Mandela, a Loyal Friend of Cuba’s Fidel

December 7, 2013 | Print Print |

By Isaac Risco (dpa)

Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela. Foto:

HAVANA TIMES — Admired around the world, Nelson Mandela also had a symbolic relationship with a Latin American country and, in particular, a man, Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

In his last open letter to Mandela in 2010, Castro called him an “old and revered friend.”

“In all my years in prison, Cuba was an inspiration and Fidel Castro a tower of strength,” once praised the late South African president.

One of the historical photos now circulating shows Mandela about to warmly embrace the old Latin American revolutionary, one of the few occasions in which Castro used a suit instead of his classic olive green military uniform during the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in 1998.

After becoming a global icon, “Madiba” never hid his allegiance to Cuba for its early support for his fight against apartheid, despite criticism that arose against Castro for the authoritarian excesses of his government.

“We profoundly respect and admire him, not only for what he did for his people, but also for his proven friendship to our country,” said the younger brother of Fidel, President Raul Castro, upon learning of Mandela’s death on Thursday.

A video also displays the affection Mandela and Fidel Castro professed, calling each other “brothers” during a visit by the South African to Havana in 1991. Cuba was the first Latin American country that he had visited. Mandela would later visit Argentina and Brazil, but his point of reference on the American continent would always Cuba.

In a dialogue recalled on Cuban TV on Thursday night, Mandela tells Fidel, “Before you say anything, you have to tell me when you are coming to South Africa. When are you coming?”

“I have not visited my South Africa homeland,” Castro responded, and he paid off his debt in 1994. Cuban television recalled that dialogue on Thursday night.

The revolution came to power in Cuba in 1959 led by a young Castro who electrified the world, including a militant activist in the far South. Especially in the Third World the bearded Cuban leader became a symbol of the struggle against colonialism.

For decades socialist Cuba tried to translate the spirit of their revolution to other struggles for emancipation, and also gave direct support to Africans. The Caribbean island sent troops to fight in Angola, a campaign considered in Cuba as one of the great “internationalist” deeds of Castro.

In the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, Cuban troops played a decisive role in stopping the advance of the Angolan insurgency operating with the support of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Cuito Cuanavale is considered today as a turning point for Africa, where the apartheid ended in 1992. Mandela never forgot the gesture.

“Our friend Cuba, who helped us train our people, who gave us resources that helped us so much in our struggle,” said the South African leader in his meeting with Castro in 1991.

Mandela also always ignored any criticism of his meetings with controversial leaders such as Castro or the old revolutionary and later Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

“We should not abandon those who helped us in the darkest hour in the history of this country,” Mandela told former US President Bill Clinton during a visit to Cape Town, to justify his ties with Castro and Gaddafi.

For Mandela, his vision of Latin America was always linked to Castro and Cuba.

What's your opinion?

  • Griffin

    The Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 had nothing to do with ending apartheid in South Africa in 1992. It did force Castro to the negotiating table and led to the withdrawal of Cuban, Soviet and South African forces from Angola.

    Read the history at the link for an accurate and full account of the Cuban intervention in Angola.

    The Cuban intervention in Angola began a decade before the South Africa army invaded Angola. It should be noted, that while South Africa today is a democracy, Angola is a corrupt dictatorship ruled by the MPLA regime which Cuba helped install in power.

    • George

      That’s not what Mandela thought. Two quotes from the man himself:

      “Cuito Cuanavale was the turning point for the liberation of our continent – and of my people – from the scourge of apartheid.”


      “Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been unbanned!

      The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today!”

      Unfortunately there are still some Whites who think they are so superior they cannot believe that they were defeated by the combined Angolan and Cuban forces.

      • john goodrich

        Thanks for that very effective use of facts .
        I’m sure Griffin will now rethink his pro-apartheid stance. (not)

        • Griffin

          Don’t be a jerk, John. I am not pro-apartheid and nothing I have every written here is in anyway supportive of the former regime of apartheid South Africa. It is such a cheap shot and intellectually weak tactic to accuse somebody you disagree with of supporting apartheid. You can’t dispute the facts, so you accuse your opponent of racism. How pathetic.

