Piero Gleijeses. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. Envisioning Cuba Series. Chapel Hill, N.C. and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. xix + 552 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2647-8.
Reviewed by Robert Waters (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-Diplo (July, 2002)
Piero Gleijeses's book is the kind of diplomatic history that we all aspire to write. Gleijeses used archives in six countries and newspapers from thirty, and interviewed hundreds of participants--from policymakers to foot soldiers--in five different countries. Two very important and lengthy documents on Angola are written in Afrikaans, so he taught himself to read the language.
Gleijeses's great coup was to gain unprecedented access to the Cuban archives after several years of "pestering" Cuban officials. Cuban Central Committee member and African veteran Jorge Risquet opened the door to the vault a little more or less with each of fourteen subsequent visits. Gleijeses's quest was made still more difficult by his refusal to use documents unless the Cubans released copies. After more wrangling, the Cubans agreed, and he ultimately received copies of several thousand pages, which he has deposited in the library of the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. Gleijeses also allowed the National Security Archive to add to its web site several Cuban, U.S., and East German documents and his interview with the Angolan CIA station chief. Gleijeses did not use several hundred pages of documents that he read but the Cubans refused to release, most of them written by Fidel Castro himself. Interestingly, the documents reflect well on Castro, as they include letters he wrote to his military commander in Angola in which he repeatedly expressed concern for the welfare of his men and sought assurances that they were following the laws of war.
The bibliography and footnotes in Conflicting Missions are comprehensive, the maps well placed and useful, the photos informative with long and descriptive captions, and the index thorough. Gleijeses writes beautifully, and his judgments are measured and fair. Every chapter begins with a short paragraph that is a hard jewel of concision and elegance. For example, chapter thirteen begins:
For Pretoria, the collapse of the Portuguese dictatorship was a disaster. It turned friends into foes and opened gaping holes in the buffer zone that protected it from the hostile continent to its north. As Mozambique swung to the left and Angola descended into civil war, the instability in Rhodesia and Namibia assumed a more ominous and urgent hue. South Africa's defenses were crumbling. (p. 273)
Gleijeses follows many interweaving historical strands: Cuban revolutionary activities in Latin America; Cuban intervention in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea-Bissau, and Angola (the Cubans understandably released almost no information on their support for Equatorial Guinea's Macias Nguema, perhaps the most psychotic and murderous ruler in modern African history); Cuban relations with the United States; and U.S. relations with Africa. Among the most interesting threads is the almost unknown story of the Cuban "peace corps"--several hundred doctors, nurses, and technical experts who volunteered to work in Africa and North Vietnam, all of whom Castro sent without charge to the host countries.
At the heart of the book is Cuba's African policy, which waxed and waned inversely with Cuban subversion in the Western Hemisphere. Gleijeses sees Castro's foreign policy as having been driven by revolutionary zeal and a desire for self-preservation. He hoped that by sparking successful revolutions across Latin America and Africa, he would force the United States to deal with several revolutionary regimes, thus taking the pressure off Cuba.
Cuba's first African operation was in Algeria in 1961 when Castro sent weapons to the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN) for its struggle against French colonial rule, and then in 1963 sent tanks, artillery, and military volunteers to use them to repel an invasion by Morocco. Gleijeses argues that the chronology of events was such that there was no time for Cuba to have consulted with the Soviet Union about the intervention, a conclusion he supports with Cuban and Algerian oral histories and with the single document released on the decision. Thereafter, Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella allowed the Cubans to use his country as a bridgehead to Africa and Latin America, setting up training camps for Latin American revolutionaries and allowing them to use Algerian passports to infiltrate Argentina and Venezuela. The relationship ended with Ben Bella's overthrow in 1965. Gleijeses shows that the Cubans established practices in Algeria that they would follow with subsequent interventions: Castro was willing to put Cuba at risk in the name of revolutionary idealism, first by potentially harming relations with France, which had stood up to U.S. demands for sanctions against Cuba, and then by risking a huge sugar contract with Morocco; he sent weapons, troops, and medical personnel at no cost to the host government; and he intervened using Cuban resources and without consulting the Soviet Union (for subsequent interventions, Gleijeses received many documents that verified the independence of Cuban action).
