January 28, 2024
171st Anniversary of Birth of José Martí
José Martí, Essential to Our America
January 28 marks the anniversary of the birth of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, architect of the 1895 war and critical thinker of the “new republic” that would be established in Cuba after its independence, a republic “with all and for the good of all,” which would be essential to curb the expansionism of its northern neighbour.
It is essential to study José Martí if you want to know about the process and the importance of the unity of Latin America, its origins, its history, its actors, its background and more specific forms and ways in which said union is sought.
José Julián Martí Pérez, was born in Havana on January 28, 1853 and had a childhood marked not only by the needs of his family but by the reality of Cuba as a Spanish colony. Early on he was politically active and engaged with his friends and his teacher Rafael María de Mendive, in plots for liberating Cuba.
At 15 years of age, he was sentenced to prison in the quarries of San Lazaro in Havana for his political activism, following which he was banished and then deported to Spain in 1871. His first major writing, “Political Imprisonment in Cuba,” emerged from this experience. In subsequent years he travelled through several countries of America, including a return to Cuba at the end of the Ten Years’ War, from where he was again deported. In 1881 he settled more stably in New York, where he stepped up the intensity of his work for independence.
José Martí and Latin American Unity
Why study Martí today? He certainly was not the only one in his time, or even of those preceding him (Bolívar being the most significant), to see the necessity for Latin American unity, but it can be said that he is one of its most influential thinkers, whose dedicated political efforts and Our America worldview acted as a vehicle linked to the independence of Cuba – as well as of literary-journalists – and whose thinking now in that respect can be found in his articles in several of the Spanish-language newspapers of South America, especially in La Nación of Buenos Aires.
Several aspects undoubtedly influenced José Martí’s Latin Americanist conception, but it was most certainly strongly influenced by his stay in several of the continent’s countries, specifically Mexico and Guatemala, as noted by Cuban teacher and historian Pedro Pablo Rodríguez, and the study of their cultures and histories, as well as his approximately 15 years in the United States between 1881 and 1895. The latter is central to understanding Marti’s work, for the events he would go through and review, make his work an unquestioned pause for reflection on the history and challenges of unity in Latin America.
The United States’ “Gilded Age” (approx. 1865-1901) was a period of many changes, in which the U.S. emerged as a huge industrial power; new parties were born; with industrialization, the organization of the workers and peasants movement emerged; the railway was completed as was the country’s expansion inwards, adding new states to the Union and eliminating, through what are called the Indian Wars, Indigenous peoples living in the west of the country.
A thriving modern society was formed but it also contained upheaval. It did not take long for Martí to see that there would be an increasingly pressing need for this country to expand its markets, and that expansion would almost naturally be towards its neighbours in South America. Clearer background can be found in the ideas of Henry Clay, speaker of the United States House of Representatives, who in 1820 had expressed enthusiasm for a “human-freedom league” of American states for the purpose of uniting “all nations from Hudson Bay to Cape Horn;” and, a few years later, in 1823, in the famous Monroe Doctrine, “America for Americans,” through which the U.S. sought to assert its dominance over this part of the world against Europe.
It is necessary to note that this idea of “Pan-Americanism” was not a unanimously supported vision in American politics. While some advocated a union based on trade, similar to a customs union, others, staunch protectionist industries, sought to maintain high rates for imports. However, the United States needed to ensure trade and did not look very favourably on commercial incursions by European powers such as Britain, which had maintained a friendly relationship with several former Spanish colonies in America, with which it had close ties.
Efforts to hold what would be the first International Conference of American States in Washington had already been brewing since 1881 by then Secretary of State James G. Blaine, who would occupy the same position and drive those efforts at the end of that decade.
It is through a law in 1888 that the United States Congress authorized the president of that nation to call for holding “a conference between the United States and the Republics of Mexico, Central and South America, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and the Empire of Brazil” whose objectives were, among others, “measures aimed at the formation of an American customs union, to promote as much as possible profitable and reciprocal trade between American nations” and “the adoption by each of the governments of a common silver coin, used in reciprocal commercial transactions of the citizens of all States of America,” according to the announcement.
However, the young journalist and Cuban revolutionary, who also served occasionally as Consul of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, wrote in his chronicles that the need to stop this expansionism was urgent – since as nascent Latin American republics they had not yet been given time to stand on their own feet – if the relationship was to be among equals.
In 1884, The American monthly newspaper wrote: “There is both danger and advantage in the inevitable intimacy of the two sections of the Americas. This intimacy is so close at hand, and perhaps for some points so overwhelming that there is little time to stand, see and speak.”
The conference lasted from October 1889 to April 1890, with successive meetings and breaks. In an issue of the Argentine newspaper La Nación on November 2, Martí wrote:
Never in America, from its independence to the present, has there been a matter requiring more good judgment or more vigilance, or demanding a clearer and more thorough examination, than the invitation which the powerful United States (glutted with unsaleable merchandise and determined to extend its dominions in America) is sending to the less powerful American nations (bound by free and useful commerce to the European nations) for purposes of arranging an alliance against Europe and cutting off transactions with the rest of the world. Spanish America learned how to save itself from the tyranny of Spain; and now, after viewing with judicial eyes the antecedents, motives, and ingredients of the invitation, it is essential to say, for it is true, that the time has come for Spanish America to declare its second independence.
That conference did not achieve its primary purpose, a customs union, but served as terrain for the manifestation of the worldviews of the southern countries, especially from Argentina, and the response given to several of the proposals made there and to “America for the Americans” was in the end through the chant “America for humanity.”
When the Argentinean delegate Sáenz Pena, in challenging the commercial union, concluded his speech with the phrase that is a banner, and was a barrier there: Let America be for humanity, they all stood up in appreciation and extended their hands to him. (José Martí in La Nación, March 31, 1890).
In his book To the Sun I Go, Glimpses of Martí’s Politics, Pedro Pablo Rodríguez said that “Latin American unity is therefore a logical consequence of Marti’s anti-imperialism, or better, is the other side of that coin, because of the close interdependence of both aspects of his thought.”
In 1891, Martí repeated his position in the Monetary Conference of the American Republics and that same year published his transcendental essay on Latin American unity, “Our America,” a product of a profound maturity of his thought, which placed not only the Indigenous figure at the centre of the formation of the American republics, but also the need for their own approach and to take part in international trade, “Let the world be grafted onto our republics, but we must be the trunk.”
Martí’s legacy may contribute to understanding the complexity of the history of Latin American unity, in a situation that has seen in recent times the collapse of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the resurgence of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) as key areas of cooperation between the countries in the south of America and the Caribbean, permitting those who study it to have a better perspective and understanding, and to size up events more appropriately. José Martí is in this sense an indispensable voice and, without doubt, one of the essential voices of our America.