          I am pointing out the fact that the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale had nothing to do with ending apartheid, contrary to what Mandela and Castro claimed.

          The official Cuban story is that the defeated the SADF at Cuito Cuanavale. In the Sough African version, they claim to have defeated the Cuban-MPLA in that battle. However, the facts of the case do not support either interpretation.

          The SADF invaded southern Angola to clear out the ANC & SWAPO bases in Angola. The ANC & SWAPO were being armed, funded and trained by Cuba & the USSR. This is the support Mandela praises Castro for. The SADF did not invade Angola to conquer that country, but to stop their support for the ANC and SAWPO guerrillas who were based in southern Angola.

          The USSR also armed the Angolan army with several billions of dollars worth of advanced weapons, as well as arming the Cuban army in Angola. From the South African point of view, they felt they were surrounded by hostile Communist armies bent on their destruction. This was a rather apocalyptic view, but it guided their response to the perceived threat by attacking these guerrilla bases wherever they found them.

          For those readers who have difficulty comprehending anything which deviates from the Party line, I am in no way defending or endorsing the South African point of view. I am reporting what it was and how it guided their actions.

          When the SADF invaded, Angola responded by sending their army, supported by a large contingent of Cuban troops and a small number of Soviet officers to attack the SADF. In two engagements south of Cuito Cuanavale, the SADF defeated the Angolan-Cuban forces. The Cuban-Angoaln army then retreated to Cuito Cuanavale. The Soviet military advisors recommended further withdrawal but Fidel Castro refused the advice of the Russian officers. Instead, he ordered his army to stand at Cuito, sending reinforcements. When the SADF attacked, they were unable to defeat the Cubans. Both sides were badly mauled in the intense fighting, which was the largest battle in Africa since WWII.

          The SADF withdrew from Cuito and continued to mop up ANC & SWAPO bases along the border. The battles of the previous two years were a military stalemate, neither side could objectively claim victory.

          At the same time, the Berlin Wall fell in Europe, the East Bloc communist dictatorships collapsed and the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev were reconsidering their Third World military adventures. After pouring billions into Angola, their Angolan-Cuban proxies got mauled, but not defeated, by the much smaller SADF-UNITA forces.

          Fidel Castro did not like Gorbachev’s domestic reforms and was now facing a significant reduction in Soviet subsidies for Cuba, including the massive military support.

          So when the peace negotiations sponsored by the US began again, the USSR pushed hard at Fidel to accept a compromise solution. At the same time, the US pushed South Africa to accept the linkage of a peace treaty with the Cubans to a treaty with Angola and an agreement on independence for Namibia. South Africa agreed to the linkage because the Soviets were now in full retreat from southern Africa. Pretoria no longer felt under siege from a sea of Communist forces at their borders. The final agreement included clauses for the withdrawal of SADF troops from Angola & Namibia and the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. No where in the agreement was there any mention of changes to apartheid in South Africa.

          When the Cuban armed forces began withdrawal from Angola, Fidel needed to trumpet the mission as a huge victory. His propaganda machine, which includes Gabriel Marguez’ book on Operation Carlotta, promoted the Castro version.

          In reality, the war and the outcome were much muddier. The Cuban intervention in Angola began 10 years before Operation Carlotta, and before the South African army invaded southern Angola. During that period the Cubans helped install the Marxist MPLA in power through force of arms. The democratic elections that the UN had called for were never held. Today, the government of Angola is a corrupt dictatorship under Jose dos Santos while, the Republic of South Africa is a constitutional democracy.

          The transition of the apartheid regime to a multi-party constitutional democracy is Mandel’s greatest legacy. There were many around him who wanted a single party Marxist dictatorship, and there were those who wanted violent revenge on white South Africans and those blacks who had collaborated with them. Mandela bravely and wisely, argued for peace, truth and reconciliation.

