Due to the diplomatic toxicity of South Africa’s apartheid policies, the operation was conducted in absolute secrecy. Perhaps only a few leaders in Pretoria understood its full extent. Few American officials knew what was going on either, and those that did lied about it. When the operation was exposed in December 1975, President Ford instructed his African embassies to tell their host governments, “The U.S. in no way sought or encouraged the South Africans to become involved in Angola nor was our advice sought.” This was not true. In his memoirs, Kissinger’s account of the entire enterprise in Angola can only be described as extremely misleading.
While the Western alliance hid its actions and hoped for the best, Castro saw Angola as an ideal opportunity to pursue his African campaign. When Cuban emissary Major Raúl Díaz Argüelles returned from Angola in early August 1975, he told Raúl Castro, Fidel’s brother and eventual successor: “[MPLA leader Agostinho Neto] wants to make the situation in Angola a vital issue between the systems of Imperialism and Socialism… [T]he sides are clearly defined, the FNLA and UNITA represent the international Imperialist forces and the Portuguese reaction, and the MPLA represents the progressive and nationalist forces.” Cuba agreed wholeheartedly with this framing of the conflict, and when South Africa’s military intervention was uncovered, the Havana-Luanda alliance found it had a public relations bonanza on its hands.
For Castro, however, what was at stake was much more than just a Cold War win. In the initial conflict, South Africa’s military surged northwards until it was halted by the Cubans in late 1975; a nearly 13-year stalemate ensued. Over 337,000 Cuban soldiers served in Angola, of whom over 2,000 died, according to official figures. But Havana’s contribution went far beyond the military. As historian Edward George notes, “For a generation of Cubans, internationalist service in Angola represented the highest ideal of the Cuban Revolution.” Waves of doctors, teachers, and engineers flooded war-torn Angola, while thousands of talented Angolan students received scholarships to study back in Cuba. Washington and Pretoria offered nothing of the kind. As the revolutionary cause stalled in Algeria, Guinea-Bissau, and elsewhere, and Havana’s clients in Ethiopia turned out to be (among other things) murderous thugs, Angola became the showcase for Castro’s ideology.
The main target of this policy was not so much the United States, but South Africa’s apartheid regime. From the late 1970s onwards, black political mobilization intensified, the country’s racially stratified economy stalled, and white manpower and expertise became ever scarcer, as the lure of a less-complicated life in Australia or Britain grew. In this context, Cuba forced the apartheid regime to fight a costly war of attrition, thousands of miles from South Africa. Into the 1980s, its government repeatedly increased taxes to pay for the sustained military effort. Vast quantities of political and economic resources were divested in an effort to circumvent military sanctions and produce sophisticated weapons systems at home. The government itself became steadily militarized. Conscription for white males was extended to fully two years; this only boosted emigration, while many returned home from the front disillusioned, or worse.