In the obituaries, eulogies and commentaries in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s death, there was little mention of José Martí, the Cuban Revolution’s most important influence.
José Martí is widely recognised as the most-respected thinker and theoretician of Cuban independence. Marti’s appeal as a freedom fighter, poet and philosopher was universal, or ‘the most universal’ as Fidel Castro once stated.
While many have attempted to appropriate Martí’s teachings, Castro’s interpretation of the independence hero as an anti-imperialist thinker has shone a light on some of Marti’s truly radical ideas, wresting his legacy away from those who wish to co-opt his early writings to justify their US apologism.
Martí called on Cubans of all social distinctions and races to unite in the fight for an independent republic, drawing inspiration from the ideas of Simón Bolívar. He recognised that the independence struggle had to include whites and blacks alike, and all those he deemed the ‘natural elements’ of America.
No master military tactician, Martí died in battle at the early age of 42, unable to see the culmination of the Cuban War of Independence. While expelling the crumbling Spanish Empire was his life’s guiding mission, Martí, ever the long-term strategist, was aware that official statehood would be just the first step in achieving a truly liberated Cuba.
Acknowledging that the Empire had been in decline for the best part of two centuries, he correctly predicted that the biggest future threat to Latin America would be that posed by the burgeoning US Empire – an expansionist and racist system as equally rapacious as any colonial power.
In 1886, with victory over Spain far from assured, Martí issued a warning against those who wished to ‘sell’ Cuba’s sovereignty to ‘the clever neighbour which wants to bleed us dry on our very doorstep … in order to grab, with its hostile hands, its selfish and disrespectful hands, what fertile land is left of ours’.
It was around this time, while exiled in the USA, that Martí underwent a process of radicalisation, introducing many Latin Americans to the idea that North American expansionism, both territorial and economic, was a very real threat to the Cuban nation. Marti’s close analysis of his country-in-exile made him conscious of the corrupt nature of its political elite and the inequality inherent in monopoly capitalism, despite having started his ideological path as an ardent liberal and defender of US democracy.
By now, Martí had been sufficiently exposed to the dangers of the US political system to realise its proximity to corrupt European models. He dispelled any lingering admiration he may have once held towards the US in an essay published in 1886: ‘This republic, through an uncontrolled cult towards wealth, has fallen into the inequality, injustice and violence witnessed in monarchic countries … America, as such, is the same as Europe!’
Martí became aware that US economic strength was based not only on incessant expansion outside of its borders, but also on internal suppression of workers and minorities. The US economic system, as he saw it, was reinforced through imperialist expansion on one hand and by the segregation and marginalisation of blacks and indigenous groups on the other.
His starkest critique of racist US culture is during his reflections on the Monetary Congress of the American Republics, during which he concludes that ‘they [the US] believe in the indisputable superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race over the Latin race … they believe in the lowly character of the black race, which yesterday they enslaved and today they subdue, as well as that of the Indian race, which they exterminate’.
His utmost fear, as expanded upon in his seminal Nuestra América (Our America) essay of 1891, was that Hispanic-American countries would find themselves under threat from a country which ‘declares them to be expendable and inferior’. This North American belief in its inherent superiority, Martí recognised, had served as the pretext for the proposed annexation of Cuba some 50 years beforehand and would legitimise future occupations.
Martí applied his conclusion on the corrupting influence of US wealth and its need for constant expansion to Latin America’s quest for economic and political independence, in a way that anticipated Lenin’s thought and struggle. Martí acknowledged that the expansion of US monopoly capital was best served by finding and controlling new markets in the region. Fidel Castro later recognised that Martí and Lenin were two leaders with ‘converging ideas’, especially in their analysis of the colonial question and their emphasis on the idea that national liberation was crucial to the struggle for equality and justice of the world’s oppressed.
As early as 1884, in a publication entitled The Nation, Martí wrote about the tyranny of the capitalist classes in the US: ‘The monopoly has its foot firmly planted, like a merciless giant, on the door of the poorest people… This industrial country has an industrial tyrant’. At the height of his radicalisation, between 1889 and 1890, he linked this ‘tyranny’ of the US capitalist class specifically to its imperialist policy, railing against the ‘policies of conquest of the United States’ following announcements from Secretary of State James G. Blaine about the renewed possibility of annexing Cuba.
