If you live on the Caribbean street – and Florida is part of that street – here are three ways of looking at Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday.
Each, not surprisingly, involves Cuba and Fidel Castro. But in a larger sense they involve how immaturely we practice politics on this street – and how immaturely the world beyond this street views our politics.
First: If I were Fidel Castro, my self-esteem would be dropping like a Cohiba cigar ash today. Granted, Fidel’s narcissism never falters, but it ought to as the world mourns his friend Mandela. That’s because the world isn’t likely to mourn Castro anywhere nearly as passionately and sincerely. Despite all delusions to the contrary – and apologies to folks who own Che Guevara T-shirts – Fidel is a Mandela wannabe.
In fact, if the communist leader wants a hint of how he’s likely to be eulogized internationally, he can look across the Caribbean to Venezuela, where his acolyte, socialist President Hugo Chávez, died last March.
Chávez, like Castro, saw himself as a hero of the downtrodden, a tropical avenger standing up to superpower. And to a certain extent that image was valid, just as it is for Castro. But it was nullified time and again by Chávez’s divisive, authoritarian populism and reckless economic mismanagement. Nine months after his death, ask yourself how the world remembers Hugo, who ruled Venezuela for 14 years. Right – it remembers him too as a Mandela pretender, if it remembers him at all.
Castro will certainly be recalled as an iconic revolutionary – the archetype of the species, in fact. But his legacy stands to feel just as deflated as Chávez’s. Yes, under his own half-century rule, Cubans enjoyed free education and health care. Scandinavians enjoy pretty cheap schooling and doctoring too – but, unlike Cubans, they don’t lack food and human rights as the price for it.
The bottom line is that Mandela represents the bar that leaders on the Caribbean street (including not a few Florida governors) rarely meet.
As Bill Clinton noted recently, Mandela was great because he “didn’t practice the politics of resentment, he practiced the politics of inclusion.” Upon taking power in South Africa in 1994, he was astonishingly magnanimous toward the white apartheid establishment that imprisoned him for 27 years. Renewal meant more to him than revenge.
Castro, meanwhile, petulantly had anyone who contradicted him on his island jailed, shot, exiled or labeled as gusanos (worms). Mandela probably joins the pantheon of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Castro and Chávez join a long line of Latin American caudillos.
Second: Castro’s foes here in Miami don’t look all that great at Mandela’s graveside, either. Their anti-Castro cause should have won at least something close to the international sympathy that Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement received. Instead it managed to alienate everyone from Key Biscayne to Kuala Lumpur.
Apartheid fell in South Africa in no small part because the regime buckled under multilateral trade embargoes, boycotts and divestments. Multilateral embargoes work; unilateral embargoes don’t. Yet the latter, the 51-year-old U.S. embargo against the Castro regime, is all Cuban exiles have been able to muster. And, coincidentally, a 1990 visit by Mandela to Miami says a lot about why.
Mandela had just been released from prison, and his global stature arguably surpassed even Pope John Paul II’s – who had just brought down communism in Eastern Europe. But because Mandela refused to publicly condemn Castro, Miami’s exile community treated him as if he were, well, Castro. Rather than sit down and try to persuade him, they loudly vilified him. In the process, the exiles – who already had a reputation for the kind of intolerance they decry in Castro – drove off whatever national and international solidarity they hoped to score, especially within the black community.
Then, a decade later, they performed an encore with the Elián González debacle. Using a 6-year-old boy as a political football didn’t exactly make the world forget the Mandela visit.
Third: For all the exile community’s PR ineptitude, and for all the divine aura surrounding his name right now, the Caribbean street can’t let Mandela off the hook. No one’s saying he should have hit Miami Beach screaming anti-Fidel diatribes on Radio Mambí. And Castro did support Mandela when the latter was in prison. But come on: Mandela spent a quarter century behind those bars for speaking truth to power. Since 1959, thousands of Cubans are estimated to have suffered lengthy stays in jail cells for the same reason.
The fact that Mandela couldn’t express a modicum of identification with Cuban dissidents reflects a dewy-eyed enchantment with la revolución. Too many left-leaning world leaders harbor it, just as too many right-leaners think the exiles can do no wrong. Even heads of state such as Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff – herself once tortured by a military dictatorship – play Castro with excessive kid gloves.
But that's how things usually play out on the Caribbean street. No matter which way you look at it.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.