Nelson Mandela’s visit to New York and the Puerto Rican Nationalists: The untold story
At the request of The NiLP Network on Latino Issues upon news of the Nelson Mandela’s passing, I wrote this Guest Commentary reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s visit to New York City on June 20, 1990 and the controversy regarding the participation of the Puerto Rican Nationalists in that visit. I do not pretend to know everything that happened, and I am hopeful that one day someone will collect all of the stories and different perspectives concerning these events to be preserved for the future. Many of the people with whom I worked during those weeks have since left this earth. In many cases, they could have also contributed to this piece, especially in areas in which I have no direct knowledge and may have forgotten details that others may remember better.
In 1990, I was working at District 65 UAW as a social worker while also helping with organizing and the Latino shops for the union. Jim Bell, the Political Action Director of the union and President of the Black Trade Unionists, had been appointed by Mayor Dinkins to direct all efforts regarding the Nelson Mandela visit to New York. Jim wanted to bring a couple of people from the union (including me) to help him with the Welcoming Committee, including his loyal right hand, Mae Naig. “The Nelson Mandela Welcoming Committee” used as its headquarters the offices of DC 37 on Varick Street in Manhattan.
During that time, I was also a member of the South Side Political Action Committee in the Los Sures section of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The late David Santiago initiated and led the group. The same night I found out I was going to work in the Welcoming Committee; I called a meeting with him, Saul Nieves, José Candelario and José Medina to discuss my new role at the Mandela Welcoming Committee.
In the middle of the conversation, someone mentioned that it would be great to have the Puerto Rican Nationalists here in New York, since they are the longest former political prisoners alive, not only in the United States but this hemisphere. I do not remember who first mentioned it, but I know it was not me. We all immediately agreed that would be great. Then, we looked at each other in silence for a while, until someone said that I should bring the idea to Jim Bell.
The next day, I told Jim and explained the concept we had discussed the night before inLos Sures. He said “let me pass it by some people and the African National Congress.” Jim could not have been more accommodating, particularly given that he was sifting through thousands of ideas every day about how to organize the event. I had mentioned this to my friend, the late Willie Nieves, who was then the Latino Affairs Director for Mayor David Dinkins. New York’s first African-American mayor.
It is important to understand that during that time Mandela was still seen as a political revolutionary, not the sanitized Hollywood version that the media presents today. Proposing that Puerto Rican Nationalists meet Mandela was not a preposterous idea at all. Just six months prior, Puerto Ricans (mostly center left activists) had helped organize and work in the Dinkins campaign securing the Mayor’s victory. This included all of those from the south side political action group that I mentioned before. Two weeks before Mandela’s arrival, the Mayor and the City Council had approved the naming of a street in front of the U.S. Federal Court in honor of John Doherty, an Irish revolutionary arrested in the United States for allegedly murdering a British soldier. This was an in-your-face insult to the federal government coming from the Mayor of the most important city in the nation and arguably the world. Nonetheless, there was no major controversy regarding these actions.
Of course, the Mandela visit was big deal and a sign of pride to all groups and nationalities in the city and around the world. However, Puerto Ricans understood Mandela’s history due to the long history of incarceration of Puerto Ricans in U.S. prisons. That is something that we understand very well to this day by having Oscar Lopez Rivera still in prison. The Puerto Rican community was full of pride for the Mandela visit because we understood what his struggle meant better than most.
Weeks passed until one day Jim told me that that the ANC did not have a problem in hosting the Puerto Rican Nationalists. Jim briefly discussed where they would attend. The purpose was not to have a meeting but perhaps share the stage or to be simply present and recognized. Jim and I discussed the possibilities of the United Nations or Yankee Stadium or Harlem. These possibilities were very troublesome for Washington since the status of Puerto Rico has always been a touchy issue for them, to say the least, particularly since the United States is the only country with the last colony in the world. Any perception of shared space between the Puerto Rican Nationalists and Mandela in New York in front of the world and on American soil was nota picture that Washington wanted the world to see. In addition, the US Senator Dan Burton’s bill regarding the status of Puerto Rico was starting to be discussed in Congress.