      • JOR

        I am Cuban american, and left Cuba when I was 18 yo… my father was part of the Cuban revolution, fight in bay of pigs as part of the Cuban army and then when Fidel Castro became a tirane and a murderered when to prison, and became a political prisoner in the despicable regimen…he was always against the apartheid in South Africa and injustice in the world…but never simpathised with any murdered because they agreed with his ideas…Mandela was a great help for his people in fighting injustice, but for me as a smart free thinking human being and also a Cuban, lost all credit in my eyes when he called a killer apprentice of Germany’s Hitler a brother…and I’m not impressed by his 30 years in prison, there are still many political prisoners in Cuba since the beginning of the revolution, and thousands of dead by fire squad or a shot in the back of the head or else…I will only admire a person that is true to his believes no matter what, and does not seek the support of murderers.

    • John Goodrich

      The reason Angola is an independent country today is because of the help it received from the Cubans.
      Of course it had nothing to do with ending apartheid in SA .
      Reading “Operation Carlota” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is the alternative to the establishment version of the story you suggested reading..
      I recommend reading both and making up one’s own mind as to what is factual and what is not.
      South Africa is not a democracy.
      A democracy is rule by the majority and no majority of people in SA voted for the same poverty that afflicted them under apartheid .
      Like the U.S. the people are handed the preselected candidates for whom they are allowed to vote and like in the U.S those candidates are sworn and bribed to maintain the ECONOMIC status quo which is totalitarian and impoverishing (for the majority) capitalism.
      As an article at ZNet explained Mandela succeeded in bringing down apartheid but was defeated by the same neoliberal capitalism in bringing true equality and equity in the economic lives of the poor.
      Again, this is very similar to the U.S which gained independence from the British but the new oligarchic leaders retained an economic system that maintained divide just as it was before the revolution.
      Five minutes in the voting booth means little when you’re mired in lifelong poverty .
      That’s the reality.
      SAI like the USA is an oligarchy and is owned and run by the very wealthy .

      • Griffin

        Gabriel Marquez lives in a very nice villa provided by the Cuban regime, right next door to his close friend, Fidel Castro. That cosy arrangement rather undermines his objectivity and his credibility. His account of Operation Carlota is propaganda.

  • John Goodrich

    It’s a rough time for the enemies of mankind who write into HT.
    Mandela who is revered around the world except by the racists always spoke of his friendship with Fidel and of how Cuba was always on his side especially when the hero of the imperialists, Ronald Reagan, vetoed sanctions against the apartheid regime in S.A. and declared Mandela a terrorist, a declaration that was lifted just a short 6-7 years ago by the (terrorist) U.S. .
    seen as hypocrites .
    On top of that the Pope, breaking with a long papal tradition of supporting capitalism, imperialism, Nazis and a general ignoring of the teachings of Christ vis a vis the poor, has come out against capitalism and especially the “trickle-down” version promoted by Reagan and other enemies of the poor.
    Opposing all that Mandela stood for and supporting feral capitalism is getting to be very difficult to justify in civilized and moral company but I’m sure that the usual crew will make the attempt. .

    • Moses Patterson

      South Africa, the “S” in the BRICS coterie of rising “feral” capitalist countries, was reset on its course by Mandela’s noble vision to set aside his personal socialist beliefs and lead his country on a path of managed capitalism. His former reputation as a “terrorist” was deserved but he was able to evolve from a position of promoting armed struggle to one of peace and reconciliation. The outpouring of respect showed at his passing reflects this evolution. BTW, the US Congress, reflecting the will of the American people, overrode Reagan’s veto.. American ‘Exceptionalism’ is embodied in the diversity of our opinions and is also reflected in the capacity of Americans to continue to embrace the Pope while a small segment of the population sides with Rush Limbaugh’s commentary. We are big tent. Your problem with American ideology is our diversity. We do not have to march in goose-step with a single leader or single ideology. A failing of the communist regimes in the last century has been the inability to accept and accommodate diversity.

