|Castro in Africa:
Cuba's Operation Carlotta, 1975
by Russ Stayanoff, MA
On December 2, 2005, Cuba's aging Fidel Castro addressed his nation's armed
forces in his last personally delivered Revolutionary Armed Forces Day speech
in Havana. The speech commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Cuban army's
Angolan intervention. The speech was the archetypal "Castronic" socialist
diatribe long-time Fidel watchers had come to expect. However, during this
speech Fidel, for the first time, shed some light on the history of the secret
deployment of some 36,000 Cuban troops, sent in 1975, to defend the newly
declared independent Marxist government of Angola. "Never before," declared
Fidel, "had a Third World country acted to support another people in armed
conflict beyond its geographical neighborhood." The Cuban leader declared that
contemporary historical assessments of the region consistently omit the
contributions of the Cuban expeditionary forces. Castro called the
contributions of the Cuban army "decisive in consolidating Angola's
independence and achieving the independence of Namibia."
What was Operation Carlotta and, more importantly, what will be its
legacy to a people soon to have their history re-examined in the post-Castro
era? What are the assessments of those who fought this bloody war some 30 years
later? Pragmatic Cuban veterans consider the long official silence concerning Operation
Carlotta an admission of failure in another of Fidel's many botched
programs of "Leninist internationalism." Yet, others regard participation in
Fidel's African adventures, a patriotic duty proudly performed. A retired Cuban
military doctor explained, "Well, you have to give credit to Fidel, he was one
to back his words with deeds, and the deed was our presence in Angola. Most
were quite proud to have participated. Remember, that at the time, the South
Africans were a nasty bunch that never merited a lot of international
Defining " Operation Carlotta"
"The families of our internationalists deserve special mention. With remarkable
stoicism, they bore absence, sent words of encouragement with every letter and
kept any difficulties or worries to themselves. Prime examples include the
mothers, sons, brothers and sisters and spouses of our fallen compatriots. All,
without exception, have come to terms with their loss…" - Fidel Castro, 2005.
Despite the socialist rhetoric, the reality of the Angolan intervention can
still be felt in the towns and villages in Cuba. Families recall the young men
who after being called up for national service, suddenly disappeared in
1975-1976. Many never returned.
Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's assertion that Cuban troops involved in
Operation Carlotta were universal volunteers, who signed a statement
indicating that they had been fully briefed prior to the mission regarding its
objectives and who "accepted the risks in a spirit of revolutionary
internationalism," is as improbable as it is ludicrous. Veterans interviewed
say they were told of their destination only on the day of departure. Most
described the average soldier's lack of appropriate training and the constant
shortages of basic supplies and equipment for their mission. The expeditionary
force experienced massive intelligence failures that included an insufficient
understanding of the people, culture and terrain within the Cuban area of
operations in Angola. Veterans described severe losses suffered by Cuban ground
troops during the 1975-6 operation. While the actual number of Cubans killed in
the intervention, code-named Carlotta is unknown. Intelligence sources
peg Cuban losses at more than thirty per cent. Of the 36,000 Cuban troops
committed to fighting in Angola from1975-79, reported combat deaths range from
3,000 to less than 10,000.
The individual Cuban soldier's isolation while in-country during Operation
Carlota was almost absolute. Veterans interviewed refuted Castro's
assertion that "relatives sent words of encouragement with every letter."
