José Martí, Cuba, and the Anarchists (+travel guide)

May they not bury me in darkness
to die like a traitor
I am good, and as a good man
I will die facing the sun.

-Part of Versos sencillos by José Martí

José Martí, the famous Cuban revolutionary and prolific writer whose published works fill 28 whole volumes, including - children stories, letters, poems, journalism, theater, translations, notes, and essays on a variety of subjects ranging from anarchists to white roses. Martí is often credited as the "father of modernism", especially in regards to Spanish-American literature. He was born in Old Habana, Cuba in 1853 and died in 1895 fighting against the Spanish there. Martí was and continues to be the haunting spectacle of Cuba. What follows, are some thoughts and minor research about Martí, specifically - his ten years spent living in New York City, his views on capitalism and work, and his thoughts about anarchists.

At the age of 16, Martí was sent to prison for treason against the Spanish government, then in control of Cuba. He was soon exiled to Spain where he studied law and philosophy, but in the coming years he returned to Cuba, where he was again exiled to Spain. Eventually, in 1880 Martí found himself in New York City (NYC) writing journalism, translating articles, and working as joint consul for Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina. His time in NYC proved to be critical- as he helped launch Cuba's third war of independence while there, by fund raising and organizing against the Spanish. Soon afterwards, as history has come to tell - Martí was killed near Palma Soriano, Cuba in the very first battle of independence. The legend goes that he charged into battle on a white horse, while wearing a black overcoat, making him a prime target, and soon after dying. In comparison to the sword, the pen was the mightiest for Martí, as the 30+ volumes of his collected works attest to.

Being clever is a good way to start being free, rough translation

For me, this exploration of Martí began when I visited Habana, Cuba and ventured into some of the many used book shops there. Book shops are interesting in Cuba, because there is often a somewhat limited selection amongst public sellers due to state censorship, but at the same time there is a plethora of old inexpensive books floating around, both above and underground - the most unusual, often dust covered little bookshops one can imagine with discounts on already inexpensive books. Of course, it is mostly all Spanish, but there is also old Russian language books and some English language books.

A lot of time was spent browsing these shelves, and most all of them had one thing in common - José Martí; the man continues to be a controversial character even in death. The Castro's use Martí in their five hour speeches and dialogues, even including him in their Constitution. While, at the same time their enemies, have also claimed him as one of their own; setting up media broadcasts from Miami, Florida and elsewhere to beam into the island. It's a cat and mouse game on the radio, as one group radio broadcasts messages and the other side eventually jams the frequency. New and different technologies, plus less restriction on the availability of cell phones and other computer technology on the island has increased the chances of these types of messages not only getting in, but out as well. In the USA there has been some focus on well-known Cuban bloggers.

The million dollar question, is that if Martí were alive today - what would he do? In reality, Martí would have more than likely disagreed with the current situation in Cuba – that being the 1959 revolution of Fidel Castro and it's continuation. In the most basic sense, Martí spent his time struggling towards a free and independent Cuba. Martí is one of the most flowery and ubiquitous writers of the modern century, and while it is never certain as the dead remain silent, one may be able to distinguish ideas by looking at his writings on the anarchists of New York City

For fourteen years (1880-1894) Martí lived in the "gran manzana" (big apple) of New York City (NYC). During this time, Martí experienced first hand the desolation of American capitalism, in regards to race, poverty, and the workering class. The worker - who, according to Martí, each day struggled for eight hours, fair wages, and an overall better world. We will examine two of his articles more closely: Grandes motines de obreros, alzamiento unanime a favor de ocho horas de trabajo…, published in NYC on the 16th of May, 1886 and Un drama terrible: Anarquia y represion… published on the 1st of January, 1888. These articles by Martí about the NYC anarchists appeared in the newspaper and should be thought of as paid propaganda, as his view is often unfavorable and can be seen as a product of the times.

In these two articles and some others he explores the events leading up to and of the Haymarket Massacre. With these articles Martí helped inform and radicalize readers, not only in the USA, but throughout Latin America, and the world. In the texts, he presents us with a look inside the events that helped spawn Mayday and the International Day of Anarchy, while also helping to understand why these were inspiring events at the time. Part of his appeal to anarchists can also be found in his his homage to Albert Parsons written in NY on the 17th of October, 1886.

