Friday, May 25, 2007

A Brief History of the Cuban Republic (1902-1958)

Part I (1902-1940)

The Cuban Republic came into being after a War of Independence that resulted in the death of nearly a quarter of Cuba's population and the destruction of most of the island's infrastructure and economy. In addition to such internal problems, Cuba also had to deal with the intervention and occupation of the island by the U.S. after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (1898), a minor but calamitous episode within the context of the greater Cuban War of Independence begun by José Martí (1895-1898).

The Cuban Republic succeeded despite the great obstacles placed in its way by U.S. imperialism at its birth. These obstacles Cubans never ceased to fight and eventually defeated long before Castro came on the stage to renew a conflict that had already been resolved largely in Cuba's favor.

Cuba's first democratically-elected president (1902-1906), Tomás Estrada Palma, defeated an American attempt to acquire not one but ten military bases on the island as well as the Isle of Pines (Cuban ownership of which was confirmed in the Hay-Quesada Treaty). He also insisted that the one base that was granted to the Americans be leased rather than ceded, which meant that Cuba still retained sovereignty over Guantánamo thereby setting the stage for its return some day to Cuban jurisdiction. In fact, Guantánamo Naval Base would have been returned decades ago if it had not been for Castro, as the Panama Canal was returned to Panamanian jurisdiction. President Estrada Palma was known as the "Honest President" because he broke with the tradition of graft and corruption introduced to Cuban political life by the Americans.

Estrada Palma was succeeded in the presidency, after an armed uprising quelled by the U.S. at his request and another brief U.S. occupation (1906-1909), by his democratically-elected rival José Gómez, whose administration (1909-1913) was characterized by both its corruption and the full recovery of Cuba's economy from the ravages of the recent war.

Gómez was succeeded in turn, also as a result of democratic elections, by Mario García Menocal, the first and only Cuban president to serve two consecutive terms (1913-1921). The major event of his administration was the First World War, which brought unprecedented prosperity to Cuba as the price of sugar climbed to astronomical levels never to be seen again. Although Menocal joined the Allied side in the War and even instituted a draft, he refused repeatedly U.S. requests to send Cuba's sons overseas to fight in Europe under the American flag. The war ended without a single Cuban casualty. Cuba also joined the League of Nations, which the U.S. did not. A Cuban, in fact, served as its president, which proved that the world as a whole accepted Cuba's sovereignty despite American intrusions on it.

Menocal was succeeded in democratic elections by Alfredo Zayas (1921-1925), a nationalist who also defied U.S. interests in Cuba. Zayas' administration was corrupt; but when the even more corrupt administration of Warren G. Harding sought to impose on him an "honest cabinet" of its own choosing, Zayas at first assented (to get the U.S. war ships threatening intervention to go home) and then immediately fired the U.S. puppets and appointed his own men. This was the first time that the U.S. had been openly defied in Cuba and the U.S. did nothing. This lesson would not be lost on the Cuban people.

Zayas was succeeded, yet again in democratic elections, by Geraldo Machado (1925-1933), the most popular Cuban president as well as the most unpopular. His public works programme transformed Cuba into a modern nation. He built the Capitol as well as the Central Highway, which ran the whole length of the island, among hundreds of other civil works projects. He was so popular that at one time all the Cuban political parties supported him. Machado had made a pledge when he was elected not to seek re-election. He kept this pledge by convincing Congress to prolong his presidential term, which it did gladly. The Cuban people did not receive this violation of Cuban democracy as gladly, however. This "prolongation of powers" led to Cuba's first popular revolution, which succeeded in ousting the democrat turned dictator. Machado believed that this revolution was abetted by the U.S. and before resigning made anti-American declarations for the first time in Cuban political history. The Machado opposition was even more nationalistic and anti-American in its rhetoric.

The Revolution of 1933, with its succession of provisional presidents, juntas and even a counter-revolution, nevertheless succeeded in abrogating in 1934 the Platt Amendment, which had been imposed in 1902 and gave Americans the right to intervene at will in Cuba to protect "our" (read their) interests. With the scrapping of the Platt Amendment Cubans exercised for the first time full national sovereignty. There would be no more American interventions in Cuba. Martí's dream and the dream of all Cuban patriots was finally realized thanks to Cuban resolve and another Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy, which was itself the product of American experiences in Cuba.

