The sudden decline in health of former South African president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela has prompted many around the world to reminisce on his legacy and the historical significance of his movement. While serving harsh prison sentences, often in solitary confinement, Mandela took part in hunger strikes and used every opportunity to draw global attention and solidarity for the anti-apartheid cause. 

While speaking to a crowd of South African University students last week, President Barack Obama also recalled Mandela’s struggle and his personal frustration with how little the United States was doing to help those freedom fighters an ocean away.

[Cubans] continue seeking the help of those who once helped South Africa to rid itself of its own heavy chains, but these countries continue to turn a deaf ear.

- Rudy Mayor

Against all odds, Mandela’s efforts worked. The international community imposed sweeping economic sanctions on South Africa, isolating the country and making it increasingly difficult for the government to fund its oppressive tactics. The United Nations condemned the government’s policies and urged member states to sever all political and economic ties to the country. The Catholic Church voiced strong opposition to apartheid, culminating in an impassioned speech at the International Court of Justice and a symbolic pilgrimage to bordering African states by Pope John Paul II.

Mandela’s efforts to build international solidarity against his oppressors have been emulated by others similarly oppressed. In our own hemisphere, Cuban political prisoners engage in hunger strikes, take beatings, and struggle to survive in the country’s dilapidated prisons. Yet, many of the same countries that once took a stand against Mandela’s oppressors are unwilling to take a similar stand against Castro. 

Cuba’s oppressors, they think, ought to be “confronted” by cutting deals with their state-run agencies to build new tourist destinations and allowing more of their citizens to visit the island. Meanwhile, Cuban prisoners who look up to Mandela rot in prisons as the international community does more to fund their government’s repression rather than bankrupt it. 

Even some interest groups in the U.S. have made strong but unsuccessful efforts to unilaterally lift sanctions and thus pretend like there is nothing wrong in Cuba. They claim sanctions hurt Cubans more than help them.

But this is not true. Economic sanctions won’t hurt Cubans more than unceasing communist repression will, just like sanctions did not hurt blacks more than apartheid did. Unfortunately, Cuba has always had its sympathizers and subsidizers. To countries that have always had normal relations with Cuba, an unprovoked change of course might seem too sudden or too abrupt of a change in policy. 

However unlikely it is that these countries will impose sanctions on Cuba overnight, the U.S. must be open to the idea of pushing internationally backed sanctions when the time is right. In today’s world, timing is everything. This is especially so because the national, and even international, conversation is driven by impulsive social media. 

International support for the Cuban people will have to come at some point and the most effective day will probably be when it appears that Cuba has reached an important fork in the road between new freedom or more of the same repression.

Until then, we must live with the fact that Cubans continue to look up to Mandela and continue to sacrifice everything with little international support. They continue seeking the help of those who once helped South Africa to rid itself of its own heavy chains, but these countries continue to turn a deaf ear. 

No one will know exactly why the world was able to unite behind Mandela but continued to do so little for dissident leaders like Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet or Berta Soler. However, the U.S. should not let the fact that few countries have stood resiliently against Castro persuade them to change course now. 

Just as we look back and reminisce at the strength of Mandela and the support we gave his movement, the U.S. will be able to look back at how they always supported the Cuban people over its oppressors – and that too is worth reminiscing about.

Rudy Mayor, a human rights activist, is a co-director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC's Young Leaders Group.

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