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The Historical Legacy and Current Implications of Cuban Military Internationalism

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Análisis GESI, 16/2019

Abstract: Since the end of the Cold War, Cuba has shifted its focus from spreading its revolution in Africa and the Middle East to building a regional bloc of allies in defiance of United States hegemony in Latin America.

Given its history of showing solidarity through military support, Cuba’s continued defense of the Maduro regime in Venezuela amid growing opposition puts into question the lengths that Cuba would go to in order to ensure the security of its closest regional partner. This article analyzes the legacy of the Cuban doctrine of military internationalism by examining the four cases in which the Cuban armed forces intervened directly in foreign conflicts: Algeria from 1963 to 1964, Syria from 1973 to 1975, Angola from 1975 to 1991, and Ethiopia from 1978 to 1989. The analysis shows that Cuban military interventions have had a mixed record of effectiveness in achieving their objectives, particularly with regards to long-term objectives after the withdrawal of military personnel. Nevertheless, given the current interdependence of their regimes, this mixed record of success does not eliminate the possibility that Cuba would intervene militarily in Venezuela should such action be deemed necessary for their mutual survival.



The Venezuelan opposition’s prolonged and ongoing struggle to bring an end to the Maduro regime has brought international attention to the perpetuation of a regional alternative to the international order that emerged in the aftermath of the Cold War in Latin America. Built on the foundations of the Cuban-Venezuelan partnership, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) presents the most direct resistance to United States political and economic hegemony in the region. In many ways, the alliance itself is the ideological continuation of the Cuban doctrine of internationalism. Adopted shortly after the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, the doctrine aimed to spread the revolution abroad by creating a network of support for revolutionary organizations throughout Latin America and, eventually, the third world.

The support offered by the Cuban government to its client organizations varied greatly in scope as well as in application and included different forms of humanitarian, economic, and military assistance. It was the latter, however, that formed the backbone of the internationalist doctrine, and military internationalism soon became a means for Cuba to directly exercise its influence abroad and demonstrate its competence as a revolutionary leader on the world stage. By the time the Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (OSPAAAL) was founded at the Tricontinental Conference in Havana in 1966, Cuban military forces in Algeria had already experienced their first direct involvement in a foreign conflict. Throughout the Cold War, Cuban military activity would escalate to include three more direct interventions in Syria, Angola, and Ethiopia. This article analyzes the historical legacy of the Cuban doctrine of military internationalism by examining its effectiveness in achieving objectives through a foreign policy of direct military intervention. Based on this analysis, it aims to address the current implications that this legacy has on the contemporary post-Cold War order in Latin America.


A Question of Case Selection

Throughout the Cold War, the Cuban government was involved in a broad range of military activities in foreign countries. In the early 1960s, the General Directorate of Intelligence created a wing called the Liberation Directorate, itself divided into three regional committees for the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. The Liberation Directorate, which was renamed the America Department in 1974, was tasked with providing revolutionary movements with covert support that included weapons, training, and military advisors. During the 1960s and 1970s, such aid was provided to revolutionary organizations and socialist governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela (Harris, 2009). In the meantime, military advisors were also dispatched to numerous countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Congo-Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Iraq, Libya, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, South Yemen, and Zaire (Durch, 1978).

Despite the aid in arming and training that the Cuban military provided on these missions, its role in each case was intentionally limited to avoid direct involvement in the conflict, thus giving it relatively little influence over the respective outcomes of each mission. Moreover, as all of these missions were of a covert nature, much remains unknown about the true extent of Cuban military involvement in each case. In spite of what information is speculated in the scholarly literature, the Cuban government has only admitted to such indirect military involvement in ten countries, to which it claims to have dedicated a total of 385,908 military personnel, without revealing any statistics about the countries in question or about the distribution and objectives of said personnel (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, 2014).

Due to these issues, the four existing cases of direct military intervention are a better measure of Cuban military competence and the effectiveness of its doctrine of military internationalism. Being cases of direct intervention, the Cuban military had a much greater degree of influence over the outcomes of each mission, as it played an active role in both the strategic planning and execution of operations. Moreover, as the four cases of direct military intervention were of an overt nature, much more historical information is available about the true extent of Cuban involvement in them from both official and scholarly sources.

This is not to say, however, that the four cases should be approached uniformly. In fact, they can be divided into two principal categories: small-scale interventions—like the one on behalf of Algeria in the Sand War against Morocco and the one on behalf of Syria in the Yom Kippur War against Israel—in which the Cuban military played an auxiliary role in achieving the objectives of the primary military force and large-scale interventions—like the one on behalf of the MPLA in the Angolan Civil War against UNITA or the one on behalf of Ethiopia in the Ogaden War against Somalia—in which the Cuban military played a central role and pursued its own objectives. In the analysis that follows, the effectiveness of the Cuban military in each case will be measured against its ability to achieve the respective objectives of each intervention.


