We do not fight for glory or honors,
but for ideas we consider just.
—Fidel Castro Ruz
THIS year marks the 20th anniversary
(written in 2007) of the opening of the battle of
Cuito Cuanavale, in south-eastern Angola, which
pitted the armed forces of apartheid South Africa
against the Cuban army and Angolan forces.
Magnus Malan writes in his memoirs that this
campaign marked a great victory for the South
African Defense Force (SADF). But Nelson Mandela
could not disagree more: Cuito Cuanavale, he
asserted, "was the turning point for the liberation
of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge
Debate over the significance of
Cuito Cuanavale has been intense, partly because the
relevant South African documents remain classified.
I have, however, been able to study files from the
closed Cuban archives as well as many US documents.
Despite the ideological divide that separates Havana
and Washington, their records tell a remarkably
Let me review the facts briefly. In
July 1987, the Angolan army (Fapla) launched a major
offensive in south-eastern Angola against Jonas
Savimbi’s forces. When the offensive started to
succeed, the SADF, which controlled the lower
reaches of south-western Angola, intervened in the
south-east. By early November, the SADF had cornered
elite Angolan units in Cuito Cuanavale and was
poised to destroy them.
The United Nations Security Council
demanded that the SADF unconditionally withdraw from
Angola, but the Reagan administration ensured that
this demand had no teeth.
US Assistant Secretary for Africa
Chester Crocker reassured Pretoria’s ambassador:
"The resolution did not contain a call for
comprehensive sanctions, and did not provide for any
assistance to Angola. That was no accident, but a
consequence of our own efforts to keep the
resolution within bounds."  This gave the SADF
time to annihilate Fapla’s best units.
By early 1988, South African
military sources and Western diplomats were
confident that the fall of Cuito was imminent. This
would have dealt a devastating blow to the Angolan
government. But on November 15 1987, Cuban President
Fidel Castro had decided to send more troops and
weapons to Angola—his best planes with his best
pilots, his most sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons
and his most modern tanks. Castro’s goal was not
merely to defend Cuito, it was to force the SADF out
of Angola once and for all. He later described this
strategy to South African Communist Party leader Joe
Slovo: Cuba would halt the South African onslaught
and then attack from another direction, "like a
boxer who with his left hand blocks the blow and
with his right—strikes". 
Cuban planes and 1,500 Cuban solders
reinforced the Angolans, and Cuito did not fall.
On March 23 1988, the SADF launched
its last major attack on the town. As Colonel Jan
Breytenbach writes, the South African assault "was
brought to a grinding and definite halt" by the
combined Cuban and Angolan forces.
Now Havana’s right hand prepared to
strike. Powerful Cuban columns were marching through
south-western Angola toward the Namibian border. The
documents telling us what the South African leaders
thought about this threat are still classified. But
we know what the SADF did: it gave ground. US
intelligence explained that the South Africans
withdrew because they were impressed by the
suddenness and scale of the Cuban advance and
because they believed that a major battle "involved
serious risks". 
As a child in Italy, I heard my
father talk about the hope he and his friends had
felt in December 1941, as they listened to radio
reports of German troops vacating Rostov on the Don—the
first time in two years of war that the German
"superman" had been forced to retreat. I remembered
his words—and the profound sense of relief they
conveyed—as I read South African and Namibian press
reports from these months in early 1988.
On May 26 1988, the chief of the
SADF announced that "heavily armed Cuban and Swapo
[South West Africa People’s Organization] forces,
integrated for the first time, have moved south
within 60km of the Namibian border". The South
African administrator general in Namibia
acknowledged on June 26 that Cuban MIG-23s were
flying over Namibia, a dramatic reversal from
earlier times when the skies had belonged to the
SADF. He added that "the presence of the Cubans had
caused a flutter of anxiety" in South Africa.
Such sentiments were however not
shared by black South Africans, who saw the retreat
of the South African forces as a beacon of hope.
While Castro’s troops advanced
toward Namibia, Cubans, Angolans, South Africans and
Americans were sparring at the negotiating table.
Two issues were paramount: whether South Africa
would finally accept implementation of UN Security
Council Resolution 435, which prescribed Namibia’s
independence, and whether the parties could agree on
a timetable for the withdrawal of the Cuban troops
The South Africans arrived with high
hopes: Foreign Minister Pik Botha expected that
Resolution 435 would be modified; Defense Minister
Malan and President PW Botha asserted that South
Africa would withdraw from Angola only "if Russia
and its proxies did the same." They did not mention
withdrawing from Namibia. On March 16 1988, Business
Day reported that Pretoria was "offering to withdraw
into Namibia—not from Namibia—in return for the
withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola. The
implication is that South Africa has no real
intention of giving up the territory any time soon."
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 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."
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."
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 tranquillizer]. ... 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]."
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 defenses"
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."  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."
The Cubans’ battlefield prowess and
negotiating skills were instrumental in forcing
South Africa to accept 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."
1) SecState to
American embassy, Pretoria, Dec. 5 1987, Freedom of
Information Act (FOIA)
sobre la reunión del Comandante en Jefe con la
delegación de políticos de Africa 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
Conversaciones 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
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