Raul Castro, the US and the massacre in Angola in May 1977

Paul Trewhela writes on the unanswered questions around the events of May 27 1977

In my article, "The Angolan massacre of 27 May 1977: A grim portent for South Africa" (27 August 2014),

I asked the question: "When is a massacre not a massacre?"

My answer was: "When truthful reporting of it is suppressed for nearly 40 years, as with the Nitista massacre in and around Luanda in Angola on 27 May 1977, when as many as 25,000 urban people - mainly, but not exclusively, poor black township dwellers - are reported to have been murdered en masse by the ruling MPLA party, assisted by Cuban military and security forces."

I can think of another answer: "When the massacre was carried out to a great extent by Cuban forces under the orders of Raul Castro, the current president of Cuba, then Cuba's minister of armed forces, and the brother of El Commandante Fidel."

Raul Castro has a case to answer to the people of Angola, a case of mass murder, as does Angola's MPLA government - still a one-party dictatorship which carries primary responsibility for the massacre - and its president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, who has been in power for...35 years. (The president's daughter, Isabel, is considered by Forbesmagazine to be "the richest woman in Africa" and "Africa's first woman billionaire").

General Rafael Moracen Limonta was given orders by Raul Castro in the mid-1970s to command a special unit of Cuban elite troops in Angola to ensure the safety of the country's then president, Agostinho Neto. Much later Moracen told an interviewer that Raul Castro instructed him he "ought to be on alert because at any time there could be an attempted coup d'état."

He added: "And actually, things really did turn out as the general of the army, Raul Castro, had predicted."

These reminiscences by General Moracen appear in the study by Lara Pawson, In the Name of the People: Angola's Forgotten Massacre (IB Tauris, London, 2014), the only book in nearly 40 years to do honest research into the massacre of thousands of mainly black members and supporters of the MPLA who were critical of the policies of the Neto government. (p.241)

An astonishing and very relevant document is available online, separately, which carries Raul Castro's report to his brother, Fidel, the head of government, written and dated 14 June 1977, less than three weeks after the massacre.

Written in Spanish, the scanned document is posted on the website of the History and Public Policy Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington DC. It comes from the Secret Bureau of the 2nd Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, and was secured for public examination by Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University.

Gleijeses has had extraordinary access to the archives of the Cuban Communist Party, and is an enthusiastic exponent of its history.

He gives an English translation of part of the document in his book, published at the end of last year, Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1975-1991 (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

Professor Gleijeses reports that Raul Castro arrived in Angola from Cuba one week after the massacre, which Gleijeses describes - in the common phrase of the MPLA regime and of nearly all subsequent historical accounts - as a "failed coup".

Castro writes:

"From the moment we arrived in Luanda we were told of the mood of hostility towards Soviet officials, diplomats and security officers in Luanda among the top leaders of the MPLA. We already knew about Risquet's conversation with Neto, in which the latter had recalled with some bitterness that ‘the Soviets have been wrong about us several times; at one time... they refused us all aid'....

"Even before the coup, the Angolan leadership had been keen to deny the Nitistas' accusation that it had been anti-Soviet.... At the same time, our military mission became aware that Soviet military interpreters had openly expressed support for Nito [Alves] and Bakalov [a leading plotter]. I gave instructions to investigate whether these had been isolated, personal views or whether they reflected a common opinion among the Soviet military in Luanda.

"As is clearly indicated in another report..., while the nuances may vary, the common assessment was that Nito, Bakaloff and the other plotters ‘are friends of the Soviet Union.'

