Sunday, October 12, 2014

Translation of José Martí's First Great Poem: "A Emma"

In José Martí's lifetime, this beautiful poem, written in a deaf girl's album, was invariably cited in every biographical sketch that made any allusion to his poetry as his best known work. It is indeed a perfect poem of matchless sensibility, worthy of Spain's Golden Age and even of classical antiquity. It has that quality of always having existed which is the essence of immortality. Is this Martí's greatest poem? It is certainly his first great poem. Ismaelillo fulfilled its promise and Versos sencillos elevated Spanish poetry to the greatest height it had reached in more than two centuries. The recognition of that fact would come after Martí's death. In his day, it was "A Emma" that won him whatever renown he enjoyed as a poet. For that reason, this poem was especially dear to him and should be dear to us, too. I have been trying to translate it for decades. In my translation of the Versos sencillos, I had to make many unavoidable compromises which the retention of the original rhyme scheme decreed. Notwithstanding that fact, at least half of the 46 translations are as perfect as I (or anybody) could make them. In translating "To Emma," however, I was not disposed to accept any compromise. In an extended work such as the Versos sencillos, the scope and sweep of the symphony drowns out the occasional discordant note produced by the clash of languages. In a precious little gem like "A Emma" there can be no occlusions. It must be perfect in every respect since perfection is what defines it. And so I think its translation will always remain a work in progress. This version in blank verse is so far the most satisfying to me. My object, of course, is to cast it in rhyme while preserving every other element of the original. Is this possible? I believe it is, though that certainty necessarily entails accepting the premise that two languages can be interchangeable (which evidently is not the case). Still, I persist because, contrary to common belief, lightning can and has struck the same person twice (and more than twice). Until then, I offer this version because there has to be one English translation of this important poem available somewhere after 140 years.

Written during his first exile in Spain, when he was 19, this poem was inspired by and dedicated to Emma Goróstegui y Campuzano, wrongly identified in all anthologies by only her maternal surname. "A Emma" appears in numerous sites on the internet, where invariably the wrong date of its composition is given ("1883" instead of 1872) and the last line is transcribed incorrectly (substituting "mujeres" for palabras) with very unhappy results.

A Emma

No sientas que te falte
el don de hablar que te arrebata el cielo,
no necesita tu belleza esmalte
ni tu alma pura más extenso vuelo.
No mires, niña mía,
en tu mutismo fuente de dolores,
ni llores las palabras que te digan
ni las palabras que te faltan llores.
Si brillan en tu faz tan dulces ojos
que el alma enamorada se va en ellos,
no los nublen jamás tristes enojos,
que todas las palabras de mis labios,
no son una mirada de tus ojos...

Madrid, 10 de julio de 1872

To Emma

Do not feel sad, dear child, because you lack
The gift of speech which heaven has denied you:
Your beauty and pure soul do not require,
Nor are there, words that can soar any higher.
Let not your deafness be a source of sorrow,
Nor cry because of words you cannot hear,
Nor cry because of words you cannot say;
For such sweet eyes light up your countenance,
A loving heart but sees and is lost in them.
Never allow your tears to dim their brightness;
For all the words that ever crossed my lips
Ne'er said as much as one look from your eyes.

Madrid, July 10, 1872.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"La Patria"

Queriendo yo un dia
Saber qué es la Patria,
Me dijo un anciano
Que mucho la amaba:

«La Patria se siente;
No tienen palabras
Que claro la expliquen
Las lenguas humanas.

Allí, donde todas
Las cosas nos hablan
Con voz que hasta el fondo
Penetra del alma;

Allí, donde empieza
La breve jornada
Que al hombre en el mundo
Los cielos señalan;

Allí, donde el canto
Materno arrullaba
La cuna que el Ángel
Veló de la guarda;

Allí, donde en tierra
Bendita y sagrada
De abuelos y padres
Los restos descansan;

Allí, donde eleva
Su techo la casa
De nuestros mayores...
Allí está la Patria.


El valle profundo,
La ruda montaña
Que vieron alegre
Correr nuestra infancia;

Las viejas ruïnas
De tumbas y de aras
Que mantos hoy visten
De hiedra y de zarza;

El árbol que frutos
Y sombra nos daba
Al son armonioso
Del ave y del aura;

Recuerdos, amores,
Tristeza, esperanzas,
Que fuentes han sido
De gozos y lágrimas;

La imágen del templo,
La roca y la playa
Que ni años ni ausencias
Del ánimo arrancan;

La voz conocida,
La jóven que pasa,
La flor que has regado,
Y el campo que labras;

Ya en dulce concierto,
Ya en notas aisladas,
Oirás que te dicen:
Aquí está la Patria.


El suelo que pisas
Y ostenta las galas
Del arte y la industria
De toda tu raza,

No es obra de un dia
Que el viento quebranta;
Labor es de siglos
De penas y hazañas.

En él tuvo orígen
La fe que te inflama;
En él tus afectos
Más nobles se arraigan:

En él han escrito
Arados y espadas,
Pinceles y plumas,
Buriles y hazañas,

Anales sombríos,
Historias que encantan
Y en rasgos eternos
Tu pueblo retratan.

Y tanto a su vida
La tuya se enlaza,
Cual se une en un árbol
Al tronco la rama.

Por eso presente
O en zonas lejanas,
Doquiera contigo
Va siempre la Patria.


No importa que al hombre,
Su tierra sea ingrata,
Que el hambre la aflija,
Que pestes la invadan;

Que viles verdugos
La postren esclava,
Rompiendo las leyes
Más justas y santas;

Que noches eternas
Las brumas le traigan,
Y nunca los astros
Su luz deseada;

Pregunta al proscrito,
Pregunta al que vaga
Por ella sin techo,
Sin paz y sin calma;

¡Pregunta si pueden
Jamas olvidarla,
Si en sueño y vigilia
Por ella no claman!

