Sunday, November 29, 2015

Alan Gross's Improbable Tales on 60 Minutes

In a dramatic segment on CBS News’ 60 Minutes titled “The Last Prisoner of the Cold War,” former United States Agency for International Development (USAID) subcontractor Alan Gross tells of horrifying experiences in captivity: “They threatened to hang me, they threatened to pull out my fingernails, they said I’d never see the light of day.”

Gross portrays a harrowing ordeal. He purports to have feared for his safety and his life, as if he was chained in a medieval dungeon at the whims of an arbitrary monarch. This description likely sounds credible to many Americans who view the Cuban government as their own government and media have portrayed it for the last 55 years: a totalitarian dictatorship with no respect for human rights or the rule of law.

The opportunistic Gross, who earned more than $500,000 from his work for USAID, undoubtedly understands that he could cash in on the American public's preconceptions of Cuba by dramatizing his experience there. Perhaps this occurred to Gross during his imprisonment, when he told a second cousin that "when he comes back he's going to have a big book deal." One might even venture to guess his 60 Minutes interview might be an audition for such a pay day. 

Such nightmarish conditions have certainly been documented in Cuba. Whistleblowers have described “sexual abuse by medical personnel, torture by other medical personnel, brutal beatings out of frustration, fear, and retribution … torturous shackling, positional torture” and other practices - in Guantanamo Bay, by U.S. military personnel on detainees kidnapped and held indefinitely without charges or due process. 

In the rest of Cuba, which is governed by the Revolutionary regime, such stories are virtually unheard of. Professor and author Salim Lamrani compared human rights reports among Latin American countries and found many credible accusations of torture, but for Cuba he observed: “Not a single case of torture against prisoners is noted by Amnesty International. It has to be emphasised that all of all the reports by Amnesty about the countries of Latin America, the report on Cuba is by far the least condemnatory.”

“Since the year 1959, there has not been one single case of extra-judicial execution, enforced disappearance or torture,” stated Maria Esther Reus, Minister of Justice of the Republic of Cuba, in the Cuban government’s presentation to the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review of the U.N. Human Rights Council. “The prison system constitutes an example of Cuba’s humanism. Cuba has developed programmes that are directed towards transforming prisons into schools. The goal is to ensure that human beings who have served their sentences are fully reintegrated into society.” 

While the latest Amnesty report on Cuba notes that the government has not granted permission for a visit by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Cuba is far from alone. 

The U.N. Special Rapporteur himself noted in his latest report that the U.S. government had not allowed him access to the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Additionally, he has not been granted access to visit U.S. federal and state prisons. He did not mention the Cuban government at all in the report. 

Gross's Covert Mission

Narrating the 60 Minutes segment, Scott Pelley says, “Gross was hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development. USAID is America’s charity, delivering aid all around the world. But in Cuba its mission was different. USAID asked Gross to set up independent internet connections for the Jewish community. Only five percent of Cubans were online. But bypassing government censorship was illegal.” 

Actually, according to the World Bank, 14.3 percent of Cubans had internet access in 2009  when Gross was imprisoned. This number has more than doubled over the last six years as the Cuban government has expanded internet access through programs such as public WiFi zones. Of course, this was done independently without any help from the U.S. government or subcontractors like Gross working on their behalf.

Pelley’s claim that Gross’s mission was merely to help the Jewish community in Cuba obtain internet access is easily debunked. During each of his five trips to Cuba, Gross traveled under a tourist visa and represented himself as a member of a Jewish humanitarian group, rather than an agent of the U.S. government. Jewish leaders in Cuba said they already had access to the internet, and were not aware of Gross's connections to the U.S. government.

An Associated Press investigation discovered that Gross was well aware the misrepresentation of his activities in the country put him at serious risk. The AP quotes Gross saying that "(t)his is very risky business in no uncertain terms," and "(d)etection of satellite signals will be catastrophic."

Gross’s employer, Development Alternative, Inc. (DAI), had received a $28 million contract from USAID to carry out a democracy project in 2008. Tracey Eaton writes in his Along the Malecón blog that “Gross said in court documents he was coordinating some of his activities with the Pan American Development Foundation, or PADF, another organization that had received U.S. government funds to try to hasten Cuba’s transition to democracy.” 

