We must read José Martí’s Our America over and again, especially in these times, as it continues to surprise us with ideas as eloquent and relevant as this: “The incapacity lies not in the emerging country, which demands forms that are appropriate to it and a grandeur that is useful, but in leaders who try to rule unique nations of a singular and violent composition, with laws inherited from four centuries of free practice in the United States and nineteen centuries of monarchy in France.”
Martí also dazzles us with the wisdom of a visionary who, back in the 19th century, warned: “In America, the good ruler does not need to know how the German or Frenchman is governed, but what elements his own country is composed of and how he can marshal them so as to reach, by means and institutions born from the country itself, the desirable state in which every man knows himself and is active, and all men enjoy the abundance that Nature, for the good of all, has bestowed on the country they make fruitful by their labor and defend with their lives.”
Today, “our long-suffering American republics” — as Martí referred to them in that essay — continue to suffer, under new names, the old ills that four centuries of colonialism bequeathed them.
The rise of right-wing forces in Latin America not only places indigenous peoples on the threshold of social exclusion, discriminates against Blacks, women, campesinos, homosexuals, workers, foreigners, the poor, exacerbates hatred and fear of others; it also strips them of their natural resources, conveniently placed in the hands of transnational corporations.
In the Latin American context, from the end of the last decade to date, various progressive presidents have been replaced by representatives of oligarchies and national elites, through parliamentary and mediatic maneuvers, or prosecuted in order to prevent their reelection.
The next step has been to eliminate social policies that benefited the majority, depriving them of the rights they won, and attack popular movements. Meanwhile, thousands march toward the “American dream,” and find themselves face to face with a wall of marginalization and xenophobia. “Anyone who promotes and disseminates opposition or hatred among races is committing a sin against humanity,” Martí noted, but unfortunately many have turned a deaf ear to this truth.
Martí’s concept of Our America is 128 years old (the essay was published in January 1891, in New York and Mexico). At that time, many former Spanish colonies had achieved their independence and the young republics whet the appetites of the empire that was gathering force in North America.
Martí, meanwhile, had already suffered imprisonment in Cuba and exile in Spain. He had lived and worked in several countries of the Americas (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela, hence his identification and empathy with the fate of these peoples); had been in France, the United States, and had sufficient political maturity to understand the imperative need for unity among Cubans in their struggle for independence, an effort that would crystallize in the founding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party.
The Apostle desired that same unity for the nations of the American subcontinent which, although free from Spanish rule, were exposed to U.S. domination. “The disdain of the formidable neighbor who does not know her is our America’s greatest danger,” wrote Martí.
Since the publication of Martí’s essay, or even before, with the honorable exceptions of certain strategic alliances in favor of regional integration — which have not always been lasting — and between figures who have valued unity, the lack of unity has been an important obstacle to the development of the peoples of the Americas, a weakness skillfully used by powerful groups to strengthen their hegemonic position.
In more recent years mechanisms such as ALBA and UNASUR have seen their members threatened or numbers reduced (and with this their united strength), while right-wing groups have emerged or reappeared, openly opposed to the progressive positions of such regional organizations, and with an agenda underpinned by their links to imperialist policies. These represent attempts to shatter South-South cooperation or contact with other emerging economies such as through BRICS, to ultimately leave Latin America and its full economic and natural potential at the mercy of northern power.
With new technologies, the ways to fragment this much needed unity have been renewed. The immediacy and supposed innocuousness of the digital world comes to impose an image of our peoples that leaves no room for the indigenous of these lands.
Bridging the gap of more than a century, Martí’s words have lost none of their relevance: “Therefore the urgent duty of our America is to show herself as she is.”
At the beginning of the millennium, several statesmen noted that Latin America was not living an era of change, but a change of era. One hundred years before, as the colonies of the Americas began to secure their status as republics, Cuba’s national hero wrote: “The problem of independence was not the change in form, but the change in spirit.”
More than a call to unity: “Common cause must be made with the oppressed in order to consolidate a system that is opposed to the interests and governmental habits of the oppressors;” and to ethics: “There is no racial hatred, because there are no races;” or the defense of our roots: “No Yankee or European book could furnish the key to the Hispano-American enigma;” Our America is confirmation that there remains much to do.
Fortunately, the resistance continues, in the minds of committed intellectuals, in the demonstrations of students in the streets, in the peoples that seek to unite as a way to survive, and in the leaders who have not lost sight of collective construction for everyone’s sake.
We must read Our America time and again, and convince ourselves that “these countries will be saved,” because “the real man is being born to America, in these real times.”