From the outset, the Cuban revolution was determined to assert its independence. The island’s foreign policy was shaped by a dual impulse: a revolutionary desire to multiply the fronts of resistance to imperialism, and a shrewd calculation that only the spread of insurgency would ensure Cuba’s survival. A robust internationalism, part of Cuba’s radical heritage since José Martí, was its foundation—as expressed in the Second Declaration of Havana, or Che Guevara’s statement in 1965 that ‘a victory by any country over imperialism is our victory; just as any country’s defeat is a defeat for all of us.’ In the early 1960s Cuba encouraged and in many cases armed foco groups across Latin America—in Venezuela, Argentina, Peru, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and the Dominican Republic—often alarming local Communist Parties. Such an assault on the Monroe doctrine provoked unease in the USSR, which had long since arrived at a strategy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ with the West—accepting the demarcations agreed at Yalta and manoeuvring only cautiously in the Third World. China, unpredictable in its Cold War affiliations, was a further player on a multi-polar world stage.

Cuba attempted to forge its own path among these giants: solidarity with and support for national liberation movements in the Third World would, it was thought, encourage the formation of a bloc of states free from US and European colonial dominance but also independent of Moscow and Beijing. With the failure of the guerrilla groups in Latin America, continued CIA-sponsored paramilitary incursions and the US’s tightening economic stranglehold, the Cubans now ‘tried to avoid the lion’s jaw’, by battling imperialism elsewhere. The focus shifted to Africa.

Piero Gleijeses has written an impressive, scholarly study of Cuba’s involvement in Africa—from the little-known mission to Algeria in 1962 to its crucially timed intervention in Angola in the autumn of 1975. Given unprecedented access to archives in Havana, Gleijeses interviewed key figures not only from the Cuban leadership but also from the State Department and African movements such as the PAIGC in Guinea-Bissau and the MPLA in Angola. Conflicting Missions is a unique record of Cuban successes and reversals, providing a fuller account of events than has previously been possible. It also delivers a harsh verdict on US Africa policy—‘somnolent and distracted until galvanized by crisis’; Gleijeses indicates that knee-jerk decisions were arrived at by Washington’s Cold War hawks despite access to nuanced and careful intelligence reports. But the book’s main contribution lies in its scrutiny of the process by which key Cuban decisions were made. Gleijeses demonstrates that Cuba’s African interventions, though often subsequently meeting with Moscow’s approval and dovetailing with its policy, were made entirely on their own initiative—exploding the Cold War myth of Cuba as a Soviet proxy.

The first military aid sent by Cuba to Africa was unloaded from a ship at Casablanca in January 1962, and taken to the National Liberation Front (FLN) camp at Oujda on the Algerian border. Cubans had identified with Algeria’s struggle for independence even before Batista’s overthrow. Alone in the Western hemisphere Cuba recognized the Algerian government in exile in June 1961—for which Ahmed Ben Bella expressed his gratitude in a visit to Havana in 1962, notable both for the emotional bond it forged between the two young revolutionary leaders and the outrage which greeted it in the US. Having left Cuba in December 1961 with 1,500 rifles, 30 machine guns, four mortars and ammunition, the Bahía de Nipe returned to Havana with 76 wounded FLN fighters and 20 war orphans who, in a foretaste of what would become one of the great contributions to African liberation movements, were to be educated in Cuba. A medical mission of 29 doctors, 3 dentists, 15 nurses and 8 medical technicians followed in 1963. Its head, the Minister of Public Health, José Ramón Machado Ventura, described this voluntary sacrifice of vital personnel as being ‘like a beggar offering his help . . . but we knew the Algerian people needed it even more than we did and that they deserved it’.

The failure of Cuba’s next intervention—in the Congo in 1965—has been well documented, not least by the leader of the column, Che Guevara. Gleijeses here argues that his presence in Africa was not so much an expression of personal adventurism, as others have suggested, but rather an indication of the centrality of the undertaking to Cuban foreign policy. A detailed breakdown of a trip Che made to Africa in late 1964 and early 1965 supports this claim: in Algeria, Mali, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea, Ghana, Benin and Tanzania he made contact with a number of African governments and liberation movements—notably with the MPLA in Brazzaville, and the Simbas in Dar-es-Salaam. The Simba rebellion had begun in the summer of 1964 in Kivu province, as followers of Lumumba revolted against a corrupt regime propped up by Mobutu’s army and thousands of UN troops. After the UN’s departure, the Simbas began to sweep aside the Congolese army, despite US support and aid to the latter. The tide was only turned by white mercenaries, recruited by the CIA from South Africa, Rhodesia and France, who cut a brutal swathe through Simba-controlled territory. Undisciplined, poorly armed and often leaderless for months on end, the Simbas were no match for the mercenary armies, who soon confined the rebels and Che’s column to the Fizi Baraka pocket. CIA air cover and patrol boats cut off supply lines across Lake Tanganyika, and in late October Tanzania decided to end access for the rebels altogether—citing the dismissal of Prime Minister Moise Tshombe, former leader of the Katangan secession and accessory to the murder of Lumumba, as proof that Congo was on course to become ‘an ordinary African country’, in the words of Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere.

It took little more than a fortnight to mop up the Simba rebellion. After contemplating staying on with a select group of fighters, Che reluctantly departed in November 1965; four days later, Mobutu seized power. The root of the Cubans’ failure here lay in their reliance on poor, second-hand information, and in the disarray of their allies. Gleijeses reproduces ample testimony from Cuban members of the expedition confirming their disappointment. But more significantly, Gleijeses’s interviews—notably with Víctor Dreke, Che’s second-in-command in the Congo and later head of the mission to Guinea-Bissau—demolish the account of the campaign by the famous defector Benigno in Vie et mort de la révolution cubaine (1996). As Dreke’s own book (Escambray to the Congo, 2002) confirms, Benigno was never part of the Congo expedition—a fact that not only casts doubts on the veracity of his account as a whole, but also serves as a health warning over Jorge Castañeda’s Compañero: the Life and Death of Che Guevara (1997), which relies heavily on Benigno’s version of events.

At the same time as Che’s column was meeting disaster in the Congo, another group of 250 men, led by Jorge Risquet, a member of the Cuban CP Secretariat, was in the neighbouring former French colony of Congo-Brazzaville, in a virtually unknown venture. Here the mission was to train a militia to protect the regime of Alphonse Massama-Débat from the threat of incursion by Tshombe’s army, and from any coup attempts by the French-trained national army—ironically, now being drilled by the Soviets. When such a rebellion occurred in June 1966, the presence of the Cubans proved decisive in defusing the crisis. But the government they rescued, riven by feuding and ethnic polarization, failed to meet expectations. There was little substance behind Massamba-Débat’s leftist rhetoric—one scholar has referred to the Congolese liberation struggle as a ‘salon revolution’. Anti-colonial sentiment was muffled to placate the former masters, who still controlled the major industries—Massamba-Débat referring to France and Congo as ‘an old married couple’. The importance of the Congolese mission lay rather in the links forged in Brazzaville with the MPLA and Guinea-Bissau’s PAIGC.