Fidel Castro, once a major figure not only in Latin American but in world politics, died last November, cartoonishly withered and distanced from the limelight. Over the last ten years the fire inside the man who inspired more than a single generation had been dimming at the same rate as public interest in his person, to the point where, when it was finally extinguished, the news was acknowledged almost flippantly: there was no shock, no surprise, as if this had happened, in fact, long before, even if the news was only breaking at this late stage.
In Miami, crowds of people with ties to Cuba spontaneously broke into joyous celebration, though there was none of the frantic spirit that might have come alive had this happened twenty years ago; in Havana people cried, as well they might, as the collective memory traveled anti-clockwise over the past sixty-five years in a nostalgic—almost masochistic—exercise of recollection, though it’s hard to tell whether the tears flowed for the Comandante, for what was, or for what might have been. Whatever the case the subdued atmosphere was replicated in Fidel’s state funeral, a suitably pompous two-day event during which his ashes were displayed in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, next to the famous José Martí Memorial, which ironically was commissioned and completed by Fulgencio Batista during his infamous second term as Cuba’s president in the 1950s.
The journey back in time, however, would be continued and indeed encouraged by Fidel’s own instructions for his burial. Tracing backwards the 900-kilometer route of the carnivalesque “Freedom Caravan”, which in January 1959 announced over the course of a full week the triumph of the revolution, Fidel’s ashes were paraded for four days in December 2016, from Havana to the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba. This is where Cuba’s most symbolically important cemetery is located, the Cementerio de Santa Ifigenia, home both to the mausoleum of José Martí, and to the Retablo de los Heroes (Pantheon of Heroes), where many of the rebels engaged in the 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks of Santiago are buried.
This, quite simply, is the reason why Fidel chose to be buried in Santiago, and not in the Necrópolis de Cristobal Colón in Havana, where famous literary, rather than military, names are buried, including Alejo Carpentier and José Lezama Lima. In Castro’s estimation it is the leaders, heroes and martyrs of the various wars of independence who are his peers, not least because in his personal conception the Cuban revolution was nothing other than the third (and final) of those wars of independence.
And this is where everything ties in beautifully, because if Fidel’s revolution was the formal war that freed Cuba from domination by the United States, such war began precisely with the uprising of July 26, 1953 in which approximately 135 insurgents, including Fidel and Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto Guevara, rammed the Moncada barracks and attempted to seize control from the Cuban army. The attack was a colossal failure, with over one hundred of the rebels being captured on the night or in the days to come. Alas, Fulgencio Batista in power again after his coup of 1952, proved less magnanimous than megalomaniac, ordering the assassination of over fifty of the prisoners. The first martyrs of the revolution, of Fidel’s war of independence, had been enshrined.
But there is more, because the date of the assault on the Moncada Barracks was not coincidental: July 26 is the birthday of José Martí, and in 1953 preparations were in place to celebrate the first centenary of his birth. Subsequently, after Fidel’s release from prison in 1955 and his legendary return to Cuban shores aboard the Granma in 1956, his revolutionary movement would always be known as July 26 and carry as a symbol a flag with two stripes, red and black (the colors of anarchism, not communism) printed with the distinctive M-26-J lettering in the middle.
But who was José Martí, and why did he play such an important role in Fidel’s iconography? To this day, Martí is known by Cubans as the Apostle of Independence and a martyr of the patria. A liberal intellectual, he was only 15 when the first Cuban War of Independence broke in 1868. Immediately attracted to the nationalist cause, he found in it inspiration for much of his early writing, which in turn landed him in jail for sedition at the tender age of 16. Exiled to Spain two years later, he became an outspoken supporter of Cuban independence in Madrid, publishing several pieces while completing his degree in law. Having graduated, he traveled to Mexico where he lived until Porfirio Díaz’s revolution of 1877 drove him away. By then the war in Cuba was all but lost so, after spending some time in Guatemala, he returned to his island, back in the Spanish fold.
Life under colonial rule was not something to savor for Martí, who began looking for alternatives elsewhere. One option was Venezuela, where he lived for six months in 1881. These were the days of the autocratic Antonio Guzmán Blanco, who was not particularly fond of critics or controversy, which is precisely what Martí predominantly published in his newly created Revista Venezolana magazine. Consequently, he was kindly asked to leave the country, which led to his long sojourn in New York, where he lived from 1881 to 1895. In New York Martí remained every bit as committed to Cuban independence, establishing yet another periodical publication called Patria and appealing both to the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities to battle Spanish domination.
Sentimental, hyperbolic and naïve, Martí’s writing from this period makes for heavy reading. A wholehearted advocate of war for the sake of liberty, his essays in praise of the universal principle of unity in nature, and the superior qualities of art that is in unison with nature clearly reveal his admiration for key cultural figures in the American establishment such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Which, of course, is perfectly understandable, as is too the presence of other major tenets of American culture in his thought, namely his respect for democratic rule (his greatest fear was that military rule would take over in Cuba after independence), his emphatic support for the abolition of slavery (which in Cuba did not come until 1886), and, most troublingly for Fidel Castro’s purposes, Martí’s committed belief in the value of private property for the development of individual excellence, which underpinned his defense of emancipation.
Of course, there is an important caveat in the fact that were Martí’s writing to be considered in isolation, away from his personal life, then in all likelihood it would not enjoy the reputation it does today. Because for years Martí connived with various factions of the Cuban émigré community to spark the revolt that would lead to the second war of independence in Cuba, and for the best part of a decade he vociferously called his country to arms against the rule of the despot, and then, in a final display of the sort of integrity rarely seen in thinkers, Martí joined the ranks of rebels, in April 1895, barely six weeks after the initial revolt had taken place. It was, really, an act that bordered on immolation, and the inevitable happened on May 19, 1895 when, after just over a month in the field of battle, José Martí was shot dead just a few kilometers away from Santiago de Cuba.
The history of Cuba in the twentieth century would have been drastically different if Fidel, like Martí, had been killed within a month of landing on the island, but this is not the message he intended to give by making the cemetery of Santa Ifigenia his final resting place. A highly intelligent, as well as passionate, man, he would have had enough time over the final decade of his life to reflect on the excesses, the abuse, and the intemperance that during his rule perverted his own ideals and ultimately caused so much harm to his people. By pointing straight to the origin of the revolution, to the attack on the Moncada Barracks and the source of inspiration that was José Martí, Fidel Castro is highlighting, even after his death, the most commendable and pure objectives which set in motion the armed struggle he would eventually lead to victory. Which makes sense, because it’s easy to see why he would like this to be the overarching legacy of his life. The reality, however, is that his tyrannical rule for several decades has cast a shadow not only on himself but on the revolution at large which will likely only darken with time, regardless of where Raúl, the last man standing of the July 26 Movement, is buried.
Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturda February 4, 2017.