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Former Cuban political prisoner Mario Pérez Aguilera and International Secretary for the Cuban Democratic Directorate John Suarez attended a gathering of young activists titled “From Cape to Cairo: The Role of Youth in Democratic Transition” in mid-Februa
By John Suarez


The gathering provided the activists in attendance with an opportunity to reflect on the challenges faced in a democratic transition. It began on February 11 an important date on the African continent for two reasons: in 1990 it was the day Mandela was freed from prison in South Africa and in 2011 it was the day that Mubarak resigned power in Egypt. It was also the day that we visited the Apartheid regime in Johannesburg and became immersed in the reality of this racist totalitarian system that sought to deny the humanity of the black majority. It was an evil system that needed to be overthrown. However at the same time we learned that overthrowing the despotic regime is the easiest part of the struggle. Tearing down an unjust system is less difficult than building a new just system out of the wreckage of the old regime. William Gumede, an associate professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg provided a cautionary analysis of “revolutions towards democracy since independence in Africa.” He pointed out that in many cases opposition parties who came into power “more often than not behaved like their autocratic predecessors.” He also added that “these movements were often led by political movements that may have rhetorically said they were democratic – but they were hardly democratic themselves, often run by one dominant leader, clique or even armed wing.” Cubans listening to this analysis could only think back to the autocratic regime of Fulgencio Batista being replaced by the even more brutal and totalitarian regime of Fidel Castro – who had arrived in power proclaiming that his movement was democratic and respected individual rights but in reality was just the opposite. The following day we visited the Hector Peterson Museum in Soweto. The museum is named after a 12-year old child killed by South African police forces who opened fire on protesting students on June 16, 1976. The museum is located two blocks away from the spot were Hector died. South African activists explained the importance of memory and location in remembering past injustices. They explained that part of the process of national reconciliation was the obligation to pursue both truth and justice. In the evening Mario Perez Aguilera led a group of international activists in the chant “Cuba Si! Castro No! Queremos Cambio Ya! (Cuba Yes! Castro No! We want change now!) We spent the final day reflecting on transitional justice in different countries that had undergone a democratic transition. On the final day we visited Constitution Hill that contains the Old Fort Prison Complex built a century ago that housed both Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela at different times. Mario Perez Aguilera visited the prison cells and compared it with his own experience in Cuba as did another colleague from Belarus who had also been imprisoned in his homeland. It also contains the South African Constitutional Court which is built out of the bricks of the old prison quarters of the Fort. It offers a stark reminder that in going forward and building a future one must also incorporate the past with justice and memory.

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