MIAMI (CBSMiami) — The Congo is about as far removed from Cuba as you can get.
Yet in the 1960’s, Cubans squared off in a military confrontation that featured Fidel Castro’s troops commanded by Che Guevara pitted against a CIA force that consisted of pilots, ground troops and a small navy.
Jim Hawes was a Navy Seal and when he got to the Congo as a CIA contractor, his job was to put a working naval operation together to cut the supply lines that Russian and Chinese supported rebels had established on Lake Tanganyika that separates The Congo and Tanzania.
The CIA airlifted two Swift Boats from the Anti-Castro efforts in the Caribbean to the Congo.
Like the pilots and ground troops who were CIA contractors, the men who crewed the Swift Boats were non-U.S. citizen Cubans. Many had been involved in the Bay of Pigs operation or had been trained by the CIA for various anti-Castro operations. In the Congo, they were getting another shot at Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.
Recently, declassified documents allowed Jim Hawes to fully tell the story of the so-called Congo Navy in his book “Cold War Navy Seal, My story of Che Guevara, War in the Congo, and the Communist threat in Africa.”
The CIA backed Cuban Congo Navy put a big dent in the supply lines that crisscrossed Lake Tanganyika.
In the process, the Cuban Navy almost took out Che Guevara during a firefight in the middle of the lake. Guevara was said to be making a dash across the lake to safety as the Castro backed operation was eventually abandoned.
“Some people have said it was the most successful clandestine operation attempted up to that time in the history of the U.S. government,” Hawes told CBS4’s Hank Tester at a recent South Florida book-signing event.
Fidel Castro’s plan to create a foothold in Africa collapsed due in part to the presence of the CIA sponsored operation.
Of the Cubans under his command, Jim Hawes writes; “For the US government, they came with the political convenience of plausible deniability. None of them had US citizenship and many were stateless having filed through Cuba and entering the US without proper paperwork. They were proud professionals, loyal, dedicated and essential players in the US covert war in the Congo.”