The Myth of José Martí. Conflicting Nationalisms in Early Century Cuba

By Lundgren, Silje | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Myth of José Martí. Conflicting Nationalisms in Early Century Cuba


Lundgren, Silje, Ibero-americana


Lillian Guerra, The Myth of José Martí. Conflicting Nationalisms in Early Century Cuba. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

The Cuban national hero, José Martí, watches over Fidel Castro, looking down at him from a large signboard at the intersection "23 y 14" in Vedado, Havana. The José Martí memorial is also the physical background to Fidel's annual March 1 speeches at the plaza de la Revolución. Next to the Martí memorial is the building of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, constitutionally defined as martiano y marxistaleninista.

José Martí is admired, loved, and constantly referred to by Cubans, many of whom, without distinction regarding ideology or opinion own his collected works and quote his poetry. Fidel quotes Martí, and Martí is also quoted by occasional anti-Castro slogans sprayed on city streets and housewalls (however, they choose different quotes).

"To specialists, students, and even casual observers of Cuba, the historic tendency of Cuban political activists to appropriate Martí's image and interpret his words for their own purposes is well known," states Lillian Guerra in her book The Myth of José Martí (p. 3), published as part of the book series "Envisioning Cuba" from the University of North Carolina Press. Guerra, proudly Cuban although not born in Cuba, spent years in Cuban archives and at the Centro de estudios martianos (Centre for Martí studies) for her research on how Martí has been used as a historical figure. Her book focuses on the period of nation-building that took place during the first decades of the 20th century, and discusses what has been said and done, questioned and justified, in the name of José Martí.

José Martí was one of the revolutionary movement's key organizers and principle ideologues from the 1880's until his death in 1895, when after 15 years in exile in the U.S. he was killed in military battle in the second war of independence against Spain. Many Cubans, including Guerra, ask themselves whether Cuban history would have been different if Martí would have survived.

During the decades following Martí's death, Cuba lived through its second war of independence, ending with Spain giving sovereignty over the island to the U.S. Four years of North-American occupation was followed by what Guerra calls the "stillbirth" of an independent but colonial-style Republic - achieved through accepting the Platt Amendment which granted the U.S. the right of military intervention whenever considered necessary to protect their interests. For Cuba, this was a period of political struggles, state violence, racist massacres, and continuing governmental loyalty to Spain and the U.S. Inextricably linked to this violent process of nationbuilding went the process of mythification of a national symbol - José Martí.

While often portrayed in messianistic terms (by others and occasionally also by himself), Martí was a pragmatist in his political work. He created alliances between conflicting groups such as conservative whites, militant revolutionaries and ex-slaves, harmonizing their contradictions into a single discourse of unity for the cause of independence.

In her account, Guerra shows how Martí's death was followed by a struggle between groups who all claimed to be his authentic heirs. Ironically, Martí's words about unity were used to create competing nationalisms based on different political ideologies. Guerra distinguishes between three nationalisms arising in this period: The conservative proimperialist nationalists who gained power when the U.S. occupation ended in 1902; revolutionary nationalists who wanted to redistribute resources and shoulder the role as national leaders; and popular nationalists focusing on Cuba's self-determination and popular equality. All of these groups used José Martí to justify their own position: For pro-imperialist nationalists, the meaning of Martí's death lay in the birth of the Republic and the mandate for rule they claimed in his name; revolutionary nationalist opponents focused on Martí's martyrdom in order to legitimate their own right to reclaim power in the state; while popular nationalists saw Martí as a Messiah, and, instead of focusing on his death, pointed to his inclusion of marginalized groups during his life.

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