"Some of the Soviets are actively partisan, others say they are neutral. There is also the case of Colonel Grishin...who hid one of the rebels in his car and helped him escape. Knowing the Soviets, and above all their military, it is clear that behaviour and attitudes like this, even if they are spontaneous and reflect the personal views of an individual, must be explained, in the final analysis, by the fact that these individuals know that their views are consistent with those of their superiors." (Gleijeses, pp.75-76)

At the same time, the only attention to the massacre provided by Professor Gleijeses himself - in a book of more than 600 pages - are the following three sentences:

"The revolt had been defeated almost without bloodshed, and the aftermath might have been less harsh, had the leaders of the coup not murdered, before fleeing, seven high-ranking loyalists whom they had captured earlier in the day. ...[After] the murders were discovered a wave of repression engulfed the country. ‘This remains one of the most grim pages in the history of independent Angola,' a biographer sympathetic to Agostinho Neto wrote in 2005." (Gleijeses, p.74)

No inquiry. Nothing more. With five words - "harsh", "wave of repression", "grim" - Gleijeses evaded the difficult and painful task which Lara Pawson set herself to explore, in her study published in London five months later, a book with the most profound ramifications for Angola, South Africa and Namibia.

Huge difficulties remain before there is a fully adequate historical understanding of the conflict between Angolans in Luanda and surrounding regions in May 1977, and its consequences.

Here are some of the questions which need greatly more intensive research of the kind Lara Pawson has begun to provide:

* Did the leaders of the opposition to the Neto government within the MPLA, such as Nito Alves, actually plan a "coup"? Or were their intentions different? (Lara Pawson cites some interviews claiming a coup was not intended).

* How much actual support from the Soviet Union or its functionaries, as Raul Castro reported, did Nito Alves and his colleagues actually have? If so, what were the objectives of these Soviet personnel, and how did these objectives differ from those of the government of Cuba?

* How extensive was the resentment among poor black Angolans in and around Luanda - the principal supporters of the Alves grouping, and overwhelmingly the victims of the massacre - concerning the ethnic composition of the Neto government, in which people of mixed race (mesticos) and whites had a relatively high profile? And, to what degree was this resentment reflected in demands for a more statist economic programme? (Lara Pawson cites a redacted CIA report published in December 1978 which described the dissidents as wanting a "black dominated, more nationalist, and possibly more leftist state", with a "more radical, black nationalist and pro-Soviet line" led by "members of a black-power faction." p.231)

* What was the actual course of events that led to the murder of "seven high-ranking loyalists" in Sambizanga township on 27 May 1977, as Professor Gleijeses reports, and most histories - including Lara Pawson's - report also?

* How many perceived dissidents were actually killed? Who were they, where were they killed, where are they buried, who killed them, what was the exact role of Cuban forces in the slaughter? Any number of questions follow. There is a very long way to go before Angola has anything like its own Truth and Reconciliation process, which - whatever its inadequacies - remains a moral base line for Angola as a fellow member with South Africa in the Southern African Development Community. (At present Angola remains a massacre state, not a constitutional state).

* Lara Pawson reports US ambassador Don McHenry, who was deputy US representative to the United Nations from 1979 to 1981, and then permanent representative from 1979 to 1981, as having told her in a telephone conversation that "senior US figures" (as she describes them) were in Luanda on 27 May 1977. She cites Ambassador McHenry as saying: "Our presence was not a secret. ...We were there for several days. We spoke with Lopo de Nascimento [the prime minister]. ...It shows you how pragmatic they - the MPLA - were." (Pawson, p.232)

Questions follow: How exactly did these "senior US figures" report the massacre and its related events to their government? Why was the massacre not made public by them? What was the significance for them of the "pragmatism" of the Neto government, which carried out the massacre? Why should officials of the US government have concealed this massacre?

* What is the significance of the fact in the "topsy-turvy Cold War world" in Angola, as Lara Pawson reports, that at the time of the massacre "Cuban soldiers using Soviet weapons were deployed to protect Cabgoc's Cabinda base..."? (Pawson, pp.165-66) Cabgoc, as she explains, was the "US-owned Cabinda Gulf Oil Company", which had resumed oil production in Angola's north-east Cabinda enclave under the MPLA government in mid-1976, and continued production under Cuban guard throughout and after the massacre in May 1977.

Given the announcement on Wednesday by US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro of improved diplomatic relations between the two countries, these are only some of the murky questions which need clarification, over the bones of the Angolan dead.

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