Above photo: Old Spanish Casino in Freedom Plaza, Matanzas City, the day it was converted into the Gener y Del Monte library. Date: 3 June 2010 (upload date) Source: Own work matanzas cuba Author: Liu Fernandez Esparrech.
Bill Cosby was always a rapist monster. That much, hindsight and evidence make clear. Still, moored in our “Me Too” moment, it’s easy to forget how profound and influential the man, and the network smash hit, The Cosby Show, once was. Much beloved—though he long had critics—“America’s Dad” had a global fanbase. Furthermore, with his sitcom’s socio-political undertones, Cosby then seemed something like a national conscience.
The Cosby Show “conscience” had a distinct international component. Enter South Africa—an apartheid nation so repressive it had no television until 1976—where it was the era’s most popular sitcom. This was “ironic,” according to a local black high schooler: “that a show by somebody who was very explicitly an opponent of apartheid was shown in South Africa.” Specifically, some older readers may even remember that, in the mid-1980s, an anti-apartheid poster famously adorned (Cosby’s sitcom-son) Theo’s bedroom wall, that exiled black South African singer Miriam Makeba had a guest role, and the Huxtables’ twin grandchildren were named Nelson and Winnie (after imprisoned future President Mandela and his then-wife).
This all seemed of a piece with America’s presumptive role as a leading apartheid opponent. According to the comforting fable, grassroots activists—who did influence the eventual imposition of sanctions—joined “liberal” and media elites, and, with a decisive assist from Cosby-consciousness, personified America’s consistent, noble opposition to apartheid venality. Would that it were true.
Juxtaposition with an “enemy,” communist Cuba, dispenses darker doses of reality. America’s “Cosby-effect,” though admirably symbolic, paled next to the conveniently forgotten Cuban role in not just checking South African aggression, but ushering the end of apartheid. From 1975 to 1991, Cuba’s (invited) soldiers died, and its aid workers actively toiled, to preserve—from Pretoria’s ubiquitous invasions—Angolan and Namibian independence. Havana’s actions buoyed anti-apartheid activists within South Africa, contributing to the racist regime’s subsequent fall.
Washington, conversely—whether led by “liberal” Jimmy Carter or “conservative” Ronald Reagan—counted among Pretoria’s few international supporters. Sure, U.S. leaders rarely admitted this outright, but through its United Nations’ “veto” shielding, support for South Africa’s monstrous proxies, and diplomatic favoritism in lengthy “peace” negotiations, America was nothing less than apartheid’s enabler extraordinaire.
Its eyes locked in Cold War-blinders—which catalyzed, and masked, deep-seated racialized mistrust of black African competence—Washington saw Cuba’s presence, not apartheid aggression, as the core problem. Thus, Reagan’s shining “city upon a hill” prolonged apartheid, apologized for, and made possible, South Africa’s decades’ worth of military invasions. That few Americans even know this sordid story, proves Uncle Sam has yet to wash his bloody hands.
A remarkable narrative, no doubt, but does it matter? Assuredly so. Though faded by the media’s COVID-coverage frenzy, there’s recently been a peculiar reporting upsurge on these normally obscure topics. Examples include the political storm surrounding Bernie Sanders’ faint (and accurate) praise of Cuban education, Joe Biden’s repeated lies about his arrest while trying to visit Mandela in prison, and President Trump saving his first tweet that named the continent to empathize with South African whites.
There are even corona-connections. In the midst of the current pandemic—though it still suffers under Washington’s callous blockade—Cuba has again led the way with humanitarian assistance. As such, a fresh, sober look at the Cuban and American roles in late-Cold War Southern Africa and the climactic crisis of apartheid is in order.
Hypocrisy 101: How to Prolong and Legitimize a Racist Regime
President Carter entered the Oval Office promising a fresh “human rights” focus in foreign affairs, but neither he, Reagan, nor their predecessors meaningfully challenged apartheid or South African aggression. Though presidents paid lip service to apartheid’s ills, Washington’s pernicious public record at the United Nations suggests otherwise. As it was wont to do throughout the Cold War, the U.S. wielded the immense power of its Security Council vote in a manner consistent with a veritable “veto,” or “abstention,” imperialism.
Time and again, Washington sided with former colonial powers, or even stood alone to block the independence aspirations of Third World citizens. Specifically, the U.S. vetoed at least 14 resolutions condemning bad behavior by South Africa and/or its fellow white-ruled (until 1980) pariah state, Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe). Furthermore, in cowardly acts of silent acquiescence, it abstained some 28 times on similar motions. Much, though hardly all, of Washington’s intransigence centered on its unwillingness to support mandatory selective sanctions on Pretoria’s regime.