  • Walter Teague

    These men are two great examples of how compassion, intelligence, bravery and commitment to the people as a whole can produce leaders that give humanity a chance to overcome our worst conditions. It has taken thousands of years, and we still have so much to do. As Fidel said years ago, it is imperative we protect life on the planet for us all. As catastrophic climate change threatens us all and time run out, we need to heed the words and deed of these wonderful men and demand thousands of new leaders rise to the challenge.

    • John Goodrich

      Thanks for that post Walter.
      I would recommend that you pick up and read a copy of “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” ( Diamandis and Kotler)
      They are both in the high tech fields -Diamandis is the individual who offered a 10 million dollar prize to any private firm who could send off and get back a space vehicle and who is now offering a similar prize for anyone who comes up with a medical “tricorder” on the idea of the ones seen on the old Star Trek series . The technology for such a device is already here in part .
      The solutions to all the environmental problems handed us by unfettered capitalism are less than 30 years away and due entirely to the exponential progress in both computing power and AI which will reach human levels of floating ops per sec within ten years .
      The coming explosion of nanotechnology /nanobots is the key.
      My somewhat pessimistic thinking about the future was turned around in reading this book and Ray Kurzweil’s “The ( technological ) Singularity Is Near “.
      Give it a shot.

  • Moses Patterson

    Fidel should have been more like his ‘friend’ Mandela. Mandela, once he rose to power, sought reconciliation with those who opposed and imprisoned him. Fidel, on the contrary, chose to imprison, exile and even execute his former opponents. Mandela accepted the mantle of leadership as President of South Africa, signed a new constitution, and then left office after a single 5 year term. He humbly and wisely understood he could still have an impact while leaving the day-to-day governance to others. Fidel held on to the formal reins of control for half a century and only then, forced to do so for health reasons, passed the baton to his brother. Mandela decided to limit South Africa’s involvement in the struggles of other black African countries to supplying humanitarian aid. Fidel continued to arm anti-government guerillas and send Cuban military forces to destabilize several other Latin American countries. Other than Cuba’s involvement in Angola, these two men have very little in common.

  • Alberto N Jones

    70 years ago my grandfather thought me, when you do not have something sensible to say, keep your mouth shut. That applies today to Griffin and many others, trying to re-write history, exonerate the guilt of the perpetrators of such horrendous crime by masterfully posting their pictures with the man they wanted dead.

    Humanity once again have risen above all obstacles and one of his child have survived. People, regardless of our racial, social, religious or sexual differences, should express our eternal gratitude for this humble man’s teachings of tolerance, peace and harmony.

    As thousands of Cubans , who have been caught up in this 50 year old war of hatred, division and sufferings, have we learned anything? Are we willing to extract something from this exemplary life experience?

    Thousands in South Florida have made a living, preaching their pain, sufferings and divisions. None of us should question the validity or not their views. What we can ask ourselves, where have it lead us, what have we achieved and what future do we want for our nation.

    I am therefore calling on all of my fellow Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits to reflect on where we are, where we are heading and what each of us can do to reverse this negative trend.

    And to each member of the US Congress, Senate and the Executive Branch, who directly or indirectly have inflicted so much pain, suffering and deaths on the Cuban people they purported to help, to draw a parallel with what was said by the Apartheid government since 1948, what most western government leaders supported and the shame they have been left to live with.

    • Griffin

      It is not me who is trying to re-write history. The facts are in the public record. So don’t you tell me to keep my mouth shut. If you don’t like the truth all you need to do is keep your eyes shut.

      In my opinion, Mandela was a great, if flawed, man. However, I do not ascribe to the myth floating about in the media today that he lived his life devoted to peace. Mandela publicly endorsed violent revolution against the apartheid regime starting in 1956. He was for most of his life a warrior who supported armed struggle against the apartheid regime. I support armed struggle in that situation, when it is directed against the South African police & military. The South African regime was clearly engaged in armed repression against the ANC. But I disagree with targeting of civilians in bombings and other violent acts which the ANC carried out. If it is morally repugnant for the South African police to target black civilians, then it is also morally repugnant for the ANC to target white civilians. The ANC also carried out the horrific practice of “necklacing” (burning a tire wrapped around the neck of the victim) against suspected informers or collaborators. I disagree with Mandela for having supported those practices at that time. That was a moral failure on his part.