Following the Cubans' Algerian successes and their contemporaneous failure to spread revolution in the Western Hemisphere, Castro overrated Africa's revolutionary potential, despite Che Guevara's December 1964 - March 1965 African tour in which he found that most African revolutionary leaders preferred to lead their troops from hotel rooms or while jet-setting to meetings across Europe. One of the few who truly impressed him was the charismatic Laurent Kabila, leader of the Lumumbist Simba (Lion) rebels in eastern Congo-Leopoldville (later Zaire, today the Democratic Republic of the Congo), who had rebelled against the country's pro-U.S. government. Guevara believed that revolutionary success in Congo, which borders nine countries, would spread physically and spiritually across the Continent. He arranged to send a contingent of over one hundred Cubans (dark-skinned Blacks, so they would blend in with the local population, which became standard practice for African missions) who would train the Simbas and fight alongside them. Gleijeses found that Guevara did not go to Africa because of disillusionment with Castro, as recent biographies have suggested; Cuban documents and interviews show that his goal was to spread revolution to fertile ground, and to train and toughen his men while preparations were made for him to lead a guerilla war against the government of his native Argentina.
In Congo-Leopoldville, although the Simbas were nominally Marxists, CIA agents on the ground reported that their true motivation was tribal and that the rebellion had been sparked by the government's brutality and incompetence. The rebellion spread quickly, the Congolese army disintegrated, and by the time Washington noticed what was happening, it faced a full-blown crisis, which the government concluded was Soviet-inspired despite the intelligence to the contrary. In response, it launched a covert operation in which mercenaries and Cuban-exile contract pilots stood in for the Congolese army and put down the rebellion. Gleijeses argues that this pattern of Washington ignoring excellent CIA intelligence and analysis on Africa would repeat itself with disastrous consequences in Angola. A few months later, Guevara and his men arrived in the Congo. Guevara sought to restart the rebellion, but found that the Simbas resented the Cubans' efforts to train them and simply did not want to fight. Their commander, the future president Kabila--duplicitous, drunken, and corrupt--was nowhere to be found. The situation grew so bad that one Cuban commander wrote from the field: "I have only fourteen Zaireans [Simbas] left.... The Zaireans have said they want to leave, that they no longer want to fight, that I am holding them here at gunpoint, and that as soon as the enemy attacks they will flee" (p. 142). The U.S.-backed mercenaries crushed the remaining Simbas, and Guevara and his men were forced into humiliating retreat. Gleijeses notes that the CIA was inexplicably slow in noticing the Cubans' presence, probably because most of them were Black, and by the time it did notice, the mercenaries were mopping up the operation. Thereafter, the CIA had no institutional memory of Cuba's Congolese adventure, which Gleijeses argues also had a disastrous impact on U.S. Angolan policy.
Days after Guevara and his men arrived in Congo-Leopoldville, Cuban troops were sent to Congo-Brazzaville, where a revolutionary government had recently come to power. It was in Brazzaville that Gleijeses's contact, Jorge Risquet, got his first taste of Africa as overall commander of the Cuban mission. Risquet quickly found that the Congolese government was made up of boutique Marxists whose idea of combat was an argument about Marxist dialectics over a bottle of French wine. Instead of spreading revolution, the Cubans became a praetorian guard, protecting the government from its own army. They also were not impressed by the military performance of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which they trained, or by its leaders, who were in comfortable exile rather than fighting alongside their men in the field. After less than two years, Castro withdrew most of his men despite a Soviet request that they remain.
