, HAVANA, Cuba, Nov 26 – Back in the 1970s at the height of the Cold War, the small Caribbean nation of Cuba went to war thousands of miles away on the battlefields of Angola and Ethiopia, leaving thousands dead.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro, who died late Friday, was convinced that the global stage for the “world revolution” was happening in Africa — and thus Cuba became the first Latin American nation to go to war outside its own continent.
Angola and Ethiopia soon became symbols of the “regional conflicts” of the Cold War, in which Washington and Moscow battled for ideological supremacy and power through proxy wars.
But Havana’s involvement in the fighting fields far from home was to cost it dear.
Some 4,300 Cubans died in African conflicts, half of them in Angola — although experts say that number has been sharply underestimated.
Cuban veterans have often complained of lack of care and benefits on returning home.
In Angola, Castro responded to calls for help from the Marxist guerrilla leader Agostinho Neto, who had seized Luanda during a bloody war from its Portuguese colonial masters.
Neto had no intention of sharing Angola’s independence, with rival guerrilla leaders Holden Roberto, supported by Zaire — now the Democratic Republic of Congo — or Jonas Savimbi, backed by South Africa.
Initially thousands of Cuban troops were deployed along 14,000 kilometers (8,600 miles) of coastline in Operation Carlota, named in honor of a black slave revolt in Cuba.
Moscow also poured logistics and funding into Angola in a war that turned into a hard slog for Cubans, as the heroes of the island’s guerrilla-led revolution had to quickly adapt and learn counter-insurgency tactics.
In March 1988, the South African army retreated in the face of the Cubans at the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, a setback that sounded the death knell for the apartheid regime and led to the independence of Namibia.
The Angola campaign lasted until 1991, when the last of some 400,000 Cuban soldiers sent to fight “imperialism” in an “international mission” finally returned home.
In February 1977, General Arnaldo Ochoa was also sent to Ethiopia to support the leader of the Communist military junta, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, against the Ethiopians’ former Somali allies, who were forced to surrender the Ogaden plateau to 17,000 Cuban soldiers.
Cuban troops were also stationed in Mozambique after its independence.
Since the 1960s Cuban troops have served in Algeria, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone and Libya.