Small-Scale Interventions: Algeria and Syria

Following Algeria’s independence from French colonial rule in 1962, the socialist Ben Bella government was quick to establish close relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union, both of which soon began supplying the country with arms and advisors. Apart from stark ideological differences, an immediate point of contention between Ben Bella and King Hassan II of neighboring Morocco were the mineral-rich border provinces of Tindouf and Béchar, which the French incorporated into Algeria while both countries were under colonial rule. Laying claim to this strip of border territory, the Moroccan military invaded Algeria in late September 1963. Whether coinciding with a previously established trade deal or in response to an emergency request for support, a Cuban arms carrier reached Algeria in October with a cargo of T-34 tanks and fifty military technicians (Durch, 1978). Due to the rapid escalation of the conflict, Cuba immediately sent two more vessels carrying four MiG-17 fighter jets, forty tanks, field artillery, mortars, and other equipment (Durch, 1978; Ra’anan, 1981). However, due to an apparent lack of technical training in the ranks of the recently formed Algerian armed forces, Cuba also sent one of its own tank battalions to assist on the frontlines, which according to Cuban sources comprised of 686 personnel (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, 2014).

Cuban strategists immediately began work on planning a counteroffensive against Morocco, codenamed Operation Dignity, but such plans were ultimately abandoned at the commencement of peace talks in November, and all Cuban troops were pulled out of Algeria by the beginning 1964 (Durch, 1978; Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, 2014). The peace agreement to the so-called Sand War did not result in any territorial exchanges between Algeria and Morocco, leaving the Tindouf and Béchar provinces under continued Algerian administration.

A decade after the Sand War, Cuban troops returned to the front when an Arab coalition led by Egypt and Syria launched an offensive against Israel in October 1973. Known as the Yom Kippur War, the offensive aimed to repossess Arab territory lost to Israel in the previous Six Day War, namely the Sinai Peninsula claimed by Egypt and the Golan Heights claimed by Syria. In an act of solidarity with its Arab allies, Cuba sent two tank brigades to aid Syria on the Golan front and a much smaller number of pilots as advisors to the Syrian air force. Though Israeli sources claimed that the Cuban tank brigades consisted of 3,000 to 4,000 troops, this number is likely to be greatly exaggerated, as most sources estimate the Cuban combat personnel to have numbered between 500 and 750 (Durch, 1978). This estimate is consistent with official Cuban sources, which specify a number of 746 deployed personnel (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, 2014). Fighting on the Golan front continued until May 1974, by which time an Israeli counterattack had largely defeated the Cuban-Syrian tank forces. Although little is known about the casualties incurred by the Cuban military during the Sand War against Morocco—assuming there were any at all considering the relatively short duration and low intensity of the conflict—the Cuban forces on the Golan front reportedly suffered casualties of approximately 180 killed and some 250 wounded (Ra’anan, 1981). After the signing of the Disengagement Agreement between Israel and Syria in May 1974, Israel remained in possession of the Golan Heights, and all Cuban forces were withdrawn in January 1975.


Large-Scale Interventions: Angola and Ethiopia

As the last tank troops were returning home from Syria, the first Cuban military advisors to the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) were preparing for their deployment. Upon relinquishing its colonial claims over Angola in January 1975, Portugal formed a transitional government between the Soviet-aligned MPLA and two rival groups who had also participated in the fight for the country’s independence: the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), both of which were supported by South Africa and the United States (Meijer, 2004). However, as soon as sovereignty was formally transferred in November, the transitional government collapsed and an internal struggle for power ensued.

The first Cuban combat units arrived in Angola to support the MPLA in October 1975, with subsequent deployments increasing from 400 troops per week in December to 1,000 per week in January 1976 (Kessler, 1990). That year, both the Organization of African Unity and the United Nations recognized the MPLA as the legitimate government of Angola, and at its party congress in December 1977, the MPLA formally adopted Marxism-Leninism as its official ideology, thus tightening its ties with the Cuban government. Whether Cuba’s motives for intervention on the part of the MPLA were an ideological act of revolutionary solidarity or part of a pragmatic geopolitical strategy is subject to debate, but what remains certain is that the Cuban military was entirely committed to maintaining the MPLA in power. Throughout the 1980s, Cuba retained a constant presence of 50,000 combat troops in Angola and also aided the MPLA behind the frontlines by providing engineers, architects, doctors, teachers, and civil servants to prepare the country for post-war reconstruction (Kessler, 1990; Meijer, 2004). As the FNLA had been militarily defeated early in the conflict, only UNITA’s resistance and sporadic interventions on the part of South Africa stood in the way of outright victory, but in June 1988 Cuban and MPLA troops managed to push the South African forces back across the border, leaving UNITA alone without support (Meijer, 2004). In December of that year, Cuba, Angola, and South Africa signed the Brazzaville Protocol and the New York Accords, which established a ceasefire and outlined a plan for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Angola. By the time the last Cuban forces returned home in 1991, 337,033 military personnel and some 50,000 civilians had served in Angola (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, 2014). Although casualty figures have not been confirmed by official sources, an estimated 5,000 Cubans were killed in action during the Angolan Civil War (Williams, 1988). After the Cuban withdrawal, the MPLA formally renounced Marxism-Leninism and created a constitutional multi-party government with elections planned for the following year. Nevertheless, violence between the MPLA and UNITA resumed after the latter denounced the MPLA’s electoral victory as fraudulent and illegitimate. Angola subsequently returned to a state of civil war that would last until 2002.