Reagan fought these tooth-and-nail, disingenuously arguing that sanctions would “injure the very people we are trying to help”—whilst maintaining the Cuba blockade—until sanctions were finally forced upon him by constituent-pressured Congress. Raising a final, if futile, middle finger to African freedom, Reagan vetoed the bill. Only by then, most of his own party had turned on him, and the Senate voted to overturn. Even current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell broke with Reagan. As he announced on the floor:
“For the first time since I came to the Senate, I break with my President on a major issue. I’ve been with him on all the major foreign policy initiatives of this administration, but on this one I think he is ill-advised, I think he is wrong.”
Reflexive anti-communism certainly played a role in Washington’s repulsive record. Carter and Reagan were both shackled to a dogmatic Manichaean prism that trumped America’s espoused values and even basic decency. When Cold War vernacular wasn’t sufficient, Reagan nimbly pivoted to the convenient “terrorism” tag—which he slapped on Mandela’s ANC. Yet other, darker motives were cloaked behind America’s “Free World” grandiloquence. Washington had significant long-standing uranium (think nukes) and other mineral interests in South Africa.
One could drive a Mack Truck through the chasm between Washington’s public rhetoric and private practices. The result amounted to nothing less than “wink-nod” support and tacit legitimization of Pretoria’s racialized suppression and external aggression. Neither South African apartheid, nor its “Border,” or “Bush,” Wars in Angola and Namibia would’ve been possible without U.S. acquiescence. Even so, white South African leaders mirrored America’s doublespeak. Like ever-petulant children, they alternately praised Reagan (though less fond of Carter) abroad, and—as red meat for their radical rightists—ungratefully decried an “untrustworthy” Washington at home.
Nevertheless, when the chips were down, Pretoria’s big-wigs knew their bread was buttered in Washington. As the esteemed South African academic Sampie Terreblanche concluded, Reagan’s election “was something of a Godsend for … [the government in Pretoria]. It would not have been possible to maintain the apartheid regime if it was not for Reagan…”
As for Mandela, he wasn’t removed from the U.S. government’s official terrorist list until 2008. And, speaking of “terrorists,” Washington armed and funded Jonas Savimbi’s right-wing UNITA rebels—South African proxies responsible for mass atrocities, and known to burn opponents at the stake—to fight the Angolan government. Furthermore, South Africa’s partners had illegally colluded with another American “friend,” Israel, to develop a nuclear weapons program, eventually building six bombs. Funny how U.S. policymakers never mention that as they now condemn Iran.
Regardless, contrasted with Cuba’s Southern African policies, this all seems downright obscene.
The Selfless Nation
In one sense, Cuba—a tiny island nation of just 9 million, and 7,000 miles away—appears an odd candidate for African liberation. Then again, there’s something fitting, even poetic, about a populace, largely descended from enslaved Africans, sending volunteers (even the CIA admitted they were) to defend their continental brethren from white invaders.
So it was, after the U.S.-encouraged 1975 South African invasion of the newly independent—former Portuguese colony of—Angola, that Havana answered Luanda’s pleas and turned back the assault. It wouldn’t be the last time. For 12 odd years, Cubans held the line against repeated incursions, and, in 1987-88, repelled a larger outright invasion, then, taking the offensive, expelled the South Africans once and for all. Pretoria’s attacks mainly stemmed from occupied Southwest Africa (Namibia)—Africa’s “last colony”—and the Cubans also trained its local SWAPO rebels fighting for independence.
Furthermore, Havana sent a total of 43,257 doctors, teachers, and other aid workers to Angola in this period—its own version of the U.S. Peace Corps. As with the troops, Havana bore most costs. Additionally, Cuba ran a massive (if unidirectional) student exchange program. While their countries struggled against neo-colonial aggression, tens of thousands of Angolans, South Africans, Namibians, Zimbabweans and Mozambicans received quality education on Cuba’s “Isle of Youth” (which also housed political prisoners).
Why, as the Eastern Bloc slowly crumbled—and Cuba’s precarious economy consequently faltered—would Castro commit such resources to distant Africa? American policymakers and pundits had a ready answer: his Soviet masters forced him to. Yet such Cold War heuristics collapse under scrutiny.
