Mandela's Blind Spot

By Miguel Perez

December 10, 2013 5 min read

He was one of the greatest leaders of our time, a champion for human rights and racial equality. The world is a better place because Nelson Mandela lived among us.

But not the whole world!

I can think of at least one small part of the planet where he turned a blind eye to human rights and racial equality, and where his complicity with dictators will forever stain his legacy.

Unfortunately — and disgracefully — when Mandela looked toward my native Cuba, he was blinded by his loyalty to Fidel and Raul Castro.

He never seemed to notice blacks in Cuba are a minority in government and a majority in prison, or that Cuba had freedom fighters and political prisoners — principled martyrs, just like him.

Ever since the South African leader died last week, TV talking heads have been trying to explain Mandela's illogical relationship with the Castro brothers. The professional spinners have even tried to convince us that his blind loyalty was something admirable. Former President Bill Clinton was on CNN last week making excuses for Mandela's unyielding loyalty to those who supported him during his 27-year imprisonment — as if devotion to evil were an honor or asset!

But there is no logical explanation. When Mandela looked at Cuba, he had a blind spot. After all, there were many anti-Castro Cubans who saw him as a fellow freedom fighter and supported his struggle against apartheid. Certainly, it would have been more logical and consistent with his principles if he had aligned himself with them.

Yet, shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Mandela spoke of the Castro regime with such praise that freedom-loving Cubans felt duped and betrayed.

"There is one thing where that country stands head and shoulders above most of the countries of the world," Mandela said of Cuba when visiting Angola in 1990, "it is its love of human rights and of freedom."

Of course, that statement and many others like it were and still are an insult to the intelligence of most people, especially Cubans.

I remember how my friend Basilio Medina, a black Cuban who had spent a decade in one of Castro's dungeons for political prisoners, felt that Mandela had stabbed him in the back.

"Look at my black face," Medina told me. "That should tell you how I feel about apartheid. But we have to do something when Mandela comes to New York."

The Big Apple was preparing a ticker-tape parade for Mandela. And Medina, an anti-Castro activist, wanted to find a way to meet him and make him see the real Cuba, the one that has its own form of apartheid.

"He obviously doesn't know that there is discrimination against blacks in Cuba," Medina said, "that those Cubans who were sent to war in Angola were mostly blacks. He doesn't know that there are many Mandelas in Cuban prisons today, including some who have been there longer than he — close to 30 years."

When I interviewed Medina for a 1990 column in the New York Daily News, he was still hoping Mandela could be turned. And as fellow freedom fighter who had supported Mandela in his fight against apartheid, Medina felt he was the one who could do it.

"When you spend so many years in prison," Medina told me from personal experience, "you come out and you are out of touch with reality. I think that may be Mandela's problem. He needs to be told the reality of what has been happening in Cuba since he went to prison."

Unfortunately, for the 23 years since Mandela has been out of prison, he's remained naive about Cuba and as loyal to its dictators as he was in 1990. He visited Cuba in 1991 and became a lifelong accomplice of the regime's repression. In 1994, he rightfully won South Africa's first democratic election but failed to speak for democratic elections in Cuba. On the subject of Cuba, Mandela always had blatant contradictions and double standards.

Medina never had the chance to meet with Mandela. He died of a heart attack in Manhattan at the age of 58, only a few days before Mandela's June 1990 appearance in the ticker-tape parade. As the South African freedom fighter was arriving in Manhattan, the Cuban freedom fighter was on his way to a Bronx cemetery.

But now that they both have left this world, if there still is a way for Medina to get an audience with Mandela, I know the Cuban freedom fighter will be trying to illuminate Mandela's blind spot.

To find out more about Miguel Perez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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