All sides of Cuba debate ask: What would Martí do?
By Paul Guzzo | Tribune Staff Published: January 24, 2016
TAMPA — There is no question about who stands as the symbol of freedom
Throughout the country, buildings, streets and parks carry the name José
Martí, and busts, statues and paintings honor the man who inspired and
helped lead the nation's successful War of Independence against
colonialist Spain in the late 1800s.
It is no wonder then, as the U.S. and Cuba move toward a normalization
of relations, all sides lay claim to Martí as their own in the debate
over whether it's time yet.
More than a century after Martí's death, and with more than two dozen
volumes of the prolific writer's works to draw from, it remains unclear
whether he would embrace communism, capitalism, or any modern ideology.
There are no widely accepted answers et to the question, "What would
Fidel Castro has called Martí the inspiration for his revolution.
Whenever Cuban government leaders come to Tampa, the city where Martí
raised money for his revolution and wrote the order for the battle to
begin, they stop by José Martí Park in Ybor City to pay respect to their
Visiting leaders from the opposition party in Cuba have done the same.
And their allies in the Cuban American dissident movement place Martí
quotes in mastheads of their websites.
Even President Barack Obama, who has straddled both sides since he first
moved to end five decades of isolation, quoted Martí in his historic
announcement 13 months ago.
All sides in the debate do have one thing in common, said Ted Henken,
Latin American studies professor at Baruch College in New York.
"They don't make up quotes, but they are often used out of context and
only partially reflect his enormous and complex oeuvre," Henken said.
"Cubans quoting Martí are their version of Biblical quarterbacking."
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Academics who decipher Martí's views based on the totality of his work
rather than individual quotes say the freedom fighter may have been in
favor of some hallmarks of Cuba's current government — guaranteed
education and health care for all and resistance to U.S. domination —
but not of the one-party system that has kept the Castro family
entrenched for more than half a century.
Neither would Martí have embraced the president deposed by the Castro
revolution, researchers say — Fulgencio Batista, whose supporters
founded the dissident movement in the U.S. By the same token, Martí may
have rejected the dissidents' preferred means of overthrowing the
Castros — continued isolation and economic embargo.
"I don't know if Martí would have been in favor of either group and may
have seen both as doing a disservice to the Cuban people," said Alfred
Lopez, author of "José Martí: A Revolutionary Life."
Still, no one can ever be certain what Martí would think of the modern
Cuba, said Esther Allen, editor and translator of "José Martí: Selected
Writings," who is writing a biography of Martí.
After all, she noted, he was killed in battle at 42 before Cuba chased
its colonial ruler Spain from the island. His political theories may
have changed when faced with transitioning from revolution to governance.
Many have predicted that like George Washington, with whom he often is
compared by historians, Martí would have been a shoo-in as his nation's
"Martí's writings were not meant to be founding documents of a nation,"
editor Allen said. "He didn't get there. His opinions were evolving as
he wrote and learned more."
Martí's death, author Lopez said, left "an ideological vacuum, and that
invites people to fill in that vacuum with whatever they feel can
benefit their cause."
Martí was a renowned Cuban poet, essayist and journalist, as well as a
revolutionary and leader.
More than George Washington, he was a Mount Rushmore unto himself, Lopez
Martí visited Tampa some 20 times from 1891 to 1894 as he prepared for
It's why TuckerHall, an international public relations firm
headquartered in downtown Tampa, established the José Martí Trail — a
tour of Tampa spots with historic connections to the Cuban hero.
The trail is only an online map now. In time, signs are planned to mark
The tour includes Ybor City's José Martí Park at 1303 Eighth Ave., once
the site of the home of Paulina and Ruperto Pedroso, who saved Martí
when he was poisoned by would-be assassins from Spain.
Among those from Cuba who have visited the park in recent years are
opposition leaders Rosa Maria Paya, Mario Felix Llenoart Barroso and
Jorge Luis García Pérez, as well as Cuban government officials such as
Ambassador to the U.S. José Ramon Cabanas Rodriguez and Alfredo Ruiz
Roche, director of Ministry of Culture and the department of
Tampa's link to Martí also gained the city status as the first in the
U.S. to host a branch of the José Martì Cultural Society, a Cuba-based
non-governmental organization with chapters in 94 countries dedicated to
preserving and spreading the story of the historic figure.
A board of directors for the Tampa branch is being put together.
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Martí left Tampa for the last time Oct. 7, 1894, and was killed in
battle in Cuba seven months later.