At the Political Action Committee in “Los Sures,” we proceeded to make arrangements for their travel to New York. We decided that David Santiago was going to coordinate all the work of transportation, security and community events, and I would continue the work with the Welcoming Committee and African American community with which I had established links through the committee.
I contacted a good friend and great organizer Doris Pizarro in Puerto Rico and explained what we were doing. She connected me with the late Don Juan Mari Bras in Mayaguez by telephone, and he connected me with Rafael Cancel Miranda. In just one day, I had conversations with two Puerto Ricans heroes with whom I had never spoken before in my life. They were very nice to me, all thanks to Doris.
Rafael told me not to worry about the others, meaning Irving and Oscar Collazo. I later contacted Lolita Lebron. I will never forget that Rafael said, “Don’t worry about me or Irving. We don’t need hotels. We will stay in a closet if we have to just to see our comrade Mandela.” Rafael continued, “However, Oscar is in a wheel chair and needs total care. His daughter won’t let him go unless she is with him. Just take care of Oscar.” That’s Rafael! I told him from now on the only contact with New York was going to be David Santiago.
The meetings of the full Nelson Mandela Welcoming Committee were on Fridays at 7:30 in the morning. Close to 100 people attended. Harry Belafonte used to attend those meetings. Rock and roll musicians like Springsteen’s guitarist and
The Sopranos actor Steve Van Zandt use to attend, among many other celebrities- elected officials and leaders. I remember the week before Mandela’s arrival that Van Zandt gave a report on how he convinced the Empire State Building owners to use the colors of the ANC for the whole week that Mandela was going to be in the city. We gave him a big ovation, mostly because he was so excited about the whole thing.
There were many former Black Panthers and Revolutionary African American organizations; the one close to my heart to this date was Elombe Brath from the Patrick Lumumba Coalition to whom we owe so much gratitude. He saved the day for all Puerto Ricans involved in that project. When I think of real solidarity, I always think Elombe Brath.
There were heavy debates too in the welcoming committee. A big one was whether Mandela should attend The Gil Noble Show (a local TV show in New York City) or Ted Koppel’s Nightline. A decision had to be made immediately since Mandela’s schedule would not accommodate attendance at more than one show. One group made the point over and over that Gil Noble deserved the honor since he had been talking about and exposing the Apartheid system when no one in the United States gave a shit about South Africa. The other group acknowledged Mr. Noble’s contribution but argued that it was more politically important to have Mandela in a national venue than in a local one Eventually, Ted Koppel won, and the rest is history. By his own admission, to this date Koppel still has not recuperated from Mandela’s answers!
As staff, I was just an observer, but I know that the lobbying continued after the meeting on a number of issues. The biggest issue to Elombe, others and me was the fact that that the FBI was in charge of security, and had the last word on almost every event decision. I discovered that “security and safety issues” are magical words. If you want to stop something from happening, just say that is a “security issue”. Once you mention those words, the whole discussion ceases immediately. Especially if uttered by the police or the FBI, it is over.
I am told that the FBI kept saying those words once they heard of the plan to bring the Nationalists. I remember Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green lobbying Jim Bell in his office to have Mandela stop at an elementary school in his district that was on the route from the airport. Jim tried. A couple of days later, he came back and told Green that the FBI had ruled out the visit, stating that “it was a security issue” The FBI had problems with every event from the Harlem event to Yankee Stadium, but mostly they opposed the idea of having the Puerto Rican Nationalists at the United Nations. One day someone at the meeting said that if it were up to the FBI. Mandela would have simply landed at JFK airport, waved with his hand through the window and flown away!
A week and half before the Mandela visit, the annual Puerto Rican Parade took place, and Jim and I attended. A reporter from the newspaper Newsday asked Jim who confirmed that the Puerto Rican Nationalists were coming to greet Mandela. The news was out.