No existe, a sus ojos,
Más bella morada,
Ni en campo ni en cielo
Ninguna le iguala.

Quizá unidos todos
Se digan mañana:
¡Mi Dios es el tuyo,
Mi Patria, tu Patria!»

Ventura Ruiz Aguilera (1820-1881)

There are poems that rob us of our voice and even of the air we breathe. We think that if we can recite such a poem through once, however haltingly and imperfectly, the next time it will be easier. But it isn't. The knot in our throats is not loosened by exercising our vocal chords. The emotion it provokes cannot be wrung out of it. We are as susceptible to its power at the last reading as we were at the first. It moves us when we will not be moved. We don't master it; it is master of us. This is such a poem. The greatest poets, like the greatest opera singers, can reach the highest notes at will. The accomplishment of such a feat by one whose range is more limited is astonishing because it is unexpected and shines all the more distinctively because it shines alone. Martí is the author of many great poems; Ventura Ruiz Aguilera of just one. The two poets were contemporaries, though Ruiz Aguilera's literary career ended at exactly the time that Martí's was beginning. He was immensely popular as a poet in his day, which Martí never was. In his "Modern Spanish Poets," published in English in New York's The Sun, in 1880, Martí writes almost as an afterthought "Then there is Ruiz Aguilera, a sort of Berénger" (the renowned French songwriter). This judgment has since been echoed by all critics. If Ruiz Aguilera had written nothing but "La Patria," he might today be known as a greater poet. But perhaps all the ephemeral poems that preceded it were an apprenticeship which had to be served in order for him to produce this one glorious poem, which we are quite sure Martí never read or else he would have been far more fulsome in his praise of its author. Ruiz Aguilera was a physician, archaeologist and museum director; and in this one poem, a great poet.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

How José Martí Tested His Sexual Willpower

It is not surprising that the Quesadas, father and son, the hereditary caretakers of Martí's personal papers who also appointed themselves the guardians of his reputation, suppressed this notebook for as long as they were in control of Martí's archives, nor is it unexpected that the regime's own cultural commissars, once they had wrested it from its owners, concealed its contents for another forty years. Recently, however, the regime has launched a propaganda campaign aimed at convincing the world (or at least its progressive allies) that it has abandoned its sexual puritanism of old and no longer persecutes sexual minorities as minorities. The same conditional sufferance which it has extended to homosexuals and transvestites the regime has now seen fit to grant to its avowed "intellectual author."

So it came to past that the Centro de Estudios Martianos, the official and only recognized interpreter of Martí's legacy in Cuba, published in the 35th edition of its "Anuario" a series of ten notations by Martí dealing with  pedophilia in classical literature, aphrodisiacs, prostitution, polyandry, the cult of Priapus, the Holy Phallus (of which there are seven in as many churches), sexual mutilation (of which the former would be an example), Elizabeth I (sadist), and the Marquis de Sade (a lesser sadist). Nothing that he says on these subjects departs from the conventional view of them. That is, he does not approve. Their suppression, therefore, is a question of being purer than Caesar's wife; there are certain subjects which, in the opinion of his censors, Martí should never have broached at all since they detract from his gravitas.

With one notable exception (Fragment 8), Martí does not relate any of these topics to his personal life. That one exception, however, may be the reason that it and the others were withheld for 117 years. Quesada de Miranda was known for granting some of his favorites tantalizing peeps at some of "his" treasures. He may indeed have accorded that privilege to Carlos Márquez Sterling, who in his largely-derivative biography of Martí alludes to his supposed dalliances with prostitutes in New York, based, no doubt, on a misinterpretation of this particular "fragment" (fragment of what?). This unsourced allegation made no impression at the time of its publication (1940) because most Cuban men of that era had at least experienced their sexual initiation in that way. What is common is never considered shocking or censurable, though it can qualify as distasteful, which is the reason that Márquez Sterling's allegation was never repeated by any other subsequent biographer. In any case, Fragment 8 does not support but rather disproves this assumption. Its subject is obviously prostitution and Martí's relation to it, but his relation to it is exactly the opposite of what Márquez Sterling innocently (yes, innocently) assumes.

San Agustín mismo ¿no es de singular importancia, y todo el favor de su atención, a minuciosidades corpóreas?— Y Sto Tomás sobre colocaciones!—

Pues yo he hecho como San Adelmo y el beato Robert d’ Arbrissel. They need to sleep wih [sic] the prettiest girls,—to pure their own,— enerfiger [sic] [palabra ilegible] and chaalotly [sic]

The reader will note that the original jotting appears half in Spanish and half in English. The personal revelation is written in English and has been poorly deciphered by its transcriber whether through incompetence or design (I suspect the former). I have done what I could to make sense of it and believe it is now perfectly intelligible:

For St. Augustine, isn't carnal minutiae of singular importance and doesn't it occupy his entire attention? — And St. Thomas [Aquinas] and his views on intercourse! —

Well, I've done the same as St. Aldhelm and Blessed Robert d'Arbrissel. They need[ed] to sleep with the prettiest girls  — to pure [purify] their own energies and purge [the girls'] harlotry."

Augustine and Aquinas condemned prostitution as a sin, but neither advocated its legal proscription. Although they did not regard it as a "victimless crime" (its modern extenuation) they did believe that there would be more victims if it were criminalized than if it were tolerated. In justifying why prostitution should be allowed to exist for the sake of the common good, Aquinas quotes from Augustine's De Ordine: "If you do away with harlots, the world would be convulsed with lust." In other words, honest women would lose the prerogative of saying "no" if meretricious women were prevented from saying "yes." Prostitution assured the virtue of the many by sacrificing the souls (and bodies) of a few. Martí obviously finds such a calibration ridiculous, as attested by the question mark which he affixes to his comment on Augustine's obsession with "sexual minutiae" and the exclamation mark which Aquinas' views on sexual intercourse merits.