In a memo to DAI, Gross wrote that the "ICTs Para la Isla pilot project" was designed to "lay a practical groundwork (emphasis in original) that will facilitate and enable the better management of larger-scale and more comprehensive transition-to-democracy initiatives." Therefore, Gross's mission was clearly political, rather than humanitarian. His professed mission to help Jewish groups was merely a cover for his clandestine activities on behalf of a government whose official policy for more than half a century has been the replacement of the Revolutionary government in Cuba.

Gross was bringing into the country highly sophisticated computer equipment including satellite phones and a mobile phone chip to disguise satellite signals. Cuban law prohibits importing such equipment without legal authorization.

60 Minutes' claim that “Cuban authorities locked (Gross) up for helping its citizens get unrestricted Internet access” is at best a vast oversimplification, if not an outright fabrication. In reality, Gross was convicted under Cuba's Article 11 of Law 88, “Protection of National and Economic Independence.” 

The law stipulates imprisonment of 3 to 8 years for anyone who “directly or through a third party, receives, distributes or participates in the distribution by financial means, materials or of another nature, proceeds of the Government of the United States, its agencies, dependencies, representatives, functionaries or other private entities.”

As Lamrani points out, "(t)his severity is not unique to Cuban legislation. US law prescribes similar penalties for this type of crime. The Foreign Agents Registration Act prescribes that any un-registered agent 'who requests, collects, supplies or spends contributions, loans, money or any valuable object in his own interest' may be liable to a sentence of five years in prison."

Gross's Detainment and Treatment By Cuban Authorities

Gross was held not in a regular prison but in a military hospital for the duration of his detainmentCuban authorities not only took pains to ensure Gross was granted appropriate medical care, but were extremely accommodating to allow him time with his wife Judy.

It seems unlikely that Gross was abused or mistreated while serving his sentence. According to the Associated Press, Gross’s lawyer Jared Genser said Judy “arrived in Cuba on Sept. 5 (2012) and was allowed to visit her husband on four days, three at the military hospital and once at a guarded home near the capital. He said there is no sign that Gross is being ill-treated.” He also told the AP “(Gross) is being treated fine.” 

Gross, who suffered from arthritis, lost significant weight while held in confinement and developed a mass in his shoulder. He was treated by Cuban medical staff, and there is no evidence poor conditions contributed to his medical issues. 

New York rabbi and gastroenterologist Elie Abadie was allowed to visit Gross in the military hospital, where he determined "through the exam he personally performed and also through the extensive information supplied by the team of Cuban doctors who have attended (Gross)" that Gross was in a good state of health.

Gross petitioned to see his mother before she passed away from cancer, but as Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs official Josefina Vidal noted: “neither the Cuban penitentiary system nor the U.S. penitentiary system provide the possibility for inmates to travel abroad, no matter the reason.” The week after his mother died, Gross’s wife was allowed to visit him again in Cuba. 

The Obama Administration's Rejection of Cuba's Humanitarian Proposal

In early 2014, Gross began a hunger strike because of what he called “mistruths, deceptions, and inaction by both governments … because of the lack of any reasonable or valid effort to resolve this shameful ordeal.” He ended his hunger strike a week later, stating he would not resume his protest “when both governments show more concern for human beings and less malice toward each other.” 

Despite Gross assigning blame to both governments, there is ample evidence that the Cuban government made much more than a reasonable effort to resolve his case, while it was the U.S. government - alone - that refused do so. 

Two years earlier in 2012, the highest ranking Cuban diplomat in Washington, Jorge Bolaños, had proposed a prisoner swap of Gross for the Cuban Five (more on them shortly). Bolaños expressed his government’s desire to “find a humanitarian solution to the case on a reciprocal basis.” But the Obama administration flatly said no, and continued to unilaterally demand Gross’s release without engaging the Cuban government on their offer.

