The historian Nancy Mitchell once observed, regarding US relations to Cuba that “Our selective recall not only serves a purpose, it has repercussions. It creates a chasm between us and the Cubans we share a past, but we have no shared memories.” Mitchell is quoted in Piero Gleijeses’s masterpiece Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa 1976-1991. Her observation is quite accurate: for many Americans Cuba and its role in the world has been defined by the anti-Castro community in Miami, Florida, leaving little room or consideration for events or policies that did not fit squarely with this perception. The US and Cuba, although only 90 miles away from each other remain estranged in our historical and cultural memory. Two tenets drive most Americans’ view of Cuba: 1) the government is Communist and is hostile to the world and its own people (this perception is driven by the Miami Cuban exile community and Cold War historical inertia; 2) Cuba invades other countries (such as Angola)—this assessment is informed by the lack of information many Americans have regarding Cuba’s internationalist activities. This book offers a thorough review of the events that began in the 1970s and ended in 1991 and provides a very clear view of how southern Africa became another stage for Cold War politics. With any scholarly book that is of significant length (this book is over 650 pages long) I had some concern that the central thesis might be lost in the jumble of names, policies, concepts, battles, etc. This was not the case here. Gleijeses did a superb job researching this book (over 10 years), sifting through materials in archives, conducting interviews with participants and examining other primary sources in over 20 different countries. You could not be more thorough. Gleijeses deftly funnels the vast reams of information into a very easy-to-read narrative that is not overwhelming with names, dates, etc. Too often, historians fall into the trap of name-dropping, that is, peppering their text with so many names that the reader loses track of who is who, who did what, etc. Gleijeses has an excellent command of his information and expertly controls the pacing of the appearances of so many individuals in this text. With other books, I have often had to go to the index frequently to remember a name, title or some other important attribute of someone who appears in the text because of the plethora of names that emerge as the narrative continues. This did not happen here. Only a few times, did I have to go to the index to remember who someone was. This is a testament to Gleijeses’s skill as a historian and a writer. Years ago, someone disdainfully said to me that “all historians do is remember dates.” I wish I could show him this book so that he could see that what historians do, especially one at the top of his game like Gleijeses, really do.
My knowledge of Cuba’s role in southern Africa was minimal. I only knew about its involvement in Angola because I have lived in Cuba for the last four years. This book was extremely educational for me. The narrative is excellent, and the information is presented in a very simple yet informative style. I love how history repeats itself and I enjoyed this quote from George Ball, former under secretary of state: “Myths are made to solace those who find reality distasteful and, if some find such fantasy comforting, so be it.” (p. 29). This reminds me of a certainly individual in Washington, D.C...
What did I take from this book? One, that for all the talk about how President Jimmy Carter truly wanted to normalize relations with Cubans, his actions spoke otherwise. Gleijeses explains that “Carter then called both Castro and Rodríguez liars, telling members of Congress that the evidence of Cuban complicity had been collected over a “long time” and came from “many…top-sensitive sources.” Gleijeses adds that the then Policy Planning Director Anthony Lake observed afterwards, regarding Carter’s efforts to unfairly discredit Cuba, that “I thought we were hyping a crisis that should not have been hyped—unless you had reliable intelligence.”
Second, South Africa’s efforts to manufacture and control consensus in South Africa as part of its plan for a Constellation of Southern African States, led it to become very aggressive in its approach to Angola, the MPLA and the FAPLA (if you want to know the meaning of these acronyms, read the book!).
Third, that despite its role in successfully defending Angola from insurgent (UNITA) and South African aggression, Cuba finds itself having to deflect unfair criticism. One moment in particular stayed in my mind. Defending the presence of Cuban troops in Angola in the 1970s, Fidel Castro exclaimed, “Our soldiers are internationalists; they are not mercenaries.” (p. 79). He reiterated this point later by saying that “Internationalism is the duty to help others.” (p. 82). Of course, this depends on how a country is “helping” another country. For the US, which was supporting the UNITA insurgents in Angola and South Africa, which regularly ordered military incursions into that country, Cuban internationalism was viewed as a form of “imperialism.” But this was a convenient interpretation since it was really the US and South Africa that had less than noble intentions in their approach to Angola.
Chester Crocker, the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, played a pivotal role in negotiations with the Soviet Union, Cuba, Angola and South Africa. I am glad that Gleijeses portrayed his role in such an important light. As I write this review, I noticed that a Ryan C. Crocker, co-wrote an op Op-Ed piece in the New York Times today titled “Dismantling the Foreign Service”. I could not determine if he is related to Chester Crocker, but his warning against the current administration’s approach to the State Department is timely and important.
Gleijeses’s book is magisterial in its breadth and attention to detail. But more importantly, it provides valuable information on an area of Cold War history that many people are unfamiliar with.