Always on the Roads of Africa: Interview with Óscar Oramas Oliva

Salvador López Arnal

Ambassador of the Republic of Cuba to the Republic of Guinea, Mali, Angola, Sao Tome and Principe and the United Nations, as well as Director of Africa and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Cuba, Oscar Oramas Oliva was born in Cienfuegos on November 12, 1936 and holds a Master of Arts and a Ph. D. in Historical Sciences. Among his numerous publications, we should mention here Angola ha nacido una nueva generación (1978), United States: la otra cara (1987), Amílcar Cabral, más allá de sutiempo (1998), Los desafíos del siglo XXI (2003) and Por los caminos de África, first approach to the essay published by Wanafrica Ediciones, Siempre por los caminos de África (Always on the Roads of Africa), around which we focus our conversation.

Congratulations on your new book. I will describe the table of contents to our readers: Prologue by Emilio Comas Paret, Introduction, 18 beautiful Cuban-African stories, Epilogue and Bibliography.

Óscar Oramas Oliva: Since May 1964, I have been travelling on the roads of Africa, when I was appointed first secretary of the Cuban embassy in Algeria. There I studied, first-hand, the African peoples and in particular the National Liberation Movements of the different countries that were fighting for the right to self-determination and independence.

Salvador López Arnal: You dedicate the book to Brigadier General Raúl Díaz Argüelles. Can you give us a brief biography of this “illustrious Cuban”?

Brigadier General Raúl Díaz Argüelles was a revolutionary fighter, who played a leading role in the struggle against the Batista dictatorship. A man of respectable culture and political sensitivity, he was appointed head of the department set up in the Ministry of the Armed Forces to support the national liberation movements. He studied and appreciated the struggle of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, as well as that of Angola, where he was responsible for the group of Cuban military specialists who were beginning to train the guerrilla forces of the Angolan Liberation Movement when Zaïrot troops, forces of the so-called National Front for the Liberation of Angola under the leadership of Holden Roberto, invaded Angolan territory and racist apartheid troops advanced through southern Angola. The Cuban specialists, under the command of Commander Díaz Argüelles, took part in the struggle to preserve the independence of the country, proclaimed on November 11, 1975, and its territorial integrity, by supporting the forces of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). In the first days of December 1975, Raúl Díaz Argüelles fell heroically, after making an indelible mark on the history of internationalism.

In the introduction, allow me to quote you: “Never in the annals of history have any people contributed so much to the freedom and development of the African peoples, if we compare it with the dimensions and the population of others who have had contact with the continent, the cradle of humanity”. In your opinion, what has been Cuba’s main contribution to the recent history of Africa?

Cuba considered and considers that the independence of all colonized peoples is the supreme condition for the liberation of man. In the specific case of Africa, we Cubans have a debt of gratitude with Africa for the immense contribution that, in all respects, enslaved Africans played a unique part in the construction of our national identity, Cuban culture and the great heritage they left behind in Cuba. For these reasons, Cuba has offered, since the first years of the Revolution, a contribution to the liberation of the African peoples, to the training of their cadres, to an enormous extent, since around 40 thousand Africans have graduated from Cuban universities and institutions in general.

Why do we here in Europe so often forget, when not exploiting and mistreating them, about the continent that you rightly call the “cradle of humanity”?

I recommend that you read the work of the Caribbean writer, Walter Rodney, entitled How Europe Subdeveloped Africa (21st Century, 1982), in which he illustrates the plundering of the wealth of that continent and the use of this wealth in the accumulation and development of Europe. People try to ignore these realities, they present them in other ways and even speak of civilizing work, when it was plundering and an atrocious genocide. They failed to recognize that all were and are human beings. Perhaps, for these reasons, they refuse to talk about slavery, about the trade in black Africans brought to America by Europeans, and some of them still refuse to recognize that we are also part of the only race that exists: the human race.

You refer to the role of Cuban internationalists in the development and outbreak of the “carnation revolution”. How was that? Why do you associate Cuba with the Portuguese revolution?

The attack on the Guileje barracks in Guinea Bissau in April 1973 and its results in favour of the guerrilla forces of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) was planned by commanders Raúl Díaz Argüelles and Joao Bernardo Viera, after the assassination of Amílcar Cabral. This attack not only raised the fighting morale of the PAIGC combatants affected by Cabral’s assassination, but also shook up the Portuguese colonial army and made them understand that they did not have the means to win that colonial war and this was instrumental in raising awareness leading to the so-called “carnation revolution”.

