CubaBrief: Castro’s role in Cuban troops entering Angola in 1975, and killing up to 80,000 black revolutionaries there in a 1977 purge.

On November 5, 1975, 30,000 Cuban troops were dispatched to Angola in what was called Operation Carlota, and today pro-Castro sympathizers over social media are celebrating this anniversary with excerpts of a speech the Cuban dictator gave announcing the move at the time. Castro’s speech claims that material considerations were not made in sending the expeditionary forces, but he leaves out the political considerations that would pay off materially later, and subject the people of Angola to decades of dictatorship.

Progressive International over X (used to be Twitter) posted a photo and a thread that begins celebrating the Cuban intervention.

“This heroic example of socialist internationalism set out to defend the Angolan Movement for People’s Liberation (MPLA) from CIA and South African-backed reactionary forces. Named after the leader of a slave rebellion in the Matanzas region, the Operation would last over a decade and involve some 500,000 Cubans in the Angolan independence struggle.”

No mention was made of the FNLA (Frente Nacional para a Libertação de Angola, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola) which was a non-communist nationalist movement that was a competitor to the Movement for People’s Liberation (MPLA). Nor is any mention made that the MPLA had first been in contact with the July 26th Movement prior to the Castro regime taking power in 1959, and relations formalized in 1960. Edward George in his 2005 book THE CUBAN INTERVENTION IN ANGOLA, 1965–1991: From Che Guevara to Cuito Cuanavale described and provided documentation on this relationship.

“The MPLA’s first informal contacts with M–26–7 began in the late 1950s through the Casa dos Estudantes do Império (Imperial Student House) in Lisbon. Originally set up as a hostel, help centre and meeting place for African students from the Portuguese Empire, by the late 1950s the Casa dos Estudantes had become a hotbed of revolutionary thought, and a recruiting centre for liberation movements from Portuguese Africa. It was through the Casa dos Estudantes that the MPLA made its first tentative contacts with Castro’s revolutionaries,17 and these were followed in 1960 with more formal contacts via the Cuban embassy in Conakry. From its earliest days, the Cuban revolutionary government gave verbal support to the MPLA’s cause, and between 1962 and 1964 it offered six scholarships to Angolan students who had fled Portugal. During their stay in Cuba, the Angolans received military training as well as higher education, and among them were several men who became prominent figures in the MPLA, such as N’Dalu (until recently Angolan Ambassador to Washington, DC) and Onanbwe. Once the MPLA had set up an office in Algiers in February 1963, its guerrillas started receiving training from Cuban and Algerian instructors there, and this programme was still continuing when Guevara arrived in Brazzaville in early 1965.”

Why did Fidel Castro send hundreds of thousands of Cubans to fight in Angola beginning 48 years ago today in 1975? He saw an opportunity. On April 25, 1974 the right wing government in Portugal was overthrown by a nonviolent coup led by Leftists in the army that became known as the Carnation Revolution. This also meant that Portugal was withdrawing from its African colonial possessions. Edward George in his 2005 book described how relations with the MPLA had cooled, but then warmed after a green light was given by a high ranking Portuguese Admiral.

“It is highly likely that Cuba’s decision was influenced by the MPLA’s strongest Portuguese supporter – Admiral Rosa Coutinho – who visited Havana in June 1975 for talks with Castro. Although the content of their discussions is unknown, Castro later revealed that he requested permission from Lisbon to send Cuban supplies and instructors directly to Luanda. However, given the fierce divisions in the Portuguese government over which Angolan movement to support, Castro never received a reply, and in late July he dispatched Comandante Senén Casas Regueiro (later Commander-in-Chief of the Cuban operation in Angola) to Lisbon to close a deal. Rosa Coutinho’s second visit to Havana in August – precisely when the Cuban decision was taken – suggests that Portuguese compliance was secured, although it may have been unofficial.”

The war in Angola heated up in 1975 over which national independence group would take over. The Cubans and the Soviets backed the MPLA and the South Africans, fiercely anti-communist, backed the FNLA and Unita. When it appeared that MPLA was going to win, the South African army invaded Angola, and Fidel Castro responded with Cuban troops to counter them, and a hot war was on in Africa that would go on for 16 years. The Castro regime has a six decade track record of military interventions around the world.

However, no mention was made of an episode that began less than two years after Havana established a military presence in Angola that is considered taboo, and dangerous to talk about there today, because it does not fit the revolutionary narrative. Cuban troops, beginning on May 27, 1977, took part in a massacre in Angola following a split in the governing Communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party. Amnesty International cites reports that 30,000 Angolans “had disappeared” in the purge; other sources place the number at 80,000 killed.

2014 book on Angolan massacre in which Cuban troops participated.