      Do you endorse the practice of bombing civilian targets as part of the armed struggle against apartheid? Do you support necklacing informers? Take a stand one way or the other, but don’t pretend it never happened.

      All during the many long years in prison, Mandela refused to renounce armed struggle. Only when he was at last released and the agreement to end apartheid was signed did Mandela finally renounce violence. It was only then that he endorsed a peaceful transition to democracy and a policy of truth and reconciliation for all South Africans. That decision was good for South Africa and it is his greatest legacy. But it was not the view he held for most of his life before then.

      Perhaps one day Cuba will become a free and democratic system. Let us hope that some Cuban “Mandela” will be alive and free to to call for truth and reconciliation for all Cubans. Alas for now, all the Cuban “Mandelas” are in Castro’s prisons.

  • Kevin

    Will Cuba free their own political prisoners to attend the funeral as well?

  • Gabriel

    No leader is immune to errors of judgement. I would imagine that, had Mandela not been in prison, suffering under a lack of information from the outside world for all those years, that his views of Fidel would be quite different. Yes, Mandela was hypocricial to have supported a dictatorship as bloody as Fidel’s, but I still have a hard time completely shooting him down. What he did for his own nation was inspiring. That said, it remains a shame that a man who could have been a source of inspiration for the Cuban people, chose instead, to support the regime that killed so many, created so many “desaparecideos” (disappeared persons), and completely and utterly destroyed an entire nation–not to mention the destruction of millions of Cuban families.

    • Dan

      Gabriel, I’m sorry, but your characterization of the regime in Cuba as bloody is just wrong. In fact, it applies to just about every Latin American country BUT Cuba and Costa Rico. Certainly is a common misconception in this land of the “free press” though.

  • Moses Patterson

    Mr. Jones, you have written “who have been caught up in this 50 year old war of hatred, division and sufferings” . It is appropriate to note while I believe it was Castro who cast the first stone in this war, it is undeniable that he had the chance to take the moral high ground, regardless of who started it, to allow those who opposed his dictatorship to live in peace in Cuba or to leave Cuba peaceably. He did neither. Failing to do so as Mandela did with his “Truth and Reconciliation’ hearings, Fidel instead fomented a climate of distrust and repudiation. He is credited with coining the term “gusano” or worm to describe those Cubans who, for a variety of reasons, simply wanted to live outside of Cuba. Your noble call to fellow Cubans such as my wife to reflect on their future and to the political leadership of the US to measure their actions is wisdom. But why do you fail to hold to account the Castros to DO ANYTHING with regards their role in this historical disaster? You always ask for constructive comments which will add to the debate. I hope you respond here.

  • Moses Patterson

    Thanks Griffin. This is at least the second or third time you have written such an accurate, balanced and concise synopsis of the battle of Cuito Cuanavale. There is a version in cyberspace which distorts the facts that states that Castro decided to send troops to Angola on November 4, 1975, in response to the South African invasion of that country, rather than vice versa as the most historians have recorded. It is also said that Cuba made the decision to send troops without informing the Soviet Union and deployed them, contrary to what has been widely alleged, without any Soviet assistance for the first two months. It is alleged that Fidel reluctantly asked the USSR for logistical support because he knew that this was a Cold War struggle by proxy between the US and the Soviet Union. Another interesting sidebar is that because the CIA had infiltrated MPLA forces, they were able to supply SADF with intelligence reports as well as logistical support. The Chinese, who had their own agenda, pressured the US to back off in their support of SADF forces. This allowed the US to refocus efforts in eastern Europe. As you have written, this paid off soon thereafter in the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the withering support of the CIA in southern Africa is said to have led to the stalemate reached at Cuito Cuanavale.

