence, as an idea as much as a physical and economic force—working with, using, and apart from the Soviets. This even as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. sought various routing mechanisms for their own influences, usually funding rebellions and military expeditions through other African countries, complicating already volatile political and economic transcontinental relations.

The film looks at two particular instances, in Guinea-Bissau, where Cuba supported the PAIGC movement, led by Amílcar Cabral, which won independence from Portugal, and in Angola. Here Cuba supported the MPLA, led by António Agostinho Neto, as it fought against two other rebel movements, the FNLA and UNITA, both supported by the U.S. in considering the various ways that both the Soviets and the U.S. got their own parts wrong, Cuba, An African Odyssey offers some choice observations, including that of the State Department’s Chas Freeman regarding UNITA’s founder, Jonas Savimbi. He was, “like most of Africa, woefully misunderstood by American politicians,” srgues Freeman. “For many Americans, Africa was the land of Tarzan or Shaka Zulu or some other romantic preposterous figure. And Savimbi fit into that category. For the right wing, he was a sort of Robin Hood for the left wing, he was a diabolical monster.”

This sort of emotional and ideological investment led both the U.S. and the Soviet Union to overreach, miscalculate, and end up in bed with “preposterous figures,” including Botha. When South African troops were used to quell the Angolan rebellion, Botha ended up at the negotiating table with Chester Crocker, U.S. Undersecretary of State for African Affairs, and Risquet. When the latter - puffing on a Cuban cigar and thus “making the air heavy for some of the nonsmokers”—characterized the South Africans as imperialists and racists, Botha and his team were mortally offended “It was a meeting almost of emotional hatred,” he says now). Crocker looks back on the meeting with something like amusement, noting the displays of testosterone on all sides (except his own, of course): “It was basically a test of manhood,” he proposes.

The same might be said of much of Cold War. As Africa proved a “hunting ground” or a remarkably vast and elusive site for the superpowers’ testing of their resolves, spreading ideologies, and consolidating powers, Cuba remains, in this telling, a player with something to prove as well as a variable threat. In illuminating Cuba’s efforts in Africa, the documentary underlines some little known complications and also helps to unravel some lingering myths.

Cuba, An African Odyssey (Cuba, une odyssée africaine)


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