At the beginning, there was no negative reaction, until (according to Willie Nieves) a reporter spent an entire day beginning at 7:30 in the morning harassing Dinkins to make a statement about the Puerto Rican Nationalists’ visit. I had no direct connection with what happened next. I heard months later from Willie Nieves and others that participated at the Committee that Dinkins tried to avoid the question all day until he received a call from Washington. He then said that Mandela should not meet with those “assassins.”
All hell broke loose! Willie Nieves, a senior official of the Administration began attacking his boss like no other senior official has done in the history of New York City. Commentaries from Puerto Rico began to arrive in New York City media as well as in Puerto Rico. Even pro-statehood personalities criticized the Mayor for those expressions. The New York media began criticizing Dinkins for his hypocrisy, apparently taking sides with the Nationalists. Todd S. Purdum in a June 16, 1990 New York Times article, “Praising Mandela, Dinkins Shakes Fragile Coalition,” reported that the Mayor was criticized for ignoring the fact that Mandela had expressed solidarity with other causes liberation movement around the world and that Dinkins himself just two weeks before had named a street on behalf for Joseph Doherthy, an IRA member imprisoned in the United States for killing a British soldier. The Puerto Rican Nationalists had not killed anyone. That was the fact that Dinkins ignored. Even Dinkins had acknowledged that Mandela was a revolutionary when he stated, “Welcoming that revolutionary is the greatest thing that will happen to me” as New York’s first Black mayor.
Whatever that phone call from Washington was, it seems it was clear enough to prevent Dinkins from what he would have normally done, which was to consult with Willie Nieves, one of his most dedicated Puerto Rican advisors who knew intimately the history that surrounded the Nationalists, before making any statement. It seems that for the next year, Willie spent every day teaching Dinkins Puerto Rican history. I knew Willie well before that happened, but our friendship grew enormously after that. Even if you had a disagreement with him, you had to respect enormously the fact that he put his job on the line regardless of the consequences while others remained quiet.
It is my understanding that night hell broke loose. Even South Bronx Congressman José Serrano ,who to this day has problems figuring out his political position on the status of Puerto Rico, called Dinkins and explained to him how wrong his comments were.
Before the Friday meeting, Jim spoke to me and told me, “Sorry buddy, but we have to cancel it.” He did not have to tell me; we all knew it. During the meeting, controversy continued regarding having more African American grass root representation and the insult to the Puerto Rican Nationalists. One Black Panther, whose name I do not recall, stated that he had met Rafael and Irving in prison and knew how wrong it was for the Mayor to make those statements. Elombe Brath and others expressed similar sentiments. There were also rumors that the Harlem event either had to change to something less revolutionary or be canceled it due to “safety issues.”
After the meeting, I went outside completely depressed, and Elombe was waiting for me. He said (paraphrasing), “Brother, the event is going to happen with the Puerto Rican comrades, don’t worry. We are the organizers of Harlem, and we call the shots there!” He invited me to meet with the Harlem Organizing Committee that night at the Adam Clayton Powell Building. I immediately called David Santiago, and that night we went to Harlem from Los Sures.
When we arrived at the floor where they were meeting, all you could hear was “Fuck the FBI” in every room. They were making their lives impossible about the Harlem event. We sat down with the group, and Elombe introduced us. The reaction and respect that was expressed to us regarding the Puerto Rican Nationalists was overwhelming. Even David, who had more experience working with the African American left than I, was as overwhelmed and touched. They pulled a map of the event that included stage entrances and exits. They told us that they did not have total control of the stage, but they controlled most of the seats, except the first few rows for dignitaries and VIPs; that was where they wanted to sit the Nationalists. They told us how and where we should enter and park the van without the FBI or police knowing. In other words they created a special entrance just for the Nationalists. All that was in the map.
