Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela and American anticommunism

Nelson Mandela died on Dec. 5 as a hero in his native South Africa and across the world.  He suffered an unjust imprisonment that lasted 27 years, but went on to be elected as the first black President of South Africa.  The story of his forgiveness and reconciliation, bringing together whites and blacks in the new post-apartheid nation, overcoming the evils and injustice that had been inflicted on him and millions of other South Africans is heartwarming and inspiring.  But the celebration of Mandela hides the larger context in which he lived.  He proved to be the exception rather than the rule, a person leading a successful populist revolt against colonial, imperialist forces.

Once upon a time, Nelson Mandela was just another terrorist in the eyes of the U.S. government, a communist sympathizer and agitator who was put in his place rotting in prison on Robben Island.  He was given this label by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. In fact, the U.S. didn't get around to removing him until 2008.  Not after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, nor after he completed his term as President of South Africa in 1999.  This speaks to the fairness and reliability of the U.S. terror watch list.    

Conservatives today have come out to praise Mandela, and say that they were, in fact, wrong in opposing him in the first place.  "The ANC was a violent, pro-Communist organization. By the guiding light of Ronald Wilson Reagan, many young conservatives like me spent much of the 1980s fighting Marxism-Leninism — from the classrooms of radical campuses to the battlefields of Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, both overtly and covertly," writes Deroy Murdock in the National Review Online. "Having seen Communists terrorize nations around the world while the Berlin Wall still stood, Mandela looked like one more butcher waiting to take his place on the 20th Century’s blood-soaked stage... Nelson Mandela was just another Fidel Castro or a Pol Pot, itching to slip from behind bars, savage his country, and surf atop the bones of his victims."

Murdock goes on to say that his previous opinion turned out to be nothing further from the truth, and he admits that he was "dead wrong" about a "great man and fine example to others."  But his account implicitly implies that he was right about the rest of his - and many Reaganites - fight against "Marxism-Leninism."  He is, in essence, defending the actions of the United States on the "battlefields of Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador."  

The truth is that anti-communist crusaders during the Reagan era, as they had been since the end of World War II, were wrong.  They were wrong when they occupied Vietnam in the worst act of aggression since World War II, in which north of 3 million people were estimated killed.  The Vietnamese may have been wrong about communism, or they may have been right.  What is indisputable is that it was never the U.S. prerogative to decide for them.  The Vietnamese had suffered brutally for decades under colonial rule, and many leaders, in the same way as Mandela, wanted to look for another, more just, way for their people.  U.S. interference cut down millions in their paths.  How many Nelson Mandelas were imprisoned, tortured, killed in raids on villages or executions in cities?  

When Reagan launched his terror wars in Central America in the 1980s, there were tens of thousands of casualties.  The story was similar to that in South Africa or Vietnam.  Nations who suffered the injustice of colonialism and dictatorships fought to improve their lives, embracing a political philosophy that recognized their rights to basic human needs such as health care, education and the right not to suffer poverty.  This is clearly permissible under the sovereign right of self determination enjoyed by every nation and enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.  

Reagan had gone beyond mere complicity in the crimes of the paramilitary forces who opposed these populist uprisings by force.  The United States assembled, trained, and funded these groups at the US Army School for the Americas (now known as WHINSEC). The SOA Manuals "advocated torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations."  As SOA Watch goes on to say, "More than a thousand of these manuals were distributed for use in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecaudor and Peru, and the School of the Americas between 1987 and 1991."  This was merely a continuation of U.S. policies in effect since Kennedy which encouraged the use of military armies in Latin American countries (which had traditionally been used for defense against foreign aggression) to suppress by force any internal dissent from "communists," "subversives," or whatever the term du jour.  In plain English, political opponents.

How many of these populist fighters who were silenced by the brutality of the death squads might have turned out to be the next Nelson Mandela?  We will never know because unfortunately, they were not victorious.  Even when they did manage to triumph and remain in power, as the Sandinistas managed to fend off the Contras and plead their case before international bodies such as the U.N. and the I.C.J. they were not offered any recourse.  Despite the victory of the Nicaraguan government against the United States in the ICJ in 1984, which found the U.S. guilty of encouraging human rights violations, violating another countries sovereignty, and using force against another country, Nicaraguans were left empty handed.  The reparations awarded to them by the Court were never delivered by the U.S. After numerous vetoes during the early '80s calling on the U.S. to observe international law in the case of Nicaragua, the U.S. then vetoed a General Assembly resolution calling on the U.S. to abide by the World Court decision.  Nicaraguans were left with a decimated country to suffer on their own, without a white knight to ride to the rescue.  

Recently the 24th anniversary passed of killing of the 6 Jesuit priests in El Salvador.  It was noted in some news articles but hardly given notice in the United States. In this brutal case, six scholars at the University of Central America in San Salvador along with their houskeeper and her daughter were viciously executed by government forces, backed and funded by the U.S., because of Father Ignacio Ellacuría Bescoetxea's vocal advocacy for a political solution to the war.  These scholars might have gone on to be government leaders, heroes, or Nobel Peace Prize winners like Mandela if they weren't executed, shot like dogs in their couryard that night.  This did not end the U.S. support, and the perpetrators went on to live free lives for decades with safe haven in the United States.   

So, is this what Murdock is referring to when he talks about seeing "communists terrorize nations around the world?"  What does he mean when he says he thought that Mandela was like another Castro?  Does he mean he was afraid of Mandela fighting to overthrow an imperial government and provide free health care, education and housing to people who had lived their whole lives in degrading poverty?  Send tutors to teach illiterate farmers to read, and bring Western cinema and culture to them?  Did it bother Murdock, like it did many American military planners, driving them to the point of hysteria, that a nation had rejected the American socioeconomic model, a choice granted them by the most fundamental international laws.  

The CIA since the end of the second World War has played a role in setting up death squads and supplying them with names of opponents who were later killed.  This is not too far from what happened to Mandela.  The CIA was working with the apartheid government and supplied them with information that helped put Mandela in jail.  The difference between Mandela and the Jesuit priests and many others is that he was lucky enough to make it out of prison alive.  He easily could have died there, or have been put to death as he was expecting at his trail.  

Conservatives were right about Nelson Mandela in the end, after they had no choice but to see what a victorious Mandela could become when empowered to lead his country.  They don't seem to see the crime, embodied by their hero Reagan, which has denied so many like Mandela that opportunity.