In the next paragraph, Martí confesses, unapologetically, that he has also used "beautiful girls" to placate his sexual urges while purging their harlotry, as did St. Aldhelm and Blessed Robert d'Arbrissel. But are these not two contradictory propositions? What was it that these saints did that satisfied their sexual urges while restoring harlots to purity? Surely Martí would have had to know what they did in order to emulate them. The answer, unfortunately, is not to be found in Martí's works. But there is an answer. It is contained in the book which Marti was reading and commenting upon while writing these notes, Dictionnaire critique des reliques et des images miraculeuses [1822] by Jacques-Albin-Simon Collin de Plancy. Of Robert D'Arbrissell, the author writes: "[His superiors] accused him of sleeping with the most charming girls in the order in a perilous effort to give more merit to continence ... It is argued, however, that St. Robert and St. Adelme each slept between two women to mortify themselves, and never succumbed. ... St. Robert is also credited with having converted with just one sermon all the prostitutes in the town of Rouen in the year 1100, and wherever he wandered he was always followed by a troop of women." Voltaire satirized him in the once-banned Chant de la Pucelle:

A ce grand saint qui se plut à coucher
Entre les bras de deux nonnes fessues,
A caresser quatre cuisses dodues ,
Quatre tétons, et le tout sans pécher.

And this great saint who took pleasure in bed
Between the arms of two fat-assed nuns, 

Fondling four plump thighs,
Four nipples, and all without sin.

Or if you prefer a contemporary translation:

Dunois resembles Robert d'Arbrisselle,
Whose penance strange, (as holy Legends tell,)
Was with two Nuns to pass the live-long night,
Nor from their blooming beauties taste delight,
But obstinately cold, the charms despise,
Of four firm Bubbles, and four fleshy Thighs?

In The Oriental Herald, published by J.S. Buckingham in 1825, there is an article entitled "On the Spirit of Monachism (i.e. monasticism)," which expands on  Collin de Plancy's account.

In these [adjacent convent-monasteries] the nuns and friars lived in a neighbourly, charitable way; the former sinning, and the latter (who of course never sinned) giving them absolution. Being desirous of acquiring a more than ordinary degree of sanctity, and, for that purpose, of approaching and overcoming the greatest temptations, many monks were in the habit of sharing the beds of the most beautiful nuns, that they might convince the devil, by their abstinence in such situations, it was to no purpose he would torment them with any further snares. Among those who put their virtue to this awful trial, was le bienheureux Robert d'Arbrissel, Abbot of Fontevraud; and it is said that after this the devil gave him up in despair. William of Malmsbury relates a similar story of Aldhelm, one of our English saints; and he adds, that the practice never once brought the holy man into suspicion with the honest people of those days. [...] The same St. Aldhelm used sometimes a less dangerous method of cooling his passions: he plunged himself in winter up to the neck in snow, and in summer passed whole days in the well of the monastery. This must have been a much more pleasant and effectual remedy. We perceive, however, by all this, that nature is not to be quenched by putting on a piece of hair-cloth, and calling oneself a monk. In fact, whoever reads attentively the lives of the primitive saints and hermits, will often have his pity very strongly excited by the recital of their temptations, real and visionary. The poor men, it is said, were very frequently haunted by devils, generally in a female shape; what their imaginations chiefly dwelt upon may, therefore, be clearly seen.

The last method alluded to, a cold shower, is still somewhat in vogue today for concupiscence, but the practice of sleeping chastely with beautiful girls (whether whores or nuns) to test your self-control seems to have died out with other hermitic mortifications, such as wearing hair-shirts or living atop a pillar for decades. The last well-known figure to have embraced this exercise and recommended it as a kind of universal panacea was Mahatma Gandhi. If I had said at the beginning that Martí had not done with beautiful girls what Gandhi also had not done with them, I believe that many would have understood me. Still, I would have had to forego telling about Aldhelm and Robert d'Arbrisssel, and that I was not disposed to do. Not because I did not want to lose a good story, but because without reference to them what Martí appears to be saying is that he liked sleeping with beautiful girls to re-energize himself and take advantage of their harlotry. Surely that would be worse. Right?

I may annotate the other fragments, since I suppose it is unfair to allude tantalizingly to them and then drop them.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel García Márquez and Fidel Castro: Birds of a Feather

[Unless they meet again in some Dantean latitude, Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez had their last meeting a month ago [July 2008] in Havana. By year's end, one or the other will be dead; perhaps both. Their mutual admiration society will not be disbanded, however. Both shall continue to live in each others "works:" the tyrant as the sycophant's inspiration and the sycophant as the tyrant's well-used tool. The following article, from 1988, explores the most embarrassing and revealing episode of García Márquez's association with Cuba, which began in 1962 when he was contracted as a propagandist for Prensa Latina, Castro's "news service." In his "Reflection" on their last meeting Castro credits García Márquez with saving his life during a state visit to Colombia in the 70s. Fidel asked the then Nobel Prize-winning author to accompany him in his motorcade and, supposedly, García Márquez encephalitic head blocked a markman's view of Castro's and saved him to tyrannize another 3 decades.]