We called a number of people here and in Puerto Rico to confirm that the plan discussed made sense, and everybody encouraged us to talk to the Nationalists. We called Rafael thinking that they may say no due to the controversy and the complex plan with our brothers and sisters in Harlem. But boy were we wrong! Rafael said something like “see you there !” And, so did Lolita. Lolita was not on talking terms with the rest of the Nationalists, for whatever reasons, during those years. However, when you talked to one of them, it was like you were talking to all of them. These people were cut from a different cloth from the rest of humanity. Mandela was the same. Others would have said that it was not worth it. These people said, “where and when”, without hesitation. That humbled us.
Unfortunately, Mandela and the Nationalists arrived in New York on the same day. The Nationalists were scheduled to arrive one hour before Mandela. We had told Rafael that David was in charge of everything regarding their stay in New York, and that he was the only person whom they should deal with at the airport and that they should leave immediately. I don’t remember if Lolita came in the same airplane. We were very nervous because we wanted to avoid any appearance that the Nationalists were trying to steal the show from Mandela, therefore the idea was to transport them out in a van as soon as possible. The Nationalists were very disciplined. When they arrived, dozens of people were waiting for them, including old friends they had in the city who wanted to greet them and take pictures. Rafael knew the political climate in New York. According to David, at the airport Rafael came out first, followed by Irving, Oscar in a wheel chair and his daughter. Rafael walked through the crowds with a smile saying “hello”, and then said “Who is David Santiago?” David responded, and Rafael said “VAMONOS!” (LET’S GO!).
The entire group of Nationalists stayed in Los Sures next to our Political Action Committee, on Bedford and South 1st, with the exception of Lolita who stayed in Manhattan with our friend Vanessa Ramos. The people of Los Sures could not have been more proud to have them. The club was packed constantly with people visiting and asking to take pictures with them. I wish I could mention everyone here, but the list is too long and memory too short.
Amid all the enthusiasm, anticipation and adulation that swept the streets of Harlem Thursday, June 22, 1990 was the participation of the four Puertorican nationalists recently realeased from the US federal prisons for their struggles to free Puerto Rico, Lolita Lebron, Irvin Flores, Rafael Cancel Miranda & Oscar Collazo. Speaking on behalf of our community wass Dennis Rivera/ Video by Jose Rivera.
The drug dealers on the corner next to the club said that there were not going sell drugs as long they were there and even offered to do security. The group in Los Sures took them around visiting schools including “El Puente” that was a couple of blocks away. For that week, the neighborhood belonged to them. We also had parked a van from the Telephone Company across the street that did not move until the Nationalist left.
One of the visits was from Congressman Serrano a couple of days later. In that meeting he explained his solidarity with them and talked about his conversation with Dinkins. But they let him have it by questioning his role in Congress. Rafael’s famous index finger was most of the time across the table. The truth is that Serrano showed his solidarity and never questioned the right to be criticized by them. In other words, he took it like a man — and boy did he take it!
The day of the Harlem event finally arrived. Others (particularly David (who is no longer with us) are better able to describe the events of the day since I was in Harlem and did not participate in the preparations during the morning.. We had been instructed how to enter the event with a van. However, since Oscar was in a wheel chair, a brother from DC 37 who was ill but made a sacrifice to attend, got an old ambulance that was used to bring the Nationalists, pretending that they were there to transport people who could get ill.
I waited with Elombe at the place indicated in the map. As they descended from the ambulance the most electrifying thing of the whole event happened. Two rows of uniformed members of the Patrick Lumumba Coalition headed by Elombe Brath stood next to the door in two rows, one at each side with a military salute and escorted them before the fence where they entered the restricted area that separated the VIP section. Then, they withdrew, and the Nationalists walked to their seats on their own surrounded by people. It was overwhelming the show of respect by the African American community to the Nationalists. As soon as they sat down, they had to get up since the press was asking them for interviews, and everybody wanted take a picture with them.
And then, Lolita stole the show! The whole NYC press surrounded her like a movie star. TV cameras -radio and print press were asking questions while she kept her smile and natural discipline. They never asked her any controversial questions, just how she felt and what the event meant for her. We could not believe it. You do not know what charisma is unless you had seen Lolita that day. Dennis Rivera, then President of Local 1199 SEIU, gave a speech recognizing the Nationalists as well as Elombe Brath, who made possible that beautiful day.