Thereafter, the only African liberation movement that impressed the Cubans was the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), which was fighting the Portuguese for an independent Guinea-Bissau. Gleijeses shows that the Cubans fell in love with Guinea-Bissau. The PAIGC was led by Amilcar Cabral, a remarkable figure who brilliantly devised the military strategy and politically melded the tiny colony's numerous ethnic groups into a nation. The CIA agreed with Castro that the PAIGC was the best-led guerilla movement in Africa and was likely to break free from Portuguese rule. Portugal's failure to defeat the PAIGC finally caused left-wing military officers to overthrow the fascistic dictatorship of Marcello Caetano for the avowed purpose of ending Portugal's colonial wars. The junta quickly agreed to grant independence to Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, but Angola was more confusing because the colony was divided among three guerilla movements--the Marxist MPLA led by Agostinho Neto, Holden Roberto's Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA)--which fought each other at least as hard as they fought the Portuguese. Nonetheless, on January 15, 1975, the three independence movements signed the Alvor agreement, which laid out an elaborate plan for creating a transitional government that would oversee Angola's transition to elections and freedom on November 11, 1975.
Gleijeses's chapters on Angola, which make up about 40 percent of the book, have been the most reported and discussed (including a thread on the H-Diplo listserv) because of the U.S. covert intervention and invasions by South Africa and Cuba. He verifies much of rogue CIA agent John Stockwell's controversial In Search of Enemies and nicely complements John Marcum's two-volume The Angolan Revolution, which focused on the domestic component of the Angolan story.
Prior to the civil war, the MPLA had received arms and training from Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Cuba; the FNLA had been backed by Zaire (whose president, Mobutu Sese Seko, was Roberto's brother-in-law--a point not mentioned by Gleijeses) and by China, while Roberto himself had received a monthly subsidy as an intelligence asset from the CIA since 1961; UNITA, created last, was virtually shut off from foreign assistance. When full-scale civil war broke out in March, the FNLA had the biggest and best-supported army, but the MPLA's was much better trained and led, and by July seemed poised to win the war. It was at this point that Angola became a priority for U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Despite being a man who thinks geopolitically, Kissinger spends little space in his memoirs setting out what he considered to have been U.S. interests in Angola. He unsystematically argues that the United States had two interests: protecting its international prestige and ensuring continued pro-U.S. stability on the Continent. Gleijeses follows Kissinger's lead and assesses whether these interests were advanced by U.S. covert intervention or would have been better served by staying out of Angola.
Following the fall of Vietnam, President Gerald Ford and Kissinger were determined to demonstrate U.S. resolve, and Angola appeared to be the perfect opportunity since they saw the MPLA as a Soviet weapon for poaching in the Western sphere of influence. Stopping the Soviets would re-affirm that the United States was serious about its international responsibilities. On July 18, 1975, Ford launched IAFEATURE, a covert operation that provided six million dollars in assistance for the FNLA and UNITA and grew to almost twenty-five million dollars by the end of August. Despite IAFEATURE, the war continued badly for the FNLA and UNITA until mid-October when UNITA suddenly launched a powerful counteroffensive, reported in the Western press as assisted by White mercenaries. The "mercenaries" were regular units of the South African army fighting under cover. They rolled over the MPLA's forces and after only a month appeared to be days away from taking Luanda, the Angolan capital, and winning the war for UNITA.
Gleijeses, like Kissinger, takes seriously the idea that prestige is an important strategic interest that states must maintain, but he does not believe that intervening in Angola was the way to maintain it. In light of how poorly the FNLA had fought and how weak UNITA was, Gleijeses argues that Kissinger would have been naive and reckless to put U.S. prestige on the line in Angola unless he was also working with the South African government. Although Kissinger denies collaborating with South Africa, Gleijeses brings forth impressive evidence that he did, including South African reports based on archival documents that show South Africa launched a covert operation that worked in sync with the United States: four days before Ford approved IAFEATURE, South Africa also launched a covert operation, approving over fourteen million dollars in assistance for the guerillas; in August, when the South African weapons began to arrive in Kinshasa, Zaire, the CIA arranged to fly them to Angola; and in September, the CIA sent paramilitary advisers while South Africa sent military advisers. To this point, neither the United States nor South Africa has released documents that elucidate their relationship.
