August 1, 2021

The Secret History of How Cuba Helped End Apartheid in South Africa

As the world focuses on Tuesday’s historic handshake between President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro, we look back at the pivotal role Cuba played in ending apartheid and why Castro was one of only five world leaders invited to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. In the words of Mandela, the Cubans ‘destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor … [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa.’ Historian Piero Gleijeses argues that it was Cuba’s victory in Angola in 1988 that forced Pretoria to set Namibia free and helped break the back of apartheid South Africa. We speak to Gleijeses about his new book, “Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991,” and play archival footage of Mandela meeting Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to the historic moment Tuesday when President Barack Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro as both men participated in the memorial service for anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The White House said the handshake was unscripted. It marked the first time a U.S. president has shaken hands with a Cuban leader since 2000. In Washington, Republicans expressed outrage over the exchange. During a hearing in the House, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida sparred with Secretary of State John Kerry, who said it did not represent any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

REP. ILEANA ROSLEHTINEN: Mr. Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake. But when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raúl Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant. Raúl Castro uses that hand to sign the orders to repress and jail democracy advocates. In fact, right now, as we speak, Cuban opposition leaders are being detained, and they’re being beaten while trying to commemorate today, which is International Human Rights Day. They will feel disheartened when they see these photos. Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that a handshake nonwithstanding, the U.S. policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened? Thank you.

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Ladies and gentlemen, today is about honoring Nelson Mandela. And the president is at an international funeral with leaders from all over the world. He didn’t choose who’s there. They’re there to honor Mandela. And we appreciate that people from all over the world and from all different beliefs and walks of life who appreciated Nelson Mandela and/or were friends of his came to honor him. And I think, as the president said—I urge you to go read his speech, or if you didn’t see it or haven’t read it, because the president said in his speech today honoring Nelson Mandela, he said, “We urge leaders to honor Mandela’s struggle for freedom by upholding the basic human rights of their people”—

REP. ILEANA ROSLEHTINEN: And would you say Raúl Castro is upholding their basic human rights?

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: No, absolutely not.

   AMY GOODMAN: The uproar over President Obama’s handshake with President Raúl Castro has drawn attention to the close relationship between the South African  anti-apartheid movement and Cuba. In 1991, Nelson Mandela visited Cuba with then-President Fidel Castro. This is a clip when they first met.

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