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But the Cubans had reversed the situation on the ground, and when Pik Botha voiced the South African demands, Jorge Risquet, who headed the Cuban delegation, fell on him like a ton of bricks: "The time for your military adventures, for the acts of aggression that you have pursued with impunity, for your massacres of black refugees ... is over." South Africa, he said, was acting as though it was "a victorious army, rather than what it really is: a defeated aggressor that is withdrawing ... South Africa must face the fact that it will not obtain at the negotiating table what it could not achieve on the battlefield."[4]

As the talks ended, Crocker cabled Secretary of State George Shultz that they had taken place "against the backdrop of increasing military tension surrounding the large build-up of heavily armed Cuban troops in south-west Angola in close proximity to the Namibian border ... The Cuban build-up in southwest Angola has created an unpredictable military dynamic."[5]

The burning question was: Would the Cubans stop at the border? To answer this question, Crocker sought out Risquet: "Does Cuba intend to halt its troops at the border between Namibia and Angola?" Risquet replied, "If I told you that the troops will not stop, it would be a threat. If I told you that they will stop, I would be giving you a Meprobamato [a Cuban tranquilliser]. ... and I want to neither threaten nor reassure you ... What I can say is that the only way to guarantee [that our troops stop at the border] would be to reach an agreement [on Namibia's independence]."[6]

The next day, June 27 1988, Cuban MIGs attacked SADF positions near the Calueque dam, 11km north of the Namibian border. The CIA reported that "Cuba's successful use of air power and the apparent weakness of Pretoria's air defences" highlighted the fact that Havana had achieved air superiority in southern Angola and northern Namibia. A few hours after the Cubans' successful strike, the SADF destroyed a nearby bridge over the Cunene river. They did so, the CIA surmised, "to deny Cuban and Angolan ground forces easy passage to the Namibia border and to reduce the number of positions they must defend." [7] Never had the danger of a Cuban advance into Namibia seemed more real.

The last South African soldiers left Angola on August 30, before the negotiators had even begun to discuss the timetable of the Cuban withdrawal from Angola.

Despite Washington's best efforts to stop it, Cuba changed the course of Southern African history. Even Crocker acknowledged Cuba's role when he cabled Shultz, on August 25 1988: "Reading the Cubans is yet another art form. They are prepared for both war and peace. We witness considerable tactical finesse and genuinely creative moves at the table. This occurs against the backdrop of Castro's grandiose bluster and his army's unprecedented projection of power on the ground."[8]

The Cubans' battlefield prowess and negotiating skills were instrumental in forcing South Africa to accept black Namibia's independence. Their successful defense of Cuito was the prelude for a campaign that forced the SADF out of Angola. This victory reverberated beyond Namibia.

Many authors - Malan is just the most recent example - have sought to rewrite this history, but the US and Cuban documents tell another story. It was expressed eloquently by Thenjiwe Mtintso, South Africa's ambassador to Cuba, in December 2005: "Today South Africa has many newly found friends. Yesterday these friends referred to our leaders and our combatants as terrorists and hounded us from their countries while supporting apartheid ... These very friends today want us to denounce and isolate Cuba. Our answer is very simple: it is the blood of Cuban martyrs - and not of these friends - that runs deep in the African soil and nurtures the tree of freedom in our country."

Viva Cuba Libre! Viva Africa Libre!


1. SecState to American embassy, Pretoria, Dec. 5 1987, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

2. Transcripción sobre la reunión del Comandante en Jefe con la delegación de políticos de África del Sur (Comp. Slovo), "Centro de Información de las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (CIFAR)", Havana

3. Abramowitz (Bureau of Intelligence and Research, US Department of State) to SecState, May 13 1988, FOIA

4. "Actas das Conversaçôes Quadripartidas entre a RPA, Cuba, Estados Unidos de América e a Africa do Sul realizadas no Cairo de 24-26.06.988", Archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, Havana

5. Crocker to SecState, June 26, 1988, FOIA

6. "Entrevista de Risquet con Chester Crocker, 26/6/88", ACC

7. CIA, "South Africa-Angola-Cuba", June 29, 1988, FOIA; CIA, "South Africa-Angola-Namibia", July 1, 1988, FOIA

8. Crocker to SecState, Aug. 25, 1988, FOIA

Piero Gleijeses is professor of US foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC, and the author of Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-76.

Originally appeared in Mail & Guardian.

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