José Martí, Literature, and the United States

He waged a war armed with the most lethal of weapons.

Cuba may awake in the eyes of the casual visitor as an outmoded yet intriguing salmagundi of mismatches. Shortly before the alligator-wrought Caribbean paradise got sandwiched as a Cold War offshoot, it had served as a swanky continental bridge ruled by a class that continued to prosper in sync with United States’ overall interests in the Western hemisphere.

Notwithstanding its hidden boonies, the prospect of a revolution there backed by massive popular support seemed at odds with radical theory.When that revolution capsized the status quo in 1959, United States’ self-seeking tiff with its unshaven leaders over much needed insular reforms cut a defining swath in Cuba’s pro-Soviet fate.

Why would the tropical insurgents seek ideological refuge in the icy antipodes of Siberia? After Teddy Roosevelt stormed the Greater of the Antilles with his Rough Riders in 1898, decades of nervy dealings between the islanders and their impetuous northern neighbors tilted this outcome, and no one sought to prevent it with such an insightful probing as did Cuba’s National Hero, José Martí (1853-95).

The Foretold 1898 Disaster

A short but dramatic and brilliantly fruitful life committed to Cuba’s independence ended when a peninsular convoy ambushed and shot Martí dead as he took to the hills in revolt against the Spanish Crown and impeding take-over by United States. Years before, the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel had envisioned in his Philosophy of History lectures that the Americas would crank a steep world power shift. The great North American nation, which was by the early 1800s a predominately- agricultural society of barely 5 million habitants from Maine to the Carolinas, and whose population remains even today as one of the least dense among the developed countries, began to grow at an influential pace indeed.

Many factors favored this growth and the rather quick expansion of its boundaries, one of which was the hostility of Indian tribes toward the late Spanish occupations, especially in the region known today as Texas. But in line with Edward Waterhouse’s “Declaration” from 1622, John Adams would express in an 1804 report to James Williams, then governor of Florida, that United States only awaited to become “the owners of the world.” Such a “delirious venture”—as a bewildered Spanish representative scoffed in 1812— entailed the same malefices deployed by Bonaparte and the Roman Empire.

By 1897, the “Breckenridge Memorandum” articulated American policy toward Cuba thus: “We must destroy everything within our cannons’ range of fire. We must impose a harsh blockade so that hunger and its constant companion, disease, undermine the peaceful population and decimate the Cuban army.”

Martí was not the first one to foresee the “Disaster of 1898.” He lost no time in preventing it throughout by engaging a discourse that raised in unison a rebellion against ordained forms of written expressions as well. Most of his literature warned in passim about the drawback this disaster would wreak insofar as a global “modern humanity” was concern.

Fiction and Reality

As the industrial appetite of the United States outgrew its feeding portions, not only its south-of-the-border fellows kept a fearful watch. Soon the commendable development in local economic and democratic practice morphed, in Martí’s image, into a “giant with seven league strides” whose advance threatened to stomp territories far afield.

For instance, it is amusing to review in retrospect how the Spanish journalist and science fiction author Nilo María Fabra (1843-1903) hyperbolized this concern from his then futuristic viewpoint at the other side of the Atlantic. In 1889, this writer published a story entitled “A Voyage to the Argentine Republic in the 21st Century” in which the changes unfolding in the New World dazes the protagonist. The year is 2003. United States had just assailed the southern republics and fully seized Mexico and Columbia when, according to the fictionalized traveler, Spain’s submarine squadron and other allies joined the repelling forces of its former colonies and halted the all-mighty invading navy.

A mispredicted drama, of course, but harking back to Martí, his writings stood nevertheless as a culminating voice in what he called the “strategic formation” up against a not-too-far-fetched prospect of neo-colonial subjection. He tried to secure Latin America’s complex transnational “second independence” beyond a still deficient brand of thought drawn from readings that ranged from encyclopedism to the ferment of Marxian dialectics. His deeper understanding of the elements that distinguish “Our America” turned the vast region into an area where the main objective within its variance is to lay bridges and unite.

As a patriot through and through fed by admiration rather than abhor, Martí’s imaginative bridging did not preclude the best of United States, the land of Lincoln, as he stated, not the land of the shameless A.K. Cutting, who embodied the deadliest of expansionisms. When charged by ravening “ultra-eagles,” he armed himself and responded with the ultimate and possibly most far-reaching mismatch for a field combatant: good ideas, a pen, and an unending supply of ink and paper.

[July 24, 2011]

Top image: Remembrance Sheet of a Conception by Paul Klee, 1918

Photo: Andrés I. Estévez, 1891