Because Cuba officially denied the presence of any sizable expeditionary force
in the southwest African state, none of the troops were permitted to ever
receive a single letter from home; some for as long as three years. Several
veterans stated that relatives were informed that their loved ones had been
selected for a "special engineering" program in the Soviet Union and it was
inappropriate for them to be contacted. Castro's remark now seems cynical,
nonetheless accurate, when he alleged that relatives bore absences with
"remarkable stoicism." For 50 years, Cubans have learned well the meaning of
Throughout the 1960's, Portugal's rejection of independence demands by African
nationalist groups were unmatched by resources that would have prevented or
quashed the inevitable insurgencies that flourished in her long neglected
territories. Predictably, protracted guerrilla war was the result. Once begun,
the wars continued with growing intensity. Insurgent forces experienced limited
success against a surprisingly resilient and determined Portugal that declared
it would never give in to rebel groups. But, on April 25, 1974, an unexpected
military coup, known as the Carnation Revolution, occurred in Lisbon
and overthrew the hard-line government of Marcelo Jose Caetano. The coup caught
the Angolan liberation movements, expecting a drawn-out struggle lasting
throughout the decade, completely by surprise. The new "democratic" regime in
Lisbon began a rapprochement with Africa and swiftly announced that it would
grant its African colonies independence.
Three contending factions vied to succeed the Portuguese in Angola: the
Soviet-backed Popular Movement for the Independence of Angola (MPLA) led by
Agostinho Neto; the anti-colonial National Front for the Liberation of Angola
(FNLA) based mainly in Zaire and led by Holden Roberto; and UNITA, the National
Union for the Total Independence of Angola, whose leader Jonas Malheiro
Savimbi, led an anti-Portuguese guerrilla force inside Angola throughout the
late 1960's and early 1970s.
Portugal hosted the Alvor Conference in January 1975 where the three
nationalist contenders negotiated an independence timetable with their former
colonial master. They pledged to support a rotating Angolan presidency as well
as a bizarre security arrangement that included a temporarily unified
Angolan-Portuguese army. This security arrangement called for the
integration of the militant wings of the three contenders into a single Angolan
Defense Force. The conference ended with agreement among the factions which
called for joint rule and committed them to draft a constitution and hold
elections prior to the end of Portuguese control in November 1975. But unity
was never possible. In early 1975, an intense struggle for political control of
Angola among the MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA ensued. Each distrusted the motivations
and devices of the other and all collectively feared armed takeover by its
counterpart's militant wing.
Not surprisingly, violent skirmishes erupted among the followers of the three
groups. In the summer of 1975, the Marxist-MPLA used its superior military
strength within the proximity of Luanda to expel the FNLA from the city.
Subsequently, the MPLA turned on UNITA and repeated the process and bloody
civil war ensued. In early 1976, the MPLA, with substantial Soviet aid and a
sizeable Cuban expeditionary force, compelled its two rivals to give up
conventional war and take to the bush. With its rivals expelled, the MPLA
hoisted its flag over Luanda and promptly claimed to be the legitimate
government of all Angola.
Because of the MPLA's Marxist political program, Cold War adversaries
increasingly became involved. The United States initially gave $3,000,000 to
the FNLA. The CIA station chief in Luanda, Robert Hultslander, advised the
State Department against backing the FNLA calling them "unscrupulous and
thieving." He was overruled and ultimately censured for the comments by Dr.
Henry Kissinger. However, Hultslander was certainly correct. Most of the
money was subsequently stolen or misappropriated by the FNLA leadership. Zaire,
South Africa, and reportedly even Israel, supported the two liberation
movements, UNITA and the FNLA, politically and later with arms shipments. In
June 1974, almost seven months before the Alvor Agreement, the Chinese began to
counter Soviet support of the MPLA and sent 120 instructors and 450 tons of
weapons to the FNLA in Zaire; the same group Dr. Kissinger was supporting. But,
the MPLA was assured treasure of a different sort; an array of Soviet weapons,
aircraft and fighting vehicles and an entire Cuban expeditionary force to do
much of the fighting. This assistance was to be purchased using oil revenues
from Angola's disputed province of Cabinda, where tribal guerilla groups were
fighting the MPLA for the independence of the province.
