For more than forty years, the United States has pursued a policy designed to remove Fidel Castro from power. Fidel Castro survived more than 600 CIA assassination plots to become the longest serving non-royal leader of the 20th Century. As leader of the Cuban Revolution, he created a communist state in America’s ‘backyard’ that still survives today. However, in January 1959 Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah became the first head of state to recognise the Cuban revolution. The Ghana-Cuba friendship is one example of Fidel Castro’s legacy in Africa. Beyond America, Castro’s legacy can be felt throughout the continent. By evaluating Castro’s legacy in Africa, we can begin to put the pieces to the puzzle of an under-recorded historical relationship which is still very much alive today.
Fidel Castro was born on August 13, 1926 in Birán, Cuba, and was the chief leader of the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) prime minister of Cuba (1959-1976) and first head of the State Council of Republic of Cuba (1976-2008).
During the 50s & 60s the wave of Third World nationalism galvanised African nationalists to overthrow the shackles of colonialism and imperialism. Civil Rights Movement and Non-Aligned Movement leaders, became influenced by Castro’s leadership and defiance against the West.
Footprints of the Cuban Revolution within Africa
In 1960, during Castro’s visit to New York, Castro and his delegation decided to stay at the the black-owned Hotel Theresa in Harlem, where they were welcomed by el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, Malcolm X. Rosemari Mealy, an academic, writer and Black Panther Party member, who has written about the encounter, recalls: “Activists, journalists and regular Harlemites … recalls all across the United States, including Harlem, blacks and other people of colour were waging relentless struggles against racism and police violence, the fight for decent housing, jobs and the end to segregation of public schools and transportation”. Castro’s decision to stay in Harlem, to meet so publicly with Malcolm X and, subsequently, to receive a host of foreign leaders who were at odds with American foreign policy – including Nikita Khrushchev, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Jawaharlal Nehru – antagonised the US administration but also served as a powerful example of how Cuba was positioning itself in relation to the rest of the world.
Since the Civil Rights Movement was a point of reference to the African liberation movement and vice versa, Castro gained traction in Africa. Cuba under his leadership, played an influential role in the end of apartheid in South Africa. Nelson Mandela notes “The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the people of Africa. The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom, and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character.” Castro’s legacy can also be evidenced in Cuba’s demand for the freedom of Namibia in addition to Angola.
The Ghana-Cuba friendship began in January 1959 when Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah became the first head of state to recognise the Cuban revolution. Nkrumah in a secret pact, allowed Che Guevara and other Cuban internationalists to use Accra as a transit to Congo now DRC to launch a revolutionary intervention in support of forces loyal to Patrice Lumumba although it failed. In July and August 1983, seven hundred Ghanaian students accompanied by seven Ghanaian teachers left Accra for Esbec 22, on the Isle of Youth in Cuba for their secondary education up to the university to specialize in various professions in Medicine, Agriculture, and Engineering.
During Fidel Castro’s leadership, there were 23 schools for students from Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Namibia, and other African countries on the Isle of Youth. In November 1983, at the request of the government of Ghana, the first batch of 200 Cuban doctors arrived in Ghana to support Ghana Health Service in the delivery of health services. Many of these envoys that followed cemented Cuba’s “medical internationalism” that left a lasting legacy across Africa and Cuba’s African allies. It was in this spirit that, in 1963, Cuba sent a delegation of 56 Cuban doctors to Algeria. Algeria was still recovering from a long war of liberation from France, and post-independence “white flight” had left the country desperately lacking in medical professionals.
Despite Castro’s effort to the liberation of African nation-states, there have been references of criticism. Most notably Castro’s involvement in the May 27 massacre in Angola. On the 27th May 1977, an MPLA faction rose up against the leadership, the honey moon phase of the revolution crashed to a halt. Six senior members of the MPLA were killed that day by supporters of the uprising. In response, President Neto, the politburo and the state media made many highly inflammatory statements that incited extraordinary revenge. In the weeks and months that followed, thousands of people – possibly tens of thousands – were killed. Some of the executions were overseen by Cuban troops sent to Angola by Fidel Castro to repel a South African invasion. However, what needs to be taken into consideration is that Castro did not control the MPLA or its factions, thus the uprising was not the result of his efforts. Furthermore, as the MPLA suffered from multiple schisms during its duration as a liberation party, one should also highlight that aims and objectives were blurred. To blame this on Castro would be misguided. Another point of reference is also the bloodshed from the 1977 Ethiopia-Somilia War. Furthermore, within Cuba itself, during his leadership, political critics were silenced to prison. Not allowing freedom of speech, argue critics, illustrate his hypocrisy. However, whatever your views of Fidel Castro, what can’t be denied is his consistent commitment to African liberation movements and the comradeships he established with many leaders within the continent. Cuba’s foreign policy of internationalism cemented this despite the detractions that his critics use to taint his legacy.
A march in solidarity with the Government and people of Cuba under the banner “Ghana Loves Fidel” was being organised in memory of Commandante Fidel Castro, the late leader of the Cuban revolution in Accra on Saturday 3rd December 2016.
Angolan President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos declares one day national mourning in Fidel Castro’s memory.
Namibia’s President Hage Geingob acknowledges “The death of #Fidel signals the end of an era. Our comrade is no more but his revolutionary legacy will remain with Namibia forever” in a statement on Twitter.
Undeterred by Fidel Castro’s controversies, one thing remains constant: The end of colonialism in Africa and the successes of the African liberation movement in Africa could not have been achieved without the help of Commandante Fidel Castro, who we honour today.