AuthorPeters, Christabelle
PositionCuban military offensive that took place in southern Angola in 1976 - Report


The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the sub-plot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one's body in the firelight. --W. B. Yeats (1) If you trace a line with your finger across a map from Luanda west across the Atlantic Ocean, you end up at the site of the longest-surviving quilombo (runaway slave settlement) in Brazil--Quilombo dos Palmares in the state of Alagoas. If you begin at the Baia dos Todos os Santos in Salvador, known as Brazil's most African city, and move straight across eastward, you will arrive at the spot on the Angolan littoral where Benguela lies, which, by the eighteenth century had come to rival Luanda as the major port through which enslaved Africans were shipped to the New World. Through this simple exercise, we learn that the invisible lines of historical and cultural connection that linked peoples in the Americas and Africa often correspond in a surprisingly direct fashion to the imaginary circles of latitude and longitude that shaped maritime sea routes. Furthermore, the perception that the natural world helps organize social relationships provides insight into how geographical features often serve as reflections or manifestations of what can be understood as "emotional ecosystems." The notion of an emotional ecology stems from our knowledge that the human world functions according to networks of interaction among individuals and between individuals and their environment that are predominantly focused on the emotions: "It is these emotional interactions therefore that constitute the emotional ecosystem of the group." (2) While the concept of ecology cannot be uncritically transferred from the natural to the social sciences, integrated approaches to the study of social-ecological systems have contributed tools for understanding how ethnically and racially diverse societies function and have shaped the emergence of the field of environmental humanities research. (3)

Resilience is one of the principal concepts of ecological studies. In the natural environment, this refers to an ecosystem's capacity to recover from the onslaught of adverse conditions and changes. At the psychological level it can indicate either adaptability or long-term resistance to change. It is this latter connotation, which is bound up with technological qualities of resilience (such as what can be observed in a given materials ability to revert to its original form after deformation or assault), that serves as the contextual matrix for my analysis of the psychical qualities of Operation Antonio Maceo. Paying attention to these more nebulous aspects through a type of "thematic amplification"--the experiential research device of detecting and describing recurrent themes in narratives that Sunnie D. Kidd and James W. Kidd advocate--can allow us to examine what lies beneath political rhetoric and help us to arrive at an understanding of more primordial meanings and social referents. (4) As philosophers Kidd and Kidd put it, amplification "works somewhat like time-lapsed photography where slowing down time reveals processes which we cannot see in a single grasp by the human eye. In microphotography a whole new world is found to exist inside another." (5) This type of "freeze-framing" of an event facilitates an intensified observation and interpretation of social and cultural characteristics that allow us to tune into the dialectic between inner and outer life-worlds in human experience. In a similar metaphysical vein, Irish poet W. B. Yeats, reflecting on the "emotion of multitude" as a dramatic device in the plays of Shakespeare, paid tribute to the strength and importance of "the half-seen world" or subplot, which he recognized as "the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women." (6) It is this recognition that themes often permeate through different levels of human experience that aligns Yeats's literary approach with the scholarly path I take into the shadows that continue to enshroud Cuban actions in Angola.

From this penumbral perspective it is possible to deduce that the notably "Cuban feel" of Benguela--even today--emanates not solely from the distinctive architectural style of the "predios" (high-rises) that internationalists from the construction brigade built (the other two humanitarian brigades Havana dispatched were made up of medical personnel and teachers) (7) or the art-deco theatres that bring the cityscapes of Santa Clara or Santiago to mind (in other words, the man-made features). That Cuban feel also emanates from the impenetrable belt of fog produced when the cold Benguela Current meets the warm descending air from inland. (8) These sea mists are produced by two competing elements, similar to the contrapuntal Latin African identity that Fidel Castro claimed as his compatriots' birthright, endowing them with a duty to serve not only their homeland but also the largest of Portugal's former African colonies, an identity by turns as impenetrable, treacherous, confusing, and ethereal as the mists themselves.