On Dec. 17, 2014, the negotiated solution that freed Gross was the exact same deal the Cuban government had proposed three years earlier. It bears repeating that this offer was on the table all along and could have been agreed to by the Obama administration at any time.

If the agreement was fair last December, why was it not fair when it was first offered three years before? The U.S. government alone holds the blame - with Obama, as the head of his administration, owning the lion’s share - for rejecting a clearly reasonable offer that resulted in Gross remaining detained unnecessarily for two and a half extra years.

Without any controversy, the U.S. government could have secured his release before he developed health complications, before his mother died, and before he began his hunger strike. The U.S. government obstinately refused, continuously, for three years to even consider a deal that later appeared to be a no-brainer for both sides. 

Faulting both governments for the delay in obtaining Gross’s release is asinine historical revisionism. It is merely an unmerited attempt to create a fictional balance based on the assumption that the U.S. government in its righteousness must be justified in its quarrels with other governments. 

The Cuban Five

One cannot discuss the case of Alan Gross without at the same time discussing the aforementioned Cuban Five, who Gross was eventually swapped for. Unlike Gross, who was acting as a mercenary assisting the U.S. government carry out covert political operations, the members of the Cuban Five were fighting a very real threat of terrorism against the Cuban people emanating from the United States. Their operation was not in any way politically subversive, and did not interfere with the U.S. government's sovereignty.

They were in Florida to infiltrate terrorist organizations and disrupt plots these groups were planning on Cuban territory. Thousands of Cubans have been killed by contra-revolutionary terrorism since 1959 by groups who enjoy safe haven inside the United States, including 73 people whose plane was blown up over the Caribbean in 1978 and an Italian man killed in a restaurant bombing in Havana in 1997. As author Stephen Kimber writes, if the roles were reversed and the Cuban Five were working for the U.S. government, they “would be American heroes.” 

The Five - as they are known in their home country - were convicted on trumped up conspiracy charges. The group's leader Gerardo Hernández was convicted on the most outrageous, unfounded charge of conspiracy to commit murder. He received two life sentences plus fifteen years. 

By any objective comparison, the conditions the Cuban Five faced in confinement were far worse than those of Gross. Each member of the Five was held in solitary confinement for 17 months prior to trial. They spent nearly three years without being able to communicate with each other or their families. The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2005 that “the depravation of liberty of these five persons” was “arbitrary.”  

Olga, the wife of René González, and Adriana, the wife of Hernández, were denied visas to visit their husbands for 10 years, until after the Cuban government allowed Judy Gross to visit her husband. The U.S. government had previously deemed the Cuban wives “a threat to the stability and national security of the United States.” 

Amnesty International stated its concern “that such a blanket or permanent bar on visits with their wives constitutes additional punishment and is contrary to international standards for the humane treatment of prisoners and states’ obligation to protect family life.” 

González, the first member of the group to be paroled, was freed after 13 years.
The three members of the Five who were released in December 2014 had spent more than 16 years each in prison. That is, more than three times longer than Gross. 

Needless to say, 60 Minutes does not make this comparison between Gross and the Cuban Five. But 60 Minutes - a standard bearer of American journalism - does achieve an important function of the American Free Press: demonizing official enemies while keeping the microscope away from one’s own government, lest any inconvenient analysis might raise doubts about their inherent superiority and benevolence.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Bad Policy, Bad Ethics: U.S. Military Bases Abroad

The thesis of anthropologist David Vine's latest book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, is taboo in American political discourse. It is a radical notion to suggest that foreign bases don't protect American interests but actively harm them. Candidates who fail to reflexively support U.S. militarism face a political land mine. Even putative leftist Bernie Sanders has refused to challenge the status quo, in which the United States has 800 foreign military bases while the rest of the world combined has 30. 

Vine makes his argument by comprehensively detailing the profligate, unsustainable spending on overseas bases, which is undertaken with little to no meaningful oversight by Congressional representatives. This spending is the main driver in perennial budget deficits. It also carries a tremendous opportunity cost. Direly needed investments in infrastructure, education and social programs are neglected at the expense of runaway military costs outside the country. 

