Fidel, and other friends

Saturday, 17 February 1996

Madiba may have rubbed salt into Uncle Sam's old wound when he let it be known that he had invited Fidel Castro and other friends to visit us...

A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke, Rudyard Kipling said.

You must choose between me and your cigar.
Open the old cigar box, get me a Cuba stout.
For things are running crossways, and Maggie and I are out.
We quarrelled about Havanas we fought o'er a good cheroot,
And I know she is exacting, and says I am a brute...

Americans have not been able to legally enjoy a Cuban cigar since before I was born. They are not allowed to buy them outside the US, and they are certainly not allowed to take them back home.

So when upstart third-worlders developed the habit of breezing into New York blowing clouds of fragrant Havana smoke, they threw their collective toys out of the pram.

They wrapped their country in no-smoking signs to let it be known that this would not be tolerated, and have been sulking ever since.

"Are you sure about the cigars?" I asked my American friend who was patiently trying to explain all this to me. "I thought the reason you guys hated the Cubans was because they whipped your butts in the Bay of Pigs?"

"What are you talking about?" he responded. "America has never lost a war. Ever."

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"Never lost a war? What about Korea? Vietnam?" I asked.

He shook his head furiously. "No, no, no. We never lost. You see, we never declared war in any of those cases. So we couldn't have lost."

Of course not. How silly of me.

But back to Madiba. He was being rightfully hospitable when he invited Fidel and Muammar Gadaffi to spend time with us.

Libya and Cuba had donated both military training and money to the ANC in the years gone by.

The Nats on the other hand were noticeably disquieted. "Libya is seen as an exporter of terrorism and everybody knows that in Cuba, human rights are seriously being undermined," said spokesman Boy Geldenhuys.

"With this invitation, investor confidence in South Africa is being sabotaged," he said.

Strange. His fellow Nat, Pik Botha's reaction when the US grumbled about our oil dealings with Iran was quite different.

Could it be that the Nats are still upset because the Cuban's Operation Carlotta airlift in October 1975 effectively crushed South Africa's invasion of Angola, assuring the capture of Luanda and victory for the MPLA?

Wait a second. South Africa under the National Party never declared war against Angola. So they never could have lost. How silly of me.

Why can't these kids play nicely?

It's true that the US gets uppity about people getting too close to Cuba. The Torricelli Act of 1992 says that any country that trades with Cuba cannot trade with the United States.

But there are duty-free Cuban cigars on sale at Amsterdam's Schipol Airport, and I don't see sale of Levis being halted in that city's red-light district.

And Cuba's biggest trading partner after the Russians is Canada. The same Canada that shares the world's longest unprotected border with the USA.

Our own trade with the USA in 1994 totalled over R15-billion. There's no way any US government would jeopardise that because they disapprove of our dinner guests.

If anything, Madiba is perfectly positioned to play a bridging role between Cuba and the rest of the world.

Fidel, like Mandela, is part of an endangered species - non-professional politicians who are leaders by sheer force of personality. Their histories read like adventure stories. They are idolised by their people.

Cubans have a 98% literacy rate, the lowest infant mortality rates and highest doctor-population ratio in the third world, and a higher life-expectancy than the US.

A former Mexican president visiting Nicaragua shortly after the overthrowing of the Somoza dictatorship by the Sandinista revolutionaries told President Daniel Ortega:

"There have been two great Latin American revolutions, Mexico and Cuba. Both failed. In Mexico, we sacrificed justice for liberty. In Cuba, they sacrificed liberty for justice..."

We have much to teach each other.