If there is a revolution that Cubans should celebrate it is the Revolution of 1933, which was everything that a future revolution was not — nationalistic, progressive and brief. The 1933 Revolution endowed the Cuban people with social rights that no other people on earth enjoyed or would enjoy for decades, including paid maternity leave and a 35-hour work week (for which the employee was entitled to 40 hours compensation). It avoided, moreover, the fashionable extremes of the age, shifting neither to the right and fascism, nor to the left and communism.

Although the Generation of 1933 hated Machado and his cohorts no less than the Generation of 1953 despised Batista and his, the death penalty was not imposed on any of the collaborators of the regime: capital punishment for political crimes was then unknown in Cuba and the firing squad had not been used on the island since colonial times.

The greatest virtue of the 1933 Revolution — the reason for its success, if you will — was its exemplary brevity. In just three years (1933-1936) it had run its course and normality was restored to the island. The final act of the 1933 Revolution was the Amnesty Law of 1936 which freed all Machado officials held in detention (very few) and restored to them their full civil rights. In the elections also held that year many of them were returned to office, one even became Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In the 1936 presidential elections Josê Mariano Gómez, son of Cuba's second president, was elected its sixth constitutional president. In a further test of Cuba's reborn democracy Gómez was impeached for supposedly obstructing the functions of Congress and replaced with his vice-president Col. Fedérico Laredu Bru, the last veteran of Cuba's wars of independence to occupy the presidency. It was during this period that Cuba received nearly a half-million refugees from fascism and communism in Europe, the largest number per capita of any country in the world.

The Revolution of 1933 saw the rise to power of two men who would dominate Cuban politics for the next quarter century — Ramón Grau San Martín and Fulgencio Batista. The first was a professor at the University of Havana and the latter an army sergeant. On the same side in the wake of the 1933 Revolution both men would become bitter political rivals in its aftermath.

All parties and ideologies would coalesce, however, in 1939-1940 to create the greatest monument of the Cuban Republic, the Constitution of 1940, which became the model of France's Fundamental Law (1958) and other progressive constitutions.

Cuba was then about to embark on the most glorious period in its history, which saw it become the most democratic and prosperous country in Latin American with a standard of living which was comparable to Europe's.

In Part II we will discuss the the rise and fall of the Cuban Republic, which is all the more remarkable because Cuba reached its zenith and nadir at the same time.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Russians Admit It: Martí Has Defeated Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping, and Will Defeat Castro

In an article published by RIA Navosti (the Russian News and Information Agency), political columnist Pyotr Romanov (nice name), having returned from an assignment in Cuba in January [2007], gives his not-altogether-on-target impressions of Cuba and Fidel Castro, but discerns one very great truth that compensates for his many errors:"In Cuba José Martí has consistently defeated Marx, Lenin, Mao and Deng Xiaoping. I am sure that in the future he will "usurp" Castro as well because the 1959 revolution has failed to reach its other goal — bring genuine democracy to the Freedom Island."

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Martí the Blogger

The idea of a blog is one that would certainly have resonated deeply with José Martí. In fact, he might well be regarded as one of the pioneers of this genré. Of course, he didn't conceptualize it, although he did believe that poets inspired inventors, and that it was possible to find the antecedents of all great scientific theories and inventions in the imaginations of poets before they materialized in the laboratories of scientists. As Martí saw it, poets not only celebrated the great inventions of the age but actually had a part in bringing them about. This is is a decidedly romantic concept and one that would have found many adherents in that age. The earliest Romantic, the great German poet Goethe (1749-1832), had been the first to observe this: "Life is always fumbling towards the very thing that the great poets and artists create."

No doubt the literature of the last 100 years (especially the pulpish kind that is not taught in schools) would reveal many anticipations of the computer and of its potentialities. Whether blogging also has been presaged in the literature of the last 100 or 200 years, I do not know. I suppose I could google examples readily enough but I would only lose my train of thought for something that can well be taken as a given.