Shortly after its entry into the Angolan Civil War, the Cuban military committed itself to another large-scale conflict in the Horn of Africa. When Siad Barre took power in 1969 and converted Somalia into a one-party communist state, he established close ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union. Seeking to expand their influence in the Horn, both the Cuban and Soviet governments supported Somalia in its territorial disputes with Ethiopia, which were centered on Ethiopia’s possession of the historically Somali Ogaden region. Apart from providing aid and advisors to Somalia, Cuba and the Soviet Union also worked to undermine Ethiopian power by supporting the Eritrean secessionist movement in the country’s north. However, when Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown and replaced by a Marxist-Leninist military junta in 1974, Somalia’s Cuban and Soviet patrons were faced with a conflict of interest. In 1977, the Ethiopian junta, known as the Derg, terminated its arms agreement with the United States in favor of a new deal with the Soviets, which in turn prompted Somalia to first cut diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union and later with Cuba (Kessler, 1990). Thus, when Somali forces invaded the Ogaden region that same year, the Soviets requested a Cuban intervention on behalf of Ethiopia.

The Cuban military responded immediately, and by February 1978 there were 18,000 Cuban troops in Ethiopia, more than half of them having been transferred from Angola along with armored cars, artillery, and T-62 tanks (Tareke, 2000). The Cuban-Ethiopian forces managed to push the last Somali units out of the Ogaden by March 1978, but this would not be the end of Cuban military involvement in Ethiopia. By this time—despite already having suffered an estimated 400 casualties in the conflict—Cuba had completely committed itself to supporting the Derg against its enemies, both foreign and domestic. This meant transferring units from the Ogaden to fight the Eritrean secessionists it once supported. At its peak in 1979, the Cuban military presence in Ethiopia consisted of 24,000 troops (Williams, 1988). Fighting on the Eritrean front continued over the course of the next decade, but no decisive military victory was achieved by either side. In 1989, representatives from the Soviet Union, Eritrea, and the Ethiopian central government held peace talks in Atlanta, which marked the beginning of Cuba’s withdrawal from the conflict. A total of 41,730 Cuban troops had served in Ethiopia by the time the last units were pulled out at the end of the year (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias, 2014). In 1991, Ethiopia’s communist government collapsed, and Eritrea finally gained its independence.  


Conclusions and Current Implications

In both small-scale and large-scale cases, Cuba’s direct military interventions have brought mixed results in terms of their ability to achieve objectives. In its role as an auxiliary supporting force to Algeria, the Cuban military was successful in preserving the country’s territorial integrity against Moroccan aggression. However, when they played the same auxiliary role in Syria, Cuban forces failed to recapture the Golan Heights from Israeli occupation. In Angola, the Cuban military played a central role and pursued its own objectives over the course of a campaign that lasted sixteen years. Ultimately, these objectives were to install and maintain the MPLA in power. In the words of Che Guevara, “power is the sine qua non strategic objective of the revolutionary forces, and everything must be subordinated to this basic endeavor” (Guevara, 2003, p. 294). While Cuba was successful in achieving this objective during its military presence in Angola, the MPLA surrendered its revolutionary ideology immediately after the Cuban withdrawal and was once again challenged for power by UNITA in another devastating civil war. The Cuban military also played a central role in Ethiopia, where its eleven-year campaign was successful in defending the Derg against both Somali invasion and Eritrean secession. However, as in the case of Angola, the Ethiopian communist government collapsed shortly after the Cuban withdrawal and Eritrea gained its independence.

Since the end of the Cold War, Cuba has not executed any direct military interventions and has largely shifted its focus away from Africa and the Middle East, instead working to further diplomatic and economic relations with its regional allies in the ALBA bloc. Despite military cooperation not being an official initiative of the organization, the authoritarian nature of several of its member states has put the issue of mutual security into question. Although the claim that there are 20,000 to 25,000 Cuban military forces currently stationed in Venezuela—made by former White House national security advisor John Bolton in response to the opposition’s failure to ignite a military uprising in May 2019—was categorically denied by the Cuban government, history gives reasons to believe that Cuba would go to great lengths to uphold its closest ally in the region (Taylor, 2019). Due to the extensive interdependence that they have developed in the post-Cold War period, both the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes are likely to support each other until the end. Continuing to struggle under the United States embargo, it is unlikely that the Castro regime could survive without access to subsidized Venezuelan oil. For his part, Maduro is certainly well aware of what happened in Angola and Ethiopia after the Cuban withdrawal.

Kacper Grass holds a master's degree in political science from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona



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Editado por: Grupo de Estudios en Seguridad Internacional (GESI). Lugar de edición: Granada (España). ISSN: 2340-8421.

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