January-February 2017

Guantanamera: José Martí to Fidel Castro

By Ross Altman, PhD

fidel-castro-marti-smRevolutions don’t take place in velvet boxes. It’s only the poets who make them lovely.

~ Carl Oglesby, President of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), 1965-66

Imagine an American airport named for one of our great poets—like Edgar Allan Poe International Airport, or Walt Whitman Airport, or Emily Dickinson Airport; a pretty strange notion is it not? For the most part, in our country you have to be responsible for the deaths of thousands before anyone would think of naming an airport after you; think JFK in New York, or Ronald Reagan Airport in Washington, DC. Yet in a tiny island country just ninety miles away, their major airport is proudly named for their national poet: José Martí International Airport in Havana, Cuba. Who was José Martí?

He was a Cuban soldier/poet who fought to free Cuba from Spain during Cuba’s War for Independence; he died May 19, 1895, in the Battle of Dos Rios. Like Emily Dickinson he also wrote thousands of verses, some of which Pete Seeger popularized, Guantanamera—or Sea of Guantanamo. Sound familiar? It should; it was a major hit for the Sandpipers, a 1960s folk pop group, and a standard for The Weavers and for Pete himself, who played it on the 12-string for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s also, of course, been in the news for 15 years as the Guantanamo Prison we own and operate full-time as a human rights abuser of international stature—a perennial example of Amnesty International’s annual human rights violations report. It has now outlasted four US Presidential terms—two by George W. Bush and two by Barack Obama, who promised to close it eight years ago and now faces the end of his presidency with its iron bars still locked to the world.

Guantanamera is a patriotic anthem of (lower-case) communist ideals without once descending into (upper-case) Communist ideology. “Con los pobres de la tierra,” (With the poor people of this earth) Martí exclaims, “Quiero yo mi suerta echar” (I share my fate). Then he puts it in terms of Cuba’s great natural beauty—all visible from Guantanamo Bay: “El arroyo de la sierra / me complace mas del mar” (The streams of the mountain / please me more than the ocean). José Martí (in his book Versos Sencillos (Simple Verses) hit upon a perfect example of what T.S. Eliot argued for in The Sacred Wood—“an objective correlative,” or natural symbol of an emotion or philosophic idea —in this case small streams representing the common man. Martí did not need to resort to Karl Marx to make his point—he identified with the proletariat, not the ruling class.

The ninety miles that separate Cuba from the southern coast of Florida have resonated for more than half a century with many symbolic meanings, ever since Ernest Hemingway set his last great novel in the Gulf Stream: The Old Man and the Sea. The old man who Papa says at the beginning, “went 84 days without taking a fish,” is named for Cuba’s Eastern city Santiago, where Fidel Castro was buried on December 4, at the end of a nine day period of national mourning. Why in Santiago, and not Havana? Because that is the city where their national poet José Martí is buried. Castro will be buried in the same Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. The Cuban people’s core values of admiration for their artistic soul more than their military successes is well reflected in Fidel’s final resting place. He is ennobled by proximity to Martí—their century-long national poet hero—rather than the other way around. His presence sanctifies it as their Arlington National Cemetery.

Guantanamera thus begins with this incomparably simple evocation of the common man:

Yo soy un hombre sincero,(I am a sincere man)

de donde crece la palma, (from the land of the palm trees)

y antes de morirme quiero, (and before I die I want to)

echar mis versos del alma (pour out these verses from my soul).

José Martí introduces himself like Walt Whitman at the beginning of Song Of Myself, where the poet takes on the persona of the whole people of his country—inseparable from them. It’s a brilliant trope, because like Whitman he believes it to the depths of his being.

It’s the vibrant second verse that elevates his paean to a Spanish “Cuba the Beautiful”:

Mi verso es de un verde claro” (My verse is a gentle green)

Y de un carmin encendido” (And of a flaming crimson)

Mi verso es un ciervo herido (My verse is like a wounded fawn)

Que busca en el monte emparo.  (Seeking refuge in the mountain.)

