So Barack Obama and Raúl Castro shook hands and Twitter shouted "Awkward!" Big deal. Doubtless some American conservatives will use this non-historic handshake as fresh evidence the President of the United States cannot be trusted to advance the great republic's interests. Then again, some of them doubtless think it reprehensible that he speak at a memorial service for an old "communist". Even one named Nelson Mandela.
The handshake was not a historic moment, not least since Bill Clinton shook the hand of Fidel Castro at the United Nations in 2000. That was before Twitter and Facebook, of course, and so belongs to pre-history.
The handshake will make headlines. But amidst the poetry of Obama's tribute to Mandela there was a bars or two. “There are too many people who claim solidarity with Madiba,” Obama said, “but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.” The meaning was not hard to discern. Are you listening Robert Mugabe? Are you listening Raúl Castro?
Mugabe's name, in fact, was cheered every time the Zimbabwean president was mentioned at yesterday's rain-soaked memorial service in Soweto. A reminder, if any were needed, that history is partial. Mugabe is no Mandela, of course, but for South Africans, his opposition to apartheid remains the single fact that excuses his other failings.
Mugabe, mercifully, was not invited to speak yesterday. But Castro was. He was introduced as the leader of the “tiny island that fought for our liberation” and if his speech was by Castro standards pleasingly brief, it offered little more than the usual platitudes favoured at these affairs. Cuba, he said, “was born in the struggle for independence” and had enjoyed “the privilege of fighting and building alongside the African nations.”
Some 15,000 Cuban troops fought in the Angolan civil war of the 1980s. That conflict, vital as it was for Angola, was itself a proxy for the struggle in South Africa which in turn served as a proxy for the Cold War itself. The victory, in 1988, of the Soviet and Cuban-backed People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola over the South Africa-supported UNITA forces was one small part in the apartheid regime’s eventual downfall.
In Mandela’s words, “The defeat of the racist army at [the pivotal battle of] Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today. What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations with Africa?”
That is why Castro was invited to speak in Soweto. Of course Cuba's interest in Africa was not purely selfless. It was a means of continuing the revolution by fostering it elsewhere. Nevertheless, much of the reaction to Mandela’s death and, more significantly, the nuances of his struggle, has reflected a desire to flatten history, simplifying it into an elemental struggle between good guys and evil-doers in which black is always black and white reliably white. This at least has the value of making history comprehensible, but it unavoidably devalues and neglects the reality of a past that is always more complicated than the cartoon—that is, the cable news—version of history would pretend.
Moreover, the past is not confined to a filing cabinet stamped “ancient history.” It lingers and reaches into the present. Not least in the fashion in which the past is used as a means of drawing dividing lines in contemporary politics.
Broadly speaking, we may say that the right was correct about the Soviet Union but the left, again speaking in general terms, was right about South Africa. Conservatives—in the United States and the United Kingdom alike—may say all the proper things about South Africa now, but the left will never forgive them for the tacit, if highly qualified, support they afforded the apartheid regime.
Of course, South Africa was a simple struggle between good and evil. But it was also more complicated than that. It became, in part, another proxy conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. The specifics of any local struggle in that battle were less important than the wider struggle within which they were subsumed. History, in this respect, was placed on hold, not to be resolved until the bigger struggle had been resolved.
There was no global shortage of sonofabitches championed by Washington or Moscow. If the Cold War became a zero-sum game, it followed that the chief importance of smaller countries’ troubles was the extent to which they advanced the interests of the great Cold War powers. This looks ridiculous now. The Soviet Union’s eclipse ensures that. But it did not seem that way to many people at the time, and not all of those people were racists or reactionaries or stupid.
Some of this persists. Even today much of the international left remains unusually tolerant of the Castro brothers’ regime in Havana. Cuba’s failings, even Cuba’s dictatorship, can be excused because Castro’s heart is “in the right place” and, besides, their continuing grip on power is a daily rebuke to the United States.
The Castros may not rank very high on a worldwide and historical list of ghastly dictatorships, but that scarcely requires us to absolve them. Too many on the left, however, still decline to see the Havana dictatorship for what it really is. Consumed by their own anti-Americanism, they make the same mistake anti-Soviet American conservatives made in regard to South Africa.
It is hard, however, to blame black South Africans for seeking support from wherever they could find it. The struggle between Washington and Moscow was not their struggle. Some American conservatives still seem to think that because Mandela accepted support from Castro and Mugabe and Gaddafi he must have been, by inclination at least, just like them. One of the Bad Guys, in other words.
But—a useful question, this—what would you have done? If Roosevelt and Churchill could ally themselves with Stalin in pursuit of a more urgent victory, why should the ANC and other African liberation movements be judged by a different standard? (Though we should wish Mandela had done more to rebuke Mugabe and Gaddafi, we might also recognize that past bonds of obligation made him reluctant to do so. It is a fault.)
Even good lives are complicated by compromises. Mandela’s membership of the South African Communist Party and his role in the creation of the ANC's communist-backed armed wing is the kind of detail upon which his obituarists have been reluctant to dwell.
Perhaps for good reason and not just because it clouds the picture we wish to retain of Mandela. It is something that risks concentrating on trees at the expense of the wood. It is as if we remembered Winston Churchill's catalogue of blunders (and much worse) at the expense of recalling his one, great, necessary, shining moment.
In that sense Mandela was a truly Churchillian figure. As for Cuba, however, it awaits both a respectable and productive American foreign policy and, rather importantly, a Mandela of its own who may yet lift liberate that poor island. It does not seem probable that man will be called Castro.