Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro in Cuba, 1961
Photographer not credited
He had every right to become the angriest of men. For twenty- seven falls, winters, springs and summers, nine thousand eight hundred and sixty two days and nights, he lived in a cell as prisoner number 4664 because he dared to challenge the status quo in his minority ruled country. Apartheid pained him.
When he rose to power after his twenty- seven years in the cage, he could have become a blood- thirsty and vengeful man. But he didn’t; instead he formed a multiracial democracy and set about helping all his countrymen heal.
Like any great man, he sometimes created controversy. For Cubans in exile, and for many Cubans on the island, his friendship with Fidel and his endorsement of the Cuban Revolution was inexplicable. His visit to Cuba in 1991, at a time when prisons were full of Cubans who were struggling for the human rights of their people, was anathema to his image. The picture of Mandela and Fidel with their arms around each other seemed to mock the men who now found themselves in cells like the one where prisoner 4464 had lived. And yet…
When Mandela went to prison in the early 1960’s the whole world was in love with Fidel and the young bearded rebels. It was almost unavoidable. The world press created a myth around them that in far away Africa must have been an inspiration to a young black man who was trying to change his world.
Mandela was opposed to imperialism. The United States considered him a terrorist and played a part in his 1962 arrest. President Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act. On the other hand, Fidel opposed apartheid and supported the African National Congress, Mandela’s organization. When Mandela found himself alone with his fever for freedom, it was Fidel he saw as his ally. Perhaps the loyalty Fidel’s support engendered in him, made him blind to Cuba’s reality as it did so many others with less motive to love him. Perhaps that is why when he was liberated he traveled to Cuba with a heart full of gratitude and fell into the arms of a man he considered to be a friend, when in reality he was embracing a man who had no use whatsoever for the black race. I know that to be a fact.
The controversy that my Facebook posts about Mandela created among my Cuban friends, prompted me to speak tonight. I am mindful of their disillusionment at the sight of an embrace that defied logic and felt like betrayal. And I hope that as they have in the past, they will respect a different point of view.
When I see Mandela, I see a man of courage. I see a man committed to peace and the freedom of his people. I see a man who could have hated but loved, a man who could have become bitter but chose laughter, a man who wore his dignity like a crown, and whose fame never blinded him to his simplicity.
And I see a girl. I see a girl raised by nuns who taught her to love the poor, a girl whose rich grandmother taught her to sew clothes for poor children, a girl who loved Jesus, a Jesus who loved everyone and hung out mostly with sinners because they needed him most. I see a girl who was easily wounded by injustice, who greeted the bearded men with their crucifixes around their necks and their rifles glinting in the tropical sun with the illusion that perhaps one day she would be part of a society made better by a great man. A girl whose heart broke in exile, not because Mandela visited Fidel, but because Fidel and his beautiful bearded men betrayed her soul and the soul of her country.
Sometimes things are complicated.
Tonight I salute the man who was known as Madiba by his people. I salute him for his courage, for his loving nature, and for his ability to forgive the unforgivable. May he rest in peace.