Say what you want about Fidel Castro, in Africa he was a liberator. His aid to the South African anti-apartheid struggle will forever be remembered as a grand stroke of moral leadership, in great contrast to American policy.
That’s the theme of various sympathetic postmortems for the Cuban dictator, who died at 90 on Nov. 25.
Castro’s detractors express an “American-centric” view, the New York Times’ Pentagon correspondent, Helene Cooper, noted Sunday on “Meet the Press”: “The Castro that I grew up knowing as a child growing up in Liberia was a Castro who fought the South African apartheid regime that the United States was propping up.”
To be sure, it would be hard to exercise unchallenged rule over a country for nearly half a century without doing anything admirable. So stipulate that Castro’s Cold War-era backing of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, and his army’s war against South African troops in nearby Angola, belong on the plus side of history’s ledger.
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Whether that mitigates Castro’s apologia for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, his alliance with, and expressed admiration for, the East German builders of the Berlin Wall, or his support for Moammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela — not to mention the disastrous results of communism in Cuba itself — is a thornier question, however.
Answering it would require broader examination of Castro’s Cold War record in Africa, to include the eastern regions of the continent, where Cuba intervened militarily on behalf of the Ethiopian dictator, Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, in the 1970s.
Mengistu participated in a successful military coup against the U.S.-backed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, eventually seizing power on Feb. 3, 1977,by massacring his rivals in the officer corps. Castro admired this bloody deed as a preemptive strike against “rightists” that showed “wisdom” and cleared the way for Cuba to support Mengistu “without any constraints,” as he explained to East German dictator Erich Honecker in an April 1977 meeting whose minutes became public after the fall of European communism.
Castro hatched a plan to steer Ethiopia into the Soviet camp in alliance with two Soviet-backed neighbors, southern Yemen and Somalia. However, Somalia’s dictator, Mohamed Siad Barre, balked. He saw the upheaval in Addis Ababa differently: as an opportunity to seize Ethiopian territory long inhabited by ethnic Somalis.
Somalia invaded this arid region, known as the Ogaden, in July 1977. Castro responded by sending 17,000 soldiers (armed and transported by Moscow) to save Mengistu and punish what was — as Castro correctly pointed out — a clear violation of international law by Siad Barre. Never mind that, to Somalis, Ethiopia’s borders were those of Haile Selassie’s defunct empire, which had split their ancestral land and enjoyed international recognition only due to Western imperial machinations.
At the time, President Jimmy Carter was pursuing better relations with Havana and even considering an end to the U.S. embargo. Cuban military intervention in Africa, predictably, made it impossible for Carter to pursue the opening. Castro didn’t mind that, either.
By March 1978, the Cubans had ousted the Somalis — and then stayed to deter Somalia (now armed by Washington) from trying again. With the Cuban forces watching his back, Mengistu wrapped up his bloody campaign of domestic repression, known as “the Red Terror,” and sent his own Soviet-equipped, Cuban-trained troops to crush a rebellion in Eritrea.
The last Cuban troops did not leave Ethiopia until September 1989; they were still on hand as hundreds of thousands died during the 1983-1985 famine exacerbated by Mengistu’s collectivization of agriculture.
Abandoned by Havana (and Moscow), and facing a rebellion, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe in 1991; dictator Robert Mugabe, another close friend of Cuba, granted him asylum.
Today, of course, the Horn of Africa remains tumultuous. Somalia is a failed state, which not even 25,000 U.S. troops could stabilize in the early 1990s. In Ethiopia, Mengistu’s successors cooperate with the United States against terrorism, and the United States, in return, mostly tolerates their human rights abuses.
Looking back, it’s hard to see what lasting benefit, if any, Castro’s intervention achieved, though the sacrifice of Cuban blood and treasure 8,000 miles from home was certainly permanent.
What’s impressive, rather, is the senselessness of it all. Cuba brought no more order out of chaos in the Horn than the other, larger foreign powers — from the British Empire to Mussolini’s Italy to Barack Obama’s America — that have intervened over the centuries.
Perhaps Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, the soldier who actually led Cuba’s troops in the Ogaden (and, later, Angola), could find a moral to the story.
Alas, this hero of Cuba’s African wars died in 1989. Fearing that the popular general could become a political rival, Castro ordered him arrested and tried on trumped-up treason and drug charges - then shot at dawn.
Charles Lane is a member of the Washington Post editorial board.