Cuban Participation and Limitations
With his internationalist revolutionary program hindered in Latin and South
America and virtually stymied throughout the Caribbean, during the 1960's-70's
Castro yearned to be, and later did become, the international leader of the
Non-aligned Movement. His ambitions to lead the movement were so great that he
was prepared to expend his most valuable resource, the Cuban Army to procure
that position. Still, Castro claimed in 2003 that Cuba was successful in
exporting revolution to Angola. However, when the young Cuban
"proletarian-internationalists" arrived at the outset of the Angolan
intervention in 1975, the political revolution was already completed. Castro,
in 1976, justified Cuban involvements without risking serious international
condemnation by saying Cuban forces had landed in Angola, upon request just in
time to protect the MPLA from outside aggression. A Cuban Expeditionary force
was not there to launch a revolution. Yet, in a contradictory statement issued
in 1975, the Cuban Communist Party affirmed that Castro's Leninist goals were
furthered by assisting in the creation of a Cuban style revolutionary Marxist
society under "Fidel's personal tutelage and protection." Despite conflicting
justifications, the Cuban intervention played well to domestic audiences in
Cuba. Fidel's stature improved internationally as he attempted to re-establish
himself as the philosophical and martial leader of revolutionary movements
throughout the Third World.
The New Recruit
Ernesto C. is a tall, handsome, slightly graying man in his early fifties. He
has lived for several years in Panama City, Panama where he is a kitchen
manager for a family owned Cuban restaurant. His soft spoken manner and forced
smile betrays a man whose life experiences are neither gratuitously given nor
easily recounted. In 1975, at the age of 16, Ernesto was living with his mother
in the Province of Havana, having just graduated from high school. Life was
poor but predictable and he was looking forward to entering the University of
Havana with his classmates. By law, university ambitions of all young Cubans
were put on hold until the two-year compulsory military service obligation was
satisfied. Within months of his graduation, Ernesto reported for his military
According to Ernesto, Cuban military entrance requirements at the time of his
induction were quite lax, ". . . one only had to pass a medical exam. If you
weren't deaf, blind or missing a leg you were in. It was obligatory, so there
were no special considerations." Ernesto joined other sixteen and seventeen
year old males called up from Havana Province and began 45 days of basic combat
training known as "la previa." Cuban conscripts were trained at the
older isolated revolutionary-era military camps near the town of San Antonio de
los Baños. Like all new soldiers, Ernesto encountered arduous training days
that began early and ended late. Introduced to close order drill, physical
training and weapons and marksmanship skills using the AK 47, the training
company was also under the supervision of the very visible political officer.
This officer conducted sporadic classes on Marxist-Leninist theory which were
scored just as critically as marksmanship.
Ernesto and his colleagues were introduced to the RPG 7 and the older RPD5
machine-gun. The RPG-7 is a shoulder-fired, muzzle-loaded, anti-tank and
anti-personnel grenade launcher which launches a variety of fin-stabilized,
oversized grenades from a 40mm tube. The RPD light machine-gun was one of the
first weapons designed to fire the new Russian 7.62x39mm intermediate
cartridge, which became the standard round of the Soviet small arms arsenal.
The weapon, developed in1944, became the standard squad automatic weapon of
Soviet army until the 1960s, when the Warsaw Pact generally replaced it with
the RPK light machine gun. The RPD was extensively exported to pro-Soviet
countries and regimes around the world. Cuba always received its share.
"They Gave Us Ice Cream"
Training in "la previa" continued for Ernesto and his companions at
San Antonio de los Baños. The training, similar to the US Army COHORT system,
prepared the recruits to be tactically indoctrinated and then technically
skilled and subsequently integrated into a communications battalion assigned to
a mechanized infantry regiment. Ernesto's company was tasked with the upkeep of
the R-105 family of Soviet made backpack radio sets. These radios were by far
the most common of all the Russian radios found throughout the world. The radio
was relatively primitive by contemporary military standards and, unlike most
Soviet equipment, was not easy to use. These radios were of the glass tube type
design; the only transistors were in the radio's internal power supply.
Introduced in the early 1950's, it was revamped in the 1970's, with more modern
materials. Like most Soviet equipment of the Cold War period, the radio set was
an updated copy of captured WWII German sets.