Of all the African leaders you have met, I know that there are many, which one moves you the most today?

I admire and respect all of them for the examples they have given to the world in the struggle for the redemption of man, but Amilcar Cabral always continues to impress me with his sagacity. This is because of his enormous culture, his strategic vision, his theoretical reflections and his political and spiritual independence.

You point out that African thought exists, “even if we ignore it or do not know it” and that there is much to be said for this. What would you highlight about this unknown African thought, which is unjustly undervalued by us?

The West never considered the culture that African peoples treasured when they arrived in the continent. They thought they were superior to Africans, they imposed their cultures, their traditions ignored the fact that Africans were not only the cradle of humanity, but also accumulated a considerable cultural heritage and that, when Europeans arrived, they had political structures that had functioned in those societies. The culture of those peoples could have contributed a great deal and by the end of the 19th century African sculpture had irradiated art throughout the world. This is the same attitude towards the culture of other peoples beyond Europe that many have had and continue to have.

What feelings do you have when you hear about the death of African migrants from drowning and dehydration in the waters of the Mediterranean?

It is incomprehensible that, in this first part of the 21st century, migratory processes are not understood, when that is the history of man. When the causes of these migratory processes are analyzed, it is clear that it is wars or the greed of some people that have caused thousands of human beings to emigrate to Europe or the United States in an attempt to alleviate hunger and disease. It would be more humane to extend a hand to these emigrants and also to work to eliminate the causes that cause them to resort desperately to such dangerous and lethal actions, in pursuit of the dignified exercise of the right to life. Those who have caused these situations have the responsibility to bear the consequences, and these facts demonstrate that they do not accept that we are all human beings.

You quote in the book a commentary by Simon I. Dolan, creator of the Coaching by Values methodology: “We are experiencing a profound paradigm shift from which there is no turning back”. What paradigm shift is that?

Whether we want to admit it or not, neoliberalism has failed, because it has no solutions to the problems of the great majority, it only serves to swell the fortunes of a few. The world needs more reasonable patterns of production and consumption in order to be able to cope with climate change. This new paradigm struggles to move forward, despite the great resistance of some.

Looking at the struggles of the Third World, the revolutions in Angola, Mozambique or South Africa, for example, so many deaths, so much sacrifice, so much struggle, have they really served? Is there a significant advance in the social situation of the working populations of the African continent?

I have no doubt that the national liberation struggle is just and necessary and cannot be postponed, since the African peoples have thus begun to create the conditions for progress in the development of their respective countries. The problems accumulated by these peoples are enormous, as a consequence of colonial exploitation, and they have not received the indispensable aid, in quantity and quality, to solve the enormous social debt they inherited from colonial domination.

We talk less often than we would like about the leaders (men) of the struggles, but we often forget about African women. What role have women played and continue to play in these struggles?

In the civilizing ascent of African peoples, since the struggle for national liberation is an act of culture, Amilcar Cabral said, women have played a great role. In some places, such as Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde and Mozambique, they have taken part as combatants in the military and in the production of food for guerrilla forces. After independence, African women have also held positions of high responsibility, such as Graca Machel in Mozambique and other dedicated women in South Africa, Angola, Zimbabwe, etc.

Of all the European imperialist countries, have any of them been more imperialist and cruel than others in Africa, and do they still lay their insatiable hands on the continent they have colonized?

The former European colonial powers (France, England, Belgium, Portugal and Spain), when it became untenable to maintain colonial rule in the 1960s, then turned to neo-colonial domination, as proposed at the time by such African leaders as Patrice Lumumba, Sekou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Ahmed Ben Bella, Houari Boumedienne and others. These powers continue to attempt to control, by other means, African raw materials, oil, uranium, rare earths, etc.

Is the United States still interested in Africa? If so, which countries do they focus on?

The United States, as an imperial power, maintains a very great interest in Africa, especially in those countries where there is oil, uranium, rare earths, etc. Its military presence is felt in the so-called “military facilities”, of which there are approximately 36, which at any given time can be used to carry out military actions and to monitor situations in many countries. The United States also confronts China and others, in view of the growing development of their relations with African states, especially China.

Where does Ernesto Guevara’s interest in Africa come from and what would you highlight from his reflections on the continent?

