Viva Jose Marti!

28 Jan

Jose Marti

With his speech of December 14 an American president has dared to move the clock of Cuban-US relations forward into the realities of the 21 century. And to people who have been paying attention to Cuban history and culture, that President Obama quoted the revered Cuban literary giant Jose Marti was remarkable. Cuban Born anthropologist Ruth Behar took note

Most significantly, Obama cited the words of the beloved Cuban hero José Martí: “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.” Martí, a poet of the late 19th century who admired and translated Walt Whitman, spent most of his adult years in exile in New York, planning Cuba’s war of independence from Spain.

He thought of himself as living in “the belly of the beast,” always fearing the United States would steal Cuba’s victory, as it in fact did. Not surprisingly, Cuba is a country overrun with busts and statues of Martí, because it is believed that U.S. interference in Cuban affairs cut Martí’s revolution short. In acknowledging Martí, Obama made clear that the fraught history between both nations cannot be erased but that reconciliation is still possible.

Well regarded translator Esther Allen (who reportedly is writing a biography of Marti) explains:

Obama’s speech urged us to look forward. By citing Martí, he acknowledged that looking forward also means looking back—way back… Obama called for a new way of thinking, and that’s something that needs to begin in the United States, too.  It will happen when we start looking at Cuba and other states in Latin America and across the world as valid fellow nations that do not exist in order to be improved by U.S. political, cultural, or economic invasion.  Instead of thinking about all we can teach the Cubans, we might ask what we have to learn from them. Reading José Martí, or Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez, whose work is translated into English and many other languages by an extraordinary international team of volunteers, or WWB’s great Close But No Cigar issue, or my colleague Ted Henken’s recently co-edited anthology of writing by Cuban social scientists, is a good place to begin. In the process, we might learn something about ourselves.

Given his prodigious body of work and his fame in this hemisphere(except in the USA) it is particularly odd that only recently has an biography of Jose Marti written in English been published.

José Martí: A Revolutionary Lifeby Alfred J. López (University of Texas Press)

Marti by Alfred Lopez

Marti by Alfred Lopez

Aside for Simón Bolívar, Jose Marti’s (1853–1895)legacy looms large in Latin American history. His collected writings— poetry, essays, and journalism — fill 25 volumes and continue to have a profound influence. Alfred J. López, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Purdue University was born in New York City to Cuban parents and grew up in Miami.He explains why he wrote the first biography of Marti in 50 years:

I’ve been wanting to write this book for a long time. My little 2006 book on Martí was a sort of dress rehearsal for this one, in that it got me comfortable dipping my toes into a subject who fascinated and terrified me at the same time. And I don’t mean “terrified” in just an academic sense, although ten years ago 19th century Cuban studies lay well beyond my own expertise. What made me put off the biography for about a decade was the conviction that I would be treading on what, for Cubans on the island and abroad, is holy ground. We’re talking about a man who has been so beatified he seemed nearly unapproachable. I knew that to humanize him, as any responsible biography would have to do, would absolutely incur the wrath of many — not just politicians and scholars, but Cubans generally speaking — who are deeply invested in the saintly Martí, Cuba’s national “apostle.”

The content of what each of those groups doesn’t want to hear can vary, but whatever their political disagreements, they have a mutual interest in keeping their idol untainted. It’s no accident that no one has tried to do this before — there are plenty of scholars far more accomplished than myself — Carlos Ripoll, rest his soul, comes to mind — who could and should have written this biography. I can’t speak to their reasons for not doing it. But I wonder whether they pondered the aggravation they’d have to endure from certain angry corners; detractors, rushing to Martí’s “defense.” Maybe everyone else decided that a true Martí biography wasn’t worth the hassle of dealing with the haters. Which is also partly why I dragged my own feet on it for so long.

For the record, I didn’t write that statement — someone at the press did that, or maybe one of the advance reviewers. But I think it’s accurate, for one simple reason: It’s the only book-length study of Martí that makes full use of the research and scholarship available on both sides of the Miami-Havana divide. In the history of Martí studies, it’s a relatively recent development to find U.S. publications that cite or even acknowledge work from Cuba, despite the staggering amount of primary research Cuban scholars have produced on Martí. And the island Cubans are even worse in that regard — even now, if you read books or journals published in Cuba, you’d never know that anyone in the U.S. or Canada had ever written a word about Martí.

So this is the first biography that actually incorporates material from both Cuba and the U.S….The stuff has been sitting there all along, but no one else had ever bothered with it.

Selected Writings: Jose Marti ed by Esther Allen

Selected Writings: Jose Marti ed by Esther Allen

José Martí: Selected Writings translated by Esther Allen, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (Introduction) (Penguin Classics)

Published in 2002 Selected Writings is organized chronologically, beginning with his early writings, such as his account of his political imprisonment in Cuba at age sixteen. The middle section collects some of his journalism—since Martí lived in exile, in New York, for most of his adult life,he earned a living as a foreign correspondent and thus was the conduit through which Latin America saw the United States. This selective anthology also includes selections of his poetry and samples from his private notebooks. And for first time an English translation of his final masterpiece, “War Diaries.”