Beyond demonstrating that military buildup overseas is inefficient and wasteful, Vine reveals a deeper societal critique that manifests itself in the country's military policy. "Force," Vine notes, "has become one of America's fundamental policy maxims." 

Rather than a noble instrument of beneficence, the U.S. military is a blunt projection of American power, radically opposed to the ideals of democracy and human rights it purports to represent. This gap between perception and reality has been cultivated for decades to serve the aims of the ruling class. 

The notion that the U.S. needs to cover the globe in military bases emerged among elite planners in the buildup to World War II. Behind this policy, which is now taken for granted, is a pathological paranoia that demands absolute American hegemony.

"Even before the United States entered World War II, Roosevelt and other leaders had started developing a vision of the world as intrinsically threatening, in which any instability and danger, no matter how small or far removed from the United States, was seen as a vital threat," Vine writes.

Immediately thereafter, the vast military buildup that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would famously label the "military-industrial complex" began. The complex that Eisenhower warned about has grown exponentially in the 50 years since, morphing into what investigative journalist Nick Turse calls the "military-industrial-technological-entertainment-academic-scientific-media-intelligence-homeland security-surveillance-national security-corporate complex."

Military spending now accounts for 54% of discretionary spending in the entire federal budget ($599 billion of $1.1 trillion). Vine calculates that overseas bases account for anywhere between $71 - $120 billion of military spending. That is to say, bases abroad cost as much as four times the amount spent on Social Security, Unemployment & Labor ($29 billion); nearly twice as much as Housing and Community ($63 billion); four times as much as Science ($30 billion); and 1.7 times as much as Education ($70 billion).

Foreign bases generate enormous corporate profits. Contracting firms like Lockheed Martin and former Halliburton subsidiary KBR spend feverishly on lobbying to keep the spigot flowing.

Yet while both factions of the business party are dedicated to austerity - with the Republican faction rabid in their zeal to curtail public spending - any discussion of cutting military spending is a non-starter in Washington.

Politicians of all stripes eagerly back anything the military asks for in order to avoid accusations of being unpatriotic and weak on security. The use of dishonest McCarthy-like rhetoric to cower the military's overseers has proved a powerful weapon in preventing critical discourse from entering the public arena.

The lack of criticism has more serious repercussions than merely wasting taxpayer dollars and allowing an outdated strategy to go unchallenged. It allows actions that would be condemned in the most severe terms if they were committed by an official enemy to be ignored and hidden in the name of "supporting the troops." 

Throughout decades of a permanent U.S. military presence abroad, the military and its personnel have committed many atrocities. Overwhelmingly, the crimes go unnoticed and the perpetrators go unpunished. Rather than a collection of isolated incidents, they comprise a pattern of human rights abuses and, in some cases, war crimes. 


Creating outposts for the U.S. military in every corner of the globe makes displacement inevitable. The problem is exacerbated by the belief that foreign lands do not actually belong to the people who inhabit them, but to the United States, which is free to exploit them as it pleases. The story of the ethnic cleansing of the Chagossians is most demonstrative of this ethos. 

In the late 1960s, U.S. Navy officials planned to remove all 2,000 inhabitants of the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. After construction on Diego began in 1971, the Navy’s top admiral said the Chagossians “absolutely must go.” The entire Chagossian population was forcibly evicted from their island and moved 1,200 miles away without any financial assistance.

Vine’s account of the ethnic cleansing of the Chagossians is horrifying: 
"With the help of U.S. Navy Seabees, British agents began the deportation process by rounding up the islanders’ pet dogs. They gassed and burned them in sealed cargo sheds as Chagossians watched in horror. Then the authorities ordered the remaining Chagossians onto overcrowded cargo ships. During the deportations, which took place in stages until May 1973, most of the Chagossians slept in the ship’s hold atop guano - bird shit. Horses stayed on deck. By the end of the five-day journey, vomit, urine, and excrement were everywhere. At least one woman miscarried. Some compare conditions to those on slave ships."
This was far from an isolated case. “Around the world, often on islands and in other isolated locations, the U.S. military long displaced indigenous groups to create bases. In most cases the displaced populations have ended up deeply impoverished, like the Chagossians and Bikinians," Vine writes.

