Why Raul Castro is speaking at the Mandela memorial and David Cameron isn’t

Raul Castro will be speaking today at the Mandela Memorial and David Cameron won't. Here's why.

You may be wondering why Cuban leader Raul Castro features so prominently as a speaker at today’s Nelson Mandela memorial ceremony.

Not because he leads an undemocratic government – other autocrats with far worse records than the Cuban leader will be in attendance, such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe – but because he is the leader of Caribbean island that bears little relation to South Africa and because he is one of just a handful of world leaders who have been given the honour of speaking at the ceremony.

Above all the high profile appearance of the Cuban leader seems strange because the past week has seen fawning tributes to Mandela from people whose politics are about as far removed as it is possible to be from the Cuban Revolution.

Firstly this demonstrates the cliché that Mandela united people right across the political spectrum, but it also throws a new light on the usual Cold War dogma of the ‘good’ West versus the ‘evil’ East.

This is not to say that it wasn’t a jolly good thing that the West won the Cold War – if you think Russia is bad today (it is), consider what it was like under a leader like Stalin who murdered over 20 million of ‘his own’ citizens.

The Cold War was not, however, a clean fight between good and evil. As well as terrorising the Russian people, the Soviets also backed some relatively benign figures like Chilean President Salvador Allende, while the US sided with the military regime which overthrew him and murdered some 3,000 Chileans in cold blood.

The same irony was apparent in the behaviour of the Soviet Union’s satellite states. While Communist Cuba sent thousands to die fighting apartheid troops, the US and Britain backed the racist Apartheid regime in its proxy wars in West Africa – all in the name of anti-communism.

In the 70s and 80s the CIA sent cash, guns and troops to apartheid South Africa and to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) while it was fighting the left-wing Soviet-backed People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). For its part, Cuba sent 15,000 troops to fight the the apartheid South African army and its CIA-backed Angolan allies.

The eventual victory of black Cuban and Angolan troops over the white South African army, culminating in the battle at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988, was highly symbolic, and drove a nail into the pernicious myth of white superiority which helped sustain the unjust apartheid system.

As Mandela himself put it:

“The defeat of the racist army at 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? For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practiced to the benefit of large sections of humankind.”

Raul Castro will be speaking today at the Mandela Memorial and David Cameron won’t. The fact that Margaret Thatcher was calling Mandela a terrorist and Ronald Reagan was (mistakenly) claiming Apartheid SA had “stood beside the United States in every war it has fought” while Fidel Castro was sending Cuban troops to fight Apartheid perhaps explains why.

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