Fidel Castro played a key role in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, a crisis that nearly devolved into World War III and a nuclear confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. Less well known is that Fidel Castro knowingly risked a nuclear war a second time, over twenty years later in Angola.
After seizing power, Castro pursued a grand strategy of international revolution. But since making Cuba the base for all communist revolutionary activity would be risky and might endanger the Castroite regime, other countries were often used to host communist terrorists. In 1965, Che Guevara dreamed of turning Eastern Congo into one such place and even briefly conducted guerrilla operations there. But after Angola gained its independence in 1975 after a prolonged struggle with Portugal, it became increasingly apparent to Cuban leaders that Angola, not the Congo (then called Zaire), was a better choice. Cuba had established clandestine ties with Angolan rebels as early as the 1960s, and in 1975, a Cuban and Soviet military intervention helped the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a Marxist group, seize much of the country. Though the party has ostensibly renounced Marxism, it rules Angola down to the present day.
Under the MPLA, Cuba saw Angola as a perfect base of operations for communist revolutionaries in Africa. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Angola was used as a sanctuary by Congolese and South African groups as well as the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO), from which they launched attacks into South West Africa (today’s Namibia), then part of Apartheid South Africa. SWAPO’s use of sanctuaries in Angola brought the MPLA into further conflict with South Africa, which continued to launch occasional raids into Angola territory and to support UNITA, the MPLA’s main rival.
As such, Cuba began aggressively building up its forces in Angola and training MPLA forces. By the late 1980s, some 65,000 Cubans were in Angola, a number proportionally much larger than American forces in Vietnam. As with America’s intervention in Vietnam, the Cuban presence in Angola grew slowly as “mission creep” saw Cuba commit more and more forces to Angola. Cuban transports carried Cuban soldiers, warplanes and T-55 tanks to the Angolan warzone.
Castro’s commitment to Angola was proven at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Southern Angola, which stretched from 1987 to 1988. The battle, which lasted for seven months, was Africa’s largest since World War II. In the end, South African-backed UNITA rebels fought off a larger Cuban-MPLA army. So vital was Angola to Cuba’s revolutionary grand strategy that Castro was willing to risk a nuclear war to preserve communist rule there. In describing the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, Castro wrote,
“The main problem was that the racist South Africans had, according to our estimates, ten to twelve nuclear weapons. They had even tested them in the frozen areas or seas to the South. President Ronald Reagan had authorized such tests and the device for blasting the nuclear charge was among the equipment delivered by Israel. Our response was to organize the troops in combat groups of no more than 1,000 men, who would have to advance equipped with anti-aircraft tanks throughout an extensive territory at night.”
The comment shows Castro’s willingness to use his own men as cannon fodder in a nuclear war. UNITA and South Africa also long alleged that el comandante’s bizarre calculus had led him to bolster Communist forces in Angola with chemical weapons. The MPLA accused South Africa of using chemical weapons as well. Castro’s comment also reveals his miscalculation that South Africa would have used its nuclear weapons tactically. Actually, South Africa saw its nuclear weapons as a strategic asset and considered using them in a strike against Luanda. How would the Soviet Union have reacted to a South African nuclear strike in Angola?
Castro likely believed he could risk nuclear war with South Africa because the Soviet Union was also engaged directly in the Angolan Civil War. As late as 1990 the Soviet Union had brigade-level advisors in Angola directing the MPLA during an offensive against Mavinga. Between 1987 and 1990 the Soviet Union gave Angola some $3 billion in military equipment, according to A Political History of the Civil War in Angola: 1974-1990 by W. Martin James III. Though the late 1980s are normally seen as a period in which Cold War tensions were diminishing, it is important to remember that Southern Africa remained a conflict zone with terrifying potential.