By: Manuel A. Tellechea
The New York Tribune
Commentary Section, p. 9
September 27, 1988

Castro's Pet Author Lends his Nobel Credentials to Marxist Cuba

Gabriel García Márquez is the best known and most vocal of Castro's apologists in Latin America. He is also Latin America's greatest writer, according to García Márquez himself, most English-speaking critics and a committee of literary Swedes. How much the writer owes his reputation to the apologist, I will leave unanswered. It is clear, though, that the apologist precedes the writer and that both are now fused in the consciousness of the world.

This was demonstrated recently by so casual an event as the defection of García Márquez's personal secretary, which was reported on the front pages of many Latin American newspapers, and not, as one might have supposed, in the classifieds of the literary section. Defection? you protest. Men defect from governments, not from other men. Yes, that's exactly my point. García Márquez is perhaps the only man who lives in Cuba by choice, not compulsion. He lives, of course, in his own extraterritorial enclave which is not only a world apart but another world altogether: a one-man foreign legation representing all the useful idiots of Latin America, where liberty has been nominally decreed for those who most vociferously defend tyranny.

It was from this enclave that Antonio Valle y Vallejo defected. As García Márquez's personal secretary, he had been a daily visitor to his compound. No mere typist or glorified amanuensis, Valle was a professor of Marxist history and philosophy at Havana University and the Lenin Institute. He was also García Márquez's assistant at the Foundation of the Modern Cinema, which the Colombian founded and runs from Havana. And, yes, he transcribed and retyped García Márquez's manuscripts and may have offered a hint or two on the Marxist dialectic when needed.

Valle saw early on that his future did not lay as an exalted professor of lies or cinematographer by rote, but in the simple tasks that he performed for his friend and mentor. García Márquez was not unappreciative. He had his picture taken with Valle, a mark of the highest regard in Latin America. He inscribed Valle's copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude with a cryptic but telling dedication. Finally, came the reward for which Valle had long been hoping and waiting. García Márquez invited Valle to travel with him to Colombia for the Cartagena Film Festival. The magic realist had opened to him a door to another world, but Valle knew that he could not expect any help from him in realizing his defection. He could not guess, however, that his mentor would try to have him killed because of it.

On learning that Valle had gone missing,on his watch, so to speak, García Márquez phoned President Barco of Colombia and requested his assistance in locating him. As a personal favor to Colombia's preeminent son, Barco issued orders that placed his country's security forces at the orders of the DGI operatives that had accompanied the Cuban delegation to the film festival. Just as for an athlete or any other defector from Cuba capture would have meant forced repatriation and a lifetime of expiation in prison or the cane fields.

Valle sought refuge in the only place in Colombia that he trusted would not turn him over to his pursuers -- the U.S. embassy in Bogota; and, ironically, he was granted asylum on the basis of the cryptic but telling inscription in his copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude: "For Tony, the son that Naomi snatched away, with an embrace from his papa lost in the labyrinth of nada (nothingness), Gabriel '86." That dedication, by the way, is in itself an entire García Márquez novel and would alone justify the award of diplomatic asylum to Valle. Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to his God is a fitting parallel except that García Márquez's god would have had him go through with it.

García Márquez's ties to the DGI were well-known even before the defection of Antonio Valle, though Valle's defection provided rather squalid proof of it. Ricardo Bofill, whose curriculum vitae is almost identical to Valle's, was the first to denounce García Márquez as an informant for the DGI based on his own experience with him. A member of the Communist Party even before Castro came to power, Bofill was for many years chairman of the Marxist Department at Havana University, and as Cuba's leading Marxist ideologue had entry into the highest party echelons as well as García Márquez's charmed circle. Bofill was purged and imprisoned for "divisionism" in the 1970s (his sin was that he wanted Soviet planners to handle Cuba's economy directly, not through Castro, thereby removing one layer of insanity from a two-layer system). Bofill later re-emerged as the president of Cuba's unofficial Helsinki Human Rights Committee. It is interesting that Bofill still considers himself a Marxist and regards García Márquez as a betrayer not because the Colombian novelist is an ideological Marxist (which Bofill is also) but because he is a practical Marxist (i.e. one who turns abstract notions into hideous deeds and accepts unseemly rewards for his treachery).

García Márquez's unstinting hero-worship of Fidel Castro is a matter of public record, but less known are the rewards he has reaped from his association with him. The Cuban state press has published more editions of this foreigner's works than it has of any living or dead Cuban author. García Márquez has used the royalties he has received -- which, incidentally, were paid to him not for actual sales but the official press run -- to purchase and restore a 19th century palazzo in old Havana. He also owns a yacht and his own private beach and marina in Cuba.

Bofill charges that he has acquired these not through his literary work but because he furnishes the Cuban government with information on internal and external dissidents. In other others, he "sounds out" local writers on their views of the Revolution and reports their answers to the DGI. It is also alleged that he provides the DGI with information on Cuban authors and artists living abroad who have not officially broken with the Revolution but are privately critical of it. García Márquez's defenders have countered that he has on occasion assisted Cuban friends who have fallen afoul of the regime. No names are ever given of the beneficiaries of his intervention and he has never been a signatory to any petition on behalf of Cuban political prisoners or any imprisoned Cuban in particular. His conduct in respect to his closest literary associate in Cuba should give the lie to all who think better of him than he deserves.

It is true that García Márquez has enough money to live anywhere he wishes and buy anything he wants. But he wants to live in Cuba and in opulence. And that boon is not obtained just with dollars. As José Martí wrote 100 years ago, "Every tyranny has at hand one of those learned men to think and write, to justify, to extenuate, and to disguise. Sometimes it has many of them, because literature is often coupled with an appetite for luxury, and with the latter comes a willingness to sell oneself to whomever can satisfy it."


