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Cuba: An African Odyssey

The 6th Annual Chicago American Diaspora Film Festival starts today.

In his regular film commentary, Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia takes a look at the opening night film.


When, in the future, the history of the 20th century is re-written, one of its most interesting and least-known chapters will be the role of Cuba in Africa. In her ambitious and fascinating documentary, Egyptian-French filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri traces the complicated history. It began in 1965 when Che Guevara lead a band of Cuban fighters in an unsuccessful attempt to help support the struggle for independence in the Congo.  It then moved to the process of freeing the small country of Guinea-Bissau from Portuguese rule and it ended in a long and complicated struggle in Angola.

CUBA: AN AFRICAN ODYSSEY combines remarkable archival footage with an amazing cast of  participants in telling of Cuba's pivotal role in the liberation movements in Africa,.

Patrice Lumumba turned to the Cubans for help after being refused by the United States, who decided to side with Belgium, Congo's former colonizer, but a member of NATO.  But it was in Angola, the largest, last and richest colony of Portugal, that the face-off between the West and East ended up involving some 450,000 Cuban troops, the South African Army, the CIA, and money and military support from America and the Communist bloc.

Three different opposition groups fought for Angolan independence. Two of them, UNITAS and FNLA, were supported by the U.S.  The MPLA, the Marxist-inspired group, was supported by Cuba.  Cuba sent 650 troops to Angola in Operation Carlota and MPLA leader Neto was declared President of Angola. But the opposition groups, FNLA and UNITAS continued fighting from the southern part of the country, backed by France and South Africa. Mineral and oil-rich Angola was a significant prize for the West. But at first American involvement was limited by the Clark amendment. This was passed by Congress amid Congressional investigations of CIA involvement in the internal affairs of other countries, and by fear of repeating the Vietnam experience in Africa.

South Africa continued train the UNITAS rebels and kept camps on Angola's border in Namibia. Angola claimed if South Africa invaded Angola, they would try to install an apartheid government. Angola, in turn, helped give shelter and train the African National Congress. Fidel Castro decided that Cuban help for Angola would be no covert operation: supplies, Cuban troops and special advisers were sent.

South Africa plotted to get the United States more involved when Ronald Reagan became president. Jonas Savimbi the erudite UNITAS rebel leader who spoke 6 languages, was sent to the United States to meet with Reagan. A propaganda campaign painted Savimbi, essentially a warlord, as a defender of Christianity against the godless Marxists in power in Angola. Savimbi went to Texas and Louisiana to meet with Christian evangelists. This further added to his image as the “true anti-Communist.” The CIA strengthened Savimbi's military power and Reagan led the repeal of the Clark amendment which started a new chapter of conflict in Angola.

In the film, Ambassador Charles W. Freeman, who was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs says “to many Americans, Africa was the land of Tarzan and Shaka Zulu or some other preposterous romantic figures. Jonas Savimbi fit in that category. For the right wing, he was a sort of Robin Hood.” Reagan, caught up in the fervor, saw Angola as the battleground between America and the evil Soviet empire.

The prolonged, bloody war which had tens of thousands of casualties, resulted in a standoff which was finally brought to a close by allowing Cuba to be included in the negotiations over the removal of Cuban troops from Angola and of South African troops from Namibia.  The negotiating impasse was apparently broken by the Cubans and South Africans meeting at a hotel bar. Namibian independence, for which Cuba could claim credit, was traded with the removal of Cuban troops from Angola for which South Africa, in turn, could claim credit. The negotiations had one other important result: the Angolan condition that South Africa release political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, from prison.

The film returns full circle to its opening scenes: the arrival of Nelson Mandela in Cuba on a visit to Fidel Castro, the first world leader Mandela visited after his release.

CUBA: AN AFRICAN ODYSSEY,  is an almost improbable thriller, filled with larger-than-life characters in conflict and rich in detail . Jihal El-Tahri handles this cast of characters with a deft touch, never simplifying the global shifts which kept Africa on the world stage as Cuba helped its last colonies throw off the shackles of colonialism.

Milos Stehlik's commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia, Worldview or Chicago Public Radio.

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