President Obama traveled to Soweto, South Africa this week for the memorial service for former president and anti-apartheid movement leader Nelson Mandela. Over 60 heads of state also attended the services, but only five were invited to speak - among them Cuban president Raúl Castro, with whom Obama shook hands – the first such greeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba since President Bill Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro on the sidelines of a U.N. summit in 2000. Obama’s handshake with Castro was condemned by a number of Republican members of Congress. Senator John McCain likened it to Neville Chamberlain shaking hands with Hitler, while perennial Cuba-hater Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – who in the past has openly called for Fidel Castro’s assassination – called it “a propaganda coup for the tyrant [Castro].” Cruz made headlines for himself by walking out on Castro’s speech at the ceremony, with a spokesperson saying that “Sen. Cruz very much hopes that Castro learns the lessons of Nelson Mandela.”
But while Republicans have received attention for their criticism of the handshake – just as they did when Obama similarly greeted democratically-elected then-president of Venezuela Hugo Chávez in 2009 – Obama’s speech at the event has been described by some as a rebuke of some foreign governments, including Cuba’s. “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality,” he said without apparent irony, while in Singapore a U.S. delegation was concluding (unsuccessfully) the latest round of efforts to get other countries to agree to a variety of controversial and potentially harmful measures in a proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. As we have described in a research paper, most U.S. workers would lose out from the planned TPP in the form of reduced wages.
As many analysts, historians and observers have pointed out, the condemnation of the Obama-Castro handshake is also ironic considering Mandela’s long appreciation for the Cuban government and its unwavering opposition to apartheid and similar racist regimes in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique and South Africa. Most notably, Cuba provided 36,000 troops to beat back the efforts of the South African military to crush independence in Angola.
As the Huffington Post’s Roque Planas points out, while Cuba provided Mandela, the African National Congress and South Africa with inspiration, guidance, resources, training and doctors, “The U.S. government, on the other hand, reportedly played a role in Mandela’s 1962 arrest and subsequently branded him a terrorist -- a designation they only rescinded in 2008. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act.” Then there’s the small matter of U.S. and South African support for the counter-revolutionaries in Angola. As Piero Gleijeses, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of several books including Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991 said yesterday in an interview with "Democracy Now”: “…the role of the United States as a country, as a government, past governments, in the struggle for liberation of South Africa is a shameful role. In general, we were on the side of the apartheid government. And the role of Cuba is a splendid role in favor of the liberation."
The Republican members of Congress are not alone in attempting to rewrite history and remake Mandela in their image. Notably, various world leaders past and present who supported apartheid and Mandela’s imprisonment have gushed over what a great man he was now that he’s passed on. But Mandela maintained integrity in his outspoken criticism of the U.S., saying that “If there’s a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don’t care.” Such sentiments are reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that the U.S. is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and his outspoken condemnation of the war in Vietnam, which earned him the wrath of the foreign policy establishment and the media – when he was still alive.
In contrast, British Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg used the occasion of a Special Session honoring Nelson Mandela to call on the House of Commons to support human rights activists in Afghanistan and Honduras:
Right now, all over the world, there are millions of men, women and children still struggling to overcome poverty, violence and discrimination.
They do not have the fame or the standing of Nelson Mandela, but I’m sure that he would tell us that what they achieve and endure in their pursuit of a more open, equal and just society shapes all our lives.
Campaigners like Mary Akrami, who works to protect and empower the women of Afghanistan; Sima Samar, the Head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission; or organisations like the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras which works in the shadow of threats and intimidation.
They are just 3 examples of the individuals and organisations who deserve our loyalty and support just as much as the British campaigners in the Anti-Apartheid movement in London showed unfailing loyalty and support towards Nelson Mandela in his bleakest days, and here I also want to pay tribute to the Rt. Hon Member for Neath and his fellow campaigners for what they did at the time.
U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske also made remarks on human rights in Honduras, Tuesday, International Human Rights Day. She condemned campesinos and others resisting murder and brutality in the Aguan Valley, and indigenous Lenca communities fighting the imposition of development projects on their land over their objections. In Honduras' context of political repression and rampant impunity for security forces who commit abuses, such comments further imperil some of Honduras' most vulnerable and historically disenfranchised communities.