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
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 Lumumbain 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”.
The barbudos were soon forced to return home. “It was then, during this forced retreat, that Che
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
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.
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 Ruiz
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
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 Kikongo, 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.
“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.
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.