There are few words which can describe the immense amount of sadness we all feel at the death of Nelson Mandela. It was only yesterday which I started writing this post, a horrible coincidence, and although I cannot do his magnificent life justice, I want to pick on one aspect which proves as inspiring as anything he achieved in his remarkable life as an embodiment of freedom, equality and human dignity.
The news will have particular resonance in Latin America, for whilst Mandela’s struggle to many westerners symbolises long-overdue justice, in Latin America it is a lesson in what they can achieve.
The story of Latin America has always been aligned with Africa. The indignity of disenfranchised minorities and classes struggling for some kind of social inclusion in both continents is an on-going tale, but whilst Latin America has heroes, none have ever been as iconic as Nelson Mandela.
Like Mandela’s early days as a freedom fighter, the violent tactics of Peru’s Shining Path or Colombia’s FARC have become increasingly redundant, but an element of what they once stood for bears some resonance with Mandela’s ANC; empowerment of the majority. FARC have even recognised this, posting tributes to Mandela on the website set up to support the on-going peace talks.
However, it is Mandela’s move to popular politics which continues to inspire. The indigenous movement in Latin America – captured most prominently in the Andean region – has become ever-more united, standing as a formidable social movement which culminated in the election of Bolivia’s Evo Morales in 2007. Mandela’s legacy of ‘unified justice’, not purely of race but class as well, has been seen continuously throughout Latin America as the ‘pink tide’ swept over the continent. Although dangerously populist, both Chavez and Correa have claimed inspiration in Mandela as they fought to overcome the exploitative elites.
In 2010, 33 Cuban political prisoners reached out to Mandela, congratulating him for twenty years of freedom, before expressing their own plights at the hands of Castro. The comparison between Mandela and Castro has often been made. Both were imprisoned for terrorism, with Mandela even citing Castro’s ‘History will absolve me speech’ as inspiration. Both represented a large caste of political ‘irrelevants’. And both went on to rule their respective countries, but whilst one became the embodiment of morality, the other has become on the 20th Century’s most prominent anti-heroes.
Despite their differences in governance, it is important to note the relationship the two shared was one of mutual admiration. Both leaders recognised the need to fight and both understood that the outcome would have to be total independence or continued exploitation.
On his freedom, one of the first things Mandela did was visit his political equal. Mandela, upon visiting, recognised that without Castro it is unlikely he could have envisaged a free and equal South Africa. His revolution in 1959 proved that Mandela’s thirty year fight did not have to be in vane and even in a physical sense Castro was a constant lifeline; Cuba’s role in Angola was seen as a leading cause of the destabilisation of South Africa’s government. If you visit the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, they proudly announce they were indispensable in the fight against the Apartheid.
The divergence between the two is clear. Castro himself would go on to become a tyrant; eliminating and exiling anyone who disagreed with his politics. Mandela would go on to be a bridge-builder. Rather than punishing those who had once wished death on him, he included them in rebuilding a country whose self-respect had been hammered through years of repression. They may have stood together for something ideological, but the similarities – sadly – stop there.
Maria Elena Calderin, a Cuban journalist, claimed that “if you ask any Cuban who Mandela is, they will place him among the greatest men who have ever lived”. The same will likely go for any Latin American.
On his passing, we will continue to remember the message of hope he delivers to a portion of Latin Americans who still struggle against a government who, at best, ignores their existence and at worst, actively discriminates them.
We will also remember the image of a young Nelson Mandela dressed in fatigues, inspired by his comrade Castro, ready to fight against a tyrannical regime which, like Castro, he was ready to topple, even if it meant giving his life.
I apologize for any errors in the text. I will add links and edit within the next couple of days.