CUBA: AN AFRICAN ODYSSEY (Jihan El-Tahri, 2007)

Made for French and German television, Egyptian documentarian Jihan El-Tahri’s Cuba, une odyssée africaine runs more than three hours—although the IMDb’s “118 minutes” suggests there is also a condensed version about. It’s a smooth, absorbing recent history about Cuba’s role in support of African liberation from colonialism and post-independence neocolonialism. It includes a good many talking heads, but some of these heads are good ones; three belong to Victor Dreke, who commanded Castro’s “internationalist” missions in the Congo and Guinea-Bissau, Harry Villegas, Che Guevara’s personal assistant, and Fidel Castro himself, who is spectacularly animated, fluent, and forgetful of nothing.
     It opens with flair as Nelson Mandela, free, free, free at last, beseeches Castro at their 1991 meeting to visit South Africa. (Anti-apartheid activist Mandela was politically imprisoned for 27 years.) The rest of the film explains why Castro is Mandela’s hero—this, beyond the role that Castro played in securing Mandela’s release.
     The personalities of both Castro and Che continue to fascinate: their fierce idealism as well as strategic cunning. El-Tahri’s film homes in on the Cold War battleground upon which Castro’s Cuba supported revolutionary efforts in Africa, including in the Congo, Angola and Namibia. Castro’s Cuba was itself an inspiration, “living proof that David could beat Goliath.” El-Tahri includes a snippet of a typically fiery speech by the Cuban leader wherein he excoriates the U.S. for its incapacity to comprehend Cuba’s assistance to African fighters for independence (and its stabilization) as motivated by a humane desire to help people rather than the appropriation of resources and the political control that contrarily motivate U.S. meddling and intervention. El-Tahri summarizes Cuba’s African failures as well as the negotiations that made the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola the price for securing Namibia’s independence.

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