The echoes of war reverberate long after the final shots are fired, and for the more than 450,000 Cubans who participated in the generation-long Angolan Civil War from 1975 to 1991, some are just now being heard. Recognizing the significance of the many untold personal narratives from this conflict, Katrin Hansing, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Baruch College, and her colleague Maria de los Angeles Torres of the University of Illinois, have embarked on an unprecedented undertaking: the process of collecting and disseminating them. With the generous support of a prestigious and highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, they will be able conclude their research project and manuscript, “Democratizing the Past: Cubans Remember the Angolan Civil War.”

“Our project delves into memory at the individual level, countering the state’s dominant racialized and heroic war narratives with grassroots testimonies gathered both in Cuba and its diaspora. These accounts will offer a more intricate and contradictory understanding of the war and its remembrances,” Hansing said.

The Cuban state’s official narrative proudly recounts a tale of heroism and sacrifice to settle the debt of slavery and assist in ending apartheid in South Africa. But Hansing, a South African who has extensively researched Cuba over the past 25 years, often encountered anecdotal fragments from Cubans during her visits to the island that challenged this tidy historical saga. And it astonished her that despite the involvement of nearly half a million Cubans – an impact on almost every other Cuban family – an eerie silence still broods over the topic on the island and abroad. 

“As someone from a country with a violent and complex history, I firmly believe that confronting and understanding our personal, familial, societal, and national memories is crucial to prevent history from repeating itself,” Hansing emphasized.

With the grant’s assistance, Hansing and Torres will travel on a final journey to Angola to complete additional interviews, followed by the development of an academic book, organizing exhibitions, and conducting workshops and talks. The project aims not just to shed light on a suppressed chapter of Cuban history but to initiate broader conversations about war, trauma, memory, and their impacts on society.

“Look at the war in Ukraine,” Hansing said considering the project’s timely resonances. “We have a war raging right now in the middle of Europe. In the end, Nations win or lose, but the people on the ground are the ones who experience a lifetime of collateral damage. And not just the generation that went through it. It’s still there for the second, the third, and beyond.”

For many Cuban war veterans, this project may provide a long-awaited platform to give voice to their experiences, replacing the authority of a singular war narrative with a rich tapestry of personal accounts. As Hansing says, “It’s about time these stories are heard. Especially now, before they disappear forever.”