There was a racial component, with those massacred being young, black revolutionaries, and those in power who Castro allied with: mixed race and white Angolans and Eurocentric, although they were Marxist-Leninists so it was not a problem for Leftists, including those in power in Portugal. The definitive account of this massacre in English is found in Lara Pawson’s 2014 book, “In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre.” A 2017 review of the book by Fernando Arenas published in Luso-Brazilian Review provides the following summary.

In the Name of the People offers major insights regarding the history of May 1977, including the key role played by Cuban military forces, who defended Agostinho Neto and the ruling MPLA against the attempted coup, in defiance of the Soviet Union, while committing atrocities against Nito Alves’s supporters. It also highlights the centrality of racial politics in Nito’s movement against the perceived political dominance of mixed race and white Angolans in the MPLA to the exclusion of the majority poor black population, emphasizing the movement’s rejection of endemic corruption within the MPLA and its betrayal of the socialist revolution.

Nelson Da Silva on his Youtube channel provided video excerpts of a book talk in 2015 with the author Lara Pawson, and questions and comments by Angolans.

BBC News,  September 6, 2020

The orphans of Angola’s secret massacre seek the truth

President Neto, who had a close relationship with Fidel Castro, used Cuban troops during the purge

A massacre in Angola that followed a split in the governing MPLA party not long after independence has been shrouded in secrecy and fear for more than four decades. But some of those affected are coming together to demand answers and have been speaking to the BBC’s Mary Harper, some for the first time in public.

“My parents were last seen walking into the Ministry of Defence, hand in hand.”

That was more than 40 years ago, when João Ernesto Van Dunem was a three-month-old baby. He never saw his mother and father again.

He does not know where or how they were killed. He does not know where they are buried.

His parents – José Van Dunem, 27, and Sita Valles, 26 – together with other young Angolans, had accused the ruling elite of prioritising personal wealth and power over the good of the country.

José Van Dunem, who was a senior military official, and a fellow MPLA central committee member, Nito Alves, who had been a government minister, led the criticism from within. This led to their expulsion.

There are many versions of what happened next.

The authorities accused what they described as the “fractionistas” or “splitters” of staging an attempted coup on 27 May 1977.

Members of the group said they did no such thing; rather they had organised a mass demonstration and a takeover of the radio station to call people on to the streets of the capital, Luanda, in order to pressurise President António Agostinho Neto to clean up his government.

The result was bloodshed.

Mr Neto called in loyal sections of the army, supported by Cuban troops, and the massacre began.

Thousands, including many of the country’s young intellectuals and party activists, were imprisoned, tortured and killed.

Those in authority at the time, including Defence Minister Gen Henrique Teles Carreira, known as Iko Carreira, put the number at 300.

Amnesty International says 30,000 died in the purge. Some say as many as 90,000 were killed.

“The 27 May decapitated progressive thinking in the country,” says João Ernesto Van Dunem, now an economist at the Catholic University of Angola.

“I am sceptical that Angola’s authorities will tell the truth or see that justice is done.”


In May 2017, four decades after their parents disappeared, 24 of the now adult children, including Mr Van Dunem, wrote an open letter to then-President José Eduardo dos Santos, demanding answers. They received no reply.

In January 2018, they set up an association of orphans, named M27.

Elisiário dos Passos Vieira Lopes was killed at a hospital in Moxico province where all the staff were reportedly executed

The “M” stands both for “May”, the month of the incident that triggered the killings, and for “Memory”.

Members of M27 have a set of key demands, which they say will restore the dignity of the dead, and see them cast as victims not villains.

  • They want the remains of their parents recovered and death certificates issued

  • They want a list of all the people who were killed

  • They want a memorial built to honour them. And they want the truth to be told.

“Imagine what 40 years of silence can do to your mind. The killing of my father created this huge gulf between my motherland and myself,” says Henda Vieira Lopes, another member of M27, who works as a psychologist in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, Angola’s former colonial ruler.

“For a long time I did not want to return to Angola as I feared I would feel like an orphan in a strange land.”

Mr Vieira Lopes’ father, Elisiário dos Passos Vieira Lopes, worked in a hospital in the eastern province of Moxico. He says all of its staff were executed.

“It was a witch-hunt, like a fire in the savannah, running out of control.”

Silence, pain and mystery

Some members of M27 say one reason they have decided to break their silence after all these years is because they now have children of their own.

“My seven-year-old son has started asking questions about his grandparents,” says Mr Van Dunem.

“Where are they? Why did they die? Our aim is to prevent this heavy burden of unsolved questions being passed on to the next generation.”

Many older relatives of those who were killed, and who themselves survived the purge, do not want to talk about what happened.

“I was born on 15 May 1977, 12 days before the massacres began,” says Vania Mendes, a project manager in Sweden.

“The security forces came to our home in the eastern city of Luena and dragged my father out. He was never seen alive again.

“I grew up knowing nothing about what happened. The family never spoke to me about it. It was very hard to grow up in an environment of silence, pain and mystery.