Near completion of training, Ernesto's group was unexpectedly assembled and
informed they had been selected for a "special military course." Things began
to change shortly thereafter. Ernesto remembers "weird things going on . . .
stricter custody, more security, and the military maneuvers began to get more
complicated and more exhausting. We were taken to the medics for all sorts of
tests and vaccines. We understood nothing of what was happening." It was during
this period that Ernesto was issued his first international passport, showing
him attired in civilian clothes. The civilian suit was issued to him solely for
the purpose of the passport photo, then removed and given to the next soldier
his size. Phony civilian occupations were listed on the passport. Ernesto and
his companions, just months out of high school, abruptly became architects,
engineers and science professionals. "The whole process took about a month and
we had absolutely no contact with the outside world. That was forbidden.
However they treated us better, with more respect. They even gave us ice
Departure for Places Unknown
The atmosphere at San Antonio de los Baños had quickly turned from conscript
training to tactical. The new troops were in for some surprises, when one day
". . . beautiful air-conditioned busses appeared out of nowhere and we were
taken to a large building. There, in front of us, were none other than Fidel
and Raul Castro. They told us the story of Angola and its military situation.
They told us that some 200 Cuban "special advisors" supporting the MPLA were
now surrounded by FNLA troops who had come from Zaire . . . the imperialists
were invading Angola, so the president of the MPLA had asked Cuba, based on the
principles of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism, to give him
military support. We were told the country would be proud of us because we were
going to accomplish one of the three major principles of Marxism-Leninism,
which was proletariat internationalism."
For the past three decades it has been debated whether Operation Carlotta
was a Soviet designed operation or, as Castro maintains, an independent Cuban
initiated response to a plea from Agostino Neto, the president of the MPLA.
Castro has long held that the Kremlin was never consulted prior to the
operation, a contention which considering the players and proxies of the Cold
War, is improbable at best. According to Ernesto, Fidel addressed the issue
during this briefing, telling his soldiers that the Soviet Union was supplying
modern and efficient weapons but . . . "because of their Warsaw Treaty
obligations they could not bring their troops to Africa . . . it was our duty
to support and liberate Angola from the imperialist enemies."
Within three hours of meeting with Fidel, the entire brigade was taken to an
assembly point called "El Chico" close to Havana. Here, the troops were issued
weapons and civilian clothing. "They gave us civilian clothing and we packed
our military clothes away. We looked very strange because the civilian clothes
were tailored the same, so we were all dressed almost exactly alike." Three
brigades were then marched to the port of Mariel where three Russian built
cargo vessels, "30 Aniversario," the "Playa Giron" and the "Primer
Ernesto's company was put aboard the rusting "30 Aniversario." There
was no time for goodbyes. Three thousand Cuban troops, without fan-fare,
embarked on each of the three ships which sailed at daybreak on the morning of
November 6, 1975. Ernesto remembers, "Most of us were adolescents, innocent and
really had no idea what would happen to us. However, we really didn't have the
time or the space to think about it."
Voyage to Angola
The voyage from Mariel to the Congolese coast took 23 days. The 3,000 troops
were never allowed above deck for fear of detection by American aerial
intelligence. The troops were quartered in the cargo holds that had been used
for shipping raw sugar. According to Ernesto, ". . . it was an unbelievable
mess down there. Caring for natural necessities was difficult." There was not
much to do below decks during these sailing days. Ernesto remembers the voyage
full of sea-sickness, vomiting and unsuccessful attempts to adjust to
stiflingly hot, cramped and nauseating conditions aboard the ex-sugar
The vessels arrived off the Congolese coast on November 29, 1975 and the troops
began the welcome debarkation from the ships at Pointe Noir around midnight.
Ernesto's company was then assigned to a mechanized infantry company equipped
with the Soviet BMP-1 vehicle.
The BMP-1 was a fully armored amphibious infantry combat vehicle. Its low
silhouetted hull had a sharp sloping front with a conspicuously ridged surface.
