“History is written by the victors.”
– common saying mostly attributed to Winston Chuchill
“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
– Moises Santos (my grandfather)
With the physical passing of Nelson Mandela many will remember him as the man who brought freedom, democracy and reconciliation to South Africa. In this remembrance it’s important to note that this is being made possible because South Africans won their prolonged decades long battle with the Apartheid state. When the old adage ‘history is written by the victors’ is trotted out it’s usually in reference to the untold story of injustice that gets trampled beneath the victors parade. The losers always seem to lose more than the battle, they lose the ability to have their story told. They lose the ability to control the historical narrative. The history of the struggle against the apartheid state in South Africa and it’s victory inverted this. The victory in South Africa was not an effort to exclude a history but a means of including one that had been kept silenced.
In the case of Nelson Mandela if the South Africans hadn’t won their battle against the apartheid state then Nelson Mandela might have never been freed and his death in a prison cell would merely have been a new rallying cry to end apartheid in South Africa. The thing that allows political prisoners to become presidents is victory. My grandfather used to say – ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ and there is a heavy unspoken truth there. The unspoken truth is that in order to go from terrorist to freedom fighter you first need to win and winning means controlling the historical narrative.
This idea of controlling the historical narrative is important. In the 1980’s Ronald Reagan had the ANC (African National Congress) labeled as terrorist group and since Nelson Mandela was a member of the ANC he was a terrorist. Los Macheteros a clandestine armed organization fighting to free Puerto Rico from US colonial rule is today listed as a terrorist group and in 2005 the assassination of freedom fighter Comandante Filiberto Ojeda Rios who was the founder of Los Macheteros was labeled a terrorist. It was that label that allowed the FBI to assassinate him. Comandante Filiberto believed that armed struggle was a right afforded to Puerto Ricans towards the end of freeing Puerto Rico from US colonial rule. Not unlike Nelson Mandela who before he was arrested by the apartheid state of South Africa and sentenced to life in prison felt that violence was the only response left to the brutality Black South Africans faced.
Before Comandante Filiberto was assassinated he was a fugitive who went into clandestinity in 1990. Shortly after he went into clandestinity he did a television interview with a journalist in an effort to explain his thought process and his actions. It was the most watched television program in the history of Puerto Rico. This holds a strange parallel to an interview Nelson Mandela gave in 1960 to a journalist shortly after he went into clandestinity. In both interviews both Filiberto and Mandela speak about the brutality of their oppressors and the right for their people to defend themselves by any means against that brutality.
The widely accepted historical narrative written by the US is that Comandante Filiberto is a terrorist. When he was assassinated by the FBI he was labeled a terrorist because Puerto Ricans have not yet won their freedom from US colonialism and because they haven’t yet won their freedom the don’t control the historical narrative. The US controlled historical narrative dictates that Puerto Rican freedom fighting group like Los Machetero or the FALN be labeled as terrorists. In much the same way that the ANC was labeled a terrorist by the US government. That very same historical narrative also dictates that Filiberto is a terrorist in the same way that Nelson Mandela was at one time considered to be a terrorist by the US government.
i think that the life of Nelson Mandela is posing a question to the US, that the US is doing it’s best to ignore. Who are the freedom fighters in the US that are being labeled as terrorists? Who are the “terrorists” today that are languishing in prison right now who, but for having victory, would be freedom fighters? In the struggle to free Puerto Rico from over 115 years of US colonial rule there’s Oscar Lopez Rivera who’s been held in US prisons charged with the very same charge Nelson Mandela was charged with, seditious conspiracy. Oscar’s been in prison for 32 years, 5 years longer and counting, than the 27 years Mandela served.
President Obama says he was inspired by Nelson Mandela. He said that his first political action was working with the anti-apartheid movement. He says he was inspired by the ability of Nelson Mandela to reconcile the transgressions of the past with truth. And yet there’s this disconnect between former political prisoner Nelson Mandela turned global heroic icon and and current US held political prisoners Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal, Ruchell Cinque Magee, Eddie Conway, Sekou Odinga, Russell Maroon Shoatz, Jalil Muntaqim and David Gilbert to name but a few that are currently being held in US prisons. Most of them, if not all of them held in prison longer than Nelson Mandela.
It’s good that Nelson Mandela is being remembered for the freedom fighter that he is. He should be remembered for that. History should exonerate him for ever labeling him a terrorist. The US only took Mandela off their list of terrorists in 2008. But this collective historical exoneration of his “terrorist” past is selective. There are others who are struggling right now, languishing in prisons right now, for believing the very same things Mandela believed, for having the same politic as Mandela. What happens to them? How do you honor the former political prisoner Nelson Mandela and refuse to recognize the political prisoners currently being held by the US government? What will it take for the US government to recognize the their “terrorist” political prisoners are our freedom fighters… and in strange sense theirs too…?