The following comment was not left here, but on, where it appears as a review of Fidel & Gabo: A Portrait of the Legendary Friendship Between Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Marquez, by Angel Esteban and Stephanie Panichelli [2011]. The author is one of many Castro apologists on the internet who recalls -- fondly, as he admits -- having jousted with me on Cuban forums in the past and wishes again to capture my attention, which he has in fact done. I rarely venture from these precincts now, and even here I am not a constant presence. But I am still nothing if not obliging to his ilk, because I know that I am right and suspect that their "better angels" also know it and require my help to free themselves from their thralldom to lies and certain unholy associations. Why else would they seek me out years after our last encounter when even the forum (Cubamania) where we crossed swords is long defunct, but not, alas, the gerontocracy to the service of which it was devoted? I can't reprogram them all one by one: too many of them and not enough of me to go around.

But I will make exceptions for those as Mr. Johnson who believe that Communism "isn't all it's cracked up to be" except when applied to our unhappy country. In his eyes, Fidel Castro's only crime is to "have hung onto the broken idealism right until the end." The only idealism that Fidel Castro ever espoused in his life was personal idealism, that is, the idealization of the self. That idealism is not broken. Sixty years of failures at the expense of his countrymen have not shaken in the least his faith in himself, because he has been able to escape the effects of his own folly and will likely be the only Cuban dictator to die in his own bed. "Broken idealism" is not Castro's legacy, but broken dreams and broken lives, broken everything in that vast madhouse where he has confined his people for more than 50 years, when, in fact, the solution to Cuba's problems required the confinement of only one man -- himself.

It is Mr. Johnson's ridiculous conceit that the enmity of his enemies (not the flattery of his friends) has empowered Castro and that except for it he might have relinquished power long ago. According to this theory, Chamberlain was right to appease Hitler and World War II was averted thanks to his profound understanding of the psyche of tyrants. A residual benefit of this policy, for the likes of Mr. Johnson, is that the tyrant's apologists and appeasers emerge as not only the real heroes but the real opponents of tyranny, because their flattery and credulity were successful in defeating or containing his plans and giving mankind "peace in our time."  (For those who consider comparisons to Hitler odious, let them remember that Castro came closer to blowing up the world than Hitler did).

Mr. Johnson also errs in assuming that the trade embargo has been instrumental in keeping Castro in power by providing a convenient excuse for all his failures. Tyrants do not acknowledge let alone justify their failures; certainly, this tyrant never has. The trade embargo has not prevented the U.S. from becoming one of Cuba's largest trading partners. Its sole remaining proscriptions are that Communist Cuba must pay with cash for what it buys and cannot borrow from U.S. banks. Is Cuba's sovereignty now dependent on borrowing from U.S. banks and is U.S. imperialism limited to refusing to extend credit to Castro & Co.? Is this the terrible "blockade" of leftist folklore? As an inhabitant of another island (England, that is), Mr. Johnson should know the real definition of a blockade.

Finally, it is not a gutted embargo nor a non-existent blockade that has kept Fidel Castro politically invulnerable for more than half a century. It is, rather, the Kennedy-Khrushchev Pact, which established the U.S. as the guarantor of Communism in Cuba and which the U.S. has never repudiated. If Mr. Johnson favored the immediate repeal of this blatant example of U.S. imperialism, I would believe (for once) that he really has the best interests of the Cuban people at heart rather than the interests of the regime. But since it's the regime that allows his wife and children (still Cuban citizens) to enter and leave the island at its pleasure, and the regime also which can revoke the title to his house in Cuba (as it has done to millions of expatriate Cubans who are not married to Britons), Mr. Johnson is hardly an unbiased or disinterested commentator on the Cuban scene. I may not have been to Cuba in 50 years, but at least my family and I are not hostages of the regime, as he and his unfortunately are.

For someone with Mr. Johnson's privileged entry into Cuban society, we would have expected more profound insights than "since 1988 the world has moved on a bit." Which is true as a generality, but not in the case of Communist Cuba. It has not moved, and that is precisely the problem (though not for Mr. Johnson). Neither through its own volition nor the world's propulsion has Cuba "moved on" since 1988 (or, indeed, since 1959). So everything that I have written about Cuba in that interim is as topical today as it was then. I don't even have to change a word. As for Raúl Castro's "reforms," which Mr. Johnson regards as emblematic of movement, Cubans are now allowed to sew buttons for a living; may rent a hotel room for a night with a year's wages; and may even own airplanes if they choose (though a certain class of Cubans has always had these at its disposal and on stand-by). These "reforms" only allow Cubans on the island to spend their own money (or, more likely, the money their relatives send them from abroad) on a greater variety of goods at the company store. Since Castro & Co. enjoys a monopoly on all material goods sold on the island, the state alone stands to profit from these "reforms." The profits it derives from fostering the erstwhile bogeyman of consumerism will be spent on modernizing and expanding its apparatus of repression, not providing the "glass of milk a day" which Raúl infamously promised all Cubans upon his dynastic ascension. If Cubans can make any money sewing buttons or selling croquettes (after buying the materia prima at Castro's retail stores), they might be able to afford an extra egg a month, and that will be Raúl's legacy of "reform."

Free elections and free markets are what Cuba needs, Mr. Johnson. Any other sort of "reforms" are not intended to lead toward them, but, rather, to forestall the day of the final reckoning between the tyrant and the people.


Birds of a Feather? Sounds more like a review from a dead duck

By Keith Johnson

Barely cold is the body of Gabriel García Márquez, and here we have reviewer Manuel A. Tellechea jumping on his soapbox to forge another sad morsel of political capital. But fear not, folks, this is just the same old re-hashed rhetoric from a quarter of a century ago. What Manny - as we used to call him on the Cuba travel forums - fails to mention is that his "review" is just a cut-and-past of an article that he first published in The New York Tribune in 1988, and again today on his José Martí blog at


Since 1988 the world has moved on a bit. Even Raúl Castro seems to be waking up to the fact the the communist dream isn't all it's cracked up to be and making some tentative moves towards a market economy. With Chavez gone from Venezuela, the number of people still living the dream will surely soon be down to just one.