From Panama to Guam to Puerto Rico to Okinawa to dozens of other locations across the world, the military has taken valuable land from local populations, often pushing out indigenous people in the process, without their consent and without reparations. They are enabled by the political subjugation of native peoples.

"From the military’s perspective, ongoing colonial relationships have allowed officials to ‘do what we want’ without many of the restrictions faced in the fifty states or in fully independent nations," Vine writes.

Sexual Exploitation

One of the strongest condemnations of terrorist groups like ISIS - rightly so - is that they exploit women for sex. Examination of the U.S. military's history abroad reveals a track record of similar sexual abuse of local women and girls. Vine describes cases of Army soldiers who reported coworkers buying women as sex slaves. But he also describes larger structural forces that facilitate sexual exploitation.

“Commercial sex zones have developed around U.S. bases worldwide," Vine writes. "Many look much the same, filled with liquor stores, fast-food outlets, tattoo parlors, bars and clubs, and prostitution in one form or another. The evidence is just outside the gates in places such as Baumholder and Kaiserslautern in Germany, and Kadena and Kin Town in Okinawa. Even during the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been multiple reports of brothels and sex trafficking involving U.S. troops and contractors.” 

In South Korea, Vine traces the evolution of "camptowns" from the emergence of American military bases in the 1950s. More than 150,000 local Korean women, lacking viable economic alternatives, were forced into sex work catering to American troops. They later faced severe social stigmatization and many ended up destitute.

One could argue that the U.S. military did not create these conditions but, rather, the supply emerged to meet a market demand. But bases with American troops are not a product of a free market. They are imposed without consent on communities where they dominate the local economies.

Unequal power relationships between the occupying military and the indigenous populations create the conditions for social and economic exploitation. The existence of sexual exploitation to serve U.S. military personnel abroad is directly attributable to policy decisions that create bases at the expense of alternative possibilities of independent development. 

Violent Crime

The lack of respect for the lives and bodies of indigenous people is another product of unequal power relationships between U.S. military and the people whose land they occupy. American troops abroad are often afforded impunity to injure and kill those understood to be inferior to them.

“Status of forces agreements (SOFAs) that often allow U.S. troops to escape prosecution by host nations for the crimes they commit," Vine writes. "Little known in the United States, SOFAs govern the presence of U.S. troops in most countries abroad, covering everything from taxation to driving permits to what happens if a GI breaks the host country’s laws.” 

There is a long history on the Japanese island of Okinawa of the local population suffering violent crime at the hands of the American military. Military personnel in Okinawa have kidnapped, raped, murdered and killed women and girls. Vine says that during the Vietnam War, soldiers on leave or stationed at Okinawa killed at least 17 women, many of whom worked at bars or saunas. 

“Between 1959 and 1964, at least four Okinawans were shot and killed as the result of what military officials said were hunting accidents or stray bullets from training," Vine writes. "Between 1962 and 1968, there were at least four more crashes and accidents involving military aircraft, leaving at least eight dead and twelve injured. At least fourteen people died after being hit by U.S. military vehicles, including a four-year-old killed by a crane.” 

These crimes carried out directly by U.S. personnel are suffered by powerless populations who have no recourse to obtain justice. Even their narratives are covered up and ignored.

Vine's study presents a much needed corrective to the nationalist narrative the American state, its public and its media would like to believe. If it is not enough to at least bring military policy into mainstream discourse, where it belongs, there will be little hope for the political system the military has come to dominate - or for the millions of people outside U.S. borders who continue to suffer its effects.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Cuba's Operation Carlota 40 Years Later

Fidel Castro with Angolan President Agostinho Neto,
Luanda, March 1977
After 40 years, Republic of Guinea native Alpha Diallo still remembers the emotion he felt as a 20-year-old college student in Cuba when he made a decision that would change his life. The Cuban government had just decided to send troops to Angola to fight the invading South African army, which had crossed the border into Angola several weeks earlier on Oct. 23, 1975. Diallo, who had come from western Africa to Havana on scholarship two years earlier to study agricultural engineering, attended a rally of 800,000 people in the Plaza of the Revolution as Fidel Castro announced the military mission to support the anti-colonial Angolan movement and fight apartheid. 

