Martí and His Myth

José Martí en una imagen de 1891. (Universidad de Miami)
José Martí in an image from 1891 (University of Miami)

From the interpretation of a significant event in the history of a nation, the interpreters’ political orientation can be very well surmised. Here we have this date, February 24, 1895 – the day on which our ancestors departed for the last time to the scrubland, to make of Cuba an independent and democratic nation, in which sovereignty would belong to each and every one who would declare themselves as Cubans.

This event can be interpreted in two radical ways: the Fascist, as a triumph of the Cuban people’s will, embodied in José Martí, ensuing from a supposed teleological destiny; or the Marxist, as a result of the economic contradictions between Cuban national interests and those of Spain, which engendered the fact that the colony’s economy was by that time integrated into that of its immediate neighbor, the US, and not of its distant and cash-strapped imperial ruler.

It goes without saying that the Castro regime’s official interpretation, from which even the heterodox historians residing on the Island do not dare depart, is the first. This is understandable, being that the Castro regime presents itself as the culmination of that alleged teleological destiny, and Fidel Castro as the reincarnation of José Martí.

Nevertheless, let us ask ourselves: had Martí so much influence on the interior of the Island as to drag Cubans into the war of 1895?

The answer is no. Martí was not published in the interior of the Island, except on one or two occasions, and never during the period in which the actual war was being planned. In addition, Spanish vigilance at customs was particularly careful to impede the entry of any of his writings, and seems to have been fairly efficient on this front. We should understand that if today, when we have radio, Internet, USB drives, etc., and a large percentage of Cubans do not know their own dissidents, let alone highly outstanding figures of world thought whose views do not much concur with those of the Castro regime – what could be expected in Martí’s times, when even a majority of Cubans were illiterate?

On the other hand, for many of those who did know him, his political background in particular, and his whole person in general, were seen with the utmost suspicion – particularly by respectable Cubans such as Manuel Sanguily, Gerardo Castellanos or Enrique José Varona, whose status would lead them, in a certain way, to cooperate with the Spanish government in its campaign of silencing and making invisible.

José Martí was, without a doubt, a perfect unknown for the absolute majority of those who resided on the Island in 1895.

To believe, besides, that from the US he was able to prepare the interior of the Island to join the efficient conspiracy that he is credited with organizing, goes against our very nature as Cubans. How is it that nobody before or after has been able to achieve even remotely what he supposedly did?

What is certain is that the uprising of 24 February 1895 had other, more concrete, motivations than Martí’s rhetoric or his undeniable political genius – motives rather more of an economic nature.

Two years prior, in 1893, an economic crisis fell over the US, and shortly thereafter over Cuba. To make the situation even worse, the following year, Spain reestablished the system of customs rights that favored the monopolistic dominance of the insular market by the merchants of the Spanish peninsula. This policy increased the cost of living in Cuba considerably, preventing as it did the Island’s inhabitants from meeting their needs in the much more economical, better-stocked, and neighboring US market, and forcing them to have to do so in the inefficient, faraway and expensive market of the metropolis.

On the other hand, the not-new attitude of Spain caused the so-called McKinley Tariff — which in Cuba’s case mandated duty-free importation of crude sugar into the US so long as Cuba reciprocated with preferential customs treatment of many American goods – to be left up in the air. This law had boosted the up-to-then stagnant, and even endangered, Cuban sugar industry threatened by the European beet-sugar boom.

Keep in mind that in the 1880s, only four Cuban harvests had exceeded 600,000 tons after the tariff was passed; and even before the later enactment by Spain of a type of precarious reciprocity accord, sugar production reached more than 800,000 tons. With both of these agreements in force, sugar production reached 976,960 tons in 1892 – and in 1894, despite the crisis in the sugar industry, it surpassed the million-mark for the first time in its history.

