José Julián Martí y Pérez was born on January 28, 1853 and died on May 19, 1895. For Cuban politicians, he is what Christ is to the Catholic Church. No matter the ideology or leaning. Everyone prides themselves on knowing him inside out.
It is politically correct for any official or dissident document to be preceded by a phrase from the great man. Even in my blog we have put one: “Nothing comes from hypocrisy.”
On the island, they really like taking photos with his picture in the background. In the independent libraries of the opposition and on shelves in government offices, you can see thick volumes of his complete works crammed together. It’s rare not to find a bust of him in a Cuban public school.
On the ideological propaganda billboards that surround the main arteries of the country, developed by unimaginative designers from the Department of Revolutionary Orientation, epic sentences from the hero appear on top of gloomy colors, where Martí always looks very serious, dressed in a funereal black suit.
The government likes to sell the image of a sad guy, committed to the independence of his homeland. Martí was much more. It’s not wise to sanctify men of such stature. Nor advisable.
It often causes hives in the new generations, who are not pleased with this frozen image of José Martí . Nobody likes to contemplate statues of ice.
Two Cuban intellectuals have tried to remove him from his pedestal. One was the late writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who won the Cervantes Prize in 1997. In various chronicles, Cabrera Infante offered us a flesh-and-blood Martí. The other who gave us ‘Pepe’ unwrapped is the filmmaker Fernando Perez, in his film The Eye of the Canarian.
158 years after his birth, José Martí is still an indispensable paradigm. But a re-reading of his work is needed. A disclosure without a cover-up that demystifies for us the undeniable greatness of this habanero, the son of a Spanish soldier, who lived his childhood in a small house on Calle Paula.
As a political genius ahead of his time, he was misunderstood. Rough military leaders of the jungle watched him closely. Guys who had strong arms to launch brutal machete charges against the Spanish troops, but of limited intellect.
They were people who were quick to take up arms, believing that they would win stripes by shooting or by collecting their enemies’ heads as trophies. And Marti was a scholar, a humanist and political strategist. In spite of everything, he won prestige working tirelessly for a different, democratic Cuba. In 1892 he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in Tampa, Florida.
On February 24, 1895, he landed on a beach in eastern Cuba, to start what he called a “necessary war.” Which it was. Although according to some historians, his presence was not needed on the battlefield.
But “Pepe” Martí wanted to prove he was more than a brilliant pen. He wanted to put himself to the test. He fell into the trap of his political enemies, who pejoratively called him “Captain Spider.”
Some scholars of his work agree: It was a real political suicide to join the insurgents. Three months later, on May 19, 1895, he was killed in an absurd skirmish, near the village of Dos Rios.
In this 21st century, the mandarins of the regime keep the island full of his images. At the first move, they place wreaths on him. But when the time comes for state policy, they value the guts and courage acquired in the trenches of combat more than men of ideas.
Martí was also a universal Cuban. The best ever. A precursor that serves as a catch-phrase for politicians from both sides, inside and outside Cuba. But the reality is that Marti is not yet fully known. They all take advantage of the aspect that best reflects their interest. The rulers and the opposition take the spoils of the national hero for their own ends.
Everyone believes they deserve Marti. One more useful dead man. A cliché. When the undercurrent of these stormy times passes, the work of rediscovering the Apostle, as they called him before 1959, will fall into the hands of Cuban intellectuals. Debt and obligation.
Those young people who have taken up the banner of banalities and whose goal is a passport and an exit permit need to do that. That decaffeinated figure of José Martí annoys them a lot.
Translated by Regina Anavy
January 27 2011