A lot of people who should have known better got caught up in the socialist revolutionary fervour of the 20th century. Most of them eventually woke up to the reality as they saw the Berlin Wall and eastern bloc regimes falling one after another, and the smart ones quietly renounced their old beliefs and settled into the world of mainstream political thought. Some found it harder to do so, and a small number - including Fidel Castro - have hung onto the broken idealism right until the end. Where Gabriel García Márquez lies in this spectrum is a matter for the diligent reader to evaluate, but there will be opinions at both extremes as represent in the reviews here, and as ever the truth lies somewhere in between.

What Manny and the rabidly anti-Castro exiles in the US don't understand and will never accept is that it is their own vociferous hatred that has kept the Castros in power for over 50 years, by creating a clearly-defined enemy for them. A brief survey of history will reveal what a gift this is to any dictator, who can then thrive on the opportunity of making endless rhetoric against that enemy. Even more so in the case of Cuba, where the embargo has also provided a scapegoat for all the woes wrought on the Cuban people by the failings of the regime. Without the heat of anti-Castroism to fuel the revolutionary fire, it is reasonable to postulate that Fidel and Raúl might well have been long gone by now.

Manny has been notorious on travel forums for his attacks on anybody visiting Cuba for whatever, particularly Canadians. He considers all tourists to Cuba to be pedophiles, communists and apologists for a dictatorial regime. A sample of his invective can be found here:

I used to write as "Prospero" on that forum, and enjoyed much sparring with Manny there. I'm married to a Cuban, we have two small children and a house in Cuba, although we live most of the time in England. As far as I know, Manny hasn't set foot on the island himself in the last 50 years, but instead of trying to get visitors on-side and encourage them to use their trips to slowly subvert and chip away at the regime by opening the eyes of ordinary Cubans, he chooses to alienate the very people who could help his cause by throwing insults at them.

By advocating a policy of no travel to Cuba, the anti-Castros reduce the opportunity of Cubans on the island to acquaint themselves with the real world outside. Far from trade embargoes and isolation, it has been social and cultural exchange that has brought about the downfall of most dictatorial regimes, in recent years notably in the Middle East. One only needs to look at how such regimes try to control access to the Internet to see how much they really fear openness and information from the outside. Tourism brings these things with it, and as such it was only ever reluctantly embraced by the Cuban regime when Russia pulled out of its economic support for Cuba in the 1990s and there was no other option.

So Manny's hatred of someone like Gabriel García Márquez is only to be expected. Intelligent readers will study books like this and others, will examine how the social, political and cultural contexts have changed over time before making up their own minds, rather than buy into the over-blown rhetoric of one side or the other.

Fortunately younger Cubans on both sides of the divide are now beginning to see that breaking down the barriers is the real way to defeat totalitarianism. Soon when all the old men are dead communism can be laid to rest once and for all and the world can move on - at least until some other would-be revolutionary rediscovers it.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

More Observations on the Romero E-mail

In response to Vana's comment in the previous post:
I confess that I got a jolt when I saw the e-mail header in my Inbox: "From Victoria and Martí Romero." Although María Mantilla was not Martí's daughter, and her granddaughters are not María Mantilla, I was still moved. The name "María Mantilla" is known to all Cubans, not on her account, because she did nothing herself to merit her celebrity, but because of her association to José Martí, and, specifically, because of the great love he professed for her. For an earlier generation of martianos, who truly believed, in the absence of all evidence to the contrary, that she was indeed Martí's daughter, meeting her in person was almost an existential experience: to see, hear and perhaps touch Martí's love incarnate. It was an experience that brought many of them to tears, as when Mohammed's followers were in the presence of his daughter Fatima. I felt something of that, at two removes, when I was contacted by María Mantilla's granddaughters, although I know that they are not Martí's great-granddaughters and consider any attempt on their part to represent themselves as such by assertion or insinuation to be a gross imposture.

What you say about the tone of their letter is entirely true. The profusion of indignant "sirs," which lent it a certain comical effect, not altogether unamusing, was intended as a challenge: "Sir, at long last, have you no shame! How dare you deny that our grandmother was a bastard when she herself affirmed it! Sir, you are a cad because no gentleman would offend my grandmother's memory by denying her illegitimacy, or embarrass her granddaughters by so infamous a libel."

I overlooked the tone of their letter in my reply because, of course, I am a gentleman, but also because it seems to me that they are grappling with the truth and may eventually surrender to it (though for now they are stuck at the "kill the messenger" stage). "The Myth of Martí's Natural Daughter" has pushed them in the right direction, but they are still struggling, against the current, to return to the world of make-believe in which they were raised by their own admission. Nevertheless, they are beginning to understand, as I said in my reply to their e-mail, that love is thicker than blood, and that their grandmother's place in history is secure because of Martí's great love for her, not because his blood ran in her veins (which it did not). They have also gained, thanks to Nydia Sarabia's biography, a new appreciation for their great-grandmother Carmen Miyares' place in Cuban history. She was indeed a patriot, and Martí's greatest supporter and closest collaborator: the only woman in his life that was worthy of him.

