Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 135-137
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Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002. 552 pp. $34.95.
This major work focuses on the interaction between the United States and Cuba in Africa during the years when, as Piero Gleijeses shows, the United States was barely paying attention to Cuban activities on that continent. Thus, Cuba is the book's protagonist. This is the best study available of Cuban operations in Africa during the Cold War. Cuba actively sought to counter U.S. policies and supported anti-Western revolutionaries, whereas the United States, until the massive deployments of Cuban troops to Angola in late 1975, acted primarily out of regard to its general position in Africa, not specifically to block Cuba's role.
Gleijeses describes the deployment of Cuban forces to Algeria in 1963, the Congo (Zaire) in 1965, the Congo (Brazzaville) and Guinea-Bissau in the mid- and late 1960s, and Angola principally in 1975. He provides fascinating details about these operations, drawing both on interviews with many who played key roles in Cuba's overseas deployments and on a wide number of documents from Cuban archives. This is the book's principal scholarly contribution. No one else has had such access, and hence this is the first account of an impressive and daring policy sustained by Cuba over nearly three decades. Gleijeses supplements his work in Cuba with thorough research in archives in Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He has used French, German, English, Spanish, and Portuguese sources. It is noteworthy that he found the writings of U.S. intelligence analysts to be the most insightful and reliable, even if U.S. decision makers paid little attention to them.
Among the most interesting of the book's empirical findings is the extent of Cuban ignorance about Africa in the 1960s. Cuban leaders knew remarkably little about Congo/Zaire in 1965 prior to Ernesto (Che) Guevara's mission to that country with well over one hundred Cuban troops. Cuban officials seriously misread the nature of the insurgency in Congo/Zaire and mistakenly believed they could work with the guerrillas whom they deemed revolutionary. Having failed to establish a safe and reliable communication link between Che in Congo/Zaire and Havana, the Cuban government was left utterly unaware of Che's fate for three months. In the mid-1960s Cuban leaders also initially misjudged the regime governing Congo/Brazzaville, to which they nonetheless committed enough forces to ward off a military coup attempt. Cuban officials greatly overestimated the strength of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola, whose forces the Cubans attempted to train without success.
Gleijeses deserves much praise for having deposited a photocopy of all but two of the Cuban documents cited here in the library of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., "to enable scholars to verify that I have used them according to the most exacting standards of [End Page 135] the historical profession" (p.503). Nevertheless, there is a problem with Gleijeses's use of the documents that is beyond his control. The Cuban government did not open its archives, declassify all the holdings, and allow Gleijeses to roam free. Instead, he had to request documents on particular topics, leaving it to the archivists to determine precisely what he would see. He was denied access to some items. Gleijeses seems to have had ample access to documents focusing on operational matters and to interviews with lower-level operatives, but he had much less access to documents pertaining to decision making and was not given the opportunity to interview Fidel or Raúl Castro.
We learn much in this book about the details of Cuban operations. It is not news, however, that Cuba deployed troops and committed significant resources to the countries examined in this book. Nor is it news that Cuban leaders acted on their own, not as Soviet proxies. On this point...