Life flows as Heraclitus would say, but from Commander Che’s reflections on the continent he would stress: the need for national and continental unity, for vigorous work on economic development, on the formation of cadres and on the respect and predominance of national cultures.

Today, is China behaving like an old-style imperial power on the African continent?

China has a long tradition of cooperation and exchanges of all kinds with African countries, areas in which very high standards have been achieved. Economic complementarity means that the prevailing trend is towards increasing China’s economic and trade relations with African countries, and more so now in the context of the strategic plans of the “Silk Road” and China’s win-win policy, which offers comparative advantages to these countries.

Do you think the African Union is an organization that should continue to be supported? Is it obsolete, inoperative?

African unity is a historical necessity and it makes countries stronger in the face of a world so complex and full of imperial appetites. Historical experience has shown how important this organization has been since its creation in 1963. That is my vision, although it is up to Africans to decide on and resolve their challenges.

I have not asked you so far about Nelson Mandela. You dedicate a chapter to him, “Nelson Mandela: an example for all”, a chapter that opens with the words of Desmont Tutu: “I am proud to be human because in that species there is someone like Nelson Mandela”. What does Nelson Mandela mean to you? To all the disadvantaged?

I believe that, for all of us, Nelson Mandela’s political wisdom, of perceiving and teaching that the future of South Africa lay in the unity of all sectors of society, which meant forgiving the supporters of the apartheid system. It was a lesson in courage and vision for all of us, at home and abroad. Life has proved Mandela right.

Nor have I asked you about Aristides Pereira, to whom you dedicate another chapter. You consider him a statesman. What is a statesman to you?

Aristides Pereira not only encouraged the creation of the state of Cape Verde, and some of its public policies, but he also knew how to maintain a balance between the different powers, and that legacy was the one he left us, and all of this makes him a statesman.

You devote another section to the impact of the ideas of the October Revolution in Africa. What ideas of the October 17 Revolution had the greatest impact on the struggles of our African brothers and sisters for liberation?

Without the ideas of the October Revolution the process of national liberation would have taken longer and I think that the ideas of self-determination of peoples influenced this entire process that changed the world map in the 1960s, as well as ideas related to social justice.

You explain in a chapter that your life was saved in Mali thanks to Fidel Castro. Aren’t you exaggerating a little? How could Fidel save your life in such a faraway place?

It may seem unusual, but when the car in which I was travelling entered a village, after the people were furious at the loss of a football match, we were caught in an ambush and the officer in charge could not convince the angry assailants to let us go and not destroy the vehicle with stones and sticks, it just occurred to him to say that there was an ambassador of Fidel Castro there and the masses responded by shouting “Long live Fidel Castro!”.

You mentioned Alicia Céspedes Carrillo’s book, “Angola: The Tortuous Road to Independence,” and you said it was an exceptional work. Why is it so exceptional?

Alicia was the person who efficiently and meticulously attended to Angola at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs and studied that country, all the political forces, as well as the entire international context that influenced life in Angola, from 1974 until she worked at our embassy in Luanda. Her book, Angola: Tortuous Road to Independence”, is the fruit of all those years of research and work, exchanges with Angolans at different levels and, to this day, I have not read anything more precise or thorough about that country and its liberation process.

In the epilogue to your book, you comment on the danger posed to African peoples by terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, which you claim is concrete action to nip this social cancer in the bud. The most important thing, you add, is to go to the causes of these phenomena, to remove them. What are these causes?

There are several causes: the overthrow of Muammar al-Qadhafi’s government in Libya, the misery that exists in many countries in the region, the actions to promote these extremist groups, which began when the CIA created the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets, etc. Ending the social causes would be the way, of course accompanied by a political will on the part of the promoters of these groups, to abstain from nourishing them.

Allow me to end this conversation, which is a great honour for me, Dr Oramas Oliva, with some words from the last chapter of your book: “The changes that take the longest time are cultural ones, they are in the realm of subjectivity, therefore, it is necessary to work intensely, with creativity, perseverance, in the medium and long term. It is time for the wretched of the earth, the offended, all the inhabitants of this endangered planet, to unite forces to fight for the preservation of the human species. Culture has the power of words, because culture can be the bridge and the mortar that unites those of us who are fighting for the right to a more just, equitable and sustainable life. So be it’.


Translation by Internationalist 360°