Cuban Foreign Policy: Joint Objectives In Angola
SUBJECT AREA Foreign Policy
CUBAN FOREIGN POLICY:
JOINT OBJECTIVES IN ANGOLA
Rudolph V. Wiggins, Ph.D.
In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements
for Written Communications
The Marine Corps Command and Staff College
Major T. P. Sullivan
United States Marine Corps
April 6, 1984
Thesis Statement: We should realize that the objectives of Soviet
and Cuban military operations are likely to be shared and joint in
nature rather than dictated by the patron state to the client.
A. Angola as an Example for Today
B. Brief History of Angolan Intervention
II. The Soviet Objectives in Angola
III. The Cuban Objectives in Angola
IV. The Case for Joint Objectives and Vulnerabilities
CUBAN FOREIGN POLICY:
JOINT OBJECTIVES IN ANGOLA
Few Marines would fail to state that Cuba is the major trouble-
maker in the Western hemisphere. Unfortunately, there are also very
few who would say that Cuba is not a complete puppet of the Soviet
Union in all Cuban foreign affairs. This is simply not true, and a
review of the history of Cuban foreign policy successes, especially
in Angola, will point to definite Cuban and Soviet joint foreign policy
objectives that defined the roles of both parties.
Because of our growing involvement in the affairs of Central
America, it is very important for us to understand that the objectives
we are likely to be in opposition with are indeed joint, and not dictated
from the Soviets to the Cubans. The best example of the Cubans and
Soviets working for a set of joint objectives is found in the Cuban
military intervention in Angola during 1975.
Angola is one of the wealthiest countries in terms of natural
resources in all of Africa. Its geographical location establishes its
territorial influence over many of the other states in the region. Angola
has abundant mineral resources including large oil deposits. It also
produces diamonds and coffee for export.
The United States maintained a policy of supporting the Portuguese
colonial power in Angola through the early 1970's, even though the winds
of liberation movements had been blowing in Angola for some time. In early
1961 a number of anti-colonial uprisings shook the sleepy Portuguese into
an awareness that something had to be done in order to maintain their
security. They sent their Army and the DGS, the Portuguese intelligence
service, into Angola where they were able to create a temporary stability.
The Army soon tired of its role, however, and the Portuguese coup in
April 1974 removed from its ranks the last vestiges of the will to continue
the fight, and set the stage for the civil war in Angola that followed in 1975.
Three factions went to war over the right to control Angola in
the wake of the Portuguese coup. The most successful was the Popular
Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which continues today to
fight the second faction, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola
(UNITA). The third, U.S. supplied and supported, was the National Front
for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), headed: by Rolden Roberto.
Foreign powers increasingly became involved. The United States,
through the CIA, authorized a grant of $3,000,000 to the FNLA. The Soviet
Union supplied the MPLA with arms. Cuba, which had been involved in
Angola with the NPLA since the early 1960s was, by the spring of 1975,
actively training MPLA guerrillas. The bulk of the Cuban combat troops
arrived after major South African attacks in the late fall of 1975. Since
then, the MPLA government has relied on the support of the Cuban troops
for the majority of its security requirements.
The troops that the Cubans have provided have been used in many ways.
Some were used directly, and disasterously, against the South African
forces in the fall of 1975. They were also used to train the MPLA
forces for both the continuation of the civil war against its in-country
rivals, and later, to protect the country against destabilization by neighbors.
Although there is general agreement on what the benefits of Cuba's
military intervention into Angola were, there is some confusion in the
international affairs community over the objectives of the intervention.
This confusion seems to occur because of the propensity of many to see
the use of the Cuban troops solely as a proxy force for achieving
Soviet strategic goals. This case can be supported, but it takes too
simplistic a view of the intervention to be of great value. The fact is
that Cuban foreign policy is global in reach, not simply that of a client
state of the Soviets. Both Soviet and Cuban objectives were considered
prior to the execution of the intervention. The intervention was a joint
venture because of the political realities that all three parties (including
the MPLA) faced.
The Soviets and Cubans shared the targets for reaching their
respective objectives to varying degrees. The main targets were the U.S.,
South Africa, Zaire, and the FNLA and UNITA. These factions were
targeted in an attempt to halt direct opposition to the MPLA. In each case,
the use of Cuban troops, either as Soviet proxy forces or acting solely
in Cuban interests, had direct applications on perceptions of the
utility of the intervention.