When the trapdoors of the gallows were released on November 12, 1887, Albert Parsons had begun to say “Shall I be allowed to speak? O, men of America…” before his voice was cut short by the noose. Deeply moved by the injustice of Haymarket, José Martí continued to speak, in the name of the executed anarchists, for the poor and the hopeless, and for the Latin American republics threatened by U.S. foreign policy. Thus, the Haymarket affair underlines how Martí’s familiarity with, and critique of North American current events during the Gilded Age did in fact play a substantive role in maturing his views on labor and enabling his later critiques of colonialism.[1]

In the first article “Grandes Motines de obreros…” He thought that since the American Civil War there had not been a more crucial moment in USA history. He wrote flowery that, the blood stained flowers of May signaled that there was not a more serious problem in the USA, than the problem of heartless capitalists and work. In response to the Haymarket massacre, Martí observed that the situation seemed to suddenly appear; as an uprising, spontaneously, even though the problems were already deeply ingrained within society and revolutionaries had been struggling against them since even before. Everything, just kind of took off.

The workers in the USA were uprising – demanding better working rights, and undermining the capitalists oppression. In the glorified eyes of Martí, the streets seemed to always be filled with workers, fighting against the police and capital. In the first article, he wrote that, the anarchists were reading books about insurrection and then target practicing with guns in the streets of NYC almost every Sunday, while everyone else was at church. With this, he compares and contrasts anarchists and workers into differences he presumes - such as "peaceful" vs. "violent". The naiveté is curious and is more likely the result of a profound dislike of anarchist idea, although in another text he is intrigued by Lucy Parsons.

Martí states that he believes non-violence and actions within the law were most just. Interestingly enough, soon afterwards Martí picked up a gun to help fight against the Spanish in Cuba. While I'm not exactly certain what changed his mind, it is clear his opinions had changed or he is the ultimate hypocritic. On this note, I think Martí was in line with the demonstrations - but stopped at the point of NYC's gun slinging anarchists and others around the USA. More so, he was part of the press and the time was ripe for yellow journalism.

Martí’s first articles on the Chicago anarchists are in step with the North American press and the xenophobia it promoted: anarchist terror is the work of monstrous Eastern European immigrants who have brought the violent ways of the Old World to the New. The notion of “America” as a democratic alternative to barbarous “Europe” stands. After the execution of the anarchists, however, Martí does an about-face and re-writes his earlier account of events. He turns his rage on the political and justice system and softens his earlier critique of the anarchists. The U.S. is now as unjust and violent as despotic Europe.[1]

It goes on to say that:

In his initial reactions to Haymarket, Martí had celebrated the heroism of the police and demonized the European anarchists in terms similar to those found in the mainstream U.S. press. In “Un drama terrible,” however, he retells the story of what happened on May fourth in a way that was much more sympathetic to workers and anarchists. He indicts the police, the national media and the justice system for their lies and corruption. If before he had referred to the anarchists as beasts, now it was the Republic as a whole that has become savage like a wolf (795). Martí’s newfound solidarity with the working class, and his sympathetic representation of the anarchists he had previously rejected, results in a powerful identification with the working class, where a new community emerges out of the ruins of the Haymarket Affair.[1]

José Martí and his on-again, off-again relationship with the anarchists never made it to see the “new community” emerge from the ruins of the old, but then again neither has any revolutionary of the past or present. His writings, full of illusion and splendor, are a somewhat enjoyable introspective into one aspect of the late 19th century revolutionary thinkers. For many, Martí has withstood the test of time and his influence on contemporary thought is evident today in Cuba, but outside as well – even if with different interpretations.

Other articles by Martí about New York:

La ciudad, el viaje y el circo - La vida neoyorkina - Los indios de Norteamerica - La diversion norteamericana - El problema industrial en los Estados Unidos - La escuela en Nueva York - El puente de Brooklyn - The Dedication of the Statue of Liberty


[1] The Limits of Analogy: José Martí and the Haymarket Martyrs by Christopher Conway - University of Texas—Arlington

*Author's note: Originally, some years ago, there was another article about José Martí, Cuba, and the Anarchists; that was, looking back - pretty bad. This version is an attempt to fix that and never look back again.

The revolution is just a Che t-shirt away

There are perhaps four large categories of American thought which provide definitions of the fifty years of Castro rule: 1) the right-wing which views the island as a totalitarian, communist police state where starving people live under daily repressive rule, and the government is involved in drug trafficking and terrorism; 2) the center through to the liberal left which agrees, perhaps in the mode of Michael Moore’s movie, Sicko, that the Revolution has provided good social services for the poor and resisted U.S. hegemony in the hemisphere, but needs to install more democracy and private investment; 3) the organized left which sees very little wrong with the island and views all criticism of it as aid to the U.S. empire, and 4) the anarchist view which, indeed, sees the island as a police state needing a second revolution to install workers democracy, but has no use for calls for returning to private forms of ownership or foreign investment.

