Read Redeemers Online

Authors: Enrique Krauze

Redeemers (4 page)

Toward the United States, Martí does not preach hatred, nor does he show any ideological prejudice against the country that had been his home for thirteen years. Because he knew them well, he writes to warn the Americans, not to attack them. North American ignorance and greed are the problems; they must be replaced by respect for Latin America.

Martí is not yet forty years old but his letters are full of thoughts of his mortality and of the impending war. With the formation of the party, he resigned his various positions as consul in New York for Uruguay, Argentina, and Paraguay and as president of the Hispanic Literary Society. He began to travel widely again, pursuing economic and political support for the revolutionary venture. He went to the Cuban communities of Florida, then to the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, where the perpetual president Porfirio Díaz himself would donate twenty thousand pesos to his cause. In March 1895, along with General Gómez, who would lead the expeditionary force, Martí would sign and issue, from the Dominican Republic, the famous Manifesto of Montecristi. More than a declaration of war, it was a preliminary plan for the future constitution of the Republic of Cuba. And he sent a letter (to the Dominican writer Federico Henríquez y Carvajal) that is often considered his political testament:


. . . it will never be triumph but agony and duty. My blood is burning. Now is the time to give respect and a human feeling to sacrifice, to make war viable and indelible . . . I will rouse the world. But my single desire would be to stand firm there, clinging to the last trunk . . . the last fighter: to die in silence. For me the hour has come.


In his letters and poems, Martí says good-bye to almost everyone. A few, stern lines to his son. Nothing to his wife. To his mother, a sentence almost identical to the conclusion of his adolescent drama
: “You mourn, with the anger of your love, the sacrifice of my life; and why did you give birth to me as a life in love with sacrifice?” To my “very good Carmita,” the elder daughter of María Miyares, he says that he loves her as if she were his own daughter and urges her to care for her mother and her brother. And he writes to “my María,” his own natural child who was then fourteen, and takes the time to advise her on scientific readings, and offer some subtle thoughts on the essence of love and practical ideas about her possible future vocation. He counsels her to put her trust in language: “Learn from me. I have life on one side of the table, death on the other, and my people on my shoulders: and see how many pages I am writing!” At the end of his letter, he asks her to feel “cleansed and weightless, like the light” and “if you never see me again . . . place a book . . . on my tomb. Or on your breast, because there I will be buried if I die somewhere that men will not discover. Work. A kiss. And hope for me.”

On April 1, 1895, a boat sailed for Cuba from the Dominican Republic, carrying leaders of the Cuban Revolutionary Party, including the writer and former New Yorker José Martí. The exiles landed on April 11 and connected with resistance forces on the island. José Martí began his war. For others it would go on for years, till the Americans invaded in 1898 and Spain was finally defeated. For Martí it lasted little more than a month. He had time to reencounter the beautiful island he had yearned to see again. It was an epiphany for him, and his
was a literary consecration of the experience. He sees and names and re-creates the natural world and the Cuban people and their customs in memorable and moving detail.

His death was due to a mixture of military ineptitude, foolhardy bravery (he may have been intent on refuting slurs about his lack of fighting experience), and the abandonment to the prospect of a martyr's death clearly evident in his writings. He had a special guard assigned to him (his name was Ángel de la Guardia, literally “guardian angel”) but he did not listen to his warnings. On May 19, at Dos Ríos, where two rivers meet, he moved ahead of the rebel troop emplacement and, with only one man mounted beside him, charged a small squad of Spanish soldiers. They shot him off his horse. A Cuban “mulatto” serving as scout for the Spanish army came upon his dying body and recognizing him, cried out, “You here, Don Martí!” The scout then gave him the coup de grâce. The Spaniards moved forward to empty his pockets, loosely bury the body, and then dig it up and bury it again after confirming the identification. All his life, Martí had expected, even craved such a death that could be the beginning of redemption for himself and for his people.

