In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: On Mandela, Miami overcame wretched past

“There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way √lays defeat and death.” – Nelson Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Had he visited Miami 23 years later, Nelson Mandela might have enjoyed seeing how far his healing words and forgiving handshake have traveled since his controversial path through this community.

He might have liked to know that Cuban and African American politicians have closed ranks and formed coalitions on many issues: securing public housing; policing the police; funding the public hospital.

He might have liked to know that an African American congresswoman from Miami, Frederica Wilson, is speaking out on behalf of Cuban dissidents whose basic human rights are stomped on every day by the Raúl Castro regime.

The Miami that snubbed Mandela when he visited in 1990 after his release from prison — a world tour that also took him to Cuba in praise of Fidel Castro, who had supported his cause — is no longer so divided in its alliances, no longer so all-or-nothing in its politics.

“He was a great man,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier L. Suarez told me Friday, remembering how touched he was at a depiction on television of Mandela’s relationship with his prison guards, whom he forgave for years of mistreatment.

This from the former mayor of Miami, one of five Cuban-American mayors who signed a letter back then that harshly criticized Mandela for comments in support of Castro, Moammar Gadhafii and Yasser Arafat.

But at the Miami-Dade Commission chambers Thursday, Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa announced that Mandela had died and called for a moment of silence in a show of respect.

And, from the most unexpected of places, the office of the ultra conservative U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, came this statement: “The world has lost one of history’s most important figures, though Nelson Mandela’s example will live on for generations to come. Men and women striving for justice and fairness around the world have drawn inspiration from Nelson Mandela.”

Those of us who remember how wretchedly this community was torn apart by the snub of Cuban-American elected officials can only rejoice in the eulogies pouring in for the human-rights champion from a wide-ranging sector of the Cuban-American community.

“Nelson Mandela, one of the most noble and admirable figures of the 20th century, was a friend of Fidel Castro. So what?” wrote the respected Cuban writer Carlos Alberto Montaner, who lives in Miami and Madrid, in a sharp analysis of the brilliant evolution of Mandela from fiery revolutionary to Gandhi-like figure able to unite his divided country.

I agree.

Mandela kept his eye focused on his cause — the end of apartheid — and did not let anything, not 27 years in jail, and certainly not being put on a “terrorist watch” by the U.S. government, detract him from the road to a just and inclusive South Africa.

His association with the likes of Castro came out of gratitude for the support for his cause.

But Mandela stood for everything Castro doesn’t: freedom, equality, democracy.

Mandela had more in common with the Cuban exile, our political prisoners, and our just cause — to end a dictatorship — than with Castro, the oppressor.

But vocal Cuban exile leaders of the 90s, more attuned to emotional demagoguery that assured them perpetuity in their local roles than to real leadership, missed the opportunity to tell Mandela our story.

We let our hate for Fidel Castro weigh more than the nobleness of our cause — and we lost an invaluable ally.

But that was then, and this is now.

And today, as the world mourns Mandela, we also pay tribute to his legacy. The relation with Castro is but a tiny asterisk in the life of this exceptional man, who declined when he was offered the presidency for life.

Mandela’s greatest lesson lies in his ability to forgive his brutal enemies after he had won the moral war. He didn’t forgive to display piety or greatness, but he recognized that forgiveness was essential to rebuilding a country for all.

May the lessons of his life endure and shine a light where there is still darkness.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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