If South Africa-backed UNITA had won the war, Gleijeses asks rhetorically, would it have been a Pyrrhic victory for U.S. prestige because of the international opprobrium that would follow collaboration with the pariah South Africa? He does not think so: "Arguably, few African governments would have been duped, but so what?" Their need for economic aid and the fact of a fait accompli would have led most to "accept the American victory and move on" (p. 358). In fact, Gleijeses could have strengthened his point had he emphasized that many African governments would have happily accepted the result since African leaders ranging from the conservative Felix Houphouet-Boigny of the Ivory Coast to socialists like Senegal's Leopold Senghor and Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda had secretly encouraged South Africa to intervene. It is interesting to note that even after the MPLA had won and the South African intervention had been revealed to the world, the Organization of African Unity still would not recognize the MPLA as Angola's legitimate government, splitting in a January 1976 vote 22-22 with two abstentions. While this result was also a tribute to U.S. pressure and African governments' susceptibility to bribes and threats, it is still suggestive.
But of course, thanks to Fidel Castro, the South African-backed UNITA was defeated. Castro sent thousands of soldiers to Angola, halting the South African advance and pushing it back, shocking Kissinger. In late November, The Washington Post revealed the U.S. covert operation. Kissinger was able to secure another seven million dollars, but when he went to Congress for twenty-eight million dollars more for the following year, he was rebuffed. Abandoned, the South Africans withdrew from Angola. Gleijeses concludes: "Kissinger's aides had let him down: no one at the State Department, at the NSC, or in the intelligence community had warned him about Cuba. This was an egregious lapse, given Cuba's past activities in Africa and long-standing ties with the MPLA, but just as Kissinger would have reveled in the glow of victory, so too must he bear responsibility for failure" (p. 358). Instead of a prestige-restoring triumph, Angola made the United States look like a hamstrung and ineffectual ally of the apartheid regime. The Communist Bloc solidified its post-Vietnam prestige.
As to Angola's importance for U.S. interests in Africa, Kissinger and Gleijeses spend little space spelling it out. Gleijeses dismisses as political rhetoric a nightmare scenario laid out by United Nations Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "Europe's oil routes will be under Soviet control as will the strategic South Atlantic, with the next target on the Kremlin's list being Brazil" (p. 332). Although Brazil is far afield, many conservative scholars did accept the rest of Moynihan's analysis. That it proved faulty does not mean that it should be overlooked when assessing why the United States intervened. Ethiopia and Vietnam, for example, provided the Soviets with air and naval bases, allowing them to project their forces over a much-extended area. And Cuban troops in Angola did help the Communist Bloc save Ethiopia's revolutionary government in 1978 by airlifting fifteen thousand soldiers to stop a Somali invasion.
Kissinger argues that IAFEATURE was necessary because an MPLA victory "would encourage armed struggle and subvert [South African Prime Minister John] Vorster's detente in southern Africa" (p. 359). While Gleijeses agrees that the MPLA would and did disrupt southern African detente, he believes the detente was chimerical because violence against racist regimes was inevitable. Therefore, he concludes that a U.S.-assisted UNITA victory in Angola "would have strengthened the forces of racism and apartheid in southern Africa" (p. 359), presumably lengthening their duration and increasing the violence. This judgment seems questionable. If Savimbi had come to power in Angola, the historical record suggests that continuing to foster detente would have been Vorster's highest priority. Gleijeses shows that Vorster had already begun to abandon Ian Smith's racist Rhodesian regime and was working with Kaunda to force Smith to accept majority rule, which would have dramatically increased the possibility that Joshua Nkomo (favored by Kaunda, Vorster, Mobutu, and Savimbi) would have come to power in Zimbabwe rather than the frightful Robert Mugabe. With South Africa's northern flanks secure, it is reasonable to posit that the momentum of detente would have pushed Vorster toward independence for Namibia, certainly more peacefully and quickly than the thirteen violence-filled years that followed the MPLA's victory. And continued detente would have made it more likely that Vorster's successor would have been the diplomatic and conciliatory Roelof "Pik" Botha rather than the hard-line bulldozer P. W. Botha.