It mounted an extremely flat, truncated cone turret that housed a 73-mm
smoothbore, low pressure, short recoil gun which was fed by a 40-round
magazine. A top-side gunner operated a 7.62-mm coaxial machine gun. A launching
rail for SAGGER missiles, an anti-tank wire-guided missile system, was attached
just above the gun. The BMP-1 was powered by a 290 hp, water-cooled, 6-cylinder
diesel engine and when driven on easy terrain could reach speeds of 35-40MPH.
The vehicle held a three-man crew, including the vehicle commander, who became
a squad leader when carrying an infantry squad that dismounted through the rear
doors. Firing ports in the sides and rear of the troop compartment allowed the
infantrymen to fire assault rifles and light machine guns from inside the
vehicle when on the move.
Departure for Landala
Within hours of arrival, the Cuban brigades were en route through
Congo-Brazzaville. The convoy traveled throughout the day arriving at the
Angolan border late the next evening. "It was there we got off and changed into
our military clothing. We broke out ammunition and loaded our weapons and
continued down the road into Angola." Their destination was the abandoned
Portuguese military post at Landala about 30km north east of the capital city
Ernesto's brigade composed of raw recruits and commanded by inexperienced
officers entered into the combat zone. "That first night I remember we had no
idea where we were sleeping. We didn't even set up a proper camp. . . The next
day we were surprised to see that we had slept in a sort of a plain surrounded
by high mountains. The enemy could have killed us with a few rocks, as we had
absolutely no protection." Basic combat intelligence was slim. Maps issued from
Cuban military headquarters in Luanda became suspect. Most showed non-existent
rivers that disappeared during the Angolan dry season. Cuban commanders planned
routes down long-vanished Portuguese colonial roads passing over bridges and
through villages which no longer existed.
Attacks on the Landala outpost by FNLA and its allies, became frequent.
Ernesto's company was tasked with establishing a defensive perimeter around the
post. This required an almost daily reconnaissance patrol of outlying villages.
Ernesto observed, "We saw the great needs of the people. They were very poor
and without education. We tried to help them. We gave them our food and much
needed medical attention by allowing them to come into our fortified camps.
Ironically, the people we helped were the same ones who would help the enemy to
attack us. They knew our troop strength, our movements and because they lived
close to the camp they became valuable informers to the enemy, they were easily
Most of the resistance encountered by the Cubans at Landala was from another
armed group backed by the FNLA called the Front for the Liberation of the
Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC). The FLEC had actively fought Portuguese colonial
authorities, subsequently formed a provisional government and on August 1,
1975, declared Cabinda independent. After Angolan independence in November,
Cabinda was invaded by the MPLA with Cuban support. Eventually, the MPLA
overthrew the provisional FLEC government and incorporated Cabinda into
Angola. In December, Ernesto's brigade was moved into arid Linche province,
near the Zairean border, in order to reinforce MPLA forces under siege by the
FLEC. "We left Landala around midnight," he recalls, "using the roads on the
northern route toward Zaire. At dawn, around 5am, we heard the sound of drums.
Drums! Just like in the films. We thought the drums were coming from a nearby
village, and that the tribe was happy at our appearance and was playing them as
a welcome." Nobel Prize winning Marxist writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his
history of Operation Carlotta described the action in Linche:
It was an atrocious war in which one had to keep a lookout for mercenaries and
snakes, rockets and cannibals. One Cuban commander fell at the height of battle
into an elephant trap. The black Africans, conditioned by centuries of hatred
of the Portuguese, were initially hostile to the white Cubans. Especially in
Cabinda, Cuban scouts often heard their presence reported by the primitive
telegraphy of the drum, whose tom-tom could be heard everywhere within a radius
of some 35 kilometers.
