Castro explains why Angola lost battle against the SADF
By Simon Barber, dated 27 July 1989
According to the fashionable view, Pretoria agreed to withdraw from Angola and Namibia with its tail
between its legs, a spent force. In other words, sanctions and Fidel Castro won the day. This is not the
analysis that emerges from Castro’s own version of events in his speech to the Cuban Council of State
on July 9, when it met to confirm the death sentence imposed on General Arnaldo Ochoa Sanchez, chief
of the Cuban military mission in Angola from November 1987 to January this year.
Instead, it becomes clear that by late 1987 Castro had concluded that the MPLA regime was an
irredeemable military and economic basket case, whipped in the field and four years behind in the
trifling $20m a year the Cubans claimed to be charging for their services. SA and Unita had effectively
won. For Fidel, the only acceptable course was to stage a unilateral display of Cuban military prowess
and go home.
So determined was Castro that nothing should embroil his army longer than was absolutely necessary
that he virtually abandoned all other duties to run and finish the war from Havana. To ensure the MPLA
would not prevaricate behind his back, he sought and obtained a Cuban seat at the negotiating table.
And finally, last June, in the event SA tried to thwart his exit by challenging him on the battlefield, he
gave orders that Oshakati was to be bombed and the Ruacana hydro-electric scheme destroyed.
The immediate purpose of the July 9 speech was to denigrate the role Ochoa played in the last, climactic
year of the war by portraying him as lazy, incompetent, insubordinate and venal. To make this credible,
Castro evidently felt it necessary to describe the defence of Cuito Cuanavale and Cuba’s subsequent
flanking offensive towards the Namibian border in unprecedented detail. He even quoted from cables he
sent Ochoa and his field commander, General Leopoldo Cintra Frias…
This is the picture Castro painted. When General Ochoa reached Luanda in early November 1987, the
Angolan army and its Soviet advisors were in headlong retreat following their rout at Mavinga.
As Castro put it: "The situation grew extraordinarily worse because of the increasing South African
onslaught and the danger that the concentration of Angolan troops at Cuito Cuanavale would be
On November 15, Cuba began landing the first of 15 000 reinforcements, including "our best pilots."
"Everybody was asking us to do something," Castro explained, adding with thinly veiled contempt for
his allies: "We ourselves understood that even though we were in no way responsible for the errors that
had led to that situation, we could not sit still and allow a military and political catastrophe to occur."
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