“Fidel Castro would say that going to Africa to fight against apartheid and colonialism was a way of paying an outstanding debt.”
Hedelberto López Blanch, journalist and writer.
“The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today. What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa? For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.”
Margarita Alarcón Perea
I remember a song from way back with the lyrics Free Nelson Mandela. It was back in the 70´s and I was in school in the US, at UNIS (United Nations International School). UNIS had been a vision of Secretary General U Thant´s, he had wanted the sons and daughters of the members of the United Nations to also gather together and share their ideas, beliefs , hopes and dreams. With this he laid the ground work for the creation of a school that would gather people of all races and beliefs . A place where there was no white , no black; color was a rainbow and beliefs were taken in and shared. We were a melting pot for future dreams.
One day I remember walking down the halls on my way to class and being stopped by a young man, older than I, probably in the 11th grade. He was a stocky good looking black kid with a very intense demeanour and attitude. He looked at me, pointed his finger at my shirt and asked “Do you know what that means?!”. I was wearing a white t-shirt with the African continent on it in brown and the letters ANC across the map. I looked down, then back up at him and responded “African National Congress, why?”. He held his left fist up and said, “good!”. I later learned he had escaped South Africa with his mother and two younger siblings, his father was in jail in South Africa accused of being a member of the ANC, a political party prohibited in Apartheid South Africa.
After my return from the US back home to Cuba I began to live the dread of the Cuban presence in Angola. My cousin was sent over as part of the internationalist movement to teach, others would go to war. I grew to learn that more and more people I knew or was meeting would either have a loved one sent over or be one who had gone. It was a complicated situation. For many Cubans this was not Cuba´s fight, so why be there? For others it was an issue of solidarity with the Angolan people and the people of Namibia and South Africa. It was an issue of putting an end to a political system of colonialism and underdevelopment and the hideousness that was apartheid. It was a huge step in fighting for the freedom of peoples including the father of my schoolmate and Nelson Mandela.
Finally after years of struggle, the war was over. Angola was free, Namibia was to hold democratic elections, apartheid was over and Nelson Mandela was finally out of jail. In college I remember saying goodbye to two Namibian girls who were being educated in Cuba in my faculty at Havana University, they were going home to vote for the first time in their lives.
I remember the day Mandela came out of prison. I watched the parade on the streets on Cuban television and I cried. Never in my life had I thought I would be around to rejoice the end of horror and the birth of a new beginning.
For many Cubans who came back after the war, the term Veteran is either an homage or an insult. It is a difficult conversation to have with most. They either become silent or talk till they lose their breath, proving that war is hideous no matter the circumstances, coming to terms with war is possibly one of the most difficult of all tasks.
This war was a necessary one. We are indebted to the African continent and continue to be. The fight against colonialism in that region, the need to put an end to an unfair and unjust system of government, the beauty in the eyes of children holding toys in their hands for the first time, smiles of hope, for that it was all worthwhile.
To all the combatants who made it back and to their families, to the families of those who didn’t. To those who were there fighting for something they may not have well understood at the time and might still not understand today, you are all members of an intricate part of history. You all made the lives of many people worth living and dying for. Nelson Mandela died in freedom, and I for one thank you.