AFTER a period of calm for the Angolan military, the atmosphere began to heat up at the end of 1987, when an enclave in the extreme southeast of the country began to capture the attention of the world’s press: Cuito Cuanavale.
It would be around the beginning of November, when the name of the aforementioned town reached the ears of the team of Cuban correspondents accredited in Luanda for the first time, through informal conversations:
“They say that in the south things are really heating up. UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) forced FAPLA (People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola) to retreat and now their units are defending themselves near Cuito ‘Carnavales’ or ‘Cuarnavale’... Search me!”
The apple of discord was really Mavinga, a town that from the 1980s became the center of the dispute between FAPLA and UNITA, without any considerable results for either of the parties.
After several unsuccessful attempts, the high command of the Angolan army decided that year to undertake Operação Saludando Octubre (Operation Saluting October), which included among its objectives the liberation of Mavinga, a position controlled by the armed gangs of Jonas Savimbi.
This time, as in previous incursions, the Cuban command warned of the logistical complexity of such a maneuver, without ruling out the possible direct intervention of the regular units of the South African army, in support of UNITA.
The warnings were confirmed. As soon as the Angolan troops started to cross the Lomba River, to the north of Mavinga, the enemy stopped the advance of FAPLA forces, who were forced to retreat faced with the risk of total defeat.
The invading troops were encouraged by a clear aim: to benefit from the advantageous position reached in the military field to impose their conditions at the negotiating table, including demanding the total withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola.
Such clear diplomatic objectives had strong military support, based on aerial and artillery bombardments, subjecting the FAPLA brigades that had mobilized to defend themselves east of Cuito Cuanavale to ferocious harrassment.
It was at this point in the conflict that the Angolan government requested the support of Cuba to reverse the complex situation created and avoid the approaching military disaster, with unforeseeable consequences for the sister African nation.
During those days, the Cuban Military Mission in Angola was the center of the implementation of important decisions adopted in Havana, where authorities, on November 15, 1987, agreed to face the challenge and provide a strong response.
The Cuban leadership advised not to use troops defending the Namibe-Menongue front, but to apply a more daring variant: to reinforce the contingent with forces and means sent from Cuba, including its best pilots.
On December 5, a working group of the General Staff of the Military Mission departed for the area of operations, whose officer in command, then Brigadier General Álvaro López Miera (today Army Corps General, First Deputy Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and Chief of the General Staff), had the task of organizing the command and strengthening the unstable defense.
Establishing order was a colossal task under enemy fire, which had as its fixed target the town of Cuito Cuanavale, due to an obsession with capturing the airport and the bridge located very close to the confluence of the two rivers that give the place its name.
The first Cubans were followed at the end of the month by another 200 advisors from various specialties, who joined the FAPLA brigades, hard hit by the sustained attacks aimed at demoralizing their troops.
The Cuban officers and combatants faced the enormous challenge of making common cause with the Angolans, and stopping the advance of the apartheid forces, which wasted no time launching their attacks to annihilate the group mired in the area.
Things got ugly on February 14, 1988. Heavy artillery assaults preceded the advance of the South African forces against the 59th FAPLA Brigade, whose troops, in a bloody and unequal confrontation, saw their frontline penetrated.
Determined to see their macabre objectives through to the end, the enemy repeated the attacks on February 19 and 20, this time with a ground offensive, supported from the air, which had as main target the 25th FAPLA Brigade.
However, this time they received a crushing response: while the multiple attacks were driven back from the trenches, from the air the MiG-23 aircraft did their work, reducing several South African tanks and armored personnel carriers to scrap.
In a maneuver undetected by the enemy, the frontline of the defense was turned into a gigantic minefield, thanks to the huge efforts of the sappers, followed by the withdrawal, hidden under the cover of night, of two FAPLA brigades.
The trap was set and it didn’t take long for the invading troops to fall. On February 25, the South Africans were called to action stations and advanced toward the abandoned positions, entering the mine-covered terrain.
The detonation of the explosives, accompanied by bombardments from the BM-21 multiple rocket launchers, baffled the enemy to such an extent that, even later into the night that same day, armored vehicles continued to collide with the anti-tank mines and explosions were heard.
On February 28, the report titled “Cuito Cuanavale resists and lives on” appeared in the Cuban press. It was the first to counter the mass media’s claims, since mid-January, of enemy control of the position.
Their media strategy had gone up in smoke, and they sought to bury it with the most unbelievable arguments to justify why, at that point of the confrontation, they had not been able to tread their dirty boots on the streets of the town.
In their senseless obstinacy, on March 1st the racists returned to their old tricks with a new ground attack, which was stopped for the second time, thanks to the embedded and efficient mines laid across the terrain, and to the staggered artillery fire.
This time, wounded to the core, they withdrew without even reaching the frontline of the Cuban-Angolan defense. A few days later, on March 23, the South Africans concluded their failed attempt to take Cuito Cuanavale.
The response of the patriotic forces to a new attack from several directions was revealed. Not even the smokescreens thrown as a lifeline could mask the disaster that was approaching them.
The photo of a South African Centurion tank, taken as a war trophy, spread around the world during those days, as a symbol of the defeat of the apartheid regime, whose actions diminished in intensity until disappearing completely.
Since then, many Cubans, with their usual wit, have referred to the resounding success of that group of FAPLA troops as the “carnival” of Cuito, in clear allusion to the name of the famous Angolan enclave and what happened there.
The Comandante en Jefe also used phrases full of Creole humor during those days, as when he compared the exceptionally strong contingent advancing toward the south to the relentless right hook of multi-champion boxer Teófilo Stevenson.
Fidel was not wrong: “The idea was to halt them in Cuito Cuanavale and hit them in the southwest.” Such was the essence of a basic principle: not to wage decisive battles in the terrain chosen by the enemy, but in that selected by one’s own forces.
With that purpose, dozens of units sent from Cuba in Operation 31st Anniversary of the FAR were already in the People’s Republic of Angola, which by that point had formed a common front with Angolan and Namibian patriots.
The reinforcements, which raised the number of Cuban troops in Agostinho Neto’s homeland to more than 50,000, included a substantial increase in the number of armored and anti-aircraft vehicles, a powerful force when combined with the high combat morale of its members.
In Pretoria they realized that what was coming was more than a gamble. Nothing could prevent the advance of the contingent on the south-western flank to expel the invaders from the Angolan territory.
From the air, the brave pilots provided the grand finale to such a brilliant feat, whose efficiency was inscribed on one of the walls of the Calueque hydroelectric complex, a few kilometers from the border with Namibia: “MiG-23 broke our hearts.”