By Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr.

NNPA Columnist

In the tradition of the Black Church in America, the right hand of fellowship handshake is extended as sign of welcome into the church community.  Usually, a handshake between two world leaders at a memorial service is not seen as something controversial or unprecedented.  On December 10, however, at the beginning of the memorial service for Nelson “Madiba” Mandela in the heart of Soweto, South Africa, the handshake between President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro Ruz of Cuba was viewed differently. It was not so much as an affront to any religious protocol, but was viewed by many as being controversial and consequential depending on political, ideological, cultural and historical perceptions or perspectives.

I have always maintained that if not reported anywhere else, it is important for the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), Black Press USA, to share with its millions of readers an analysis that goes beyond the hype of the mainstream media in America on issues that are vital to the strategic economic, political and cultural interests of the African American community as well as the interests of freedom-loving people throughout the world. It is, therefore, important to look deeper into the significance of the Obama-Castro handshake for both historical and contemporary clarity.

The first issue should be the respectful acknowledgement of the tide-turning role that Cuba played in the global anti-apartheid struggle.  In the 1980’s the frontline African nations that bordered South Africa were periodically being militarily violated with the brutal violence and repression that became routine of the apartheid regime.  South African military attacks directly on the African National Congress (ANC) inside South Africa and in Angola, South West Africa and in other areas of southern Africa had escalated.

In fact, South Africa invaded South West Africa (now Namibia) and the Republic of Angola.  President Fidel Castro Ruz urgently dispatched more than three hundred thousand Cuban soldiers to Angola over several years to help stop and to eventually defeat the South Africa military on the ground in Angola in 1988.   By contrast, keep in mind that President Ronald Reagan from 1981 to 1989 tacitly supported apartheid South Africa and tried unsuccessfully to have a “constructive engagement” with apartheid under the guise of preventing communism in southern Africa.

I traveled to Angola in 1988 on more than one occasion to witness firsthand how Cuba was helping the MLPA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) in Angola and the ANC as well as SWAPO (South West Africa Peoples Organization).  I visited the battleground area in the aftermath of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale that took place during a six month period from the end of 1987 to the spring of 1988.  That battle was the largest single armed conventional warfare on African soil since World War 11.  I went down into the foxholes with Cubans, Angolans, Namibians and native South Africans, all fighting together heroically to liberate southern Africa from oppression, colonialism and imperialism.  One of the key commanders of all the Cuban troops in southern Africa was Raul Castro Ruz, then-President Fidel Castro’s younger brother.

Thus, for millions of Africans all over South Africa, Angola, Namibia and across the continent of Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, including America, the sight of President Barack Obama shaking the hand of President Raul Castro Ruz was filled with a sense of historical gratitude to thank Cuba for helping Africa and to note how far the struggle for African liberation, self-determination and empowerment has advanced during the past 60 years.

But this does not mean that the struggle for freedom and economic prosperity is over in Africa.  The memorial service for Madiba and the state funeral later are very important milestones that we all should mark with a sense of rededication to continue the struggle for African liberation and progress as a lasting tribute to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Hopefully, the Obama-Castro handshake will also prompt the Obama administration to take more steps to improve relations between the United States and Cuba. We are aware that there are currently efforts to support more cultural exchanges between the U.S and Cuba today as well as to increase economic development interests in anticipation of the eventual lifting of the sanctions against Cuba.

South Africa President Jacob Zuma had a private meeting with President Raul Castro after the Obama-Castro handshake.  President Zuma affirmed, “It is very importance to us that President Castro came in person. Paying tribute to Madiba would not have been complete without the participation of Cuba.”

Likewise it was important for President Obama to be characteristically bold and respectful by reaching his hand to grasp the hand of President Castro. It was the right gesture to do for the sake of history.  Lastly, out of respect to Nelson Mandela’s legacy, we all should take further actions that will exhibit the hope that a better day is coming for the people of the U.S., Cuba, Africa and the world community.

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is President of Education Online Services Corporation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and can be reached at   

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Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis

Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. is presently the CEO & President of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and the President of Education Online Services Corporation (EOServe Corp), the world’s...