Cuba and the Zanzibar Revolution: Revolutionary Vulnerabilities

Why is Cuba Relevant in Zanzibar?

Between 1961 and 1964, Zanzibar underwent a series of political changes including the exit of British forces and a revolution. In April 1964,  Zanzibar and Tanganyika united to form Tanzania after a short revolution with little resistance. Alongside the USSR and China, Cuba wrestled for relevance in a further opportunity to expand the Cuban model in Zanzibar.

The Cuban approach of an armed long-term revolution likely conflicted with the environment in Zanzibar and Tanganyika. The usefulness of guerrilla and paramilitary training was limited as opposition to the coup was minimal, highlighting revolutionary vulnerabilities. While theoretically a success, Cuba’s relevance in the revolution likely failed to equal that of the USSR and China.

Cuba’s efforts in Tanzania highly likely produced results and added capabilities for Cuba in the long term. Castro did not directly invest in the Zanzibar revolution apart from selective guerrilla training. Instead, symbolic military aid likely helped establish operational capacity in Dar-Es-Salaam, despite revolutionary vulnerabilities placing Cuba’s role in Tanzania to be a minor one.

Foreign Support to Tanganyika and Zanzibar

Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP) – Dirección General de Inteligencia (DGI)

Cuba established an office of the ZNP in Havana in 1961. This office was led by Ali Mahfud Mohamed, an aide of the party’s founder Abdulrahman Babu. In 1963, a Cuban embassy was established in Dar-Es-Salaam. Curious enough, before and during the revolution there was no DGI presence reported. Cuba included Zanzibar within student cooperation programs. Still, contributions to the communist ideology almost certainly focused on paramilitary training until the revolution occurred.

Paramilitary and guerrilla training was likely the field in which Cuba saw the greatest capability of contribution. Between 1961 and 1963, 20-25 youth members of the ZNP received training in guerrilla warfare in Cuba. Trained members would serve as instructors in the Umma Party, the radical splinter of the ZNP. Despite signalling a commitment to a revolution by providing military training, a solely violent approach showed the weight of revolutionary vulnerabilities. This likely pushed Cuba to be dwarfed by the USSR and China from an international perspective.

ZNP – China

China supported the ZNP minority government in Zanzibar through scholarship funds, propaganda funds, and paramilitary training. Through trade unions, student organisations and political parties, China invested in developing the ZNP to be an ally within a soft-power sphere, avoiding Cuban revolutionary vulnerabilities. The Federation of Progressive Trade Unions (FPTU) in Dar-Es-Salaam obtained Chinese funding. Simultaneously, all ministers by 1963 visited Beijing, while ZNP founder Babu controlled the New China News Agency (NCNA) office in Zanzibar.

Afro-Shirazi Party (ASP) – USSR

The popular-majority ASP obtained support from the USSR with an emphasis on soft power, embassies and scholarship funding rather than paramilitary training. Scholarships offered to the leaders of the ASP led to the establishment of an ASP office in Moscow in 1962. Moscow, despite supporting the Pan-African party opposed to the Arab-minority ZNP, avoided revolutionary vulnerabilities but failed to signal a willingness to engage in paramilitary commitments.

Long-term effects

Operational Capability

Cuba’s efforts to support the revolution likely provided the long-term capability to operate in Sub-Saharan and Central Africa. According to Piero Gleijeses, the US overestimated Cuban presence in Zanzibar and there was no DGI office in Dar-Es-Salaam in 1962. Nevertheless, Che Guevara used Dar-Es-Salaam from 1964 to coordinate revolution and rebel movements in Africa like FRELIMO in Mozambique and the rebellion in Zaire. Similar to the role of Algeria, Tanzania became a hub in central Africa to coordinate Marxist-inspired revolutions.

Methodological advantages and disadvantages

The Cuban approach of an armed rebellion likely carried innate disadvantages when competing with global superpowers. China and the USSR confronted political parties in Zanzibar. Cuba supported the Chinese cause with barely, if any, diplomatic efforts, in contrast to social-integration efforts by China and the Soviet Union. Revolutionary vulnerabilities prevented in-depth Cuban influence in Zanzibar. Paramilitary training with the ZNP never saw Cuban officers in Zanzibar until after the revolution, and the DGI likely obtained significant influence only after the successful coup. While superpowers offered flexibility, Cuba’s rigidness prevented domestic influence in Tanzania.

A violent-revolutionary approach likely attracted potential ‘clients’ who saw the armed rebellion as a necessary measure. Providing guerrilla-warfare training without directly participating in a conflict portrayed Cuba as a revolution consultant, increasing the symbolism of paramilitary aid. The CIA suggested that by 1975, 500 Cuban members resided in Tanzania, while the DGI office in Dar-Es-Salaam oversaw the rebel activities in Zaire. Revolutionary vulnerabilities decrease Cuban influence when compared to China or the USSR. Still, long-term rewards likely increase the importance of the indirect role played in the coup.


Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo

Iñigo is a graduate in psychology specialised in decision-making. He is currently finishing a postgraduate in Politics and History, with particular interests focused on intelligence, non-state actors and information warfare.

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