He left behind 25 volumes of written work, author Lopez said — with an
index that runs more than 600 pages. This explains why people on both
sides of the Cuba debate can easily find words of Martí's to support
"Martí provides them with a lot of information to find quotes to cherry
pick from," Lopez said. "They take quotes and put them together out of
context to fit their needs. I find that to be disrespectful to who Martí
Allen, the Martí book editor, compares this practice to the American gun
"What does the Second Amendment really say about the right to bear
arms?" Allen said. "There is a wide array of speculation and it's the
same with Martí."
What's more, she added, the Second Amendment is one sentence; Martí
provided volumes of work for interpretation and manipulation.
Still, Allen is confident she understands one of Martí's beliefs.
"There is no way José Martí would have been in favor of a 57-year-old
dictatorship, and anyone who argues that is wrong," she said.
Martí was an ardent supporter of Grover Cleveland in his loss to
Benjamin Harrison in the U.S. presidential election, yet the Cuban
freedom fighter attended Harrison's inauguration in 1889 and praised the
process if not the outcome.
"Martí really believed in the democratic process, and that power has to
be handed over," Allen said.
He also rejected Karl Marx's communist doctrine, Allen said, yet may
have supported the health care and education the Castro regime
guarantees for all.
"These are very much things Martí seemed to favor and believe were
rights," she said. "Though it cannot be forgotten José Martí was also in
favor of freedom of speech, and that is not a right in Cuba right now."
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Two of Martí's great fears, Lopez said, were that Cuba would become a
military dictatorship and that the U.S. would "short circuit Cuba's
desire to be a free sovereign state."
The Cuba that emerged between Martí and Castro was a realization of
both, said Jonathan Marcantoni, a University of Tampa graduate and
author who writes about the history of Latin American colonialization.
As the hour of Spain's defeat approached during Cuba's War of
Independence, the U.S. military swooped in to help with the final push.
Whether this assistance was needed has been up for debate ever since.
Afterward, the U.S. successfully lobbied to have an amendment added to
the Cuban Constitution: No matter who was elected president of island
nation, the American government had the right to intervene in decisions
to protect the citizens of Cuba.
What followed, Marcantoni said, was a series of presidents who were more
puppets of the U.S. government than independent thinkers, fearful of
their removal from office.
The amendment remained in the constitution until 1940, when Batista was
elected president. Still, Batista continued bowing to U.S. demands,
Marcantoni said. He served four years as president then regained office
through a military coup in 1952, using armed might to remain in power.
Many Cuban-born citizens who founded the U.S. dissident movement fought
to keep Batista in power, Marcantoni said, even though he acted in ways
Martí would have abhorred — seizing power without the support of the
people and ceding control over much of the island to the the U.S.
During Batista's second presidency, the U.S. controlled 90 percent of
Cuba's electrical and telephone services, 50 percent of public service
railways and 40 percent of raw sugar production. It was also during his
reign that the American mafia established casinos in Cuba.
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When Castro came to power, he nationalized U.S.-owned businesses and
property. The U.S. responded in 1960 with a travel and trade embargo
that requires an act of Congress to remove — even as the Obama
administration continues whittling away at it through executive orders.
"The fact is that Castro's sin was to demand the U.S. give Cuba back its
land and treat Cubans as equals," Marcantoni said. "The U.S. has no
problem with dictatorships. They have a problem with losing money, and
Cuba was a major cash cow."
That Cuba has been free of U.S. control since Castro's revolution would
bring a smile to Martí's face, said Albert A. Fox Jr., founder of the
Tampa-based Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. Fox helped
bring the José Martí Society to Tampa.
"His philosophy was that if a country has a particular government that
was not good for the people, it was up to the people to decide what they
want or don't want," Fox said. "Let the Cuban people decide their fate
without U.S. intervention."
Fox also believes Martí would oppose the continuing travel and trade
embargo against Cuba.
Students of Martí concur.
"Martí was fully aware that economics can be a mechanism of
colonization," editor Allen said. "He wanted there to be normal
relations with the nations of the hemisphere and respect from the U.S."
Added Lopez, "Martí made it very clear that he wanted relations with
America on equal terms. He wanted them to respect each other as fellow
nations and did not want terms dictated to Cuba by the U.S.,
economically or politically."
Fox said this should be the goal of normalizing relations with Cuba —
allowing U.S. citizens unfettered access and partnerships with the
island nation no matter its form of government.
Such an approach is in line with federal law regarding any nation that
poses no security threat to the U.S., he said.
Still, Lopez said, laying claim to Martí is ultimately "a fool's errand."
"We don't know what he wanted and will never know," he said. "On the
other hand, it is seductive to try. Cubans have been doing it for
decades and will continue to for the foreseeable future as long as they
have a political reason to do so."
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