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Castro's Cuba Played Critical Role in Early Post-Independence African Struggles

Before departing Rwanda for Ghana Tuesday, President Bush commented on how the retirement of Cuban President Fidel Castro would affect US policy toward a country Washington has opposed for the past 48 years. President Bush said he hoped that the island-nation would begin a period of democratic transition, accompanied by efforts to release dissidents from prison. In Africa the legacy of Castro, the world’s longest-serving ruler, was achieved during the 1970’s and 1980’s, when he sent thousands of Cuban troops to Southern Africa. Cuban influence and Cuban weapons were directed at helping newly independent countries just emerging from colonial rule. International Relations Professor Gerald Bender of the University of Southern California notes that in apartheid-ruled South Africa, the move was seen as an attempt to gain a foothold for communism on the continent. But he says other African nations did not view Castro as negatively.

“I think Castro is well thought of because mainly for his role in stopping South Africa, but also in sending thousands and thousands of both soldiers and civilian construction workers, and that was appreciated,” he said.

Bender says that if Cuba hadn’t gone into Angola in 1975, he doubts that any other state would have stopped South Africa’s army from moving in. However, he disputes warnings raised by US policymakers and others in the West that Cuban inroads constituted a prime threat of the spread of communism among nascent governments in southern Africa.

“The Cubans went through a long period during which they really weren’t much of a factor in Angola. They didn’t fight very often. They did help in the civilian construction area, but not militarily. And then near the end, they became a military factor again,” he noted.

Where Fidel Castro’s Cuba did become important again, according to Professor Bender was its presence as a crucial ingredient in US-led efforts in so-called “constructive engagement,” a Reagan administration policy that eventually succeeded in ending Angola’s long civil war and paved the way for an end to apartheid in South Africa.

“When the Reagan administration was trying to negotiate a Chet Crocker (US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Chester Crocker) deal, the Cubans were not included initially because they were afraid of (Senate Foreign Relations Committee member) Jesse Helms’ reaction and some others. But then they did bring the Cubans in, and they played a very positive role. And they left Angola, not as bitter as they could have been or maybe even should have been. It was not a very elegant departure. Once Cuba left Angola, they basically still remained in Ethiopia. But they basically checked out of Africa,” he noted.

Professor Bender argues that few African nations in the 21st century will miss Fidel Castro’s socialist, centralized economic system because it “basically failed.” Without economists, trained accountants and secretaries skilled in operating adding machines, he noted, there could be no centralized planned economies, no matter how ambitious Cuban ideology advocated such a turnaround for Africa’s newly developing states.