By Stephen Von Sychowski
Cuba is known around the world for its feats of international solidarity. Today it is a sort of medical super-power, sending doctors across the globe to help those in need. But during the struggle against colonialism and apartheid in Africa, Cuba played one of the most p...rominent roles of any non-African country on the side of freedom and national liberation.
Unfortunately it is not common knowledge that while the United States backed racist South Africa, Cuba sent tens of thousands of volunteers, as well as tanks, artillery, and other military hardware to aid the liberation armies.
The best known battle is that of Cuito Cuanavale, where 95,000 Cubans joined with Angolan troops and Namibian SWAPO guerillas to smash a 1987-88 offensive against independent Angola by the South African Defense Force (SADF) and their US-backed UNITA allies.
But 33 years ago, in a lesser-known altercation, Cuba helped to stop a brutal massacre of men, women, and children by the South African Defense Force in the southern Angolan town of Cassinga.
Cassinga was the site of a refugee camp, established by the Namibian South West African People's Organization (SWAPO). On May 4, 1978, it came under airborne attack and bombing from South African planes. Paratroopers quickly overran the surprised SWAPO troops, leaving hundreds of civilian refugees defenseless.
The Cubans were stationed nearby at Techamutete. When news of the attack reached them, they immediately set off to engage the aggressors. When the South Africans intercepted news of the Cuban advance, they evacuated some of their forces, leaving the rest to finish their "mopping up" operations, and search for intelligence.
The Cubans arrived, and a battle ensued. 150 Cuban soldiers lost their lives, giving Cassinga the unfortunate distinction of the highest casualty rate of any battle during Cuba's military involvement in Angola. But what the Cubans discovered after the fighting subsided was even more horrifying.
The South Africans fled in disarray, leaving behind 40 prisoners of war whom they had intended to kidnap for interrogation and almost certain torture and death. Cassinga was largely destroyed. The massacre and the battle which followed lasted only nine hours, but left 624 dead and 611 wounded. Among the dead were 167 women, and 298 teenagers and children.
The leader of SWAPO, Sam Nujoma, addressed the United Nations Security Council on May 6. He condemned the invasion of Angolan territory, and the massacre of Namibian refugees. The Council passed Resolution 428, which condemned apartheid and its occupation of Southwestern Africa, while commending Angola's support for the Namibian people.
The SADF later claimed that Cassinga had been a SWAPO military base, not a refugee camp. While there was a military presence, it was primarily civilians who were present and who were ultimately massacred. The government of Namibia established a day of remembrance, Cassinga Day, marked every May 4th.
But Cuba's involvement in Cassinga did not end with the South African retreat. Cuba welcomed survivors, mostly women and children, to its country for recovery and medical treatment. Many stayed and were enrolled in schools where they received the education they were denied back home. Some eventually graduated from Cuban Universities. One, Grace Uushona, even went on to become the Namibian Ambassador to Cuba.
Today Cuba is under a renewed propaganda assault, led by North American and European imperialist governments. Media stories which depict US-paid "dissidents" as freedom fighters, while painting Cuba as a dark, repressive, and anti-democratic country are the norm. But these distortions can't hide the fact that it was Cuba, not imperialism, which stood with the people of Africa during their struggle for independence. Cuba, not imperialism, stands with the oppressed people of the world today.
(The above article is from the Feb. 15-28, 2011, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading communist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)