The drums signaled FLEC fighters of the Cuban's approach. At the bottom of a
canyon, known as Bukusau, Ernesto's column was ambushed. Enfilading
fire from machine guns and RPG's hidden in the canyon's walls wreaked havoc on
vehicles and men. Grenades rained down from hidden positions. Ernesto
remembers, ". . . they threw a tremendous number of grenades at us, there was
no cover. Of our soldiers, 47 died and more than 60 were seriously wounded. The
ambush lasted 35 minutes, but we sustained a very large amount of casualties. I
was personally wounded on that terrible day." Ernesto watched from behind an
overturned truck as his company commander and a few others tried to seek cover.
". . . He hid beneath a truck loaded with gasoline. That was a mistake. The
truck was hit with a rocket. They became ashes almost immediately."
Ernesto sustained shrapnel wounds. He and other wounded Cubans were sent to
Americo Boavida Hospital in Luanda where Cuban doctors treated him. While
recovering in the hospital, soldiers read "Olive Green on an International
Mission," the weekly newspaper for the Cuban military in Angola. Its
pages were filled with stories stressing "socialist self-sacrifice." One issue,
translated by a Carlotta survivor, contained the story a Cuban tank
driver who explained why he had left his job in a metalworking shop to answer
the call of duty in Angola: ''In my house, to be an internationalist is
something great,'' he was quoted as saying. "I was in too much pain in the
hospital to read anything," replies a Carlotta veteran. "If I would
have seen that article I would not have needed toilet paper." Even the Operation
Carlotta military commander in Cabinda, General Ramon Espinosa Martin
was severely wounded in Angola in 1976 and spent a year recuperating.
The Road Home
By August 1976, more than 100 of Ernesto's comrades from Havana Province were
either dead or missing. Now recovered from his wounds, he and the other Carlotta
survivors looked forward to the day when they would be going home. Patrolling
and MPLA support missions occupied most of their time. They were bombed and
strafed by South African Air Force fighter-bombers, and by "unmarked aircraft,"
most likely of mercenary origin from Zaire. Crack South African commandos
ambushed the Cubans by night. Ernesto echoes what might have been said by an
American soldier during another counter-insurgency of the 1960-1970's, "The
longer we were there, the more I saw good comrades fall. There was no talk of
ever leaving Angola. We began to feel somewhat depressed. Medical attention was
always good. But our equipment began to break down, our clothes were not being
replaced and our food supply was sometimes unpredictable" One day Ernesto's
unit was sent to ostensibly provide security to another port called Lobito,
near Benguela. Benguela is Angola's deep water port and sea terminus for the
Benguela Railway, the fabled diamond route into the Congo's Katanga Province.
During the war, the bay had been used by Soviet freighters offloading military
cargoes for the MPLA.23 ". . . They assembled us, took away our weapons and
loaded us on-board ships bound for Cuba. It was a shock. Within a day, with the
dust of Angola still in our hair, we were again at sea, going home, it was that
When the ships approached the Cuban coast near the city of Cienfuegos, ". . .
Several boats came toward our ships. They were full of barbers, doctors and
dentists sent to fix us, because we were a mess. It was during our clean-up
that they gave us a check for 100 Cuban pesos, the equivalent of more or less
six dollars. We were all happy because it had been a while since we had seen
Cuban money and we were never paid while serving in Angola." The pay amounted
to seven pesos for privates (.71 cents per month) and fourteen pesos for
sergeants ($1.43 cents per month). A revolutionary-internationalist, if he
returned home alive, received less than $10.00 for the entire operation.
Ernesto's brigade returned to Mariel on September 5, 1976. They were met at the
port by a convoy of busses and taken to the Carlos Marx Theater in Miramar. In
dramatic fashion the lights came on, the curtain opened and Fidel appeared. He
congratulated the men and, ". . . Talked about everything that happened . . .
how we had survived in Angola with the strategies that he personally had
From there they were taken to a place called Cristino Naranjo. This
was an elite social club for the Ministry of the Interior. Once inside the
guarded compound the veterans found themselves staring at tables laden with
huge amounts of steaming food. "It was incredible the way we ate and drank.
