Cuba’s Somber Commemmorative Dates

Janis Hernandez

Cubans in Angola. Photo/archive:

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s official discourse cannot help but celebrate or solemnly commemorate certain events. There is even a television program about such events, where I’ve heard as absurd commemorative remarks as: “On a day like today, the Commander in Chief visited this or that place…”

There have always been dates whose remembrance, though politicized, has always seemed more serious, like the 7th of December, which has always invariably has a double significance: the fall in combat of Major General Antonio Maceo Grajales (in 1896) and the birth of the revolutionary martyr Frank Pais Garcia (in 1934). It seems that the government felt the date needed more heroes and martyrs and chose it for what came to be known as Operation Tribute.

The arrival of the remains and corpses of the soldiers and civilians who died in Africa was an ambivalent event. While it was just and even necessary for relatives and friends to have their loved ones back, it was also like rubbing salt on the wounds and re-awakening their feelings of sadness and impotence (though, before the TV cameras, the mothers, widows and orphans pronounced ready-made phrases, saying they were proud. Proud of what, I wonder…of death?)

Since the times of Homer, we hear talk of wars in which people die in foreign lands in defense of a “cause” that was as foreign to them as the battlefields. We read of how Achiles and Patroclus died young in far-off lands and how Penelope waited twenty years for her beloved Ulysses, because of a war that didn’t involve them in the least. Similarly, thousands of Cuban families cried over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in Angola.

What’s most outrageous is that, as is often the case, Cubans didn’t have a clear sense of what was happening in Angola. Speeches loaded with words such as “internationalism” and “just cause” were their only referent of what was happening in that part of the world. Legions of young people in the military and men drafted by the reserves would depart, swearing (without knowing clearly before whom) that they, who were about to die, saluted us.

Angola was a divided country. The FAPLA was the armed wing of the nationalist MPLA movement led by Agosthino Neto. But there were other movements, like the FNLA, headed by Holden Roberto. There was a third movement, UNITA, presided over by Jonas Savimbi. Rivalry and conflict among these liberations movements characterized Angola’s independence struggle, where Cubans fought alongside the enemy and traitor.

It’s been 25 years since those days of long military band rehearsals and funeral processions, in anticipation of December 7, 1989 when the dead were to arrive. This year, Cuba commemorated a quarter of a century since that solemn return.

Angola achieved independence and won a cruel war thanks to Cuba’s help. But the widows and orphans of the Cubans who fought and died there need a visa to travel to Angola. I wonder what they think about the somber tribute paid to their loved ones.

2 thoughts on “Cuba’s Somber Commemmorative Dates

  • Well I guess it’s sort of like the mother of a teenager killed in the Mekong Delta defending against an invasion of the communist domino knocking hordes, or a soldier who defended us from Sadam’s WMDs. They are all lauded as heros for the caouse of freedom.

  • Cuba did not help Angola achieve independence. The Portuguese unilaterally pulled out of Angola in 1975, following the political upheaval in Portugal. The UN had endorsed national elections to form the new independent government of Angola. However, rather than submit to elections, each rebel group turned on each other. The MPLA seized power in the Angolan capital, Luanda.

    Cuba had established diplomatic and military relationships with the MPLA going back to 1962. Cuban soldiers and officers had helped train and even fought with the MPLA from 1966 on. In the spring of 1975, Castro decided to back the MPLA in their seizure of power, sending a couple hundred more Cuba troops to help the MPLA fight off the FNLA.

    This move alarmed the South African government, which respond by sending an armed force across the southern boarder. Castro respond to the South African invasion by sending tens of thousand of Cuban soldiers to Angola. The South African Defence Forces allied with UNITA. The USSR provided billion of dollars worth of military equipment to the Cubans and FAPLA, while the US helped fund UNITA.

    Over the next 15 years, the Cubans and the FAPLA fought UNITA & the South Africans to a draw. At this point, 1988, the USSR was nearing collapse, and Gorbachev cut the military support they had been providing to the Cuban FAR in Angola. Cuba finally agreed to join the US sponsored peace talks. The New York Accord was signed which stipulated the withdrawal of Cuban and South African forces from Angola.

    Tragically, the fighting in Angola continued for years to come, between the MPLA controlled government and UNITA. Eventually, the MPLA was to prevail, Jonas savimba was killed and UNITA was defeated.

    As a legacy of Cuba’s contribution to helping the MPLA seize power in Angola, the current government of Jose Dos Santos is considered one of the most corrupt in all of Africa, (and that’s saying a lot!), and all it cost were the lives of an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Cuban soldiers. And countless Angolan lives.

    No, I don’t suppose they include all that in the Official Discourse, do they?

    For a detailed and balanced history of the Cuban intervention in Angola, read:

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