"I followed Fidel's speech and it was compelling. Among the Guineans, 15 of us decided to give up our studies to go fight," Diallo recalled recently in a phone interview from his home in Washington D.C. "We were so impressed and we were excited to go."

Diallo said that as Africans, he and the other students felt a special obligation to help the Cubans fight for the liberation of other African countries. Since the early 1960s, Cuba had provided crucial support to movements throughout Africa seeking to free themselves from colonialism. 

In Guinea-Bissau, Cuba had provided military instructors and doctors, enabling the rebels to gain their independence from Portugal two years earlier. After the Portuguese dictatorship fell in 1974 and Portugal prepared to grant Angola independence on Nov. 11, 1975, three local movements fought to take power. 

The largest rebel group with the most popular support was the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). They had gained a decisive advantage internally and were poised to take control of the government. The MPLA was providing critical training and safe haven to other anti-colonial rebel groups opposed to minority rule from neighboring countries such as (Nelson Mandela's) ANC of South Africa, SWAPO of Namibia, and FRELIMO of Mozambique.

By early November, the South African Defence Force (SADF) was advancing 45 miles per day toward the capital Luanda. South Africa's invasion jeopardized not only Angola's revolution, but the struggle for liberation throughout the continent. The racists were set to install a puppet regime led by former Portuguese collaborator Jonas Savimbi that would be amendable to white rule in South Africa and willing to work with apartheid to crush the liberation movements. The situation in Angola was bleak. 

"The MPLA leaders, who had been prepared for a guerilla struggle rather than a full-scale war, then understood that only an urgent appeal for international solidarity would enable them to rout this concerted attack by neighboring states, supported by the most rapacious and destructive resources of imperialism," wrote Colombian author Gabriel García Marquez in 1977.

The Angolans had only one unlikely country they could turn to: Cuba. The poor Caribbean country, suffering under a vicious economic war waged on them for 15 years by the world's most dominant superpower, had already provided military instructors to assist the MPLA. But they would not be nearly enough on their own. MPLA leader Agostinho Neto would appeal to Fidel Castro on Nov. 3 for reinforcements to ward off the racists.

The answer came less than 48 hours later on Nov. 5. Yes. "The Communist Party of Cuba reached its decision without wavering," García Marquez wrote. He noted the date had historical significance for Cubans: "On another such November 5, in 1843, a slave called Black Carlota, working on the Triunvirato plantation in the Matanzas region, had taken up her machete at the head of a slave rebellion in which she lost her life. It was in homage to her that the solidarity action in Angola bore her name: Operation Carlota."

On Nov. 7, the first 82 soldiers, dressed in civilian clothes and carrying light artillery, set off on a Cubana Airlines flight  to Luanda. Over the coming weeks and months, Cuban troops would pour into Angola by air and by sea. By the end of the year, they would number nearly 10,000 . More than a decade later, before the end of apartheid, there would be as many as 36,000  troops throughout the country. 

Fidel Castro, Commander of the Cuban Revolution, would immerse himself in the battle.

"There was not a single dot on the map of Angola that he was unable to identify, nor any feature of the land that he did not know by heart. His absorption in the war was so intense and meticulous that he could quote any statistic relating to Angola as if it were Cuba itself, and he spoke of its towns, customs and peoples as if he had lived there all his life," writes García Marquez. "In the early stages of the war, when the situation was urgent, Fidel Castro would spend up to fourteen hours at a stretch in the command room of the general staff, at times without eating or sleeping, as if he were on the battlefield himself. He followed the course of battles with pins on minutely detailed wall-sized maps, keeping in constant touch with the MPLA high command on a battlefield where the time was six hours later."

After landing in Angola, Cuban troops went straight to the battlefield and proved decisive in keeping the racist South Africans at bay. On Nov. 10, Cuban troops ambushed the SADF's Zulu column, inflicting heavy casualties on the apartheid army.

