In 1991, Nelson Mandela, freshly released from prison as a result of the political transition in his country, met Fidel Castro in Havana. He came to pay tribute to Cuba's support in the long struggle against apartheid.

© Mariano Garcia / Alamy Stock Photo - editing Laurent Corsini

The unexpected and little-known figures of Cuba-Africa relations

Updated 21.04.2021

Time-honoured and varied, the relationship between Cuba and Africa is the focus of a recent scientific publication coordinated by IRD specialists. The work reveals little-known and fascinating aspects of the subject, with new knowledge of Cuban civil cooperation, the destiny of the actors involved in these transatlantic ties and the role of these exchanges in the history of the two regions.

History - global history - is the sum of small but extraordinary stories, individual destinies and fascinating lives. The history of the ties that unite Cuba and Africa is no exception. Alongside the major movements, such as the slave trade which contributed significantly to the current population of the Caribbean island and, more recently, the fights for independence against imperialism and apartheid, a plethora of other connections unfold. A new publication compiling contributions from African, Cuban and European specialists has recently been published in South Africa under the scientific direction of two IRD researchers, and aims to shed light on less documented aspects of the subject. “The literature on Cuban military involvement in Africa during the Cold War, or on African cultural traits in Cuba is already abundant,” explains Giulia Bonacci, a historian at URMIS. “We have taken a step away from this to examine whole aspects of the connections between these two sides of the Atlantic which have, until now, remained in the shadows: forms of Cuban civil cooperation in Africa, the paths of the thousands of actors involved in these exchanges, the remaining traces of these relationships and circulations in historiography…” The work reveals little-known events and figures associated with military struggles, scientific cooperation and cultural creation that deserve to be brought into the light.

Che Guevara's Congolese wards

Ernesto Guevara came incognito at the head of a small Cuban expeditionary force to lend a hand to the maquis in eastern Congo. He poses next to the young Laurent Désiré Kabila, who will overthrow President Mobutu... 32 years later!

© Museo Che Guevara (Centro de Estudios Che Guevara en La Habana, Cuba)

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30 years after his death in Bolivia, Ernesto Che Guevara returned to the forefront of the historical scene, exhumed by political events in Africa: in 1997, the ascension to power in the Democratic Republic of the Congo of Laurent Désiré Kabila, a former comrade of the standard-bearer of the Castro revolution, was a reminder of the extraordinary adventure of the Cuban expeditionary force in the east of the Congo in the mid-1960s. “The military success of the first popular revolt, led by the supporters of LumumbaAssassinated three years earlier, in 19611 in 1964, which managed to seize three quarters of the Congo, convinced Havana to support what seemed to be the Revolution progressing on African soil,” explains political scientist Michel Luntumbue. “Especially since the Americans considered this country a key zone in the East-West confrontation! However, in spite of their military knowledge, the Cuban fighters could not resist the counter-offensive by Mobutu's army, supported by the West and many European, South African and Rhodesian mercenaries”.

Members of the Congolese-Cuban families Soumialot, Nkumu, Longonmo and Shabani, from Che's young protégés and relatives of CNL leaders who took refuge in Havana, photo taken in Cuba in 1980.

© Amisi Soumialot

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The barbudos were soon forced to return home. “It was then, during this forced retreat, that CheHe was initially kept away from the fighting by his Congolese allies, who feared that they would historically bear the responsibility for his death if he was killed. He gradually took part in the tactical supervision of the Congolese rebels, supported by a Cuban expeditionary force of 100 or so components, mainly Afro-Cubans, and also acted as a doctor among the local populations in the maquis area.1 decided to take with him 17 young Congolese comrades-in-armsIncluding his young Swahili teacher, Freddy Ilunga, who became a paediatric surgeon practising in Cuba1, whom he destined to become the avant-garde of the future African Revolution,” says the researcher. These wards of the Cuban state arrived in Havana and joined a small Congolese community composed of the families of leaders of the National Liberation Council.Political organ of the Lumumba rebellion in eastern Congo1 They settled there and some later played active roles in serving the Cuban nation.Such as Godefroid Tchamlesso, a young Congolese maquis leader who became a journalist and representative for several years of the Cuban press agency Prensa Latina in South America, the Caribbean and the USA, before joining Laurent Désiré Kabila, who was in power in the DRC from 1997 to 2001, and becoming the DRC’s ambassador to Angola and then its ambassador-at-large. He died in December 2018 in Kinshasa and was buried in Cuba in accordance with his last wishes.1 In the years that followed, they became the backbone of a Congolese-Cuban community circulating on both sides of the Atlantic, attached to its dual identity and closely tied to the particular relationship that has endured between the two countries since. 
After the failure of the Congolese revolution, Cuba turned its efforts to the Angolan war, mobilising an expeditionary force of 10,000 soldiers, significant civilian cooperation and scientific expertise that was to take a sometimes surprising form...

The Angola of Cuban ethnologists

Carried out in the midst of war, the anthropological work of Cuban scientists is done under military protection. Here, Pablo Rodriguez Ruiz poses with his Cuban bodyguard and two Angolan soldiers assigned to his protection.

