by Jerry A. Sierra
[This article serves as a conclusion to the bio on José Martí that appears at historyofcuba.com, and offers some personal thoughts on the maestro’s influence and controversy.]
Today we wonder where Martí would stand on the current version of the Cuban solidarity issue. Would he side with the Castro Brothers and the Cuban Revolution or would he oppose them? Would he embrace the Cuban-American efforts to disrupt the Cuban government and pursue regime change or would he find something he can work with so as not to further hurt the Cuban people?
In 1884 Martí resigned from the Cuban revolutionary movement he had so nurtured due to what he perceived as dictatorial policies by General Maximo Gómez. In his resignation letter (available at historyofcuba.com) he said that “a nation cannot be founded… in the same manner as an army camp is commanded.
“…just as everyone who gives his life in the service of a great idea is admirable, he who makes use of a great idea to serve his personal hopes of glory or power is abominable.”
Ironically, both sides seem convinced that Martí would be in their camp. Even Fulgencio Batista, shortly after his bloodless coup in 1952, embraced Marti as a guiding light.
On the one hand, it’s very likely that Martí would be as appalled by the lack of personal freedom in modern Cuba as he would by the apparent political repression. Martí, himself, spent time in prison for expressing contempt for Spanish cruelty, and was forced into exile, separated from his son, for expressing his political views. The sharing of ideas, openly and without negative consequence, was part of his vision for a free and independent Cuba.
It’s likely that other ideological discrepancies would exist between his hopes for the Cuban people and the reality of modern Cuba.
On the other hand, however, is a deep-seated mistrust of Americans, especially their government, and the way they view their Cuban neighbors. Martí’s worst fears materialized in the years after the Spanish-Cuban-American war. He never knew that during the war, shortly after his death, U.S. President William McKinley was initiating secret negotiations in a third attempt to purchase Cuba, a sale that would end the war. “What you buy, you own” he wrote in his Notebook as early as 1871. “No one buys anything for another’s benefit. If they give it, it will be because they stand to profit by it.”
In an article for the Journal of Latin American Studies, John M. Kirk verifies the sentiment. “For Martí, any attempt to sell his patria as if it were some negotiable merchandise, and, of course, without taking into account the wishes of the people, was completely unacceptable.” He stressed that the U.S. saw “Nuestra America” only as “natural resources to be exploited.”
From what might have been Martí’s point of view, the dignity of a Cuban victory was stolen by U.S. intervention and occupation in 1898, and the Platt Amendment attempted to kill whatever remained of the Cuban spirit and choke the very thought of independence.
The Cuban Revolutionary Government was never allowed to take over, and many Spaniards retained their positions and status. This was precisely what Martí warned Cubans about repeatedly in speeches, letters, articles and essays.
Martí expressed his fears in a letter to Gonzalo de Quesada y Arósteui dated December 14, 1889; “Are we to die so that those who drive us to death for their benefit can gain a foothold on which to raise themselves? Our lives are worth more, and it is necessary that the island know this in time. And to think that there are Cubans–Cubans who serve these interests under a boastful pretense of patriotism!”
In an earlier letter to Quesada dated October 29, 1889, he said, “Once the United States is in Cuba, who will get it out? And why should Cuba remain in America not as the genuine and capable people which they are—but as an artificial nation, created for strategic reasons, which it would become according to this precedent? I want more secure bases for my people.”
The six decades that proceeded Cuban independence would only confirm Martí’s worst nightmares. “There is not one document or work of Marti’s that even implies that he had counted on the material support of the United States to carry out his dream of liberation,” wrote de Leuchsenring.
In Stephen Williams’ beautiful book, Cuba: The Land, The History, The People, The Culture, the author states that “…Martí desired more than just independence from Spain; he wanted a country based on social justice and fair economic practices. Martí feared the idea of manifest destiny that was gaining such credence at this time because he didn’t want the United Sates to dominate Cuba.”