On the day before he was killed, he had written a letter—one more that would become famous—to his close friend Manuel Mercado:


Every day now I am in danger of giving my life for my country and for my duty . . . to prevent in good time, with the independence of Cuba, the United States spreading across the Antilles and falling, strengthened by its conquests, on our territories of America. What I have done up to now, and will do, is for that [purpose] . . . to prevent—through annexation by those imperialists and the Spaniards—a road opening up in Cuba, one that has to be sealed off—and we are sealing it off with our blood—toward the annexation of our peoples of America to the turbulent and brutal North that has contempt for us . . . I have lived inside the monster and I understand its entrails—and my sling is that of David.


A few years later, in the streets of Havana, a song of mourning, in the syncopated Afro-Cuban rhythm of the clave, began to be heard:


Martí, he should not have died

Ay, his dying!

If Martí had not died

a different rooster would crow,

the fatherland would be saved

and Cuba would be happy.

Martí should not have died.

Ay, his dying!


In his future as a myth, Martí had not died. Nor would he ever die. His body now rests in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba. Before 1959, all Cubans remembered him as the redeemer who gave his life for the independence of the island, which was accomplished according to some, partial or thwarted according to many others. After 1959, the revolutionaries in power claimed him as one of their own. They saw themselves as the new “sling of David” and believed they had completed his work. Many in the growing body of Cuban exiles focused on his warning that a
could overthrow a tyranny “to replace it, through all the prestige of triumph, with his own.” They also saw themselves in the mirror of that man in constant exile, who had labored for the independence of Cuba. In a sense he belongs to them both, the redeemers and those who reject their version of redemption. And he belongs, with great distinction, to the history of Spanish literature.

Martí had initiated the new era of revolutionary thought in Latin America. Other, and different, voices would soon be heard.




José Enrique Rodó


The first ideologue of Latin American nationalism was a taciturn Uruguayan man of letters named José Enrique Rodó. Born in 1871, he was the son of a Catalan businessman wealthy enough to own a house in the colonial quarter of Montevideo. He began his education by reading in his father's extensive library of Latin, Spanish, and Hispanic-American classics. In a certain sense, he never left that library.

The walls of his natural reserve would grow even higher as the family's fortunes declined and, when already an adult, additional financial setbacks were inflicted upon him. According to all reports, he remained stubbornly single, distant, and spectral, close only and always to his mother and his brothers. And though in time he would enter the heated realm of politics, his ideal would always be the cultivation of “the divine religion of thought.”

As a high school boy in the Elbio Fernández Lyceum, he did his first critical writing. He was already dealing with themes that would pervade his later work, like the cult of heroes, then represented for him by Bolívar and, curiously, also by Benjamin Franklin. The death of his father, in 1885, began some anxious years for Rodó. He broke off his studies and took jobs like that of a secretary in the office of a notary public, or as a clerk in a bank that specialized in cashing checks. Turning back to the university, he earned the highest distinction in literary studies but never finished the work for a degree. Finally, in 1895, he founded a journal, the
Revista Nacional de Literatura y Ciencias
(National Review of Literature and Social Sciences), dedicated to “shaking loose the stagnation in which for the moment the living forces are mired” of Uruguayan intellectual activity. In his journal, Rodó writes literary criticism, exhumes and interprets Spanish and Latin American classics, and exhibits the first, broader aesthetic tendencies of his thoughts.

The civil war in his country mattered less to him than his own emotional crises. In 1897 he wrote to a friend, “When the resonance of battle overwhelmed hearts with grief or electrified them with enthusiasm, mine was weighed down with anxieties far removed from the struggle of the parties and barely shared the interest and emotion of others.” In that same year, his journal ceased publication: “Every one of us is a fragment of a great corpse. As for me, the disappointments, the rude experiences, the bitter tastes of life have always had the value of fortifying my devotion to art and study, where low, miserable things do not reach.” In 1898 the victorious Colorado Party offered him a guaranteed employment in the Office of Military Appraisals. With resignation, Rodó accepted that “desperate recourse that we term a public employment in our country.” In the same year, he was named an interim university professor of literature (he gave a course in intellectual history that ranged from Plato to Spencer) and also accepted an interim post as director of the National Library. One of his contemporaries described him then as “a tall young man, quite thin . . . who moved stiffly, his arms dangling, his hands open—flaccid and dead hands that felt as cold as something inanimate when shaken . . . and if there was anything circumspect about him, it was his forehead, a broad forehead, that seemed even broader because he used to brush his hair straight back; a smooth cold forehead, behind which there already nested thoughts that were his own, haughty, the will of a
, self-absorbed and serene.”