© Pablo Rodriguez Ruiz

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Can Angola become a socialist nation-state? This was the question that the MPLA People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola authorities submitted in 1984, in the midst of the civil war, to the expertise of young Cuban scientists freshly graduated from the Soviet universities of Moscow and Leningrad. The aim was to determine on which model to build the country’s political project once victory had been achieved: that of their Cuban partner who had erased initial differences thanks to its revolutions and the fight against American imperialism to integrate each citizen into the nation? Or that of its older brother, the Soviet Union, which had maintained a multicultural nation with significant ethnic and linguistic diversity in a federal union of micro-states. “For the Angolans,” explains Kali Argyriadis, an anthropologist at URMIS, “it was a question of knowing how to unite, within a coherent entity, their vast territory populated by multiple ethnic, linguistic and religious communities, modern and literate urban populations and rural, nomadic or hunter-gatherer populations who were sometimes far removed from the nation’s current affairs...” The 16 ethnologists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and linguists involved divided themselves into four groups to cover the country. They worked for a whole year in spite of the conflict, under the distant protection of the Cuban army, studying cultures, traditions and the economy and talking with village leaders.

Cuban and Angolan researchers, trying to determine whether Angola could become a socialist nation-state in 1984-85, meet with community leaders throughout the country to present their project.

© Pablo Rodriguez Ruiz

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Once over the shock of discovering the realities of Africa, which were far from the mental image that most of them had of the continent, they acquired a solid knowledge of the communities that were to compose the future Angolan society. The anthropologist Pablo Rodriguez RuizCurrently Director of the Ethnology Department at the Cuban Institute of Anthropology, he contributes, alongside the Juan Marinello Cuban Institute of Cultural Research and the IRD, to a research programme on the history of Cuban anthropology led by the AntropoCuba JEAI research team.1, who recounts his experience in Angola in the publication, subsequently produced a respectable monograph dedicated to the Nyaneka-Khumbi people, whose lives he shared for a year. When the Cuban scientists produced their report, however, they were not convinced: in their view, Angola’s vast diversity was completely incompatible with the constitution of a socialist nation state... “History does not say whether their conclusion had any impact on Angola’s political projects or on its relations with the Cuban state,” says the researcher. 
In addition to political and scientific involvement, ties between Havana and the African continent also developed around a reciprocal cultural influence that was encouraged by the public on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Kikongo, Congolese rumba and cultural diplomacy

The Cuban singer-songwriter Arsenio Rodriguez, born in 1911, sometimes used Kikongo and other African languages in his songs. He was very successful in Africa and inspired the creation of Congolese rumba.


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Franco and his TPOK jazz, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Les Bantous de la capitale - iconic stars of Congolese rumba in the second half of the 20th century and extremely popular well beyond the two Congos - owed much to some of their Cuban predecessors… This cultural transfer operated through the many transatlantic crossings that had been taking place for a long time: “in the 1930s, Afro-Cuban musicians such as Arsenio Rodríguez made records with lyrics in Spanish and KikongoUsed in the rites of the Cuban Palo-monte religion1, a language sometimes directly inherited from their grandparents who were once captives brought from the Kingdom of Kongo,” explains Charlotte Grabli, a historian at the International Research Centre on Slavery and Post-Slavery.

Very inspired by Cuban rhythms, the singer Joseph Kabasalé, known as "Grand Kalé", with his orchestra African Jazz, is considered one of the fathers of modern Congolese music.

© DR

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When distributed in Africa – where there were almost no recordings of urban African music – these pieces with their familiar rhythms were so popular that they revolutionised the cultural landscape and inspired African music composition in the following decade”. A veritable Congolese scene emerged, imitating the Afro-Cuban style and even including Spanish pidgin, of which the music lovers understood little. This all contributed to the cosmopolitanism that remains the trademark of Congolese rumba and the reason for its success, which continues to this day throughout the African continent.

In the context of the Cold War, Cuba carried out intense cultural diplomacy with the newly independent African states, notably by training African musicians in Havana and by sending Cuban orchestras to tour in Africa.

© Pixabay

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On the other side of the Atlantic, African artists were well-received by Cuban audiences and became a source of inspiration for Cuban musicians. “As part of the cultural diplomacy with the newly-independent African countries that the nation implemented under Castro during the Cold War, exchanges were organised which proved to be fruitful for both sides,” says Elina Djebbari, an anthropologist at Paris 8 University. Ten or so Malian musicians were sent to Cuba for training between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s. Once there, they set up an orchestra called Las Maravillas de Malí and were a big success in Cuba and Africa, adding French and Bambara lyrics and themes to the Cuban style. Their most famous piece, Rendez-vous chez Fatimata, is a typical example of the African style being incorporated into Cuban music such as the chachacha. In parallel, numerous trips of Cuban groups to Africa, as part of the same policy of promoting the revolution and socialism through cultural exchange, also inspired Cuban music. “La Orquesta Aragón, which performed extensively during West-African tours, used African influences in its ideas and music, creating a new rhythm, the chaonda, which was directly inspired by this experience”, explains the specialist. 
The book, titled Cuba and Africa, 1939 – 1994: Writing an Alternative Atlantic History, will soon be translated into Spanish for Cuban readers.