The United States and South Africa were not the only outside actors in Angola, of course. Yugoslavia had been the MPLA's chief arms supplier. The Soviet Union had cut off the MPLA's arms pipeline from 1972 until 1974 because of its infighting and paralysis. The Soviets agreed to resume assistance in early 1975, taking one hundred guerillas to the Soviet Union for training in March (they returned as a very effective unit in September) and sending weapons, which reached the MPLA by late May. Unfortunately, the Russians have not opened documents from this period to the general public, so Gleijeses is unable to cover this aspect of the story as much as he would have liked. Similarly, lack of access to the Portuguese archives prevents him from covering in much depth what role the Portuguese government and Angola-based members of the Portuguese armed forces played in assisting the MPLA following Caetano's overthrow. Frederick Wettering suggests in an H-Diplo post that it was significant prior to February 1975, during Admiral Antonio Rosa Coutinho's tenure as Angola's high commissioner, and Gleijeses cites a June 24, 1975 document in which CIA Director William Colby wrote that the Portuguese had provided "covert backing of the MPLA in the past," although they had since become impartial (p. 272).
One of the biggest surprises that Gleijeses learned from the Cuban documents was how uncharacteristically slow Castro had been in coming to the MPLA's aid. Only when the civil war grew out of control in late July and the MPLA appeared to be on its way to victory did Castro begin to focus on Angola, sending a team of military officers to assess its needs. They warned him that Zaire and South Africa, supported by the "imperialists," might intervene to prevent the MPLA's triumph (in fact, Zaire had already infiltrated 1,200 remarkably ineffectual troops into Roberto's army). On August 15, Castro requested that the Soviets airlift Cuban troops to Angola. Worried that this would disrupt detente with the United States, Brezhnev refused, so Castro acted on his own, sending the MPLA a team of approximately five hundred Cuban specialists and instructors, with the first score arriving by commercial flight. After the South African invasion in mid-October, Castro began a massive invasion of his own. Without time or perhaps inclination to consult the Soviets, he sent the MPLA over 3,000 additional soldiers by year's end, and ultimately some 30,000 soldiers. It was a decision that angered the Soviets at the time, but which they approved of following the MPLA's victory. Henry Kissinger refused to believe that the Cubans could have launched such a massive effort on their own, and assumed Castro had acted at the Soviets' behest. In his memoirs, he accepts that he had been mistaken.
What interests did Cuba have in Angola? Gleijeses cites U.S. intelligence reports, which argue that Castro wanted to incite and lead what he called an "irrepressible worldwide revolutionary movement" (p. 375). There was more at stake for Cuba though. Kissinger had begun a serious effort to normalize relations with Cuba in 1974 that continued until the second wave of the Cuban intervention. The United States had not responded favorably to peace feelers from Castro in 1963-1964 and 1967, prompting Gleijeses to speculate as to whether Castro would have changed his revolutionary foreign policy in exchange for better relations and all the benefits that would flow therefrom. When he opted for revolutionary purity and continued poverty, Castro proved where his loyalties lay.
Gleijeses has told the story of Cuba's African policies with scrupulous fairness, omitting neither the praiseworthy nor the embarrassing. He has filled gigantic holes in African history, and has corrected the record of U.S. African policy while showing how officials at the top echelon of the government ignored or distorted intelligence reports because they did not fit Cold War preconceptions. Conflicting Missions is among the finest examples of the "New Cold War International History" yet written.
. Interview with Piero Gleijeses, 8 June 2002.
. Jorge Castaneda, Companero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara (New York: Knopf, 1997); Jon Lee Anderson, Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life (New York: Grove Press, 1997).
. John Stockwell, In Search of Enemies: A CIA Story (New York: Norton, 1978).
. John Marcum, The Angolan Revolution, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1969, 1978).
. Gleijeses discusses Black African support for South Africa in his narrative, but omits it in his chapter on "Repercussions."
. See for example, Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Soviet Foreign Policy Since World War II: Imperial and Global, 4th ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p. 191.
. See for example, Alec Russell, Big Men, Little People: Encounters in Africa (London: Macmillan, 1999), pp. 101-106.
. Gleijeses notes, p. 270, that Odd Arne Westad is the only Western scholar to have received access to the Russian documents, and he was forbidden to photocopy them. Westad, "Moscow and the Angolan Crisis: A New Pattern of Intervention," Cold War International History Project Bulletin (Winter 1996-1997), pp. 21-32.
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Robert Waters. Review of Gleijeses, Piero, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976.
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