Suddenly, at the end of the century, two events rattled him, one for the better, one for the worse. A maternal aunt left him a substantial inheritance and the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish-American War. The war angered and saddened him. As the son of a Catalan émigré, he loved Spain though, as a Latin American, he was in favor of Cuban independence. But a humiliated Spain, a Cuba that seemed only to have changed its master—Rodó hated both results. And he responded with a small book that was really a moral homily directed to Latin American youth. He called it
and it would change the ideological history of Hispanic America to such a degree that it was still required reading in Latin American secondary schools when the son of a Galician soldier defeated in that war, Fidel Castro, triumphantly entered Havana to close, in various ways, the cycle initiated in 1898.

For the government of the United States and ample sectors of public opinion, the skirmish at the end of the century seemed to confirm a Destiny that was not only Manifest (the program for American expansion formulated in 1839) but clearly manifested, first in the war against Mexico of 1846–48 and then again, a half century later, in the war against Spain. Only rags were left of the worn-out Spanish Empire, and the United States, with humiliating ease, proceeded to reorder the map of the world. The Philippines and the islands of Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico changed hands, from the dominant naval power of the sixteenth century to the dominant naval power of the twentieth century. They were no longer colonies, now they were “protectorates.”

Not all Americans were convinced by the new nomenclature. In that critical year of 1898, as America followed the exhortations of William Randolph Hearst into its war against Spain, Mark Twain founded the Anti-Imperialist League of the United States. With his sharpened weapon of irony, the great writer fought against the menace he saw in his country's transformation into an empire: “And as for a flag for the Philippine Province, it is easily managed. We can have a special one—our States do it: we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

Latin Americans for the most part reacted like survivors of an earthquake. The United States was unaware and disdainful (as José Martí had noted) of the reality of life and feeling in Spanish-speaking America. It could not recognize the historic impact of its actions on those countries to the south, little understood by most Americans.
, that meditative book by an intellectual of the end of the nineteenth century, was a natural product of the Hispanic reaction. It came at an opportune moment, as an expression of the unfortunate encounter between the two Americas that had been brewing all along the nineteenth century, and it foreshadowed a more extensive conflict that would last till nearly the end of the twentieth.


of admiration and disenchantment had begun long before 1898. At least three generations of Latin American Liberals had turned toward the United States as a model. They were eager to create a constitutional and secular republic distinct from and opposed to the absolute and Catholic monarchy from which they had seized their independence (and whose inheritance was defended, with differing nuances, by the political groups, clergy, soldiers, and intellectuals known as Conservatives). In some cases, the respect for the United States veered close to a total assimilation of what were seen to be its virtues. The Mexican Constitution of 1824, the first to declare the Mexican nation a federal republic, included an introduction in which the legislators, headed by the brilliant journalist Lorenzo de Zavala, took pride in their emulation of the North Americans. The Mexican Congress, it affirmed, “is happy to have had a model to imitate in the flourishing Republic of our neighbors to the north.” (Consistent federalist that he was, Zavala would end his days composing the constitution of the Republic of Texas and becoming its first vice president.)

Simón Bolívar, the Liberator of Latin America, was much more cautious and suspicious of the United States, which, unlike England, had remained neutral during the wars of independence. Bolívar thought it was preferable for these new republics to build strong connections with England, the major naval power of the period. In the English (and other European) systems, he saw more of the balance he favored between order and freedom, with a strong executive power and centralized government. But even Bolívar admired the “promising” example of the United States of America:


Who can resist the victorious attraction of the full and absolute enjoyment of sovereignty, independence, freedom? Who can resist the love that inspires an intelligent government to simultaneously unite private and general rights; that erects the supreme law of the individual will upon the common will? Who can resist the authority of a benevolent government that, with a skillful, active and powerful hand, directs, always and everywhere, all its resources toward social perfection, the sole goal of human institutions?


