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Vol. 73/No. 21      June 1, 2009

José Martí: Cuban leader
of anti-imperialist fight
MIAMI—José Martí was an uncompromising fighter for Cuba’s independence from Spanish colonial rule and opponent of U.S. imperialism’s domination of Latin America. He organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party and was the central organizer of Cuba’s second independence war, in which he died in combat in 1895. In addition, Martí is one of the most outstanding figures in Latin American literature, and he also stood out for his writings on education.

Between 1810 and 1825 most of the Spanish colonies in the Americas won their independence. Only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained colonies of Spain. The weight of chattel slavery in those countries retarded their independence struggles because sections of the rising national bourgeoisies there feared that independence would also lead to slave revolts. But those struggles became historically inevitable.

On Oct. 10, 1868, the first war for Cuban independence was launched with the Grito de Yara (Cry of Yara). Cuban landowner Carlos Manuel de Céspedes freed his slaves and began what became known as the Ten Years War. The independence fighters, known as mambises, quickly expanded their ranks among Cuban toilers, black and white.

Martí was born in Havana on Jan. 28, 1853. At age 15, when the 1868 war broke out, he supported the revolution and was imprisoned in Cuba and later deported to Spain for his opposition to colonial rule. There he published pamphlets appealing for support to the independence struggle.

The Ten Years War ended in 1878 with a compromise, the Pact of Zanjón. The pact freed black slaves that had fought in the war, but did not win independence. Black pro-independence commander Antonio Maceo was among the few who refused to sign the pact.

Another upsurge in Cuba’s independence struggle began in 1880 under the leadership of Ten Years War veterans Calixto García and José Maceo, Antonio’s brother. Known as La Guerra Chiquita (the Little War), it was crushed within a few months.  
15 years in the United States
After his release from prison, Martí studied at the University of Zaragoza in Spain and received degrees in law and philosophy. He returned to Cuba but was banished again for supporting independence. He lived for nearly two years in Mexico, where he raised funds for the Cuban revolutionary movement, spoke out against the oppression of Indians in Mexico, and even represented the workers of Chihuahua at a labor congress.

Martí also lived for a time in Guatemala, and Venezuela. But he spent the longest period of time in the United States, where he moved in 1880, settling in New York in 1881.

During his 15 years in the United States, Martí wrote about American society as a correspondent for prominent newspapers in Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico, and worked as a teacher and a writer. His perceptive articles covered labor struggles, racism and oppression faced by Blacks and Native Americans, and the fight for women’s suffrage. These included essays on Gen. Ulysses Grant, an 1883 memorial meeting in New York for Karl Marx, the first voting of women in Kansas, the superexploitation of Chinese immigrants, and the funeral of the Haymarket Martyrs.

He also spoke out in defense of anticolonial struggles around the world, from the Vietnamese and North Africans under the French boot to the Irish and Indians fighting against British rule. Martí wrote Nuestra América (Our America), an article defending the sovereignty of the Americas from U.S. imperialist designs.

During this period he wrote many outstanding works of literature, including novels and the well-known collection of poetry entitled Versos sencillos (Simple Verses).

In 1890 he collaborated with Rafael Serra to found La Liga (The League), an educational center for black Cuban exiles. Martí wrote articles opposing racist discrimination, leading the fight against racism within the ranks of the independence movement.  
Rise of imperialism
When Martí first arrived in the United States he wrote in admiration of “a country where everyone seems to be his own master.” He was attracted to the example of the American republic at a time when capitalism was a revolutionary force for progress over feudalism and all other precapitalist forms. After two deep-going bourgeois democratic revolutions, the United States was the most advanced democratic republic in the world.

Martí lived in the United States at a time when capitalism underwent a transformation: the rise of imperialism. He reported on the increasing dominance of trusts and monopolies and the subservience of the twin ruling parties to them. As he saw the struggles of working people unfold and the imperialist rulers in Washington begin to look hungrily southward at Latin America, his views shifted.

“What is becoming apparent,” he wrote in 1889, “is that the nature of the North American government is gradually changing its fundamental reality. Under the traditional labels of Republican and Democrat, with no innovation other than the contingent circumstances of place and character, the republic is becoming plutocratic and imperialistic.”

“We love the country of Lincoln as much as we fear the country of Cutting,” he wrote that year. Francis Cutting was a U.S. politician who advocated annexing Cuba.  
Organizer of 1895 independence war
By 1892 Martí dedicated himself exclusively to organizing for Cuba’s independence. He began to publish and edit the pro-independence paper La Patria. Bringing together Antonio Maceo, Máximo Gómez, and other leaders, he organized the Cuban Revolutionary Party with the immediate purpose of fighting for the independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico and the longer-range goal of preventing U.S. expansion across the Americas. The party drew solid support among Cuban immigrant tobacco workers in Florida and other Southern states.

By 1894 Martí began to organize for revolutionary action, concerned about U.S. military actions in Hawaii that would soon lead to its annexation, and Washington’s moves to annex Cuba by taking advantage of Spain’s weakening colonial grip. The Cuban Revolutionary Party stepped up its activities, and on Feb. 24, 1895, the second independence war was launched. Martí went back to Cuba to join the revolution.

In an unfinished letter, Martí wrote on May 18, 1895, “I am in daily danger of giving my life for my country and duty, for I understand that duty and have the courage to carry it out—the duty of preventing the United States from spreading through the Antilles as Cuba gains its independence, and from overpowering with that additional strength our lands of America. All I have done so far, and all I will do, is for this purpose.”

He added, “I have lived in the monster and I know its entrails; my sling is David’s.” Martí died in combat the next day.

At the end of 1898, as the independence fight advanced, gaining mass support, and Spain was virtually defeated, Washington intervened in what became the Spanish-Cuban-American war—one of the first wars of the imperialist epoch. Spanish rule was replaced by a U.S.-installed military government. While gaining formal independence in 1901, Cuba remained a semicolony of Washington.

It took another revolution to fulfill Martí’s aspirations. That was the Cuban Revolution of 1959, when workers and farmers, under the leadership of the Rebel Army headed by Fidel Castro, took state power and overthrew capitalist rule, opening the socialist revolution in the Americas. Cuba became the first free territory in the Americas, pointing the road forward for humanity. Today José Martí’s political legacy remains at the heart of Cuba’s living revolutionary history.
Related articles:
Int’l conference in Canada discusses Cuban Revolution  
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