My focus, in this essay, will veer from theorizing about Operation Carlota, the first of the Cuban missions, during which the concept of Latin Africa first emerged, (9) to an assessment of the symbolism of Operation General Antonio Maceo, the military offensive that took place in southern Angola between January and April 1976 to ensure that South African troops retreated toward Namibia. That operation centered on the capture of the main towns along the Benguela Railway line. The most decisive maneuvers in the campaign happened when Cuban troops joined forces with the Popular Armed Forces of Angolan Liberation (FAPLA) to take over the ports of Lobito and Benguela on February 10. In the end, Havana triumphantly declared the operation to be "the second liberation war" (10) (Operation Carlota being the first). I propose that by applying the twin beams of historical and cultural contextualization, we can start to discern more acutely what it meant for Cubans to be Latino Africanos in the late 1970s.

Cuba's Angolan policy went through a number of transformations during the fifteen-year mission. This arose in part from a need to adapt to changing circumstances on the ground, but it also developed as idealism gave way to pragmatism and then, arguably (in some quarters) to cynicism. However, when viewed through the lens of resilience--understood here to be the quality of returning to an original form in spite of perturbations--it is possible to detect the enduring (and unsettling) half-life of ordinary experience that seethed beneath the surface at the same time that it reinforced the shifting politics of internationalism in Angola.


These words by historian James Walvin frame my analysis in this section. (11) In the framework of the African-Atlantic world that I evoked in only the barest geographical traces in the prologue, Angola stands out as the supplier of the majority of slaves to the Spanish and Portuguese territories in the New World, mainly to Brazil but a sizeable proportion also to Cuba. (12) Because those two states were the last in the western world to abolish slavery (Cuba in 1886 followed by Brazil in 1888), not to mention the illegal trade that continued for many years after, the African cultural element is considered to have persisted in these two nations more so than in any others in the Americas.

The term quilombo is most typically used in Brazil to denote a community of resistance founded by runaway slaves. The term in Spanish is palenque. While each community varied from the others in size and level of organization, collectively they constituted by far the biggest and most vexing threat to colonial Spanish and Portuguese authorities, who were forced to invest sizeable quantities of manpower and firepower in attempts to wipe out these pockets of rebellion that were located in the most inhospitable and difficult spots to access. Although we know that over a thousand quilombos existed, dotted around the Brazilian landscape at any one time, the longevity as well as the sheer size of Quilombo dos Palmares has made it legendary. (13) A settlement of maroons was first noted in that area in the official records in about 1600. Reports stated that in addition to escaped enslaved Africans, Quilombo dos Palmares was home to marginalized and mixed-race individuals, so-called mulattoes and caboclos, some indigenous peoples and poor whites, and a significant number of Portuguese soldiers trying to escape forced military service.

Of a similar stature in the Afro-Latin imaginary but in the Cuban context, El Gran Palenque de Moa was situated in the mountains of Oriente Province in the eastern part of the island. Claims are that around 300 men, women, and children dwelled communally in this region, sheltering in the prevalent caves that offered an ample number of hideouts. This settlement flourished in the 1800s during an era when plantation slavery had increased dramatically following the triumph of the Haitian revolution in 1804, enabling Cuba to become the largest sugar producer in the world. (14)

The ideological roots of the Latin-African identity that Fidel Castro claimed as justification for Cuba's mission in the former Portuguese colony of Angola lie in this history of slave resistance in the Americas. In Cuba, the individual rebellious slave leader was an important national symbol. Thus, Operation Carlota, the most famous of the Cuban military missions in the Angolan civil war, was named after an enslaved African woman who led a slave rebellion in Triunvirato in Matanzas province in 1843. (15) The operation took place in November 1975, and was legitimized, from a political perspective, as Havana's response to an appeal for help by a fraternal political party, the Popular Movement of Angolan Liberation (MPLA), which the Cuban government had first...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT