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My Nelson Mandela Story

One of my sketches from Cuba
All right, I never actually met Nelson Mandela. But his death last week reminded me of something that happened ten years ago, when I was in Cuba.
At the end of my third week in Havana, I decided to take a bus to visit the town of Trinidad de Cuba, about 150 miles east in the middle of the country. It’s a Unesco world heritage town because of the high number of well-preserved colonial era buildings, including an ornately decorated church in the centre. Well, on my first evening there, I ended up at a club watching some excellent musicians perform traditional Cuban son. I was sitting quite close to them, and sketching them while they played. This caught the eye of the trumpeter, and when the group finished their set he asked me if I would show him my drawings. When he discovered that I spoke reasonably good Spanish, he invited me to join him and his friends in the town square for an after-concert open air party. My feeling of good fortune and being highly flattered was not remotely diminished by the quick realization that all the drinks were going to be on me.
We got to the square after midnight, and the talk and the music continued for several hours. A few other Cuban guys joined the group, and even if they didn’t have an instrument to play, they joined in by tapping the sides of the tables or clapping their hands in complicated cross-rhythms. Most of my temporary new friends were afro-Cubans, in their twenties or thirties, but there were a couple of guys who looked a little older. I started talking to one of them, probably in his mid-forties, with a shaven skull and a thin moustache. I can’t remember how we got on to the subject, but he mentioned that he had been in the Cuban army fighting overseas in the 1970s. It quickly dawned on me what this might mean: “In Angola?” I asked. Yes, yes, he replied, pleased that I knew something about that part of Cuban and African history. He was one of the many thousands of troops that Castro sent over to fight in Angola on the side of the liberation movement, which meant engaging in some fierce combat with CIA-backed South African soldiers. I remember reading about all this at the time, how the white South African prime minister, Vorster, wanted to defeat the liberation movement in order to prop up a sympathetic apartheid regime in his own back yard. And here I was in the middle of Cuba, several decades later, sitting next to a man who was talking excitedly about travelling halfway across the world and (in his words) “bloodying the nose of the racists”. I asked him if I could shake his hand, and told him I was honoured to meet him.
The connection to the ANC’s struggle in South Africa is explained this way by Edward George in his book “The Cuban Intervention in Angola”:
 The internal repercussions of the Angolan debacle were felt quickly when, on 16 June 1976 – emboldened by the FAPLA-Cuban victory – the Soweto Uprising began, inaugurating a period of civil unrest which was to continue up until and beyond the collapse of apartheid.”
During the 1980s in Britain, I went on anti-apartheid marches, attended concerts in support of the ANC, always gave the thumbs up when I passed the permanent protest group camped outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square—all the easy stuff that privileged left-leaning westerners did then. The passing of Nelson Mandela reminded me of that encounter in 2001, and also of a fact that shouldn’t be forgotten: sometimes, the only answer to fascism is not just to sign a petition, but to engage in armed struggle.


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