By Aaron Kelly
In his visionary call for continental unity, an expansive unity that expresses itself as solidarity in multiplicity, to fight against growing US imperialism, José Martí saw complacent provincialism as the greatest barrier to an awakened, revolutionary consciousness in Nuestra América:
‘The conceited villager thinks that his hometown is the whole world. As long as he can stay on as mayor, humiliate the rival who stole his sweetheart, and watch his nest egg grow in its strongbox, he believes the universe is in good order. He knows nothing of the giants in seven-league boots who can crush him underfoot, the battling comets in the heavens that devour the worlds that lie sleeping in their paths. Whatever is left in América of such sleepy provincialism must awaken.’
The success of the revolutionary, hemispheric tradition embodied by Martí and continued in Cuba today permits us to invert his guiding terms with supreme historical irony: imperialist hubris has ensured that it is the giant in seven-league boots whose metropolitan provincialism would mistake itself for the whole world.
From the outset, one of the reverberating insistences of Martí’s call to nuestra América was the need to challenge the narcissistic slippage in Yankee colloquialism, whereby the USA referred to itself as America and encouraged the rest of the world to do the same. The USA is not the world; nor is it even all of America. It is as urgent today, as it was in Martí’s times, to affirm the necessary anti-imperialist struggle that will prevent the US from destroying the whole planet in its own image. It is the imperialist metropole that is guilty of the most partial provincialism, an imperial pensamiento de aldea, that misrecognizes its hegemony as universal good order, that misrecognizes capitalism as synonymous with reality.
It is apt therefore that Fidel should have embraced Martí as ‘the most universal’. Martí had already perceived the contradictions and fissures in the supposedly universal values embodied by the Yankee tradition: its delimited democracy was already built upon genocide, slavery and racism, and class inequality. Freedom worthy of its own name would be a universal freedom shared equitably by all. In other words, one not paid for by the servitude of the many for the benefit of the few. Martí knew that only revolutionary action could create a such fully egalitarian democracy and that true freedom is a choral dialogue of many voices and not the monologue of the powerful. Just as surely as the French revolutionaries sent armies to destroy Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution, thereby disclosing the metropolitan provincialism of their own racialized construction of brotherhood and the limits by which it understood freedom, a fraternité that only found its depleted meaning by monopolizing rights and by excluding and dehumanizing others who claimed those rights as theirs, so too US liberty, from its founding colonialism to its current global imperialism, bound its allocation of rights tightly to the unfreedom of others. From the beginning, Yankee democracy intended to mishear the clanking of iron shackles for the bell sounding its own freedom.
Even as Martí acknowledged the USA’s earlier republican promise, in his essay ‘The Funeral of the Haymarket Martyrs: A Terrible Drama’, he bore prophetic witness to its dialectical reversal, its collapse into the very tyranny that its self-mythology claimed to have replaced: ‘Because of its unconscionable cult of wealth, and lacking any of the shackles of tradition, this Republic has fallen into inequality, injustice, and violence of monarchical societies.’ Just as Adorno and Horkheimer would famously diagnose the dialectic of enlightenment more widely, the degradation of modern reason into its own mythology and its systemic need to dominate everything heterogeneous to its increasingly instrumental logic, so Martí’s critique of US hegemony discerned its pathological drive to remake the world in its own image, a necessarily mythical image that sought to rewrite the violence required to dominate the whole world in the name of universal freedom. But Martí knew that the only fully universal consequence of such an imperialist project is gigantic horror and not great freedom: ‘I have lived in the monster and I know its entrails; my sling is David’s.’
If anything, the only universalism now projected by Yankee imperialism upon the world is not found in great principles or democratic achievements but merely in the mercenary form of the ‘universal mediator’ of its economic system: capital itself. Even though counterrevolutionaries seek to reclaim Martí from the synthesis of his ideas in the ongoing values of the Cuban Revolution, to make him a surrogate Yankee creating the myth of democratic individualism with Emerson and Whitman, it is US imperialism that has already debased that mythology: the only remaining remnants of what was once a philosophical tradition of transcendentalism in the US are the Yankee efforts to transcend international law and justice, or to deposit the hoarded dollars of hedge fund billionaires in bank accounts beyond the limits of tax legislation. In place of the human imagination, US imperialism would allow only financial speculation; it would replace the capacity of art or poetry to recast the world with the shifting algorithms of computer programs monitoring global markets. When an imperialist system can permit no vision of anything different to its own logic, no alternatives to capitalism or its domination, then it is finally, universally, tyranny. Where once Whitman could proclaim, ‘I contain multitudes’, and this could be understood as a celebration of a hospitable, cultural diversity in the republican tradition, imperialism now ironically renders those formerly poetic words as a merely prosaic and factual statement about the US prison system at home and Yankee foreign policies across the world.
