A Revolutionary Hero

Inside the Monster: Writings on the United States and American Imperialism

by José Martí, translated by Elinor Randall
Monthly Review Press, 386 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Our America: Writings on Latin America and the Struggle for Cuban Independence

by José Martí, translated by Elinor Randall
Monthly Review Press, 448 pp., $7.50 (paper)

On Art and Literature: Critical Writings

by José Martí, translated by Elinor Randall
Monthly Review Press, 348 pp., $10.00 (paper)

José Martí
José Martí; drawing by David Levine

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary movement of July 26 was created out of hatred and love: hatred of Batista the Tyrant and love of Martí the Apostle. When I spent some time in Cuba in the early Sixties the revolution still seemed inspired by Martí. Martí was everywhere: there were quotations from José Martí on the back of bus tickets, exhibitions with locks of his hair and samples of the ground he had trod. Plaster busts and pictures of Martí were not then accompanied in shop windows by portraits of Marx and Lenin. When the Soviet astronaut Yurí Gagarin visited Cuba his first official act was to lay a wreath on the Martí monument. The lines of the poet Nicolás Guillén still seemed to contain the essence of the revolution:

Vino Fidel y cumplió
Lo que prometió Martí
(What Martí promised
Fidel came and fulfilled)

What Martí stood for—or could be made to stand for—helps one to understand the Cuban Revolution in those early days, when Castro’s triumphant entry into Havana in 1959 seemed to the intellectuals of the West like the fall of a Latin American Bastille.

José Martí, the son of a Spanish sergeant who had settled in Havana, was born in 1853 when Cuba was still a colony of Spain. In 1868 Céspedes, a cultured Creole landowner, declared that the Spanish must leave and an independent Cuban Republic be established. The first War of Independence against Spain was to last until 1878. By the end of the war Cuba had escaped the control of the Creole landowners of the west to fall into the hands of the great mestizo and Negro guerrilla leaders of the east, a shift to a more democratic movement that Philip Foner underestimates in his commentaries on Martí’s writings. Martí was to consolidate this shift and make it the basis of a new revolutionary struggle.1

When the war began Martí was too young to fight, but he was already suspect to the Spanish authorities as a revolutionary nationalist. He was seventeen in 1870 when he was arrested and sentenced to six years’ hard labor; six months in the stone quarries left him with a hernia and impaired eyesight. The next year he was deported to Spain, where, as a university student, he moved in radical circles. From Spain he went to Mexico and married a woman with little sympathy for his revolutionary politics. In 1881, after visits to Venezuela and the Caribbean, he settled in New York, where, for the last fourteen years of his life, he supported himself as a working journalist, writing a regular column for La Nación of Buenos Aires that made him well known throughout Latin America.

After the secessionists’ defeat in 1878 came the guerrilla resistance known as the “Little War.” When the guerrillas were defeated in 1880 its leaders went into exile and the…

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