María Mantilla was a beautiful child and a beautiful woman even in her last years. Everybody always said so and her photographs prove it. And, of course, even a "rival" like "Teté" Bances, the widow of Martí's only son, was impressed and captivated by her appearance on the only occasion she ever saw her (as she admits, from a distance). Believing, as everybody did then, that María was her late husband's half-sister, she naturally looked for a "family resemblance" and found it in their long tapered fingers, in the shape of their faces,and even in some similar mannerisms. But, really, is this any basis on which to fix paternity, and is "Teté" Bances, who never met Martí, the most qualified to do so? Well, she's as well-qualified as anybody else since trying to establish paternity through anthropological comparisons is pseudo-science, even crank science. Yes, comparisons of skulls (not fingers or faces) might tell us if a primitive humanoid was a distant ancestor of man; it will not tell us, however, if any two humans are siblings. Only shared DNA can do that.

Martí's sisters left hundreds of descendants (all nieces and nephews of Martí). Why haven't the Romero sisters sought out their "Martí cousins" in Cuba or Miami and asked them to have their DNA tested and compared to theirs? They went to Cuba, in 2004, supposedly to visit with a newly found Romero cousin whom they met on a genealogy chat site. Why didn't they contact their putative "Martí cousins," whose DNA held the answer to all their questions? I, personally, do not have any questions that need to be answered, nor do I fear that I would be "surprised" by the results of such a test. I am not the first person to make this suggestion and I wonder that the descendants of "María Martí" (as María Mantilla's name is written on her gravestone) have never sought to establish their claims in the only way that they can be established. If they want a definitive answer, a DNA test is the way to get. But, then again, it may be that they don't want a definitive answer. Why let reality intrude on such a charming fairy tale? Besides, one can't discredit a fairy tale; one can only expose a lie.
María Mantilla was only four when her real father Manuel Mantilla died. The only "father" that she ever knew and loved was her godfather José Martí. His love for her, which was as perfect as any father's love, may well have convinced her that what she desired most in the world was not a child's fantasy but reality. In her, we can excuse this self-delusion but not in her descendants. She did not have the benefit of knowing then all that we know now. She was never shown Martí's letter to Victoria Smith where he denies an adulterous affair with her mother Carmen at the time of María's birth. Now it really does come down to whether one believes Martí or no. María Mantilla would have believed him even if it broke her heart to know that she was not his biological daughter. Hopefully, some day her granddaughters will also believe him.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

An E-mail from María Mantilla's Granddaughters

I received today an e-mail from Victoria and Marti Romero, granddaughters of María Mantilla. It was written as a response to The Myth of José Martí's Natural Daughter.
Dear Mr. Tellechea,

I tried to post this letter from us on your blog, but it wouldn't accept it. I assume it is too long. Therefore, I am emailing it to you.

Thank you.

Victoria Romero

June 28, 2013

Dear Mr. Tellechea,

I am Victoria Romero, and my sister Marti Romero (yes, Jose Marti’s namesake) and I have read with interest your blog about our grandmother, Maria Mantilla. We have found some fabrications of the truth, and we’d like to clear this up.

First, you say that “…Maria’s four granddaughters….visited Havana to obtain recognition from the Castro regime of Maria Mantilla’s legitimacy….” There were two of us who traveled to Cuba, not four. Just Marti and I.

Second, for your information, Maria Mantilla had three granddaughters and one grandson, not four granddaughters (one of her granddaughters, our cousin Holly, recently passed away).

We went to Cuba, sir, to explore our Cuban heritage, to meet a cousin on the Romero side of our family whom we found on a genealogy site, and to participate in the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Jose Marti’s birth. We were basically there to walk in the footsteps of our grandmother’s from 50 years before. It is almost comical of you to presume we would even think of trying to meet with Mr. Castro – it is a most preposterous thought! And, for the record, we did not EVEN have in our mind to “obtain recognition…of Maria Mantilla’s illegitimacy.”

While growing up in this fascinating family, as children we never questioned the authority or honesty of the adults who were teaching us. When we asked about the handsome child in the photo with the medal on his chest, we were told it’s your great grandfather. We took that as truth. Why would we question that? Only as adults, after doing some reading, have we begun to question the validity of our grandmother’s declaration. However, as we have learned, truth is stranger than fiction.

Having said this, we would like to offer you the following tidbit of information. We are in possession of a book entitled La Patriota del Silencio: Carmen Miyares, a historical biography of our great-grandmother. The book was researched and written by Nydia Sarabia, a journalist with Granma, the Cuban newspaper among other things. I am pretty sure you may be aware of who Sra. Sarabia is; if not, you can easily gather information on her through the Internet.

We both received copies of this book directly from Sra. Sarabia during our 2004 visit to Cuba. Let me cut to the chase. In Sra. Sarabia’s book she includes a letter, or testimonial, given to her by Tete Bances, Pepe Marti’s widow. The testimonial was given years before her death. A translation of the book states:

“She requested not to publish it while she was still alive. Dona Sarabia complied with the request.

Now as time has passed and as in society no longer exist the prejudices of a bygone era during the Maestro’s life, we reveal this, although we repeat like Tete Bances, Pepe Marti’s widow, without any documentation to prove it, as a hypothesis, but with the greatest respect to all the individuals involved in this matter. Nonetheless, we found Tete Bances’ observations to be very interesting, and perhaps they may shed some light, because as Emilio Roig de Leuchsenring well explained in 1925, it may be that “the hour of truth and justice” may have arrived with Maria’s testimony given in a letter to Gonzalo de Quesada y Miranda in 1959 in her own handwriting.” (referring to a letter written by Maria Mantilla y Romero to Sr. Quesada y Miranda regarding her being the daughter of Jose Marti).

The testimonial of Maria Teresa Bances, widow of Marti’s son is as follows (regarding Maria Mantilla y Romero’s visit to Cuba in 1953 celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jose Marti):

“I did not know Maria Mantilla in person. I had only references about her. This was a delicate subject with my husband, and we never spoke about Maria’s existence. However, Marti’s Centennial arrived in January of 1953. As the only daughter-in-law of Marti I was invited to a banquet, where Batista, the president in turn, was to attend. The Centennial Commission insisted I attend, although I was not all that interested, since I never cared for these official functions.