Strict security surrounded us and nobody else could get in. I lived very close
to this place, and so, when we were finally dismissed, I simply walked home. I
received so many hugs and kisses from my family . . . they were never sure
where I was . . . the government told relatives we were in the Soviet Union.
This was common for soldiers during this time. But my grandmother didn't
believe it. She listened to the international news broadcasts and knew that we
were in Angola. My mother had always refused to believe her."
Aftermath: The Carlotta Legacy
From 1975-1988, Cuba was the main provider of combat troops, pilots, advisers,
physicians, engineers, and technicians to the MPLA. As the insurgency expanded,
so did Cuba's military presence. By 1982 there were 35,000 Cubans in Angola, of
which about 27,000 were combat troops and the remainder advisers, instructors,
and technicians. In 1985 their strength increased to 40,000, in 1986 to 45,000,
and in 1988 to nearly 50,000. Angola paid for Cuban services out of oil
revenues, at an estimated rate of $300 to $600 million annually. The last
Cuban forces left Angola in 1991.
Cuban forces, despite their numbers, generally did not engage directly in
combat after the bloodshed of Operation Carlotta in 1975-1976.
Following Carlotta Cuban missions were designed to protect strategic
and economically critical facilities, like the giant Chevron facility at
Cabinda. They provided combat service support, such as rear-area security, air
defense, security for major military installations and the capital city of
Luanda. Cubans also trained Angolan pilots and flew some combat missions
against UNITA and the South African Defense Forces (SADF).
The Angolan conflict also produced strange bed-fellows. In 1984, the United
States brokered a proposal for a step-by-step Cuban withdrawal from Angola in
return for a reciprocal step-by-step South African withdrawal from South-West
Africa, a forerunner to Namibian independence. Talks broke off after a South
African commando unit was thwarted in an attempt to destroy the Chevron
refinery complex in Cabinda. A few months later, the United States lost its
role as an ''honest broker'' in the eyes of the Angolans by openly giving aid
to Jonas Savimbi's UNITA forces. That decision created a paradoxical Cold War
dilemma: proletarian-internationalist Cuban troops were protecting an oil
refinery, owned in part by capitalist Americans, while the United States was
aiding belligerents bent on destroying the complex.
Castro's reputation was at first enhanced by the purported independence of the
Angolan intervention. Yet, as Cuban dependence on massive Soviet military,
financial and logistical assistance became known, his claim that Operation
Carlotta was a Cuban initiated operation undertaken without the
Kremlins' pre-approval was debunked. The indisputable fact remains that without
Soviet military hardware, supplies, aircraft, transport ships, and vast sums of
hard currency pumped into the Cuban economy, there would have been few, if any,
Cuban troops in Angola. Yet, despite these facts, when Soviet support is
factored, one cannot overlook the Cuban military successes in the mid-1980's.
The experiences and the hard lessons learned of Operation Carlotta, paved
Ernesto now lives within the sizable Cuban expatriate community in the Republic
of Panama. Life after the army included, marriage, defection and resettlement.
Like most expatriates he stays updated on Cuban domestic politics, and
considers the fate of the island without Fidel.There can be no doubt that
significant change will occur in Cuba in the near future. How those changes
reflect the history of Cuba during its "internationalist proletariat" era that
began with Che Gueverra and ended rather ignominiously in Africa remains to be
seen. How will the Cuban people view "Operation Carlotta?" A
circumspect Ernesto describes his feelings on the matter:
"At the time we were heroes. We absolutely believed that what we had done was
productive and necessary for Angola . . . we have come to realize that it was
truly a useless mission. So many comrades died without achieving any real
objective. So many families were affected. The whole business was based on the
absurd concept of the international-proletariat, where the poor of Cuba needed
to help other poor people in different countries on their way to revolution and
social development. I personally was affected in many ways. My nerves were
affected. I was badly wounded and nearly lost my life. I never received
compensation for my wounds. I was simply one of the
Show Footnotes and
. Hennig, Ranier. "AFROL NEWS."
