The most arresting images of President Obama’s historic state visit to Cuba this week were captured Monday on Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución. In photographs published by major newspapers and widely circulated online, Obama and his retinue can be seen doing their best to maintain neutral expressions as they walk past buildings decorated with enormous sculptural portraits of revolutionary icons Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. They endured these uncomfortable optics, immediately seized upon as evidence of Obama’s own communistic leanings by the opposition at home, in order to lay a wreath at the plaza’s memorial to another Cuban hero: the 19th-century poet, patriot and political thinker José Martí.
In a joint news conference with Cuban President Raúl Castro late Monday evening, Obama praised Martí “not only [for] his role in Cuban independence, but [for] the profound words that he wrote and spoke in support of liberty and freedom everywhere.”
On Tuesday, in his televised remarks to the Cuban people, Obama returned to Martí three times. He cited Martí’s poem “Cultivo una rosa blanca” as a model of openness to reconciliation among the most determined enemies. He described Martí as a model of the creative potential released by inter-American exchange and travel. And he quoted Martí to rebuke the Cuban government’s efforts to suppress dissent: “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.”
Martí makes a very canny choice for commemoration. Thanks to the efforts of exile scholars such as the late Carlos Ripoll, he is revered by the Cuban exile community as an apostle of liberal democracy and an enemy of even the most progressive dictatorship.
José Martí praised and criticized the United States
Martí was born in 1853 in one of the last bastions of Spain’s American empire. He was arrested and imprisoned twice during his youth and young adulthood for speaking out against Spanish rule, and he spent much of his subsequent life in exile in New York City. Returning to the United States in 1880, he wrote that he was, “at last, in a country where everyone looks like his own master. One can breathe freely here, freedom being the foundation, the shield, the essence of life.”
In regular dispatches for Latin American newspapers, Martí praised North Americans’ energy and entrepreneurial drive, their free and fair elections and, above all, the philosophical ideals that animated the American Revolution and the U.S. Constitution.
But Martí did not ignore the more problematic features of politics and life in the United States. He described the crass materialism and grinding poverty that characterized northern industrial cities. He denounced Indian removal policies enforced in the West and reported on lynch mobs terrorizing African Americans in the south.
He concentrated his critical energies on U.S. foreign policy. In his most famous essay, “Our America,” published in 1891, Martí warned that “the scorn of our formidable neighbor is Our America’s greatest danger.” He anticipated how the United States would use military might and economic leverage to extend its influence over the hemisphere and urged Latin Americans to unite in defense of their independence.
This second Martí, the proto-Marxist, anti-racist, pan-Americanist scourge of Yankee imperialism, has been the subject of countless scholarly works published by the Center for Martí Studies in Havana, which has made him a potent symbol and early expositor of the ideals animating Cuba’s more recent Revolution.
Martí wanted the Unites States, his adopted home, to live up to its own ideals
A proper understanding of Martí would integrate the opposed images offered by his admirers in Miami and Havana, noting that the force of Martí’s criticisms of the United States derived from his appreciation for his home in exile. Martí was what political theorists call an “immanent critic” of the United States. He did not assume the stance of an impartial arbiter of international relations. Instead he wrote as a fellow American, reproaching his adoptive country for failing to fulfill its own ideals as it permitted its poor to starve, persisted in its racist exclusion and elimination of African and indigenous Americans, and pursued imperial foreign policies in Latin America.
He inverted the rhetoric of American interventionism by insisting that it was the United States that needed saving, and that Latin Americans could show their northern neighbors how to overcome democratic deficits at home and cultivate free institutions abroad.
What would Martí have thought of Obama’s argument for normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba?
In the landmark address on U.S.-Cuban relations delivered in Havana on Tuesday, Obama seemed to have learned from Martí. He acknowledged that during the Spanish-American War, American battleships had crossed the Florida Straits not only “to liberate, but also to exert control over Cuba.” He emphasized that all Americans “live in a new world, colonized by Europeans … [and] built in part by slaves brought here from Africa.”
He made these shared origins and this history of conflict central to the case he presented for normalizing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, and lifting the trade embargo the United States has imposed upon the island for more than 50 years. Increased contact, denser connections, regular exchanges of people and products, Obama suggested, could only improve lives in both the United States and Cuba.
In the closing portion of his address, in strained Spanish, Obama insisted that “todos somos Americanos”: We are all Americans. Martí would have certainly agreed, but he might have added, as he wrote in 1875, “No somos aún bastante Americanos”: We are not yet American enough.
Joshua Simon is assistant professor of political science at Columbia University. He is the author of the forthcoming book “From Independence to Empire in American and Latin American Political Thought.”