Formally known as Caobana in the native Taíno language, the island now known as Cuba is located in the Caribbean sea and rests just 90 miles south of the Florida Peninsula. Discovered in 1492 by the Spanish flagged crew of Christopher Columbus and later claimed for himself; the island has been ruled by Spain until their final overthrow in 1902. Cuba tempted multiple revolutions in the mid-to-late 1800s and one important actor to come out of this was José Martí, the prolific Cuban writer who died fighting against Spain in 1895. Today the words and slogans of Martí are manipulated by not only the Cuban State, but it's opponents as well - with each declaring him for themselves. In 1959, Fidel Castro with the help of Ernesto “Che” Guevera and others overpowered the USA backed Cuban government of Batista and with little exception has been in power ever since.

Cuba is one of the places in the world that citizens of the United States of America (USA) are not allowed to legally visit, just ask Jay-Z. Usually, unless you're a doctor, lawyer, journalist, student, Cuban-American, some-kind-of professional, musician, or something close by those terms, you may NOT be able to visit. Although, times are slowly changing and a 2011 New York Times article, explains some current ridiculously expensive vacation exceptions for regular USA passport holders. But what if you can't afford that, or those pre-planned cookie-cutter trips are not appealing to you, yet you'd still like to visit?

Cuba is only 90 miles away from the USA, appearing like long lost pen pals who in the end turned out to be neighbors, that secretly hate each other. There has been some discussion in prior years of capitalizing on ship/boat cruises from Florida to Cuba and reverse, although I'm not sure if this ever really panned out. A lot of cruise ships (floating monstrosities) can't make port in Cuba due to the USA economic embargo. Traveling to Cuba by plane has also become a bit easier with some added options for flights; although the USA mainstays are still Los Angeles, New York City, and Miami with permission. Otherwise, you're looking at first traveling to Canada or Mexico for your departure.

Once you arrive in Cuba, there is a $25 entry fee from the Cuban authorities, and legally as a USA citizen you're not allowed to spend more then $20 on the island. Therefore, by simply entering Cuba - you're breaking the law; which if I remember correctly there is also was an exit fee of like $20+. If someone wants to specifically clarify any of this info, that would be great - because honestly these things change and it's confusing. One of the funniest parts for me is USA - "land of free to travel where you want" and you can actually travel there "without breaking a law", but you can't spend more than $20; which is a impossible with a $25 entry fee from Cuba. It's confusing from both sides, with each one saying different things. The economic embargo is from the USA, but then Cuba totally blocks even arrival in a legal sense for USA citizens by making them pay over the USA quota.

Upon arriving in La Habana, when I handed customs my passport and told them to stamp it, they looked back with a rather funny perplexed expression. "Yes, really please stamp it." Otherwise, usually they insert a blank sheet of paper and stamp that instead. I needed mine stamped because I was legally visiting the island and would be there for sometime, with other customs hoops to jump through which required the officialness.

And... money? Otherwise, so the story goes. Obviously, "non-legal" travelers from USA, it seems usually make sure you don't have to use a credit card or other banking devices there to get your capital. Even using your passport/ID to check in at some hotels can lead to the USA knowing of your stay in Cuba, thus invoking a possible fine once back home and crossing the border with your fantasy Cuban cigars and rum. Bring all the money that you may need with you, don't get robbed (just kidding), and otherwise prepare for the squeeze, if you ever come back. I imagine if you have a non-USA bank you may be okay, but check ahead and consider your options. Whatever you do, exchange your American dollars for Canadian or something else before you get to Cuba, otherwise be prepared to pay an hefty (15%?) tax for using American dollars there. Hotels usually charge dramatically more to exchange money into Cuba's two different currencies, Pesos Nacional y Convertibles (CUC). Make sure you exchange your money at a "Casa de Cambio" or exchange house for the best rate. Plan ahead to save your dimes. They are located all over the city of Habana, a lot of Cubans use them as well (get there earlier, to ensure they have what you're looking for if you're exchanging a lot).

Even with its privileged bureaucracy, its police control, and centralized economy, there is a spontaneous, communal, imaginative aspect to the Revolution. This shows up in its vibrant culture and music scenes, but also on the local level where women’s groups challenge traditional machismo, neighbors plant vast community organic gardens, and most share a pride in having defeated and held off the imperialist monster of the north. The island’s education system creates a higher literacy rate than that of the States, and its universal health care system provides a better infant mortality than the U.S, These and other successes have made Cuba a model of what can be done with little. (For instance, Detroit’s infant mortality rate is 16 deaths per 1,000 live births; Cuba’s is six.)

An Anarchist in Cuba: Socialism or Cell Phones
by Walker Lane
Fifth Estate #378, Summer 2008.

Adios Socialismo
by Walker Lane
Fifth Estate #383, Summer 2010.

For some further reading:

Democracy Now! Interview with Assata Shakur's lawyer

Self Steering Without A Windvane

The Anarchist Library Cuba category

From Stalking the Earth



It's a cool place! I visit at least once a year! Vote for Reverend Al in 2016!

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