Like Lenin, Martí was convinced of the need for an alliance between peasants, workers and, where possible, the radical bourgeoisie to fight the foreign enemy. In Nuestra América, he framed this discourse in a clash between the ‘natural elements’ of ‘Our America’ (that is to say a loose alliance of Indians, criollos and peasants) and ‘their America’ (the US). The natural elements present in Cuba and Latin America were to be pitted against the alien, tyrannical power which ‘drowns Indians in their own blood’.
His critique of US influence throughout the Americas, and his emphasis on the importance of unified struggle against the colonial and imperial oppressors (Spain and the US), was of such influence that Martí has been credited with having ‘enriched Marxism in its understanding of imperialism and the forces that animated it’, as the critic Jorge Ibarra has outlined.
Martí’s detailed analysis of the US situated greed as the driving force for material expansion. His collection of texts, letters and essays issued a pre-emptive warning to Hispano-Americans on the dangers of US imperial expansion, at a time when the main preoccupation had been independence from Spain and ‘nobody talked, in the slightest, about annexation’ (Fidel). Yet Martí’s worries about this danger were not founded exclusively on his near-prophetic reading of imperialism, nor due to having lived in the US and studied its innermost workings (he once remarked ‘I’ve lived inside the belly of the beast, and I know it well’).
For many Cubans, annexation was an attractive idea. Cuban elites and plantation owners favoured annexation to the southern US states as a means of sustaining slavery, thus keeping sugar manufacturing highly profitable. Meanwhile, some liberal sectors of the criollo classes saw it as a way of integrating their territory into the ‘democratic’ and ‘liberal’ system in the US states of the north, paving the way, so they presumed, for the abolishment of slavery.
Disrespect and complacency were dominant US sentiments towards Cuba and Latin America since the United States’ foundation. Martí was unable to ignore this, writing ‘the disdain shown by the formidable neighbour … is the greatest threat to Our America’. He appealed to Latin Americans to familiarise themselves with the enemy, certain in his menacing prediction that ‘the day of the visit is fast approaching’.
Indeed, Martí’s numerous forecasts were proven right a few years after his death, when the US, having played a significant part in the successful fight against Spain, went on to impose the infamous Platt Amendment. This innocuous sounding ‘amendment’ in effect forbade economic relations with other countries and gave the US exclusive rights over Cuban military policy (even the right to invade Cuba if deemed necessary). This colonial mechanism amounted to a de facto annexation in all but name. US intervention in Cuba’s affairs, though carried out in the name of independence, had come at a heavy price.
Martí had foreseen the US’ growing involvement in Cuban sovereignty, from the occupations following independence to the so-called ‘sugar intervention’ between 1917 and 1922, as well as the economic and political control that the US sought to assert throughout the first half of the 20th Century. Martí had realised that the US and its system – no matter who was in charge – would always attempt to exploit and undermine the people of Cuba and Latin America.
The fight against Colonial Spain might have been his raison d’être, but Martí was aware that the fight against the US would be the cause of future generations. Many years later, Castro would draw upon these thoughts, acknowledging that independence was a constant struggle against multiple enemies and empires.
It is little wonder, then, that Martí’s legacy was the guiding inspiration for Castro’s revolution. Martí was a man who founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party and fought two of the world’s largest empires, dying for his country’s independence. His final written composition was a letter penned at the height of the Independence War to his friend Manuel Mercado.
In the letter, Martí outlined his life’s main task, writing: ‘Every day now I am in danger of giving my life for my country and my duty – since I understand it and have the spirit to carry it out – in order to prevent, by the timely independence of Cuba, the United States from extending its hold across the Antilles and falling with all the greater force on the lands of our America. All that I have done up to now, and all I will do, is for that purpose’.
In many respects, these words serve as the most fitting tribute to Fidel’s life too.