On February 11 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of an Apartheid prison on Robben Island to become the first democratically elected leader of a freed South Africa. What is little known of the details leading up to his freedom, and the support given by Cuba to the African National Congress’ (ANC) ending of the Apartheid system, is the role played, in memoriam, of a former enslaved woman who had also been an anti-slavery fighter in Matanzas province in Cuba.
Her name was Carlotta. It is after her that Cuba’s 1975 Operation Carlotta was named. This operation was launched primarily against the Apartheid South African Defence Forces (SADF), then operating in Angola. It was done in support of the anti-colonial People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola – Labour Party (MPLA) leadership of Angola, then still a Portuguese colony in Africa. In addition, this operation played a decisive role in the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, site of the largest tank battle fought since the end of WWII.
This role and these details were provided in a lecture to some of us, members of the Canada-Cuba Friendship Society, on a summer-long visit to Cuba in 1995. The Cuban representative who spoke to us was another Black Cuban woman – then looking much like a teenager – who had nonetheless been a Cuban ‘tank commander’ in Angola as part of Operation Carlotta.
In fact, the memory of Carlotta could as easily have been sown by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of slaves who, for the first time in history, had freed themselves. After Toussaint’s epic victory against combined attacks from France, Britain and Spain, he had intended to send Haitian expeditionary forces back to Africa to assist in defeating and ending European slavery there.
Thus, in addition to its other numerous historic actions, Haiti would then have been the first Third World country, acting ‘to support another people in armed conflict beyond its geographical neighbourhood’. Unfortunately, Toussaint was kidnapped by Napoleon’s guile, and froze to death after being spirited back to a prison in the French Alps. Toussaint’s dream remained unfulfilled for two centuries. That is, until Operation Carlotta and another Caribbean leader: Fidel Castro.
Incidentally, among Haiti’s other historic firsts is the fact that, regardless of one’s race or colour, to be a Haitian citizen – constitutionally determined at Haiti’s 1804 independence by then leader, Jean Jacques Dessalines – one is classified as ‘Negre’, which is a characterization former U.S. President Bill Clinton and other European leaders have tried to force Haitians to expunge.
And what was Carlotta’s role in the epic anti-slavery and anti-colonial struggles led decisively then and later by people of African heritage? And what were the contributions of Cuba’s 1975 Operation Carlotta to the dismantling of Apartheid systems by Black Southern Africa by 1988?
First, Operation Carlotta. Angola was among the first places in sub-Saharan Africa – in East Africa’s Hyena Trail, the equivalent of the Atlantic’s Middle Passage, Arabs had earlier softened up Africa for later European incursions – to have been colonized and enslaved. The Portuguese, not surprisingly, were there first. They had followed the star of Prince Henry the Navigator, under whose inspiration adventurers like Vasco da Gama, sailing south on West Africa had rounded the Cape to pioneer routes to the Far East (1498). Likewise, was Ferdinand Magellan, the first to circumnavigate the Earth (1519-1522).
To facilitate Portugal’s four centuries of control and to prevent liberation by the Socialist MPLA, the SADF had invaded Angola, again. However, with MPLA’s anti-colonial pilots, among the best in the world ruling the skies, and with Angolan battalions of FAPLA – Angola’s liberation forces – backed by Cuban tanks, Operation Carlotta turned the tide against Apartheid.
Today, apologists for Apartheid tell a different tale. However, as the SADF’s Colonel Breytenbach stated then: ‘With a lack of foresight, the South Africans had allowed the bulk of their available combat power to be tied down on the Cuito Cuanavale front.’ By December 1988, meeting in New York and Geneva, the terms against Apartheid’s controls in Angola, Namibia, and South Africa were inked! And for Mandela’s release.
For herself, Carlotta’s ending was neither easy nor victorious. One of the three leaders of the 1843 slave rebellion in Cuba’s Matanzas Province, she had taken up the machete to lead a slave uprising at the Triumvirato sugar mill. There, she was killed. Her name was later given to Cuba’s Operation Black Carlotta in Southern Africa. It culminated in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale, and the tipping-point defeat of the NATO-backed SADF in pitched battle against the FAPLA.
Her name in Cuban-Yuroba recitations also includes the designation, lukumi. According to Nigerian linguists and Yoruba experts, in the western Yoruba and in east Benin, the terminology ‘oluikumi’ means ‘my very good friend of confidence’. It is understandable that during the transatlantic Middle Passage, it reached Cuba, and Carlotta, as ‘lukumi’.