Capitalizing on South African president Nelson Mandela’s health problems, embargo supporters have constructed a false parallel between the multilateral sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime and the illegal, immoral, and counterproductive embargo against Cuba.
But Mandela’s own relationship with Cuba tells a different story—one with important lessons for current foreign policy.
Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to the struggle for human dignity. He personified the intersection of two important currents: progressive tendencies toward the decolonisation of Asian, African, and Latin American people in the second half of the 20th century, and the movement toward democratisation and human rights.
This combination of factors is tremendously important. Anti-colonial movements have long demanded sovereignty as a platform for human rights—and refused to accept human rights abuses committed in the name of sovereignty. That posture contrasts strongly with the many developing world leaders who have taken national independence as a license to abuse their own countrymen.
The fight to end South African apartheid united the African National Congress (ANC) with the anti-colonial movements of the then Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. Cuba’s special relationship with The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) sparked Cuban solidarity with both the struggles of the ANC in South Africa and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) in Namibia, which was itself acting against the racists in Pretoria.
It was this gratitude for the efforts of Cuban soldiers, teachers, and doctors in Africa that earned Mandela the hostility and condemnation of right-wing Cubans in Miami.
The Cold War in the southern cone of Africa ended with the MPLA, SWAPO, and the ANC—all allies of Cuba—consolidating power. That history explains the cordial relationship between Mandela and Cuban president Fidel Castro. Mandela invited Castro to his presidential inauguration and later insisted that he visit South Africa, where he was received in 1998 with the highest honours. There Castro gave a speech before parliament, an honour that had previously only been conferred on U.S. president Bill Clinton.
It was this gratitude for the efforts of Cuban soldiers, teachers, and doctors in Africa that earned Mandela the hostility and condemnation of right-wing Cubans in Miami. Damaging their own cause—as Alex Pénelas, then mayor of Miami, would later acknowledge—the right-wing exile leadership launched a vicious campaign against the South African leader upon his visit to South Florida.
This resentment was not only rooted in the political dynamics of South Africa. Mandela was also a sworn enemy of Jesse Helms, the racist senator from North Carolina who defended apartheid as a model of democracy for Africa. Until his death, Helms also was the Cuban right’s champion in Congress, sponsoring the shameful Helms-Burton law that codified the embargo against Cuba.
Given this history, it is not surprising that on his recent visit to South Africa, President Barack Obama encountered criticism from significant sectors of the governing coalition regarding his lack of courage to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
In recent years, those who advocate the continued harassment of Cuba have adopted forced analogies. They equate the South African apartheid regime with the communist regime in Cuba in order to defend the failed, five-decade-old embargo.
Without a doubt, human rights promotion in Cuba or South Africa by external actors, including the United States, is a legitimate activity. But promoting human rights entails analyzing different situations on their own merits.
Violations of human rights do occur in Cuba. But labeling such things as the refusal to let Cuban nationals use a hotel boat “apartheid,” as one critic did earlier this year, trivializes the horrors of actual apartheid, which the entire international community has agreed constitutes a “crime against humanity.” To label every act of discrimination as apartheid defeats the purpose of singling out a systematic policy of ethnic or racial repression.
The UN General Assembly, which almost unanimously supported sanctions against apartheid South Africa, has condemned Washington’s unilateral sanctions against Cuba more than 20 times. The sanctions against South Africa, which were approved multilaterally by the Organization of African Unity, sought to change public policy in such a way as to eliminate discrimination based on race. It did not try to impose a specific political system on the South African people. The Helms-Burton law, in contrast, does just that for Cuba.
The U.S. embargo against Cuba does not meet the standards of human rights promotion, especially since it does not include periodic evaluations of its effects on the civilian population, especially on vulnerable groups. It has been denounced by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) as imperial arrogance. Instead of helping to resolve conflicts in Cuba, the embargo aggravates them through its interventionist demands for property restitution and the unconditional surrender of Cuba’s government.
Those who consider the South African example to be a precedent for the embargo against Cuba don’t acknowledge that the sanctions against apartheid never prohibited travel or investment, but rather imposed a code of conduct for constructive compromise. It was a policy of interaction, not isolation.
Nelson Mandela recognizes these differences. His realistic struggle against apartheid matured in the search for political agreements with the government of South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk. The ANC’s victory was not an opportunity for revenge, but rather for progress and liberty for the entire South African nation. Mandela insisted on pursuing mutual understandings, rather than cornering his opponents. He was not a slave of the past. He guided his own party by pursuing dialogue and focusing on the future, which promised the best opportunities for peace and development in his multicoloured country. In the tradition of Cincinnatus and George Washington, Mandela did his presidential job and then returned to his private life. In so doing, he showed leaders the importance of not perpetuating themselves in power and thereby blocking necessary changes.
Radical revolutionary Fidel Castro, who fought fiercely for Cuban independence but didn’t have the wisdom to step down in a timely way and open the presidential road to other generations, said that “Mandela will not be remembered in history for the 27 consecutive years he spent in prison, but rather for never abandoning his ideas; he will be remembered because he was able to rip from his soul all the poison that such an unjust punishment can produce; for the generosity and the wisdom with which, in the hour of inevitable victory, he brilliantly led his selfless and heroic people, knowing that the new South Africa could never be built upon feelings of hate and vengeance.”
In his pursuit of national reconciliation and national dialogue, Mandela created an atmosphere in which all human rights, not just a manipulated selection of them, could be defended. This is the most relevant of Mandela’s legacies for Cuba and U.S.-Cuban relations. For this gallant dream of respect for international law and the self-determination of the peoples, for his chivalrous effort of reconciliation, for his appreciation of the Cuban people, for demonstrating that a government and its opposition can achieve dialogue while competing and cooperating in the defense of the national interests, Mandela will be honored in Cuba, and hopefully in Miami, forever.
Arturo Lopez-Levy is a PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies of the University of Denver in the US. This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution licence.