What better time to take note of this titan of American letters than this day, on the 162nd anniversary of Marti’s birth.

Currently reading Descent by Tim Johnston (Wm Morrow)

2 Responses to “Viva Jose Marti!”

  1. manueltellechea February 9, 2015 at 10:46 am #

    What Obama dared to do was to truncate the original Martí quotation which you yourself quote correctly. It was only the first part of Martí’s quotation that he cited: “It is the right of every man to be honest.” which itself is an indictment of Obama’s conduct and speech; but the second part, which no Cuban is allowed to do in Cuba without being declared an enemy of the state — “to think and speak without hypocrisy” — Obama found difficult to do even in the White. His decision to underwrite the Castro regime for generations to come, or, as he himself put to, to choose a stable Cuba over a free Cuba, is the ne plus ultra of cynicism and hence highly characteristic of him. He threw a bone to the Castro-loving radical fringe of his party, and we are not surprised that you are cheered and heartened by his unconditional surrender to the Cuban dictatorship. Can there be anything more unlike Martí?

    If you want to supply the gross deficiencies in your knowledge of Martí, I recommend that you visit:

  2. manueltellechea February 9, 2015 at 11:26 am #

    Parsing Statements on Cuba in Obama’s “State of the Union” Speech

    Parsing Statements on Cuba in Obama’s “State of the Union” Speech

    In Cuba, we are ending a policy [not a policy but codified law, which the president intends to subvert and nullify by presidential fiat] – (applause) — that was long past its expiration date [there was never an expiration date on the rupture of diplomatic relations or on the trade embargo primarily because there was never an expiration date on the regime; clearly, letting the policy expire will not remove the regime; the expiration of the regime, however, would long ago have removed the policy]. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new [of course, the embargo has accomplished exactly what it was intended to do: not to overthrow the regime, but to deny it the financial resources that would allow it to fund its internal repression and external excursions on America’s dime.] (Applause.) And our shift in Cuba policy [without consulting Congress and in contravention of U.S. law] has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere [the mistrust was fully justified: to mistrust a liar certainly makes more sense than to trust him] and removes the phony excuse [if the excuse is already phony, why does it have to be removed?] for restrictions in Cuba*** [“restrictions?” Is that all that the Castro regime has imposed on Cubans in 56 years of totalitarian rule? And what “restrictions” precisely did Obama succeed in easing or eliminating when he surrendered unconditionally to Raúl Castro? The only restrictions that Obama eliminated were those that prevented the U.S. government and its citizens from underwriting the rule of Castro and his henchmen], stands up for democratic values [betrays democratic values by preferring a stable Cuba (courtesy of Castro) to internal strife that might result in an unstable (i.e. free) Cuba] and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people [not to the Cuban people, whose hands are tied, but to their henchmen, who get to decide what’s “best” for the hapless Cuban people without any input from them, just as Obama himself has now done]. And this year, Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo [fat chance on that, even with the near-unanimous support of the Democrats and of a few Republican appeasers]. (Applause.)

    As — as his Holiness, Pope Francis, [who certainly deserves a hat tip from Obama for his shameless shilling for the Castro regime] has said, diplomacy is the work of small steps [actually, only one little step is necessary for unprincipled and opportunistic diplomacy, such as practiced by Obama, to “work”: when one side is willing to give the other side everything it wants and asks nothing in return except to have its capitulation accepted].These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba [if one understands “the future in Cuba” to be the Castro dynasty]. And after years in prison [because Obama refused to demand his release or take punitive steps against the regime], we are overjoyed that Alan Gross is back where he belongs [having been exchanged for three of the Five Cuban Spies (the other two had already been returned to Cuba)]. (Applause.) Welcome home, Alan [and you’re getting $3.2 million from your fellow Americans to compensate you for your pain and suffering]. We’re glad you’re here [yes, but you should never have been there, in a Castro jail, a fact which most of Obama’s listeners wouldn’t know and should have been pointed out to them. Maybe they just assumed, from the context of Obama’s speech, that Gross was the guy responsible for negotiating this new policy and bringing democracy to Cuba].

    *** “Our shift in Cuba policy […] removes the phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba.” What Obama actually means but does not dare to say for fear of offending his new Cuban friend is: “Our shift in Cuba policy […] removes” the phony excuse of the embargo as the cause of Communist Cuba’s economic failures. But, again, if the excuse is phony, why bother to disprove it? And if Cuba’s economy does improve because of renewed U.S.-Cuban ties, then does that mean that the “phony excuse” wasn’t phony, after all? Paradoxically, if the wreck of the Cuban economy was due to the embargo rather than to the regime’s Marxist economic model, then Obama would be wrong to claim that this was a failed policy. On the contrary, the embargo would have been shown to be the most successful economic sanctions in U.S. history.

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