It was most symbolic and appropriate that the heavens opened over the memorial service for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, for the rains are regarded in Africa as a blessing; as South African Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said: “It’s a blessing from the ancestors welcoming a son of the soil.”
It was entirely appropriate too that, on a day of high emotions, the most stirring and best received tribute to South Africa’s first black president was delivered by America’s first black president, a master practitioner of the great tradition of American political oratory, whose words captured the essence and universal appeal of Nelson Mandela, even as they took flight and lifted the spirits of those who heard them.
Indeed, Barack Obama’s speech could stand alone as a fitting eulogy to Nelson Mandela or editorial comment on the life, lessons and legacy of one of the most influential and revered figures of the 20th century, amidst the thousands of eloquent and heartfelt words written, spoken and sung around the world, this past week. Anything else we attempt to add would most likely pale by comparison, although the last two sentences of our editorial last Saturday neatly encapsulated a key aspect of the popular feeling in Guyana and across the Caribbean: “Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life is an inspiring example of how much history still turns on the actions of a few men. It is hard to survey his legacy without wondering what the Caribbean might look like if we had been blessed with politicians with similar gifts.”
Even as many in Guyana and the Caribbean have been lamenting the lack of enlightened leadership in our region, there has also been much appreciation for Mr Obama’s valedictory oration and his invocation of Mr Mandela’s “legacy of racial reconciliation” – and, by extension, his wider message of tolerance, inclusion, physical and spiritual liberation, and peace. As Mr Obama said, “We can choose to live in a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.”
It was therefore most proper that, in a hugely symbolic harbinger of this central theme, the American president should have greeted Cuban President Raúl Castro with a handshake, on his way to the podium. No gesture could have better highlighted the sincerity of Mr Obama’s words, given the fraught nature of relations between the USA and Cuba these past five decades.
The historic handshake – the first between the countries’ two leaders since 2000, when Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro happened to cross paths at the United Nations – is being hailed as cause for cautious optimism that there may be a thaw in relations between the two adversaries. In both the USA and Cuba, whilst engendering surprise, it is being regarded as a sign of reconciliation, although it has aroused the ire of Cuban-American politicians bitterly opposed to the Castro regime.
In the complex world of international diplomacy, something as seemingly simple as a handshake is not always so simple and can quite often be the result of lengthy negotiations and careful choreography, as was the case of the unsuccessful attempt to engineer a handshake between Mr Obama and Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, at the UN a short while ago. In this case, the White House has said that it was not “a pre-planned encounter” but just a gesture that was in keeping with the tenor of the occasion.
Nonetheless, Julia Sweig, a Latin America specialist at a leading US think-tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, has opined that the handshake could prove to be a significant moment in US-Cuba relations and “a test balloon that both heads of state are throwing up to measure reaction from their publics.”
Whether it was pure politeness on Mr Obama’s part or something more calculated, this small act greatly enhances his international stature. It was, moreover, wholly befitting the occasion and offered proof indeed that Nelson Mandela’s example of the power of reconciliation is being heeded and that his legacy lives on.