One of the reasons that the Cuban troops were often seen as acting
entirely for Soviet objectives is stated by Fontaine:
The creation of dependent Marxist regimes in Africa, at small
expense and little risk, is patently to the advantage of the
Soviet Union, particularly if Moscow's strategic position is
thereby enhanced. In this endeavor, Cuban troops serve as
convenient instruments. Since Cuba is not formally a member of
the Warsaw Pact by a self-avowed participant in the "non-aligned
movement," Cubans are more "acceptable" to superpower military
presence on their continent.1
Vanneman and James list two probable objectives for the Soviets in
their intercention in Angola:
One Soviet objective in Southern Africa, in general, is access to
its enormous reserves of raw materials. As one Soviet spokesman
put it: "Africa holds a leading position in the world both in
reserves and output of many kinds of raw material. The deposits
of some of the minerals in Africa are unique, most of which are
concentrated in Southern Africa.2
The second goal that Vanneman and James put forth is that of
denying the access of other powers to these resources:
Soviet planners are acutely aware of the strategic value of retarding
the access of the United States and China to raw materials in the
Third World. The Soviet Press and Radio Moscow continually harp on
the strategic value of Southern Africa's raw materials, suggesting
that China seeks to exploit them just as other so-called "imperialists"
are doing now.3
The fact that Africa seems to be the last major source, outside the
borders of the Soviet Union and China, of many important industrial
raw materials has been important in the formulation of Soviet goals for
Angola and all of Africa. From a worldwide position, this focus on the
ability to garner raw materials is discussed by Van Rensburg. Although his
work is concerned solely with South Africa, it is instructive to review
his comments. He states:
It is also becoming clear that competition for supplies of raw
materials will play an increasingly important role in the economic
development of nations and in the balance of power. This
realization has contributed materially to shifting the emphasis in
the conflict between East and West. The Soviet Union has come to
appreciate that the supply of industrial raw materials represents
a major vulnerability of the industrialized nations of the West.
They have intensified their efforts to gain points of leverage
with respect to the lifelines of supplies to the West, initially
by diplomatic and economic means, but lately, in a more direct
and aggressive fashion.4
Thus, the evidence is clear for the involvement of the strategic
goals of the Soviets for the region and the Angolan intervention. In
summation of this point Bissel states:
While the revolutionary tradition of the Soviet Union in Africa
has much to build upon, there exists a new song in the wind that
sounds distinctly different from the Internationale. Some Soviet
policymakers call not for the revolution and disruption, but
rather for influence and regularization. There are influential
leaders that argue for working with the power centers that
exist, rather than destroying them with a Marxist faith in the
future of the dialectic. The Soviet empire builders are
leaving their tracks in Africa, and recent years have provided
abundant evidence of their existence.5
Indeed, evidence suggests that a major portion of the Soviet
objectives in Angola revolved about two specific, but long range, goals.
The first was the Soviet desire to gain access to Angola's natural
resources, and the second was to provide a springboard from which their
naval forces could threaten the Western mercantile sea route called
"the Cape Route."
Some authors have stated that another important Soviet consideration
was the limitation of Chinese influence within the emerging third
world countries of Africa. It is more probable that such a limitation
was to be a natural result of a hoped for Soviet exclusive domination
in this region. This has been especially true since the
emergence of the MPLA as the winner of the Angolan Civil War.
The extent to which the Soviets were willing to intervene in
Angola is, perhaps, the best measure of the importance that they
placed on the attainment of these goals. In 1975, the Soviets supplied
$300 million in aid to the MPLA. This accounted for an increase, in
a one year period of $246 million over the previous total for 14 years.
The assistance that the Soviets rendered to the MPLA consisted mainly
of arms, ranging from the AK-47 rifle up to and including medium tanks.
This aid was effective in making the MPLA formidable on the battlefield,
but also almost entirely dependent upon the Soviets for military
hardware and repair parts after the war.
Thus, it seems that the Soviet and Cuban intervention in Angola
could be looked upon as a coordinated effort to attain strategic Soviet
goals. The Soviets supply the military equipment, the economic support,
and strategic direction for the forces involved. The Cubans supply
the Soviets with an acceptable surrogate "foreign legion" for this
type of action and provide tactical direction and direct action roles
for the MPLA. As Vanneman and James stated:
Angola is an example of a graduated, relatively low cost, carefully
orchestrated expansion of Soviet influence; it is a limited
military confrontation, a proxy war. As such, it is a model
for Soviet strategic planners to analyze and adapt elsewhere. It
is virtually a new instrument of Soviet foreign policy.6
Further support is provided by Crocker, who stated in defense of
the Soviet domination over the objectives of the intervention, and
in opposition to Bender's view of Cuban policy objective domination:
Equally perplexing is Bender's view of the Soviet-Cuban relationship.