The crucial, Cuban revolutionary purpose of Martí’s life and work makes him the generous repository of a properly universal tradition of anti-imperialism and democracy. One of his most outstanding achievements was his capacity to think and act in ways that are different from the US imperialism, despite its hegemony and the gravitational pull of its logic of the same. As Martí makes clear in Madre América, his emancipatory project refused the self-identical logic of domination that would make history a monotonous monologue from colonial to imperialist times: ‘we have transformed all this venom into sap! Never was there such a precocious, persevering, and generous people born out of so much opposition and unhappiness … In the public squares where they used to burn heretics, we built libraries.’ The most vital aspect of what the great Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o calls decolonizing the mind, is to think differently to your oppressors, to think radically beyond the limits of their philosophical and historical frameworks. In short, to be better than your enemies. There is no greater example of that decolonizing dynamic than the 1959 Cuban Revolution that continued and synthetized Martí’s ideas. As Fidel said in 1955: ‘I educated my mind though Martí’s thinking that preaches love and not hate.’ Martí’s most famous poem memorably encapsulates the necessary grace and strength of such compassion:
I have a white rose to tend
In July as in January;
I give it to the true friend
Who offers his frank hand to me.
And to the cruel one whose blows
Break the heart by which I live,
Thistle nor thorn do I give:
For him, too, I have a white rose.
Are the heroes of the Henry Reeve Brigades in their medics’ coats, not these white roses, offered to friend and enemy alike during the global pandemic? Just as Bush disgracefully refused the offer of help when Fidel founded the Henry Reeve Brigade following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so today Cuba continues to be better than its adversary in the seven-league boots. Cuba’s valiant humanitarian work is being undertaken despite US sanctions that are illegal under international law and which are depriving Cubans of basic medical supplies, food, and income. The US has also threatened to punish countries who have availed of Cuban assistance during this ongoing global pandemic. There is no starker and more illustrative a contrast than between a universal mission of humanitarian help and the petty vanity of imperial hegemony.
The Cuban Revolution is like the redemptive image in Versos Sencillos of ‘butterflies emerging / From the refuse heap that moulders’, of the diamond emerging from darkness: ‘All is coal before it’s light’. Its internationalism has finally made possible a truly universal history of emancipation that transforms a dark, deadening historical logic whose only continuity was oppression and not progress. Geographically, Cuba is a small island; but politically, it is so strong a country that it is able to bear the burden of an entire planet’s hope for a better world. Fidel said of Martí: ‘I carry in my heart the doctrine of the Master’. So too the Revolution carries in its heart the doctrines of Martí, Fidel, El Che, and every single Cuban revolutionary. All Cuban revolutionaries are apostles of a searing future that scorches through the empty promise of imperialist democracy and its historical monotony and vibrantly discloses to humanity a shining futurity radically different to the metropolitan provincialism fatalistically tied to capitalist imperialism, a shining futurity that beckons all of us to fight for its construction now. If Martí’s wintery nightmare in his prologue to Versos Sencillos was the image of an imperial eagle clutching the flags on all nations in its talons, his vision of anti-imperialist hope in Nuestra América saw the Great Cemi spirit of the Taíno peoples ascending astride its condor to sow the seeds of future freedom. Just as Martí, quite rightly, wished in his verses to die facing the sun, so too his legacy allows all peoples to emerge from treacherous darkness and the ignorant complacency of the imperial metropole, and to feel the warm kiss of sunlight on our faces as we watch the flight of Great Cemi’s condor and resolve ourselves to fight for a finally universal set of values in which every single human is included. Martí lives: patria es humanidad!