Finally, they convinced me and I attended the banquet. I was not ushered to the place I really deserved, and discretely I was seated at some distance from the presidential table. That disgusted me, but for the sake of good manners I remained there.

How surprised I was when Maria Mantilla’s arrival was announced. When I first saw her closely in person for the first time, I was impressed by her resemblance to my departed husband Pepe Marti.

I couldn’t believe that the physical resemblance would hide a relationship to Pepe. As I watched her conversing with others around her, I realized that her expressions, her smile, the way she sat, aside from her physical resemblance as her face, her hands, were so much like those of Pepe Marti, I could not but convince myself that they were related.

Despite my observations, my feminine intuition, we were not introduced and I immediately left the place. In fact, I was impacted by the resemblance, although I had no proof. Maria Mantilla was a distinguished woman. There was much of her in my husband, Pepe Marti y Zayas Bazan.”

We can rightfully declare ourselves as the granddaughters of Maria Mantilla. As far as being Jose Marti’s great granddaughters, well, who knows? It doesn’t matter to us. We are proud to be of Cuban heritage and we will continue to read and learn about the life of the man, Jose Marti.

We encourage you, sir, to check your facts before writing in your blog about people you don’t even know. We would have gladly given you our point of view and the correct information-all you had to do is ask. Do not hesitate to respond to our post.


Victoria and Marti Romero

My response to their email:

Dear Mesdames Victoria and Marti Romero,

If it were in my power to pick a daughter for José Martí, I would most assuredly choose María Mantilla. For one thing, I know that is what Martí would have wanted, because he loved your grandmother more than he loved anyone else in the world. Love is thicker than blood, and your grandmother's place in history is secure because of Martí's great love for her.

Is it necessary also to claim that Martí was her father when he himself denied in writing any such supposition? Is this not to take the part of Victoria Smith and other cynics who have cast aspersions at the purity of Martí's love for not only Carmen Miyares and María Mantilla, but the whole Mantilla family?

Live proud that your family sustained Martí emotionally and physically in his darkest hours. I truly believe that without its exemplary love and support Martí would not have been able to endure his via crucis or fulfill his apostolic mission. What greater glory could be yours than that?

It is your responsibility and that of your entire family to endeavor always to be worthy of that legacy. This requires, at the least, that you do not allow yourselves to be used as propaganda props by the Castro regime, which has robbed the Cuban people of the freedom which Martí died to obtain for them (you are, I hope, aware of that fact).

Your letter will be published in the José Martí Blog and I will answer all your points there.

With highest regards and best wishes to the descendants of Martí's spiritual family,


Manuel A. Tellechea

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Fidel Castro (1926-2012?)

A Celebration Without a Victory

I'm trying my best to get in a festive mood but I can't seem to manage it. I suppose because there's nothing to celebrate. The death of Fidel Castro will not be the end of Castroism in Cuba much less the re-birth of freedom there. Even his death per se is far from satisfactory. Death is a biological certainty. It comes to all men regardless of the good or evil that they do in life. There is nothing retributive in it. Castro's death is no exception. It is ridiculous to regard it as our "victory." If anything it is his victory: Fidel was never brought to justice for his crimes and his death guarantees that he never will be. The biggest mass murderer in the history of the Western Hemisphere will die in his own bed. Can any of us say with certainty that he shall do the same? Millions have expired in the last 50 years who asked for nothing more than to die in their own country yet their prayers went unanswered just so that he might become the first dictator in Cuban history to die in his own bed.

A death like Che Guevara's was worth celebrating because it signified the triumph of justice.

Castro's death confirms only the injustice of life.

The bottles of champagne that were purchased 50 years ago to toast the re-birth of freedom in our country have all now turned to vinegar. It is only these bottles that should be opened on the occasion of Castro's death.

Gall is the only drink that befits such an occasion.

RCAB, January 16, 2009

On the Day that Fidel Castro Dies

I do not know if Fidel Castro is dead or not. I have accepted, however, the fact that there will be no final reckoning extracted from him, nothing as poetic as Mussolini's corpse dangling upside down in a gutter or Ceausescu's riddled with bullets in a pool of his festering blood. We shall have no such national catharsis. Even Hitler's fate, execution by his own hand as the Doomsday clock ticked, he has avoided. The architect of our country's ruin will die in his own bed, as no other Cuban dictator has done before. The chaos of 50 years, in whose maelstrom he lived and thrived, shall survive him; but he shall no longer be at the center of it. It is not known what if anything he will take with him, but one thing is certain: if our country is ever to move beyond him, Fidel Castro's physical existence — animal, vegetable or mineral — must finally lapse and resolve itself into innate matter. He will be less dangerous that way, though his maggots will continue to feed on our country for years to come, continuing his work of destruction after him.

Fidel's death by installments, which is a measure of justice for him and injustice for us, served the ends of his successor by allowing him to consolidate his power in his brother's shadow. It also showed the Cuban people how truly irrelevant Fidel had become except as the bogeyman of all their nightmares. In two years the Cuban people have become comfortable with the idea of a moribund-to-dead Castro. Those who regarded him as a god must have been surprised at how easy it is to let a god die. The impact of his death, if not thus diluted, might have caused more of a national convulsion. Now it is but another sham spectacle that they must endorse with their presence. At least the professional criers that followed 19th century funerals were compensated for their tears. That work now is obligatory and unavoidable. There will be tears enough to shed on that day, not for him, of course, but for everything that he blighted and obliterated in his passage through the earth.

RCAB, January 15, 2009