By Karen Wald
HAVANA — After three decades of supporting the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa — sometimes with their lives — the Cuban people expressed one of the most heartfelt welcomes they have ever bestowed on a visiting foreign dignitary to Nelson Mandela.
For his part Mandela, heaped unqualified praise on the revolutionary process in Cuba, the Cuban people and their leaders.
Speaking in Havana at the traditional July 26 celebration, the ANC leader told thousands of cheering Cubans that their efforts, culminating in the unprecedented defeat of South African regular troops in Cuito Cuanavale, Angola, had marked a historic turning point for southern Africa, constituting a victory for Africa as a whole.
"That impressive defeat of the racist army ... gave Angola the possibility of enjoying peace and consolidating its sovereignty", he stated. It gave the people of Namibia their independence, demoralised the white racist regime of Pretoria and inspired the anti-apartheid forces inside South Africa, he added.
"Without the defeat inflicted at Cuito Cuanavale our organisations never would have been legalised", he asserted.
When he concluded, Fidel Castro observed that Mandela's remarks constituted "the greatest and most profound tribute ever paid to our internationalist combatants".
Despite the current conventional wisdom, which seems to regard everything socialist and revolutionary as an anachronism or a mistake, Mandela had only kind words for Cuba.
"The Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the peoples of Africa", he began. "The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice, unparalleled for its principled and selfless character."
Mandela repeatedly stressed the uniqueness of Cuba's no-strings-attached aid. "What other country" he asked, "can show as much selflessness as Cuba has in its relations with the African continent? How many countries in the world have benefited from the assistance of Cuban health workers and educators? What country has ever asked for Cuban assistance and been denied it? How many countries threatened by imperialism or struggling for their national liberation have been able to count on the help and support of Cuba?"
From its earliest days the Cuban revolution "has been a source of inspiration for all freedom loving people", he went on. "We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist orchestrated campaign organised to destroy the impressive gains made in the Cuban revolution."
The African people, Mandela noted, have become accustomed to being victims of other countries which "want to take over our territory or subvert our sovereignty. In the history of Africa", he asserted, "there is no other case of a people that has risen up in our defence."
Africans have been especially moved by the Cuban people's commitment to African liberation and to the systematic elimination of racism worldwide, Mandela said. "But the most important lesson that you have for us is that, no matter what the odds, no matter under what difficulties you had to struggle against, there can be no surrender. It's a case of freedom or death. I know that your country is experiencing many difficulties now, but we have confidence that the resiliency of [your people] will overcome these as they've have helped other countries overcome theirs."
"You are with us," he went on, "because both of our organisations, the Communist Party of Cuba and the ANC, are fighting for the oppressed masses, to ensure those who make the wealth enjoy its fruits ...
"We of the ANC will always stand with the poor ... and we will ensure sooner rather than later that they rule the land of their birth; that, in the words of the Freedom Charter, the people shall govern. And when that moment arrives, it will have been made possible not only by our own efforts, but also by the solidarity, support and encouragement of the great Cuban people."
Opponents of the Cuban revolution tried to play on the fact that Nelson Mandela was one of the world's longest held and best known political prisoners to urge on him a sense of sympathy with the "political prisoners" in Cuba.
When Mandela met with the international press following his July 26 speech, several members of the US press tried to pressure him to take a stand denouncing Cuba as a human rights violator.
When a reporter tried to hold the ANC leader accountable to Miami Cubans in this regard, he responded angrily. "Who are they to call for the observance of human rights by Cuba?", he demanded. "They kept quiet for 42 years when human rights were being attacked in South Africa. Who are they now to be so concerned about human rights?! They are not concerned with the violence in which 10,000 of our people have been killed in South Africa. Who are they to teach us about human rights?"
"There are many countries", he said in response to a similar question, with an ironic edge to his voice, " which are now coming forward when we are on the eve of gaining the aims of our struggle that did not want to hear about us these last 40 years. Not only that, but we are now being advised about Cuba by people who have been supporting the apartheid regime these last 40 years; who have been giving the apartheid regime in South Africa the capacity to continue their brutal policies against the majority of the population."
He told the reporter that "no man or woman of principle" would ever accept advice "from people who never cared for us in the most difficult of times — advice that we must repudiate the friendship of people who have stood with us right from the beginning".
To leave no lingering doubts, in his response to another question, Mandela concluded, "If I [previously] had a high opinion of this country, that impression has been deepened by the warm manner in which I have been received and by the response to all the problems that were raised. I leave Cuba full of strength and hope."