    • Griffin

      The exact nature if the Cuba-USSR relationship in Angola is still subject to debate. The account given by the book I linked to, by Edward George, says that the USSR arranged with the Angolan government to send military hardware. The Russians asked Cuba to send a couple thousand advisors to train the Angolans. Instead, Fidel sent 20,000 Cuban troops, which surprised the Russians. The Russians then sent more supplies to keep the larger Cuban force stocked.

      The crucial fact which the official Cuban account hides is that the Cuban intervention in Angola began long before the South Africans invaded southern Angola. The Cubans began training MPLA guerrillas in 1962, before Angolan independence from Portugal. The first Cuban troops entered Angolan territory in 1966, fighting in support on one rebel group, the MPLA. The spent more time fighting the FLNA, supported by China at the time, than they did fighting the Portuguese. When Portugal suddenly withdrew from Angola in 1975, the MPLA and their Cuban allies rushed to seize control of the capital city. Fighting between the FLNA and the MPLA broke out into full scale civil war. Cuba backed one rebel faction and helped them defeat their rivals. The claim by Havana that they responded to a request for help from the government of Angola is false. The Cubans installed the pro-Soviet rebel group, the MPLA into power by force of arms.

  • Walter Teague

    None of us are “gods,” and few of us are as effective in helping our fellow humans as those leaders who seek and find the ability to make things better for the most they can. Too often, these comments are clearly coming from people who are consumed with their unproductive and usually ill-informed beliefs. What is revealing is that they seem unaware of of little they persuade anyone to their views. Besides the emotional distortions, some seem to believe that simply repeating “facts” makes them true, much less verifiable. Then there is the larger issue which both Mandela and Castro share, they tried and to an amazing extent, considering what they were up against, succeeded. Of course they were different men in different circumstances and yet, while there is much disagreement about details and what might have been, those who simply throw out insults and insist it could have been done more humanely, with better outcomes, need to show how, not just by words, but by deeds. I have tried for 70 years to prevent or reduce a number of terrible things that happen still in different forms in my country; brutality to children, racism, sickening poverty, imperial wars, etc., and I admit I have had much less success than I wish. So I applaud those who have dared, tried, persevered, tried to do it both with success and humanity, and sometimes to some degree have succeeded. What is inspiring is that so many, particularly the younger among us, seem to be learning this. In spite of old and diseased ideas that still infect us all.

  • George

    If this crock of half-truths and spin is not from the perspective of racist South Africa then I don’t know what is. But let us be generous and say it is an attempt to re-write history from the perspective of the imperialist U.S.A.

    “The USSR also armed the Angolan army with several billions of dollars worth of advanced weapons, as well as arming the Cuban army in Angola.”

    What were the racist South African’s fighting with, toy guns?! In fact it was they who were armed with the most advanced weaponry in the world supplied by the U.S., U.K. and Israel. They even had nuclear weapons.

    “Instead, he ordered his army to stand at Cuito, sending reinforcements. When the SADF attacked, they were unable to defeat the Cubans.”

    The Cubans objective was to hold Cuito, the SADF’s was to take it. Cuba held, and the SADF failed to take it. A clear defeat for the SADF.

    “So when the peace negotiations sponsored by the US began again, the USSR pushed hard at Fidel to accept a compromise solution.”

    The U.S. was South Africa’s biggest backer, why would they start peace negotiations if they weren’t losing? The U.S. and South Africa were forced to negotiate.

    Griffin’s take makes the pretense of being objective by appealing to the wider political landscape. It is true that global politics played their role in the eventual transition to democracy. No one is denying that, but as Mandela said, Cuito was “the turning point”.

    History is written by the victors. As I said previously, it is unfortunate that some Whites refuse to believe they lost.

    • Griffin

      If you would like to know what actually happened in Angola, go ahead and read this book:

      It’s factual, balanced, well written and throughly footnoted. His history is in no way a pro-South African perspective, who come in for a great deal of criticism.

      Or you can stick your head in the sand and keep on reciting the party line. The choice is yours.