Thus, all of a sudden, after years of constant increases in the standard of living of all classes on the Island – and above all, of actions by the Spanish government that allowed the harboring of a certain optimism about the potential of the Cuban economy, albeit without giving up Spanish rule – the most complete disillusionment came over Cuba. It became obvious that without access to the American market, the possibilities of selling the sugar produced in the 1894-95 harvest were very few. There was no room for the hope of distributing it in Spain, with its insignificant consumption. As far as Europe was concerned, the beet was king – even in Great Britain, where it was not grown.

In particular, Cubans of the middle and low classes found themselves facing a suffocating situation during the second half of 1894. On the one hand, the Spanish monopoly drove prices up from the most basic level to sky-high; on the other hand, the lack of markets for sugar, which necessitated a drastic reduction in the harvest, meant that salaries were cut.

Let us listen to Philip S. Former, in his History of Cuba and Its Relations With the United States (a book that has been copiously publicized by Fidel’s Cuba) interpret the situation at that moment: “But the most important effect of Cuba’s economic crisis in the winter of 1894-95 was to plainly shed light on all the political and economic problems from which, for a long time, Cuba had been suffering at the hands of Spain: overwhelming taxation, burdensome colonial debt, Cubans’ exclusion from government positions, discriminatory economic practices, arbitrary treatment of individuals and properties, and lack of freedom of the press, of speech and of association.”

An ever-growing number of Cubans began to be convinced that the idea that Spain would grant to Cuba all needed concessions so long as Cuba would only veer off the insurrectional path did not become one of those many cases of “think it and it shall be.” An ever-growing number of Cubans was anxiously listening to rumors of emigrated revolutionaries who were ready to “unfurl the banner of rebellion.”

Infinitely more decisive than Martí’s sermon, for example, was the agreement which, in November of 1894, the landowners of Oriente entered into for reducing the wages to be paid at the start of the harvest. If so many thousands of peasants from that province rose up between February and March of 1895 – even before their natural leader, Antonio Maceo, had set foot there – this was due in much greater measure to such accords as the one mentioned, than to those that were reached in the migration.

Let us also not set aside a significant event that tends to be ignored in almost all of our histories: in the Cuba of the 1890s, Spain was already lacking the support of even its own plutocracy that was established on the Island, which since the so-called Economic Movement, had moved on to the idea of annexation. In fact, as far as they were concerned, Spanish rule no longer had a future in Cuba.

José Martí certainly was not who really led Cubans to war, he became a determining factor in the way that they got out of war.

His unplanned fall at Dos Ríos changed the course of our history at the end of the 19th Century. If the Island’s clear incapacity for economic self-sufficiency, along with its extreme proximity to the American Monster*, caused almost anyone (especially in Latin America) with a bit of common sense to think that Cuba must necessarily gravitate towards incorporation with the US, the Cuban people’s sudden discovery of the apostolate that this nervous little man had advanced for their independence, left Cuba with no other possible path than that of independence.

His fall at Dos Ríos did not delay in beginning to distort our history. It was a Martí, who grew bigger and bigger after [his death on] May 19, 1895, who shortly thereafter imposed his civil government solution on Antonio Maceo at the Jimaguayú Assembly.

On that day at noon 120 years ago, what really happened was that Martí changed the character of a war that he had, it is true, started – but to which the great majority of his compatriots had entered into without knowing of him. After his fall, however, there was no possibility of following the logical paths that the economy dictated. If we view our history solely through an economic lens, it could seem to us that that war between the McKinley Tariff and the 1903 Treaty of Reciprocity only functioned as an extreme recourse to finish liberating the Cuban economy from its Spanish chokehold, thus legalizing our dependence on the “American Monster.”

Such is how it was, in part, but in its development there was born and began to grow a foundational myth of our nation, a myth exceedingly efficient in keeping the Island independent and sovereign: that of the Apostle of our Independence, José Martí.

Translator’s Notes:

*A reference to Martí’s assertion in a personal letter that he had “lived in the monster” and knew “its entrails,” referring to his time spent residing in the US.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison

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