At the Battle of Ebo on Nov. 23, Cuban soldiers attacked the Zulu column as it approached a bridge, according to historian Piero Gleijeses. They killed and wounded as many as 90 racist troops and knocked out seven or eight armored cars. The victory bought Cuba time as reinforcements poured in, and Angola received a shipment of weapons from the Soviet Union. The apartheid army tried to advance, but were pushed back by heavy resistance. By Dec. 27, they were ordered to fall back.

"As 1975 came to a close, the tide had turned against Washington and Pretoria. It had turned on the battlefield, where the Cubans had stopped the South African advance, and it had turned on the propaganda front: the Western press had noticed that South Africa had invaded Angola," writes Gleijeses in Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa, 1959-1976. [1]

Imperialism and Apartheid Conspire Against African Self-Determination

South Africa had tried to disguise its involvement in the invasion of Angola by pretending that mercenaries, rather than the regular South African army, had invaded. The Americans, meanwhile, tried to distance themselves by claiming they had no involvement in South Africa's military operation. But it is clear from the documentary record that Washington's fingerprints were all over South Africa's actions. 

In a June 1975 meeting of the National Security Council, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Ford he was not “in wild agreement” with the options presented by an interagency task force: “The first is neutrality - stay out and let nature take its course… As for the second course, my Department agrees, but I don’t. It is recommended that we launch a diplomatic offensive … and encourage cooperation among the groups.” The absence of American intervention, Kissinger admitted, would lead to a victory for the MPLA and for Neto to “gradually gain the support of other Africans.” [2] 

Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger offered: “We might wish to encourage the disintegration of Angola. Cabinda in the clutches of (Congolese military dictator) Mobutu would mean far greater security of the petroleum resources.” Ford was in agreement that the United States must prevent Angolan self-determination: “It seems to me that doing nothing is unacceptable.” [3]

The most damning evidence, though, was admitted publicly by apartheid South African Prime Minister P.W. Botha in the House of Assembly in 1978. Botha declared that when the SADF invaded Angola: "we did so with the approval and knowledge of the Americans." [4]

By the end of 1975, Cuban troops had routed the apartheid army and prevented their takeover of the country. There is no doubt that had Castro and the Cuban government declined to confront the apartheid regime on the battlefield, the MPLA would have fallen. A South African victory would have solidified apartheid and devastated the decolonization movements across southern Africa.

"Without the Cuban intervention, the South Africans would have seized Luanda before anyone reported that they had crossed the border. The CIA covert operation in Angola would have succeeded," Gleijeses writes. [5]

Diallo and his fellow countrymen in Cuba would not, in the end, join the fight against apartheid. When the Cuban government found out that the African students wished to take part in the military mission, they informed them through the university that they should stay in Cuba.

Even though he had never been to South Africa, Diallo said he understood the injustices black South Africans faced under the apartheid system. "I was aware of that, the humiliation of people telling you that you weren't as good, telling you where you could live and restricting your ability to move around," he said. Ridding Africa of apartheid, what Castro himself called "the most beautiful cause," was worth fighting for. [6]

But Diallo is glad the Cubans made it clear that the students should serve in a civic capacity, rather than a military one. "They told us: 'Your country needs you. We appreciate your offer, but let us handle this. Stay here and finish your studies and then go back and help your own countries,' " Diallo said.


[1] Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. The University of North Carolina Press, 2002. Kindle edition.

[2] June 27, 1975, NSC Minutes, “Angola” (Document obtained from Gerald Ford Library, NSC Meetings File, Box 2) (pg. 3-4)

[3] Ibid. (pg. 7)

[4] as quoted in Gleijeses, 2002

[5] Gleijeses, op. cit.

[6] Instructions to the Cuban Delegation for the London Meeting, 'Indicaciones concretas del Comandante en Jefe que guiarán la actuación de la delegación cubana a las conversaciones de Luanda y las negociaciones de Londres (23-4-88)'," April 23, 1988, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Archive of the Cuban Armed Forces. Obtained and contributed to CWIHP by Piero Gleijeses and included in CWIHP e-Dossier No. 44. (pg. 5)