He does not deny that the Cubans are Soviet proxies, but merely
accepts Angolan hints of Cuban autonomy. But where is the
evidence, and how significant is Havana's own mission, as
opposed to Moscow's for African and Western interest?
Whether Cuban ardor for sub-Saharan soldiering is genuine is
irrelevant, when such activity is utterly dependent on Soviet
logistics. Each partner has something indispensable to offer
the other: Cuban offers Moscow greatly expanded direct
influence in African politics and reduced social and racial
friction in host countries; Havana reaps ideological and tangible
rewards in exchange. But what useful purpose is served by
masking Moscow's lead role and by romanticizing Havana's Angolan
Cuban history is certainly not remarkable for its successes
in foreign military involvement. This leads scholars who wish to
support a Cuban orientation to the intervention in Angola into some
difficulty. Although exporting the revolution has always been
a tenet of Cuban policy, Angola gave the Cubans their first chance to
attempt to export Castro's brand of communism outside the western
hemisphere. As such, it represents the first chance in many years for
us to examine Cuba's foreign policy and the use of their military forces
to support it. Discussing methods by which the student can
delineate Soviet and Cuban objectives, Bender states:
Most Americans assume that the Cubans in Angola and elsewhere in
Africa are little more than proxies for the Soviet Union. Rarely
is any distinction made between Soviet and Cuban interests, goals,
and actions in Africa. As a result, the Cuban presence in any
part of the continent is generally perceived as a setback for
the United States in its global competition with the Soviet Union.
So much national attention has been focused on a perceived Soviet-
Cuban threat in Africa that many have forgotten some larger, more
important questions plaguing U.S.-Soviet relations. Even if it
could be established that the Cubans are nothing more than the
Soviet proxies, for example, the problem of how to act toward
Soviet-backed regimes or movements in the Third World would remain.8
Domininquez, writing on Cuban foreign policy states that Cuba has
always had a "big countries foreign policy", and says that the first
tenant of that policy is the maintenance of the revolutionary
government. He states:
The survival of revolutionary rule remains the foremost objective
of their foreign policy. And I think it would today be widely
accepted--as it was not, at least in American capitals in the
1960s--that it was the practical imperative of survival,
considerably more than ideological affinity, that made the
Soviet connection as strong as it was from the outset.9
Domininquez further states:
Instead, the Revolutionary government (of Cuba) sacrificed short-
run internal welfare to its principle aim: the survival and
consolidation of its own kind of political regime.10
Thus, at least one purely Cuban objective was probably the maintenance
of power of the Castro government in Cuba. This would seem to be a very
self-evident claim. In order to maintain his position internationally,
Castro had to ensure his domestic power was unchallenged. He had to
maintain the image of the Western hemisphere's leading revolutionary
if he was to remain the leader of the third world nations' struggle for
independence from the superpowers. By showing that he was willing
to expend his most valuable resource, his people, in a struggle for an
emerging nation halfway across the world, he proved his support for
revolutionary solidarity at home and internationally. Castro has used
the presence of his troops in Angola as the strongest possible signal
to other countries of the Third World that he would support, militarily
and economically, those countries that were responsive to his ideas of
Castro's international position as a leader in the Non-aligned
Movement was at first enhanced, and then tarnished, by the Angolan
intervention because of the awareness of Cuban reliance on Soviet
assistance. Without Soviet supplies, aircraft, ships, and support to
the Cuban economy, there would have been no or very few Cuban troops
in Angola. Even when the Soviet support is considered, however, one
cannot overlook Castro's desire to further advance his position in the
Third World through his Angolan ventures. As Halperin states:
Nonetheless, to assume that Castro was acting under Soviet orders,
or simply paying back part of his enormous debt to the Soviets,
fails to account for a significant factor in his motivation. The
Revival and expansion of Cuba's (and Castro's) world role,
unprecedented among small Third World states, was its own reward.11
By 1980, the involvement of Cuba in Angola had led to the entrench-
ment of Cuban military forces throughout those portions of the country
that are under the government of the MPLA. These military forces have
been reported to be as many as 16,000 combat troops with 4,000 advisors
and technicians. In addition to the military forces, Cuba has also
supplied medical personnel, teachers, and industrial technicians who
are effectively in command of the day-to-day operations and key functioning
of the country.