“My mother still has a lot of fear and rage towards Angola. She was in mourning for years, dressing in black until I was seven or eight years old.”

‘It’s not about revenge’

In 1977, Afonso Carlos António was jailed for 16 months. He now works for the Angolan Ministry of Culture. After 43 years he has finally decided to break his silence.

“I am not happy with the way opinion makers say the survivors of 27 May are traumatised and want revenge,” he says.

“It’s not about that at all. It is about honour and truth and a better Angola. In order to have reconciliation the truth has to come out. Only then can we have healing.”

Mr António does not want to go into detail about what happened to him in prison.

“Unlike other political prisoners, I was not tortured physically. I was psychologically and emotionally tortured.”

In September 2017 Angola got a new president, João Lourenço, bringing to an end Mr dos Santos’ 38 years in power. With him came a degree of change.

In April 2019, Mr Lourenço set up a commission to look into all acts of political violence since independence in 1975, including the 27-year civil war with the Unita rebels, which ended in 2002, and the events of 1977.

“We want to believe the government is acting in good faith but we are sceptical,” says Mr Antonio.

“There were no discussions with survivors before the commission was set up, its time frame is too short, and the different periods of violence have been diluted by all being lumped together.”

[ Full article ]

Luso-Brazilian Review, 2017

In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre by Lara Pawson (review)

Reviewed By Fernando Arenas

Luso-Brazilian Review

University of Wisconsin Press

Volume 54, Number 2, 2017

pp. E4-E5

Pawson, Lara. In the Name of the People: Angola’s Forgotten Massacre. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014. xii + 271 pp. Glossary. Maps. Notes. Bibliography. Index.

Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People offers a riveting investigative account of the massacre of thousands of people that took place in Angola on May 27, 1977, in the aftermath of a major demonstration and coup d’état led by Nito Alves, former guerrilla and senior member of the governing MPLA Central Committee shortly after independence. 

Of all the events in the nation’s tumultuous history, ranging from the first contacts with Europeans in the fifteenth century, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the wars of European conquest in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, colonization, the liberation war and the internationalized multi-front civil war, to the oligarchic and nepotistic kleptocracy, in which most of the population lives on $2 a day, the one that remains the greatest taboo is the massacre that took place after the Nito Alves revolt. 

This major event in the history of early post-independence Angola has been largely suppressed from official memory. Yet, there are a few exceptions to this purposeful amnesia. The classic novel by Boaventura Cardoso, Maio, mês de Maria (May, Month of Mary) (1997) alludes elliptically to the massacre while expressing profound disillusionment with the MPLA project. Historian David Birmingham, in his chapter on Angola, featured in the volume A History of Postcolonial Lusophone Africa (2002), refers to the “bloodstained crisis of 1977” as the moment in which the MPLA “turned to becoming a self-selected elite party mendaciously calling itself ‘the workers’ vanguard'” (153). 

More recently, historian Ricardo Soares de Oliveira in Magnificent and Beggar Land: Angola Since the Civil War (2015) identifies the recurrent South African attacks and the ongoing civil war as well as Nito Alves’s attempted coup as the root cause of the party-state’s “suffocating national security culture that is one of its perennial traits” (96). 

Among these and a few other scarce allusions or inquiries into the events of 1977, Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People stands out as the most ambitious and detailed attempt to shed light on one of the most sinister chapters of Angola’s history from a journalistic point of view.

Pawson’s work is based on extensive archival research and interviews with presumed witnesses, friends, and relatives of victims, as well as presumed victimizers. It is an extraordinarily suspenseful journey that is at times heart-wrenching. There is a detective quality to the investigative experience that takes place in Portugal, the United Kingdom, and Angola, as each chapter is structured around a different encounter. In the Name of the People registers the various stages in the process of (re-)constructing an elusive truth from myriad fragments, perspectives, and experiences, as well as gaps, contradictions, possible falsehoods, distortions, and illuminating moments. 

The prose is highly vivid; journalistic and literary in equal measure with pointillistic descriptions of interior and exterior spaces, urban scenes, as well as human interactions, thus adding considerable texture and nuance to each situation the book narrates. Adding a meta-journalistic dimension, the author comments on her own possible limitations and fears, but also on her strength of knowledge and experience. At the same time, she expresses a great deal of empathy towards the subjects she interviews, even if they seem potentially or de facto inimical to her agenda.

In the Name of the People offers major insights regarding the history of May 1977, including the key role played by Cuban military forces, who defended Agostinho Neto and the ruling MPLA against the attempted coup, in defiance of the Soviet Union, while committing atrocities against Nito Alves’s supporters. 

It also highlights the centrality of racial politics in Nito’s movement against the perceived political dominance of mixed race and white Angolans in the MPLA to the exclusion of the majority poor black population, emphasizing the movement’s rejection of endemic corruption within the MPLA and its betrayal of the socialist revolution.