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Foes of Obama's Cuba Opening Rewrite Their Apartheid Past

December 24, 2014

New polls from CBS News and the Washington Post shows the American people overwhelmingly support President Obama's decision to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba. That common sense consensus to end a failed Cold War policy which has outlived the Soviet Union by a generation has produced some pretty stunning responses from a furious hodge-podge of Cuban-American irredentists and hard-right ideologues. But for sheer chutzpah, none of the objections can match this whopper from National Review editor Rich Lowry:

If Cuba were a racist apartheid-style system rather than a Communist dictatorship, no one would be so eager to do business with it.

Sadly for Lowry's comical attempt at revisionist history, there was no shortage of conservatives "eager to do business" with apartheid South Africa. Among them were the National Review and President Ronald Reagan.
As Jacob Heilbrunn documented at length, the National Review was an early, vocal supporter of the Afrikaner regime and its deepening apartheid system in South Africa. In a 1960 editorial, NR declared, "the whites are entitled, we believe, to pre-eminence in South Africa." And 26 years later--at the height of the global debate over sanctions against and divestment from Boer-controlled South Africa--little had changed for William F. Buckley's rag:

To what extent is the vast majority of South African blacks intellectually and practically prepared to assume the social, economic, and political leadership in a highly industrialized country?

As Heilbrunn explained, conservative defenses for the brutal, racist apartheid regime evolved over time:

These apologies came in several stages. Throughout, conservatives defended apartheid, but the tactical emphases shifted over the decades. During the first stage, in the 1960s, conservatives depicted blacks as racially inferior to whites and praised the homelands policy of South Africa. In the second stage, in the 1970s, conservatives painted apartheid as a necessary evil; the Soviet threat required the United States to support South Africa. In the final stage, in the 1980s, the right decried the move toward divestment and sanctions, argued that capitalism would save the country, and portrayed Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress as pawns of the Kremlin.

Ronald Reagan certainly thought so. In the face of growing domestic and international pressure, President Reagan nevertheless vetoed the 1985 Anti-Apartheid Act. At a time when the U.S. accounted for about one-fifth of direct foreign investment in South Africa, Reagan agreed with UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that sanctions would be "immoral" and "repugnant." As he explained to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda on March 30, 1983, "We made clear we detest Apartheid but believe we can do better with S. Africa by persuasion." Reagan's diaries show that he didn't just denounce "extreme actions" like divestment, but criticized the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Bishop Desmond Tutu as "naïve." (The Gipper also confessed that "I was not a fan of Bishop Tutu" in part because "the Bishop seems unaware, even though he himself is Black, that part of the problem is tribal not racial.")
Yet it wasn't just American commercial interests but Cold War calculus that fueled Reagan's policy of "constructive engagement." South Africa didn't just protect vital shipping routes; the apartheid government backed Jonas Savimbi's fighters against Cuban-backed troops in Angola and Namibia. "Defenders of the Apartheid regime" in the West, the State Department later acknowledged, "had promoted it as a bulwark against communism."
Ultimately, both the House and Senate, joined by the likes of Mitch McConnell, overrode Reagan's veto. As it turned out, they did not want the United States by itself, apart from most of its allies and global opinion. And at home, the growing anti-apartheid movement was coming to encompass more and more Americans.
More, but not all. As George Will, who now supports lifting the anachronistic embargo on Cuba, put it in 1985:

The current campaigning against South Africa is a fad, a moral Hula Hoop, fun for a while.

Will's supposed fad helped free Nelson Mandela, bring about the end of white rule and liberate millions of black South Africans. The economic and political isolation imposed by the West was not successful because sanctions always work. (Sanctions alone rarely do.) As Joshua Keating reminded us, sanctions are "more likely to work when imposed on countries that have a large and active opposition movement, such as South Africa during apartheid." Phil Levy argued in a 1999 paper that racist rule ultimately collapsed due more to the effectiveness of the political opposition of the black majority; the inefficiency and growing economic cost of the apartheid system; and the fall of the Soviet Union." But as Levy acknowledged:

The sanctions signaled the extent to which South Africa was isolated in the international community.

Now, it is the United States that stands alone regarding Cuba. And the people like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rich Lowry who want to keep that way are on the wrong side of history. Just like Lowry and his conservative allies were in the fight to end apartheid in South Africa.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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