The motivations behind the Angolan intervention cannot be laid to
either the Soviets or the Cubans as sole proprietor. There is little
doubt that the Soviet goals had to be met in order for the Cubans to
implement the intervention, but there were also strong motivations that
were purely Cuban.
The ascendency of the Soviet goals must be tempered by their long-
range nature. There is no reason to suspect that the Soviets felt
the intervention would directly, and quickly, provide them with the
means of denying the mineral wealth of southern Africa to the West.
The Soviets certainly thought that there was every reason to believe
that in time their objectives could be met. Not only would their
financial expenditures be minimal, but no combat personnel were to be
involved, and by using the Cubans they could avoid a situation where they
have to deal with the "Ugly American" syndrome that had begun to haunt
them in their international endeavors, especially in Africa.
With the MPLA and the Cubans dependent upon Soviet controlled
shipping for supplys to the intervention, and also for keeping the
government afloat, the Soviets secured defacto basing rights for their
ships, and were thus able to project forces that could have a strategic
mission much more rapidly into the waters of southern Africa.
The Cubans have also been able to use the intervention to their
advantage. They have sent a message to the Third World that has been
heard. Castro's position at home has been strongly enhanced as is
evidenced by the lack of a massive manpower drain during the "boatlift".
Several analysts have said that the "boatlift" gave Castro an inter-
national black eye. Yet, it is worth noting that the Cuban position at
the last meeting of the Non-aligned Movement was the one that all the
other nations waited for. The fact that the Cuban position was not
necessarily adopted only points out that the Soviets were in disfavor, and
cannot be considered as an absolute rejection of Castro. It may be
a reflection of the stature of the Cubans in the Third World that the
rest of the countries at the conference treated the Cuban position with
such deference. Indeed, not only the other countries, but also the
The Cubans were successful in the attainment of their goal of
exporting the revolution. It is interesting that in the Angolan
intervention, the revolution was already over when the majority of the
Cubans arrived. The Cubans were able to conduct the intervention without
risking any international condemnation because they were there to
protect the MPLA from outside aggression, not to start a revolution. The
Cuban goals were assisted by allowing the MPLA to continue to build a
revolutionary Marxist society under its tutelage and protection. Castro's
domestic position improved because he was able to re-establish himself
as the leader of the revolutionary movement in the Third World.
Internationally, he reaped the same reward. The fact that the Cubans
remain firmly entrenched in the day-to-day affairs of all levels of life
in Angola indicates that the revolutionary drive of the Cubans in Africa
is there to stay.
Although all parties to the intervention have attained some of their
desired goals, there has been one consequence that was both unforeseen,
and probably unwanted. Kitchen outlines the problem when she states:
The record, including that of Angola, shows that the Soviet policy
in Africa is both opportunistic and cautious, involving close
attention to signals and re-evaluation of the terms of the game
at each step of the way. Some factors that impel Soviet caution:
concern about the vulnerability of their own nationals to attack
(as in Angola and Mozambique); recognition that the Cuban mystique
would be seriously affected by conflict with an African host or
by a major military defeat when acting in support of an African
host; any situation in which Cuban and Soviet historical
preferences do not mesh (the Eritrea secessionist movement
in Ethiopia being the most notable thus far); any situation
in which the significant leverages on the protagonists clearly
rests with others, such as the key role of the front-line
states in relation to the civil war in Zimbabwe; entanglements
that risk becoming quagmires, especially in light of the
Ethiopian experience. The vital importance of the Cubans
to the Soviets--the-tail-wagging-the-dog syndrome--could become
a great vulnerability; on a personal level, for example, Russians
are far less adaptable and acceptable in African than Castro's
Thus, the biggest drawback to the intercention is suggested to be
the vulnerabilities it produced upon the Cubans. Those vulnerabilities
can be substantiated further when one considers that the Cuban troops
have never successfully faced a modern field army in battle. The small
number of Cuban troops that opposed the South Africans in 1979 did not
stop the South African battle groups as they marched on Luanda. The
battle groups were stopped by the South African government after they
realized that the U.S. would not back the venture and made it foolish
to continue. The countries of the Third World only know about Cuban
troop successes becuase there have been no major failures. This is
perhaps the reasoning for the dismay over the new U.S. policy in
San Salvador. There, the Cubans have been definitely identified as
backing the anti-government forces, and they are now faced with the
prospect of engaging the U.S. with its monolithic military power. A
major Cuban military withdrawal or defeat in Angola would almost
certainly adversely affect both the Cubans and the Soviets in both
Africa and Central America.
