Profile of a Revolutionary

José Martí (1853-1895)

José Martí

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By the 1830s, Cuba and Puerto Rico were the last remaining colonies of Spain’s vast empire in America, and by the 1880s the emerging imperialism of the United States threatened the political and economic sovereignty of neighbouring republics that had yet to achieve their cultural emancipation. Poet, intellectual, journalist, teacher, orator and revolutionary—Martí dedicated his life to Cuba’s political independence and to Spanish America’s political transformation and cultural emancipation.

From his youth, he demonstrated an unswerving commitment to justice, freedom, creativity, development and progress in human society. Colonial despots condemned him at seventeen to prison conditions that caused lifelong injuries to his eyes and legs, and exiled him to Spain at eighteen, but they could not repress the rebellious spirit and revolutionary activism that characterized Martí’s life in exile.

Between 1875 and 1881 Martí lived in Mexico, Guatemala and Venezuela, earning his living as a journalist and teacher. In Venezuela he wrote Ismaelillo, a collection of poems that initiated modern poetry in Spanish America, and also published articles in La Revista Venezolana that are regarded today as the first manifesto of Spanish American modernism. They proclaimed feeling over artifice, originality over imitation, and artistic freedom over conventional ideas as aesthetic criteria for authenticity in Spanish American literature.

From 1881 to 1895, Martí resided in New York where he struggled to earn a living until his newspaper correspondent work established him throughout much of Latin America as a widely read and influential journalist and intellectual. His famous essay, “Nuestra América,” also urges creativity and authenticity in government, as well as pride in America’s original character and mestizo identity, development in harmony with the unique elements of each republic, and government with all and for the good of all.

Martí focused on building support for the Cuban independence movement among migrant workers in New York and in the active, larger Cuban communities of Key West and Tampa. He garnered the support of all the immigrant centres for the Cuban independence movement and on January 5, 1892, the Partido Revolucionario Cubano was formed under his political leadership. It acknowledged the interests and involvement of all races and classes in the independence struggle and its mandate was to organize the just, necessary and inevitable Cuban independence war.

Martí died on the battlefield of Dos Ríos on May 19, 1895, at forty-two, three months after the outbreak of this war. When in 1898 Cuba appeared on the verge of achieving its independence, the United States wrested that victory from Cuba, declaring war on Spain, which it easily defeated, and taking control of Spain’s remaining empire.

But Martí’s moral and political legacy lives on. It emerged triumphant in the Cuban Revolution, and Cuba continues to demonstrate to the world that a country with limited economic resources can invest in education, health and social welfare and achieve the scientific and technological growth that contributes to the well-being and development of its people, as long as its priority is human development. For Martí, a just society is the measure of human progress, and Martí’s Cuba is an inspiration to the Americas and to the world.

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Copyright 2006 Pamela Barnett