In Nuestra América (Our America) he warned Cubans not to copy foreign political systems, especially those borne of a completely different experience in the U.S. And in his very last letter, which was never finished, the Apostle of Cuban Independence describes what he sees as the revolution's responsibility:
"It is my duty-inasmuch as I realize it and have the spirit to fulfill it-to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of Our America. All I have done up to now, and shall do hereafter, is to that end I have lived inside the monster and know its entrails-and my weapon is only the slingshot of David."
The island of Puerto Rico became exactly what Martí wished to avoid, a protectorate body with little, if any, autonomous identity. He felt that for the islands of the Antilles to be free, all of them would have to retain their individual identities and governments.
In his introduction to José Martí: Political Parties and Elections in the United States, historian Philip S. Foner explains that Marti was “adept at understanding the change that was taking place in U.S. society in the decade and a half between 1880 and 1895-the stratification of economic classes, the alienation of American workers, the transformation of competitive into monopoly capitalism, its impact on the emergence of U.S. imperialism, and the danger this posed for Latin America.” (Foner)
While Martí was clearly not a socialist, Foner points out, “he honored Karl Marx for ‘the way he put himself at the side of the weak ones.’” Some of his closest allies, however, such as Carlos Baliño and Diego Vicente Tejera, were active socialists and signing founders of The Cuban Revolutionary Party.
“Exclusive wealth is unfair,” Martí wrote in his book on Guatemala. “Let it belong to the many, not to the recent arrivals, the new hands without a purpose, but to the men who honestly and industriously deserve it. A nation having many small landowners is rich. A nation having a few wealthy men is not rich, only the one where each of its inhabitants shares a little of the common wealth. In political economy and in good government, distribution is the key to prosperity.”
Suchlicki’s article, The Political Ideology of Jose Marti, may clarify his views; “he felt that to create a just society it wasn’t enough to give political liberty, it was also necessary to distribute the wealth.”
Based on the many writings Martí left behind in his short life, it’s tempting to assume that Martí would accept the Castro compromise over continued U.S. “influence,” particularly given the living examples of Hawaii and Puerto Rico. He would agree with many of the changes implemented by the Revolution, such as universal education and health care (which directly touch on his ideals for a humane society).
Martí could be proud of Cuba’s response to the Ebola crisis and past humanitarian efforts to help third world countries deal with disease and disaster. He would approve of the leaps in education unique to Cuba and of the many students from Nuestra America studying on full scholarships on the island
In his most-read essay, Nuestra América (Our America) he warns Cubans not to copy foreign political systems, especially those borne of a completely different experience in the U.S. And in his very last letter, which was never finished, he describes what he sees as the revolution’s responsibility:
“It is my duty—inasmuch as I realize it and have the spirit to fulfill it—to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon other lands of Our America. All I have done up to now, and shall do hereafter, is to that end… I have lived inside the monster and know its entrails—and my weapon is only the slingshot of David.”
Martí, “rejected the idea of a country obtained through the benevolence of a foreign power,” wrote Suchlicki in Caribbean Studies. (Suchlicki)
As early as 1889, Martí was aware of the threat from the North. “What is apparent,” he wrote, “is that the nature of the North American government is gradually changing its fundamental reality. Under the traditional labels of Republican and Democrat, with no innovation other than the contingent circumstances of place and character, the republic is becoming plutocratic and imperialistic.”
Over the years some have claimed parallels between José Martí and Fidel Castro, going as far as christening Castro as Martí’s intellectual heir… I do not believe this premise for a second… In fact, this point seems quite ridiculous, though it is easy to see where Castro, to a degree, was partly inspired by Martí. They are two men of their respective times with less in common than not.
Marti believed that public elections and an educated populace were essential ingredients of a free society. He was a devout humanist, and he believed that the “task of the government was to put an end to the injustices of society. Government was to act as the equilibrating force, active and ready to participate in the shaping of society.” (Suchlicki)
One thing does seem certain; Martí would suggest unity among Cubans in and out of the island. Just as he resolved the many differences among the revolutionary leaders in the years prior to Cuba’s third war of independence, Martí might suggest that all Cubans look deep into their hearts for a solution that benefits Cuba and allows the island to maintain her independence.
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