No mere Soviet pawn, Havana hardly ever consulted with Moscow prior to, nor sought permission for, its military deployments in Southern Africa. In fact, this frustrated the Soviets to no end. As often exasperated Premier Mikhail Gorbachev wrote, “Castro always maintained his independence… He did not tolerate and did not allow us to give him orders,” Piero Gleijeses notes in his book Visions of Freedom. Though Cuba largely relied on Soviet arms and economic aid to keep its military mission afloat, even when Moscow delayed, or threatened to cut off, weapons shipments, Havana’s determination never waned. As Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro colorfully told a Soviet general, “we’ll go without underpants if we have to.”
The truth is that Castro and company were true believers in the Angolan and anti-apartheid causes. Washington’s career diplomats and intel analysts knew better. Whatever U.S. leaders might say publicly, their experts conceded the opposite. The CIA admitted Castro’s primary motivation was his “sense of revolutionary mission.” For Castro and the men around him, “revolution… [was] their raison d’etre.” Even that most hard-nosed of realists, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, observed, Castro “was probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power.”
In the aggregate, Cuba gained almost nothing—and risked much—from this substantial investment. The economic costs of Havana’s mainly pro-bono work were immense. Furthermore, just prior to Cuba’s Angolan intervention, Kissinger and Carter had cautiously extended a (conditional) olive branch. Castro knowingly spoiled his best chance at diplomatic normalization with the one state that had invaded, sabotaged, and posed the greatest threat to Cuba. So Havana’s African crusade can reasonably be considered an existential risk. Of course, Fidel always was a high-stakes revolutionary gambler.
Then there were the bodies. A total of 2,103 Cubans died in Angola—nearly equivalent (proportionately) to America’s Vietnam casualty count. Each Cuban fatality is inscribed on the “Wall of Names” in Pretoria’s Freedom Park. They are the only foreigners represented, as Gleijeses notes.
“The Most Beautiful Cause”
The United States’ pernicious policies in Southern Africa raise thorny questions, and ought to shake citizens’ exceptionalist identity to the core. America and apartheid: the concepts are inextricably linked and necessarily challenge deeply held notions of who, exactly, we are. Thus, without questioning his personal devotion, Bill Cosby’s—and, more egregiously, America’s—contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle was ultimately piddling. The Cuban collocation is especially evocative. Furthermore, the Cosby component was always untidy. While his sitcom undeniably had positive influences on black (and some white) views of apartheid, that the ever-cunning South African regime allowed it to air is instructive.
The national broadcasting corporation judged it “innocuous” entertainment, and “not dangerous.” As American critics argued at the time, the core messages of The Cosby Show were inherently “middle class” and “consumerist.” Just as the sitcom never meaningfully challenged the U.S. race and class structures, so the South African system adopted more de facto control. As that same Pretoria high school student later lamented, “One of the distinctive features [of contemporary South Africa]… is a class apartheid… and… retention of white privilege.” In a final gut punch, he added, “class apartheid is I think what is represented by The Cosby Show.”
Havana could hardly alter this unfortunate outcome. Cuba never invaded South Africa or Namibia, remained (as promised) in Angola only so long as Luanda desired, and abided by the negotiated (with Washington) agreement to withdraw troops by 1991. Still, little Cuba’s tireless intervention saved Angola, freed Namibia, checked South Africa, and contributed mightily to what Castro called “‘the most beautiful cause,’ the struggle against apartheid,” as Piero Gleijeses wrote.
For all South Africa’s contemporary woes, that abhorrent system is gone; Cuba, on the other hand—warts and all—is still standing, and continues its revolutionary humanitarian mission in spite of the current coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps that was Castro’s ultimate victory.
The tide-shifting battle of the earlier war had come in 1987-88. The Cuban force defeated a South African infantry, armor, and UNITA onslaught at Cuito Cuanavale, in Eastern Angola. Nelson Mandela, even before de facto apartheid’s onset, was keenly aware that no one battle—perhaps no single war—could vanquish structural racism. However, the battle loomed large with the future president.
It was a symbol far more powerful than Theo Huxtable’s bedroom poster. Cuito Cuanavale, Mandela later declared, “destroyed the myth of invincibility of the white oppressor… served as an inspiration to the struggling people of South Africa… [was the turning point] in the liberation of… the continent—and our country—of the scourge of apartheid.” Two years after Cuba’s victory, Namibia gained independence, the ANC was legalized, and Mandela was finally released after 27 years in prison. Negotiations began, which, four further years on, resulted in his election as president of the country that’d chained him.
Days later, he was ceremonially inaugurated. Seated among the guests—on the right side of history—“the only one among the scores of dignitaries singled out by the crowd for lusty shouts of ‘Viva!’” was Mandela’s manifested symbol: Fidel Castro.
As deadly pandemic, and all it augurs, blankets the planet, we grapple, still, with Castro’s ghost.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.