South Africa and Cuba: A Similar Struggle, A Drastically Different Response
The sudden decline in health of former South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela has prompted many around the world to reminisce on his legacy and the historical significance of his movement. While serving harsh prison sentences, often in solitary confinement, Mandela took part in hunger strikes and used every opportunity to draw global attention and solidarity for the anti-apartheid cause.
While speaking to a crowd of South African University students last week, President Barack Obama also recalled Mandela’s struggle and his personal frustration with how little the United States was doing to help those freedom fighters an ocean away.
Against all odds, Mandela’s efforts worked. The international community imposed sweeping economic sanctions on South Africa, isolating the country and making it increasingly difficult for the government to fund its oppressive tactics. The United Nations condemned the government’s policies and urged member states to sever all political and economic ties to the country. The Catholic Church voiced strong opposition to apartheid, culminating in an impassioned speech at the International Court of Justice and a symbolic pilgrimage to bordering African states by Pope John Paul II.
Mandela’s efforts to build international solidarity against his oppressors have been emulated by others similarly oppressed. In our own hemisphere, Cuban political prisoners engage in hunger strikes, take beatings, and struggle to survive in the country’s dilapidated prisons. Yet, many of the same countries that once took a stand against Mandela’s oppressors are unwilling to take a similar stand against Castro.
Cuba’s oppressors, they think, ought to be “confronted” by cutting deals with their state-run agencies to build new tourist destinations and allowing more of their citizens to visit the island. Meanwhile, Cuban prisoners who look up to Mandela rot in prisons as the international community does more to fund their government’s repression rather than bankrupt it.
Even some interest groups in the U.S. have made strong but unsuccessful efforts to unilaterally lift sanctions and thus pretend like there is nothing wrong in Cuba. They claim sanctions hurt Cubans more than help them.
But this is not true. Economic sanctions won’t hurt Cubans more than unceasing communist repression will, just like sanctions did not hurt blacks more than apartheid did. Unfortunately, Cuba has always had its sympathizers and subsidizers. To countries that have always had normal relations with Cuba, an unprovoked change of course might seem too sudden or too abrupt of a change in policy.
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