To Kill Marti?

For more than a century, José Martí has been the Cuban figure most likely to go from flesh to marble. (Civic Square, 1957)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunior García Aguilera, Madrid, 25 October 2023 — Judging from online chats, private conversations and articles in the independent press, more and more Cubans are coming down with Martían fatigue syndrome. For more than a century, José Martí has been the Cuban figure most likely to go from flesh to marble, from light to dust, from elegy to meme. He is the banner raised by opposing, irreconcilable ideologies. Many a fortune cookie contains a quote by him. For us, he is simultaneously the Cuban Christ, the Caribbean Plato and the Marilyn Monroe of national pop art.

In our collective postmodernist hangover, we hit the accelerator, desanctifying all the altars as quickly as possible. The hasty effort did produce a bit of valuable research but also a lot of Martíanoid sausage. The crowning touch was the ruling party designating former Cuban culture minister Abel Prieto and National Assembly delegate Yusuam Palacios as high priests of the sanctum sanctorum. The ensuing indigestion, along with the urge to try to kill off the hero once and for all, was predictable.

Speculations about suicide are not completely implausible, nor are they far-fetched given his romantic nature

Much has been written about that Sunday in May 1895 when Martí seemed to be looking for a way to die. Speculations about suicide are not completely implausible, nor are they far-fetched given his romantic nature. In his writings he described death as a victory, a celebration, a silver stripe laid upon black velvet. For a man plagued by diseases such as sarcoidosis, chronic catarrhal conjunctivitis with a drooping right eyelid, sarcocele and acute broncho-laryngitis, death in combat was more desirable than imminent death in a foreign bed.

In his 1933 biography Martí, the Apostle, Jorge Mañach asks three essential questions about his demise at the Battle of Dos Ríos. Was it caused by a fit of madness? Inexperience? Or was it just his time to go? Carlos Márquez Sterling attributes his loss to “providence itself.” Gonzalo de Quesada y Miranda comes back to the idea that it was his “appointed hour.” The Argentine writer and poet Ezequiel Martínez Estrada described his death as “enigmatic, absurd, inexplicable, unusual and improbable.”

Some have blamed Máximo Gómez for the desperation and clumsiness of that day, which were incomprehensible given his experience as a soldier. The generalíssimo himself acknowledged that he was very poorly prepared for battle and did not have time to worry about Martí. Others blame Baconao, the spirited white horse that José Maceo gave him. Quite a few blame the fatality on his wardrobe, which was more appropriate for a wedding than for the rigors of combat. The fact is that Martí — the newly appointed major general, the would-be lawmaker, the likely future president — was the only casualty the Cubans suffered in this militarily insignificant operation.

The hypothesis that he threw himself at the bullets to set an example makes no sense in light of the fact that only Ángel de la Guardia saw him fall and, even then, only felt compelled to rescue Martí’s hat and revolver. The theory that he disobeyed Gómez’s order to “fall back” presents us with an image of a reckless, adolescent Martí very much at odds with his intellect and demonstrated ability to not become self-absorbed when faced with disdain, contempt or even humiliation.

Three bullets pierced his flesh though the drum of his Colt was still intact

The Spanish soldiers could not believe it. They had heard that some “big birds” were among the rebel troops but they could not imagine that the main instigator of that war, which had only just begun, would be such an easy target. It was a firing squad. Three bullets pierced his flesh though the drum of his Colt was still intact. When giving his account of the incident, the Spanish captain Antonio Serra would murmur, “There is a mystery here.”

Another often discussed enigma is the Cuban connection to the shot in his chest. The trajectory of the bullet indicates that Martí was either bent over his horse’s neck or was shot when he was already on the ground. The latter is consistent with claims by a Cuban soldier, Antonio Oliva, who fought for the Spanish under the command of Colonel José Ximénez de Sandoval. Grandfather of the renowned Cuban painter Pedro Pablo Oliva, he boasted of having killed Martí with his own gun. But not everyone believed him. Maybe he was just looking for a medal and a pension.

Martí died face up, as he dreamed. But that night a two-hour downpour drenched his corpse while it was being carried away by his enemies. One-hundred twenty-eight years later he is still falling off his horse, in multiple ways, for a lot of different reasons. The truth is that we needlessly lost the man the future republic needed most. Or maybe not. If he had survived and had governed, the current ruling party would no doubt now be calling him corrupt and self-serving. Thousands of busts and statues of him would not exist, nor would so many Cubans on social media be trying in vain to finish off Martí.


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