Halfway through the nineteenth century, the admiration on the part of the Liberals (commonly called “progressives”) was almost continental. In the far south the distinguished writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (who would later become president of Argentina) liked to call himself
(“little Benjamin Franklin”). His praise for the United States knew no bounds. He spent six months traveling through the country in 1847, after a long trip to Europe, and would constantly compare it, very favorably, to France:


I am convinced that the United States has the most educated people on earth, the ultimate result of modern civilization . . . The only nation in the world where the masses read, where writing is used for every necessity, where 2000 newspapers satisfy the curiosity of the public . . . where education, like well-being, is disseminated everywhere, within reach of those who wish to obtain it. Is there anywhere else on earth where one or the other has reached such a point? France has 270,000 people who can vote, in a nation of the most ancient civilization in the world, with a population of 36,000,000 . . .


In Mexico, not even the loss of half its territory to the Colossus of the North lessened the faith of its Liberals in the United States. In 1864, Walt Whitman marveled that, in difficult moments for his country, it was “Mexico, the only one to whom we have ever really done wrong, and now the only one who prays for us and for our triumph, with genuine prayer. Is it not indeed strange?” There were two reasons for this continued adhesion. One was political: the Conservatives who supported the imposition of the emperor Maximilian (with the aid of French troops and Austro-Hungarian backing) favored the Confederacy and the destruction of the unified American nation. But there was also an ideological element—the United States was the mother country of the Liberals.

After the triumph of the liberal Republic under Benito Juárez, with the French driven out and Maximilian executed, Juárez's successors, Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada and Porfirio Díaz, had their apprehensions about the United States. The American union, buoyed by its victory in the Civil War, might decide to attack Mexico and absorb even more of its land. Lerdo de Tejada would say, during his period in office (1872–76), “Between strength and weakness, [it's a good thing that there is] the desert,” and Díaz, during his long reign over Mexico (1876–1911), may have said: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so near the United States.” Both launched diplomatic battles (Mexico is still renowned for the skills of its diplomats) to counter the pressures from its neighbor—commercial, military, political—and avoid any further loss of territory. But the general Mexican attitude continued to be positive and sometimes overwhelming. The Liberals had taken refuge in the United States to conspire against the dictator Santa Anna or to strengthen their resources against the French invasion. Lerdo de Tejada had gone into exile in New York after the coup d'état of Porfirio Díaz in 1876. Díaz himself had visited New York under happier circumstances in 1881, for his honeymoon. And Díaz was amenable to the “peaceful penetration” advocated by the U.S. senator James Blaine. He allowed the American-built railroad to mediate “between strength and weakness” and—taking care to balance the American presence with European participation—relied on American investment in mines, agriculture, and oil wells for much of the impressive material progress in Mexico toward the end of the nineteenth century. But the general picture changed radically with the growth of imperialist sentiments within the United States.

Around 1897, one of José Martí's friends, the most prominent Mexican intellectual of his time, Justo Sierra Méndez, traveled to the United States. Sierra was a jurist, an historian and journalist, an orator, and a major theorist and innovator in the field of education. In his youth he had heard Benito Juárez argue—in accord with the pure liberal canon—that Mexico could benefit considerably from protestant immigration, because Mexicans could learn habits of frugality, hard work, and the value of education. But Sierra had abandoned a strictly liberal point of view, not only to adopt the fashionable positivist and evolutionary philosophy (primarily the ideas of Auguste Comte and later Herbert Spencer) but also through distrust of American foreign policy and an incipient cultural nationalism that would carry him closer to conservative positions. (For cultural, political, and religious reasons, the Conservatives had rejected Mexico's English-speaking, protestant, and liberal neighbor.) Actually, Sierra already considered himself a “conservative liberal.” His travel diary
En tierra yanquee
(On Yankee Land) reflects the balance sheet that liberal and positivist thought at the end of the century was now beginning to assemble about that country with its two contrasting faces: democracy and imperialism. And the balance was tilting toward the negative. Standing before the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., he wrote:


I belong to a weak people, who can pardon but should not forget the frightful injustice committed against them half a century ago; and I want to retain, in the face of the United States (that astonishing work of nature and good fortune) the proud and silent resignation, like that of my people, that has allowed us to become, with dignity, masters of our own destiny. I do not deny my admiration but I try to explain it to myself, I bow my head but it does not remain bowed; then it straightens up, better to see.

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