Blogging, as I see it, is the desire to share your truth with the world, the belief that your truth matters, and the conviction that your truth can better the world by adding to the sum of human knowledge or lessening the quantity of human suffering. There are more frivolous reasons for blogging, of course, but those would not resonate with Marti. The rationale for blogging, if not the mechanics, is amply evident in all of Marti's writings. Among them one group in particular features many modalities we have come to associate with blogging: brief and succinct tableaux of the news of the world, especially those items that would appeal to a general audience, presented on a daily or almost daily basis, sometimes embellished with observations or not, depending on content, and generally gleamed from newspapers and journals, for, except on very rare occasions, Marti was not a reporter as we would understand the word today (neither, for that, are most bloggers). Although these casual paragraphs are not the crónicas of the Gilded Age for which he is best known, they contain, in "concentrated form, as Martí says, the pulse of the world as measured by Martí, and are, like everything Martí ever wrote, highly personal and engaging. Marti received much favorable feedback for his "blogging" through the snail-mail that was the only means then to transmit it. In his own letters, the normally reticent Martí marvels that something that caused him so little trouble to write had acquired such a mass following as his Venezuelan editor (or "webmaster") Juan Luis de Aldrey assured him (there is perhaps a note of sadness here, too, because Marti's literary ambition was to be a famous playwright like the swashbuckling Echegaray ["Eche," who?], whom he emulated to perfection, alas, a case of a poor model destroying a great artist).

Marti began his "blog" — actually called the Sección Constante — during his brief and failed residence in Venezuela in 1881. He was contracted by the newspaper El Nacional to write a continuing series of small digests (we would call them "posts") on a variety of subjects of topical interest, including current affairs, literature and the arts, scientific discoveries and industrial advances, celebrity news and something which Marti called "singularidades" (an anticipation of "Ripley's Belief It Or Not").

Martí averred that the public literally "ate them up" ["se la bebía"], and such was the popularity of the "Sección Constante" that he was contracted by the newspaper to continue editing it after he had relocated to the U.S. because of his refusal to write panegyrics on the country's dictator Guzmán Blanco.

What strikes one most forcibly about the "Sección Constante" today is precisely its eclectic nature. Martí's knowledge really was universal and encompassed all fields of human learning or endeavor; nothing was alien to him or insignificant in his cosmology. So what we find here is a thick slice of the world as it was 125 years ago pickled in Martí's essence. What is most remarkable is that the world then was pretty much as the world is today, with a little less useful knowledge and a great deal more learning.

There was the story, which Martí reported on January 24, 1882, concerning the construction of a new transoceanic Nicaraguan Canal under the supervision of Cuban engineer Menocal (a cousin of the future president of Cuba). Martí, incidentally, was always giving hat tips to fellow Cubans, though only one or two of his "posts" were devoted to Cuba. Well, the plan to build such a canal has been lately resurrected due to the fact that they say the Panama Canal is obsolete. Since the Nicaraguan Canal was three-quarters built by the French in the 19th century before being abandoned for lack of funding it might be possible to follow the old route. The U.S. itself nearly finished the Nicaraguan Canal a century ago before abandoning it and switching over to Panama because a postage stamp depicting an active volcano led American officials to suppose that the volcano might erupt and fill up the canal again!

This "post" is followed immediately by another on the use of the residue from sugar cane production (bagazo) to make excellent paper. Martí writes that the glowers in Louisiana can only extract 60% of the sugarcane juice from the bagasse which makes it unsuitable for papermaking. Although he doesn't say so directly the only inference is that such paper could be made to perfection in Cuba, where they know how to get the juice out of the sugar cane. Indeed, Cuba in the 1970s perfected this process out of necessity because Castro's criminal deforestation had made it impossible to manufacture paper from wood pulp. The bagasse paper, by the way, is everything that Martí says it is and is also edible. When Ricardo Alarcón told the Cuban people at a press conference during the "Special Period" of the 1990s about the nutritional value of grass (and was asked by a reporter whether he eats it too), he could also have advised Cubans to literally (or not literally) consume their books and newspapers.