All-in-all, the military intercention in Angola must be considered
a short and long term success when measured against Soviet and Cuban
objectives. The possiblility that their stunning success has set them
up with an equally stunning vulnerability has yet to be proven. However,
the transience of the positions of the opposing factions in the events
in El Salvador indicate that the Cubans and Soviets have addressed that
If the only measurement of the effectiveness of the intervention can
be a determination of how it has supported the original objectives, then
the Cubans and Soviets were indeed successful. The targets of their
direct objectives left the area or ceased their opposition to the NPLA.
Cuba retains its leadership position in the Third World, and Castro
remains strong at home. The Soviets were able to exploit U.S. and
Western weaknesses, and have also gained the use of Angolan port
facilities from which they can threaten Western supply routes around
As shown, it is easy to find the strategic goals of the Soviet Union
in their involvement with Angola. Although it is easy to dismiss the
Cuban involvement as completely subordinate to the Soviets, a very strong
case is made for Cuba's own strategic goals dictating their role in Angola.
The importance of discussing the joing nature of the goals for
Angola is the nature of events now unfolding in Central America. Constant
attempts of foreign policy pundits to lay all the blame for insurrection
at the bands of either the Soviets or the Cubans can be dangerous and
misleading. Angola gives us a solid case for a successful attainment
of joint objectives that will probably serve as a guideline for many
for many years to come. As Marines, we should always seek to gain
the best possible knowledge of our adversaries. Making the mistake
of seeing Cuban military involvement as directed solely by the Soviet
Union could prove to be fatal.
1Roger W. Fontaine, "Cuban Strategy in Africa: The Long Road of
Ambition," Strategic Review, (Washington, D.C., United States Strategic
Institute, Summer 1978), p. 19.
2Peter Vanneman and Robert James, "The Soviet Intervention in
Angola: Intentions and Implications," Strategic Review, (Washington,
D.C., United States Strategic Institute, Summer 1976), p. 97.
3Ibid, p. 95.
4W.C.J. Van Resnburg, "Africa and Western Lifelines," Strategic
Review, (Washington, D.C., United States Strategic Institute, Spring 1978),
5Richard E. Bissell, "Soviet Interests in Africa," Soviet and
Chinese Aid to African Nations, edited by Warren Weinstein and Thomas H.
Henriksen, (Praeger, New York, N.Y., 1980), p. 6.
6Vanneman and James, "Soviet Intervention in Angola," p. 95.
7Chester A. Crocker, "Making Africa Safe for the Cubans, "Foreign
Policy, (Washington, D.C., Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
Summer 1978), p. 31.
8Gerald J. Bender, "Angola, the Cubans, and American Anxieties",
Foreign Policy, Summer 1978, p. 4.
9Jorge I. Domingque, "Cuban Foreign Policy", Foreign Affairs,
(Baltimore, Council on Foreign Relations, Fall 1978), p. 84.
10Ibid, p. 83.
12Helen Kitchen, "Eighteen African Guideposts", Foreign Policy,
(Winter 1979-80), p. 73.
Angola, Hearings before the Subcommittee on African Affairs of the
Committee on Foreign Relations on U.S. Involvement in Civil
War in Angola, January 29, February 3,4, and 5, 1976, United
States Senate, 94th Congress, 2d Session, Washington, GPO, 1976.
Watson, Thomas H. The Angolan Affair: 1974 - 1976, Maxwell Air Force
Base, Air War College, 1977.
Stockwell, John. In Search of Enemies - A CIA Story, New York, Norton,
Carter and O'Meara, Southern Africa in Crisis, Ontario, Canada, Fitzhenry
& Whiteside Ltd., 1977.
Seiler, John. Southern Africa Since the Portuguese Coup, Boulder, Co.,
Westview Press, 1980.
Weinstein, Warren and Henriksen, Thomas H., Soviet and Chinese Aid to
African Nations, New York, Praeger, 1980.
Marcum, John. The Angolan Revolution, Volume II, Exile Politics and
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Mohamed A. El Khawas and Barry Cohen. The Kissinger Study of Southern
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Dominguez, Jorge I., "Cuban Foreign Policy", Foreign Affairs, Fall 1978.
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Kitchen, Helen, "Eighteen African Guideposts", Foreign Policy, Winter
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