12/10/2003.http://www.afrol.com/articles/17553 (accessed 11/13/2007).
. Castro, Fidel R. "Scoop-Independent News."
. Guitierrez, Paulo, Dr. Personal interview notes in possession of the
author. 22 Dec 2007.
. Marquez, Gabriel G. "Operation Carlotta." TRIcontinental Magazine,
. Gleijeses, Piero. "Moscow's Proxy? Cuba and Africa 1975-1988." Journal of
Cold War Studies 8, no. 2 (2006): 3-51.
. Carlotta veteran's interviews, recordings and notes are in the possession
of the authors. Interviews conducted in Panama City, Panama Mar-Dec 2007. Names
have been omitted or changed as the subjects all have extended family who live
. MacDonald, Scott B. European Destiny, Atlantic Transformations: Portuguese
Foreign Policy Under the Second Republic, 1974–1992. New Brunswick,
NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1993.
. Marcum, J., The Angolan Revolution, Vol. II: Exile Politics and
Guerrilla Warfare 1962-1976, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1978, p.211.
. Historical background leading up to and including the Alvor Conference and
an insightful look at the parties can be founding: Crocker, Chester. High Noon
in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood. London: W.W.
Norton, 1992. Crocker served as Assistant Secretary of State for African
Affairs from 1981 to 1987 in the Reagan Administration.
. Ibid, 84-113.
. Gleijeses , Piero . "The George Washington University: The National
. Marte, Fred. Political Cycles in International Relations: The Cold War
and Africa, 1945-1990. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994.
. Bender, Gerald J. "Angola, the Cubans, and American Anxieties." Foreign
Policy, no. 31, (1978): 3-30.
. Heitman, Helmoed. Modern African Wars 3: South-West Africa Series No.
242, Osprey's "Men-At-Arms" ed. Paul Hannon. London: Osprey
. Ibid., 54.
. For a discussion of Leninist internationalism that won't give you a
headache see: Harding, Neil. Leninism. Durham: Duke University Press,
. Agostino Neto, "Necesidades urgentes. Lista dirigida al: Comité Central
del Partido Comunista de Cuba," 26 January 1975, Anexo no. 3, pp. 22-23.
. Heitman, Helmoed. Modern African Wars 3: South-West Africa Series No.
242, Osprey's "Men-At-Arms" ed. Paul Hannon. London: Osprey
. Marcum, John, "Lessons of Angola," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 54, No.
3, April, 1976, p.413;
. Marquez, Gabriel G. "Operation Carlotta." TRIcontinental Magazine,
. Brooke, James. “Cuba's Strange Mission in Angola." New York Times 1 FEB
1987, Sunday ed.
. Mastrapa, Armando F."Cuban Armed Forces Review." 1997.
http://www.cubapolidata.com/cafr/cafr_espinosa.html (accessed 11/5/2007).
. James, W. Martin. A Political History of the Civil War in Angola,
1974–1990. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1992.
. Ebinger, Charles K. Foreign Intervention in Civil War: The Politics and
Diplomacy of the Angolan Conflict. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1986.
. Brooke, James. “Cubans Guard US Oilmen in Angola." New York Times 24 NOV
1986, late ed: A3 .
. Broadhead, Susan H. Historical Dictionary of Angola. 2nd ed.
Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992.
Copyright © 2008 Russ Stayanoff.
Written by Russ Stayanoff. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Russ Stayanoff at:
About the author:
Russ Stayanoff is an instructor in US, European History and World Affairs at the Balboa Academy in Panama City, Panama. He received his BA in History from LaGrange College, LaGrange Georgia and an MA in Military History from Norwich University, Northfield, Vermont. He is a post-graduate student in Land Warfare at the American Military University in Manassas, Virginia. A veteran of the US Army, Stayanoff resides in the Republic of Panama.
Published online: 02/03/2008.
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