Then, Mandela came with the same electricity as Lolita, walking tall in control of the situation. You could see that he didn’t come to get applause; he was on a mission — to make the case to end apartheid completely. Mandela recognized the Nationalist comrades. “We support the cause of anyone who is fighting for self-determination, and our attitude is the same, no matter who it is. I would be honored to sit on the platform with the four comrades. ” He repeated the same words to the press later on.
Why he did he say those words without hesitation while seemingly dishonoring his host at the same time? Well, because he was made of the same special “cloth” as the Nationalists. Nobody tells this type of person what to do or what to say. They are always free, even in prison and especially in death.
The next day the Southside Political Action Committee held an event on Bedford Avenue and South 1st Street in Brooklyn. We closed the street and invited the whole community. People came from all over the city. It was a great night.
Three years later in May 1993 “El Pitirre Newspaper ” held its annual fundraising dance. That year the New York City Council had approved a bill requesting the liberation of all Puerto Rican Prisoners. Then Councilmember José Rivera sponsored that legislation. That was a great triumph for the prisoner liberation movement.
Now, we needed one from the Mayor. Dinkins was running for re-election that year and needed to get the Latino vote once again. We stated that if he could write a letter to the President asking for the freedom of the Puerto Rican Political prisoners, then he could come and talk to the community. He came, and we met in a room at DC 37. The meeting had been arranged by David Santiago, and the whole Los Sures crew was there along with Santos Crespo of DC 37 and Santiago Nieves from radio station WBAI, if I am not mistaken. Dinkins sat down looking a bit uncomfortable. We requested the letter. And, he said, “Yes. No problem. Anything else?” We said “no”. Then he went to the stage and spoke to the audience. Professor Roberto Torres Santiago wrote an excellent article about what happened that night, entitled “El Baile del Pitirre” in El Diario-:a Prensa, newspaper.
People thought that Dinkins was upset and didn’t want to be there. I honestly believe that Dinkins made a big mistake under pressure the day when he called the Nationalists “assassins”. I also believe that he was uncomfortable, perhaps because he was meeting with us after the Mandela visit. He may have thought that we were going to reprimand him again. I believe that someone who was in solidarity with the Doherty, an IRA member, and named a street after him and pulled off one of the greatest events in New York City to honor a revolutionary like Mandela cannot in his heart truly be against any fighter for freedom. He was ignorant of our history and did not consult with his top Latino advisor before talking, and Willie Nieves let him have it.
Whether Dinkins got any pressure from Washington that day to condemn the Nationalists, only he knows. He tried to apologize many times after that and frankly he didn’t do it well. I think that signing the letter for the release of the remaining political prisoners was a proud man’s way of saying “I am sorry!” But that’s me. Eventually, after his letter, I supported him in his reelection since there was no way I could digest a repressive government from Giuliani.
Now we have a chance with new leadership in the New York City Council and the Mayoralty that can be helpful, let’s ask them to write to Obama on behalf of Oscar Lopez Rivera. Long live Mandela!
One more thing: I think that the complete story needs to be told of everything Willie Nieves did during those days, criticizing the Dinkins Administration. There were many other things that took place during those two and a half weeks, including demonstrations in front of City Hall, that deserve to be told by those who organized participated in them.
This is dedicated to the memories of Oscar Collazo Irving Flores, Lolita Lebron Rafael Cancel Miranda, Jim Bell, Willie Nieves, David Santiago (all deceased) and Elambe Brath as well as to all the residents of Los Sures in Williamsburg Brooklyn and, of course, Nelson Mandela.
By James Estades
Jaime Estades, Esq., MSW, an immigration and political consultant, is an adjunct professor in social policy and welfare at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Social Work and president and the founder of the Latino Leadership Institute, Inc. He worked on New York City’s Nelson Mandela Welcoming Committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.