José Martí is one of those rare historical figures whose words are quoted as much by liberals as by conservatives. Within the last year alone, since the governments in Washington and Havana announced a rapprochement in December, the memory of Latin America’s most preeminent revolutionary poet has been summoned by no less than the likes of Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, as well as Pope Francis; it’s a lesson in blind arrogance that even a cursory familiarity with Martí’s works and thinking reveals that the man revered by empires, dictators and popes alike was himself an enemy of all three. Beyond being a nationalist and an ardent supporter of Cuba’s political, economic and social independence, Martí was at his core what Obama, Castro and Pope Francis cannot claim to be: a liberal democrat.
Nowhere is this more apparent perhaps than in 16 months that Martí spent in Guatemala beginning in March 1877. He had just turned 24 and spent the last six years in exile, traveling as far afield as Madrid, Paris, Liverpool, New York City and Mexico City, among other places. In Guatemala he discovered a young republic brimming with promise under a liberal government that seized power several years before. Once he reached the capital, and with letters of introduction from a number of luminaries, the young (and newly engaged) journalist, poet, playwright and professor dedicated his services to the creation in Guatemala of a proverbial “shining city on a hill” that all other Latin American countries could emulate.
Despite his enthusiasm for the liberal government, however, Martí was cautious. The Guatemala he encountered was eerily similar to the Mexico he had fled to in 1875. Mexico also had been under the leadership of new liberal government: President Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada had succeeded Benito Juárez, the late leader of a successful rebellion against the French-imposed Maximilian in 1867. As Guatemalan President Justo Rufino Barrios would a few years later, President Lerdo had instituted liberal reforms that limited the once-powerful Catholic Church and guaranteed freedom of the press.
As part of Mexico City’s liberal literati, Martí was an outspoken lerdista, even publishing an editorial in the pages of El Socialista which called on workers to back Lerdo’s unconstitutional reelection bid in June 1876. When Mexico’s highest court later invalidated Lerdo’s reelection and the conservative Porfirio Díaz seized power through a military coup, Martí and his family were forced to flee the country. On the eve of his flight, and with Díaz attacking journalists and other liberal dissidents, Martí broadcast his contempt for the new regime: “Here are our restored liberties. There is our guarantee of individual rights. There is our Constitution reestablished.”
In Guatemala and the Barrios administration, Martí saw a chance to begin anew the building of a truly liberal and democratic republic in Latin America. But it wasn’t to be. In November 1877 Barrios uncovered a conservative plot to overthrow his liberal government and had 17 conspirators promptly executed without a trial; from then on he became increasingly paranoid, and Martí began to have doubts about the president he had thought so highly of. Martí and the other Cuban exiles who had been welcomed by the Guatemalan government months before now found themselves personae non gratae. March 1878 saw the publication of Guatemala, Martí’s book-length analysis of the country and its liberal program, but by then it was already an anachronism and Martí began looking for another safe haven, considering Honduras and Peru.
By late summer he was back in Cuba, which had settled into an uneasy peace after the decade-long revolution crushed by Spanish forces. Martí’s mother and wife tried to get him to adopt a normal (apolitical) lifestyle — which he did, especially after the birth of his son Pepito. But in less than a year he would be arrested by Cuba’s colonial authorities and banished into exile once more, placing him on a path which would come to a bloody end on May 19, 1895, at the start of Cuba’s successful fight for independence from Spain. He was only 42 years old when his pen fell forever silent.
Remembering Martí — or better yet, studying him — is how we celebrate our heritage.