They are present across more than 3,785,000 Cuban households. It is almost impossible to find a Cuban family that does not count them among its members or friends. They wear no badge to identify them; they blend in with the rest of the people, be it at the grocery store, the ballpark or at a noisy domino table. Their children share the classroom with ours, with no other privilege than having been born in a land that provides them the right to education, to health, to their intellectual development, with equal opportunity.
However, they, the internationalist combatants, are not only heroes but the most faithful heirs of José Martí’s maxim: “Our homeland is humanity”. Forty years ago, on November 5, Cuba would provide the world with one of the most brilliant examples of heroism and, at the same time, humanism. Operation Carlota began, in the name of the independence of the people of Angola and, as such, of all Africa.
The operation was named after a Lukumí slave at the Triunvirato sugar plantation in Matanzas, who in 1843 led one of the many slave rebellions, in which she lost her life. She became a symbol of the heroic deeds of a people in defense of the noblest causes of the planet.
But this was not the first time that the integrity of the Cuban people was demonstrated through solidarity with other nations. As early for the Revolution as 1961, when Algeria was fighting for its independence, a ship from the island transported arms to the country and returned with orphans and the wounded. In 1963, Algerians saw their victory threatened and for the first time, Cuban troops crossed the ocean to assist them.
It was also there where Cuban doctors first traveled to save lives, as they do today in more than 60 nations across the world, as part of the island’s extraordinary record of healthcare services for developing countries.
In October 1975, the Zairian army and mercenary forces in the north were closing in on Angola’s capital, while in the south, South African armored columns were rapidly advancing with the same goal of taking Luanda.
Only weeks before, MPLA President Agostinho Neto had requested the presence of military instructors from Cuba, with a small number sent initially, and subsequently not exceeding 480 men, equipped with light weapons only.
In early November of that year, in Benguela, a group of these instructors together with their students came face to face with the enemy and were embroiled in an unequal battle. Dozens of young Angolans and eight Cuban instructors were killed.
Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro, on the occasion of the 49th anniversary of the landing of the Granma yacht and the 30th of the internationalist epic in Angola, said on December 2, 2005:
“For the first time, in this remote corner of Africa, Cuban and Angolan blood was shed in the struggle to free that troubled land.
“It was at this point that Cuba, in consultation with President Neto, decided to send Interior Ministry special troops and regular members of the Cuban army by air and sea, as fully-equipped fighting troops to confront the aggression by the forces of apartheid.
“We took up the challenge without hesitation. Our instructors would not be abandoned to their fate; neither would those selfless Angolan fighters, much less their homeland’s independence after 20 years of heroic struggle. Ten thousand kilometers from home, Cuban troops -heirs of the glorious Rebel Army – engaged in combat with the armies of South Africa, the continent’s richest and most powerful nation, and of Zaire, Europe and America’s richest and well-armed puppet state.
“Then, the campaign started known as Operation Carlota, code name for the most just, lengthy, large scale and successful internationalist military campaign undertaken by Cuba. “
Thirty-six thousand Cuban soldiers stopped the attack and launched an offensive that pushed the South African racists back 1,000 kilometers to the south, until they were on the other side of the border with Angola and Namibia. The South African column was stopped on November 13 and 14 on the banks of the Queve River, and it was precisely the instructors and their students from Benguela, who were to be the protagonists of this battle, together with the FAPLA units and special forces battalion. In the north, the mercenaries were driven back into Zaire.
In April 1976, the withdrawal of Cuban troops began, as agreed with President Neto, although combat units remained on the ground.
But the withdrawal schedule was to be hindered by the continued conspiracy between Pretoria and Washington, who in the eighties made public their aims, in the form of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s “constructive engagement” and “linkage” policies (leniency toward South Africa in exchange for support for U.S. strategic interests), which encouraged the South African regime in its attacks on Namibia and the launching of repeated invasions of Angola.
The Cuban response was to multiply Operation Carlota and the internationalism of the people of Martí, expressed in the support of their courageous fighters for another 15 years, until the last major South African invasion of Angolan territory at the end of 1987. The enemy, greatly emboldened, advanced strongly towards Cuito Cuanavale, a former NATO air base, and prepared to deliver the mortal blow against Angola.
There, Cubans and Angolans provided an unparalleled example of bravery which led to a historic victory. The resounding victory in Cuito Cuanavale, especially the lightning advance of the powerful group of Cuban troops in southwest Angola, put an end to the foreign military aggression. Some 55,000 Cuban soldiers fought there, demonstrating courage and the highest military ethics and professionalism in the midst of the hostilities.
Fidel, referring to the feat, expressed: “Rarely in history has war, the most terrible, heartrending and difficult of human actions, been accompanied by such humanism and humility on the part of the victors, despite the near-total absence of these values in the ranks of the vanquished. Firmness of principle and purity of aims explain the complete transparency of every campaign undertaken by our internationalist fighters.”
And he added that: “The Angola achievement and the struggle for Namibia’s independence against the fascist apartheid regime are a source of much strength to our people. The countless acts of heroism, self-sacrifice and humanism performed by over 300,000 internationalist fighters and some 50,000 Cuban civilian collaborators, who on a totally voluntary basis participated in missions to Angola, are a treasure of immense value.”
Cuba is proud of its history, its principles and of its children who fought in Angola, as well as the stoicism of their family and friends, faced with the sacrifice of their loved ones. 2,016 compatriots fell on Angolan soil, 160 in Ethiopia and 113 in other sister nations. They live on in the words of the famous anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral: “Cuban fighters are ready to lay down their lives for the liberation of our countries, and in exchange for this aid to our freedom and the progress of our people, all they take from us are their comrades who fell fighting for freedom.”