As the Obama family continues their historic visit to Cuba, Jeffrey Goldberg relates a story from national security advisor Ben Rhodes that might have provided the moment that made the opening between our two countries possible.
“The president was going to the funeral of Nelson Mandela—his personal hero—and I remember on the plane to South Africa I raised with him—we had a list of the leaders who were going to be up on the dais where he’d be speaking—and one was Raul Castro, and I said, ‘Look, inevitably it is going to come up as to whether or not you shake his hand.’”
Obama’s response was not necessarily the response of a typical American president. According to Rhodes, Obama said, “‘Look, the Cubans, given their history with Mandela, with the ANC, they have a place at this event, and I’m not going to, essentially, cause an uncomfortable situation for the Mandela family, for the South African people, by snubbing the president of Cuba who has a right to be on that dais.’” The Cubans were early and ardent supporters of Mandela’s African National Congress party, and were also deeply engaged militarily across southern Africa…
Castro, Rhodes said, was a bit surprised, and perhaps somewhat moved. “What was interesting was, in our subsequent meetings with the Cubans, the atmosphere changed a bit, and the first thing they said to me in the next meeting was how much President Castro appreciated that President Obama had done that, and it kind of established a tone where they understood they were dealing with a different American president—one who is willing to leave the history in the past and actually try to get something done.”
This points to a moment when Cuba was actually on the right side of history while the United States – under President Reagan – was on the wrong side.
Reagan … embraced the South African Apartheid regime. He instituted a policy euphemized as “constructive engagement.” Reagan said that the United States lacked the power to change the internal workings of the Afrikaner government. Not only was the claim false, it contradicted his position on the far more powerful Soviet Union, which was designed precisely to change the evil empire’s internal behavior. Reagan put Mandela on the U.S. terrorist list, a placement that wasn’t removed until 2008, incredibly. This was at a time when the South African civil war was at its peak of violence, with the conflict becoming a global cause.
A young student attending Occidental College at the time was very aware of these events.
The young black university student who walked up to the microphone at an anti-apartheid rally in 1980 was, by his own admission, cynical about the virtues of political activism.
Barack Obama had spent his early years of college submerged in books by African American writers by the likes of James Baldwin, W E B Du Bois and Malcolm X, wrestling with his own mixed racial identity.
But it was the campaign for equality thousands of miles away in South Africa that first spurred Obama, then aged 19, into action: taking part in a divestment rally in his sophomore year at Occidental College in Los Angeles, one of hundreds of similar campaigns sweeping campuses across America.
And so it was thirty years later, on that day in December 2013, that these two leaders – who had very little in common other than their admiration for Nelson Mandela – shook hands and changed the trajectory of the relationship between our two countries. I suspect that Madiba would approve.