Returning to the subject of poets presaging inventions, on January 18, 1882, Martí "posted" a story about a San Francisco photographer name Muybridge who had been able to reproduce in successive frames and with perfect definition a trotting horse. Yes, this was the birth of what 15 years later would become motion pictures. Martí, incidentally, missed being filmed (although the Spanish-American War was the first to be), but a speech of Martí's in Tampa was recorded on a wax disk, which is tragically lost. What a boon it would be to the spirit to hear Martí's voice restored to pristineness by today's technology? Perhaps it is not hopeless to expect that some day we might. Only five years ago a long-lost and -searched for recording of Walt Whitman reading one of his minor poems was found, and what a great revelation it was! Whitman had the Long Island accent of his birth with some assumed English inflections and sounded very soulful, exactly what one would expect the "Good Grey Poet" to sound like. But I am digressing, and, given the subject matter and my affinity to the subject, it can hardly me avoided.

What Martí would most have appreciated about blogging, what Whitman himself would also have hailed about it, is its democratic nature. Thanks to it anyone and everyone can have a voice at the common table. Come to think of it, Martí would probably have thought this the greatest invention of the 20th century, and he presaged it, too.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Victor Hugo and José Martí: Ultima Verba

There was no literary-political figure whom Martí admired more than Victor Hugo. Indeed, Hugo may have been the model for Martí's life, though the Cuban was to surpass him in becoming not only the inspiration but the architect of his country's redemption. As a student and political proscript in Europe, Martí met Hugo on a brief visit to France and was presented with a copy of his book Mes Fils (My Sons), a symbolic gesture if there ever was one (Martí reciprocated by translating the book). Like Martí, Hugo endured exile for 20 years because he would not accept the betrayal of the Republic and reimposition of a Bonapartist monarchy under Napoleon III, the emperor's nephew, whom Hugo dubbed "Napoléon le petit."

Unlike Martí, Hugo lived to see the fruits of his labors in a resurrected republic as well as to reap the tributes and honors that a grateful nation heaped on him. Perhaps it was Martí's hope, then, that his life might conclude like Hugo's with vindication and victory. But his fate was another, for just as Hugo had been the conscience of the world in life, Martí was destined to become the conscience of his people, of all Latin America, and, finally, of the world only after his martyrdom at Dos Ríos, Oriente province, on May 19, 1895.

We honor the anniversary of the passage into immortality of the "Universal Cuban" with the final stanzas of Victor Hugo's poem "Ultima Verba" (My Last Word), which can also be read as tribute to all who, like Hugo and Marti, refused to consort with or capitulate to a tyrant.

Ultima Verba (Ultima Palabra)

Acepto el duro exilio
aun siendo hasta la muerte
sin ponerme a pensar, si alguien
claudicó ante, quien creyó más fuerte
o si otros desertaron debiendo resistir.

Si sólo mil recogen tu negro desafío
Entre esos bravos nombres ,
también estará el mío.

Si estos se reducen
y sólo quedan cien,
para seguir luchando,
allí estaré también.

Si sólo diez se yerguen
para enfrentarse al mal,
proseguiré con ellos
luchando hasta el final.

Y si quiere el destino,
que todo lo forjó,
que sólo quede uno,
erguido y soberano:
¡Apréndelo tirano!
ese uno, soy yo.

Ultima Verba (My Last Word)

I accept this harsh exile unto the grave,
Without stopping to think or bothering to learn
Who deserted his post and should have stood firm,
Who gave up his country his own life to save.

If a thousand are left to meet that black challenge,
Among those brave names will also be mine;
And if to one hundred their number decline,
I will be with them all wrongs to avenge.

And if the hundred should dwindle to ten
Who are willing their country still to defend,
And would their lives give her misery to end,
I will be found among those ten men.

And should fate this honor to one man decree,
That he should alone remain to fulfill
His duty with faith and a sovereign will,
Know it now, tyrant, the last I will be.

By Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Translated by Manuel A. Tellechea

The complete version of this poem, in both French and English translation, can be found at: