The United States first made known the presence of Cuban troops in Angola in an official statement of 24 November 1975. Three months later, during a short visit to Venezuela, Henry Kissinger remarked in private to President Carlos Andrés Pérez: ‘Our intelligence services have grown so bad that we only found out that Cubans were being sent to Angola after they were already there.’ At that moment, there were many Cuban troops, military specialists and civilian technicians in Angola—more even than Kissinger imagined. Indeed, there were so many ships anchored in the bay of Luanda that President Agostinho Neto, counting them from his window, felt a very characteristic shudder of modesty. ‘It’s not right’, he said to a functionary personally close to him. ‘If they go on like that, the Cubans will ruin themselves.’ It is unlikely that even the Cubans had foreseen that their solidarity aid to the Angolan people would reach such proportions. It had been clear to them right from the start, however, that the action had to be swift, decisive, and at all costs successful.

Contact was first established between the Cuban revolution and the mpla in August 1965, when Che Guevara was taking part in the guerrilla struggle in the Congo. Relations were subsequently strengthened, and in 1966 Neto himself, accompanied by Endo, the commander-in-chief of the mpla who was later to die in the war, made a trip to Cuba where they met Fidel Castro. Thereafter, owing to the conditions of the struggle in Angola, these contacts became sporadic again. Only in May 1975, when the Portuguese were preparing to withdraw from their African colonies, did the Cuban commandant Flavio Bravo meet Neto in Brazzaville. The mpla leader asked for assistance with the transport of an arms shipment and raised the possibility of wider forms of aid. These talks were followed three months later by the visit to Luanda of a Cuban delegation led by Commandante Raúl Diaz Argülles; this time Neto made a more specific (but no more ambitious) request for a group of instructors to set up and run four military training centres.

Even a superficial observer of the Angolan situation could have seen that Neto’s request was a typical expression of his modesty. Although the mpla, founded in 1956, was the oldest liberation movement in Angola, and although it alone possessed a broad popular base and a social, political and economic programme suited to conditions in the country, nevertheless it found itself in a less favourable military position than the others. It had Soviet weapons, but not the personnel capable of handling them. By contrast, the well trained and equipped troops of the Zaire regular army, who first entered Angola on 25 March, had proclaimed in Carmona a de facto government headed by Holden Roberto—the brother-in-law of Mobutu and leader of the fnla—whose links with the cia were public knowledge. To the west lay the Zambian-backed unita under the command of Jonas Savimbi—an unprincipled adventurer who had collaborated continuously with the Portuguese army and the foreign exploiter companies. Lastly, South African regular troops had crossed into Southern Angola from occupied Namibia on 5 August, ostensibly to protect the dams of the Raucana-Caluaqua hydro-electric complex.

All these forces, drawing on enormous economic and military means of support, were ready to draw an impenetrable ring around Luanda on the eve of 11 November—the day when the Portuguese were due to abandon that huge, rich and beautiful territory where they had prospered for five centuries. Thus, when the Cubans received Neto’s appeal, they did not limit themselves to strict fulfilment of its points: they decided to send at once a contingent of 480 specialists, who in the space of six months would set up four training centres and organize sixteen infantry battalions and twenty-five mortar batteries and anti-aircraft machine-gun emplacements. These were supplemented with a team of doctors, 115 vehicles and a suitable communications network.

This initial contingent travelled out in three improvised ships. The only passenger vessel, El Vietnam Heroico, had been bought by the dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1956 from a Dutch company and converted into a training ship. The other two—El Coral Island and La Plata—were hastily modified merchant ships; the way in which they were loaded illustrates extremely well the foresight and boldness with which the Cubans faced up to the predicament of Angola. It may seem strange that the Cubans took their own motor-fuel with them. For Angola is a petrol-producing country, whereas Cuba’s main source of supply is half-way across the world in the Soviet Union. However, the Cubans preferred to take no chances and loaded 1,000 tonnes of petrol on the first three ships. El Vietnam Heroico carried 200 tonnes in 55-gallon tanks, sailing with the holds open so that the gases could escape; La Plata actually carried petrol on the deck. The night they finished loading the cargo coincided with a Cuban popular fiesta: rockets burst in the sky and the pyrotechnical wonders extended right into Havana harbour, where a stray spark would have reduced those three floating arsenals to ashes. Fidel Castro himself came to see them off—as he was to do with every contingent that left for Angola—and after inspecting their travelling conditions, he let slip a sentence that was all the more his own for its apparently casual character: ‘At any rate’, he said, ‘you’ll be more comfortable than on the Granma.’