It’s absolutely stunning how once again Martí is able to translate natural splendor into human emotions and spiritual values—similar to Woody Guthrie’s luxurious lines in This Land Is Your Land:

I’ve roamed and rambled

and followed my footsteps

to the sparkling sands of her diamond desert

And all around me a voice came sounding

This land was made for you and me.

Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie and José Martí all find ways to use naturalistic symbols to embody spiritual states of being—to transform the natural world into a human one—the romantic impulse at its most engaging.

The value and social status of the artist in Cuban society is nowhere better exemplified than in the story of Hemingway’s stolen Nobel Prize, which he won in 1954 after the publication of The Old Man and the Sea in 1952. When the golden statuette was stolen from his Cuban dwelling—which is still maintained as a literary museum by the Cuban government and people, along with Hem’s famous cats’ descendants—Fidel’s brother Raul, to whom Castro turned over the reigns of power in 2008 when he first fell ill, let it be known that whoever stole Hemingway’s Nobel Prize would face death when he was caught if it wasn’t returned to its rightful owner. The Nobel Prize soon found its way back to Hemingway’s home, where it remains to this day. One may disapprove of using the death penalty for this kind of crime, but one cannot equally help but wonder at the exemplary stand on behalf of the importance of art and its “objective correlative” in the form of a symbolic statuette in the panoply of national values enshrined by Raul Castro. Stockholm, Sweden, recognized Hemingway as a national treasure, and so did his adopted home of Cuba. Actions speak louder than words—even those of a master wordsmith like Hemingway—and Cuba’s future president understood what a great writer meant to his homeland long before he assumed the role of its official leader. Small gestures like this reveal far more than official government-sponsored rallies about a nation’s character.

That is why I mourn with the Cuban people for Fidel Castro’s passing and celebrate his long life—Castro at 90 years old lived one precious year for every mile that separates our two countries. Others will carry the idea of la Revolución with them for inspiration; and Cuban exiles will dance in the streets of Little Havana and revel in seeing time finally having caught up with the dictator they condemn for his human rights abuses. There is no question his life was contradictory and filled with irreconcilable differences. Like Mark Antony said on another occasion, “The evil that men do lives after them.” But unlike Mark Antony, I come not to bury Castro, but to praise him. Why celebrate a dictator?

For one, he stood up to the Empire like nobody else. And when the Empire struck back, during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, he stood his ground—which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following October. Even then he was prepared to go all the way to confront the US—but thank God one Russian was not: he turned their submarine around, just barely avoiding the nuclear confrontation Phil Ochs dramatized in Talking Cuban Crisis that would have turned the Cold War into Bob Dylan’s Talking World War III. Fortunately, despite Dylan’s prophetic alarm, a Hard Rain did not fall, and we survived.

Linda Huf, Ph.D., however, was so terrified at the prospect of an unavoidable war she took Leslie, her new husband at the time, to what she imagined was out of the line of fire: from Arlington, Virginia, near Langley, hometown of the CIA—which she assumed would be Khrushchev’s first target—all the way to the legendary town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, an artist colony and site of the A-Bomb’s Manhattan Project. She figured it was the safest place in the country, surrounded on four sides by tall mountains and armed to the teeth. Linda was only 19, and as soon as she could she enrolled at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where she came under the influence of Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley—who inspired her to pursue the life of a writer, which she has done ever since. Linda ironically credited Castro’s belligerence with pushing her out of the narrow path of her former life and opening the door to an artist’s vocation. It may also have inspired Dylan’s most ambitious early song, and Ochs’ most trenchant talking blues. Castro, like Plato, may have banned poets from the Republic, but he gave them lots to write about and, like Joan Baez’s memoir’s title, a voice to sing with.

Havana UniversityExcept that Castro, unlike Plato, did not ban poets from the Republic—ever since José Martí he had too much respect for them. Just ask Cuban singer-songwriter—their Bob Dylan many have said—Silvio Rodriguez, who has had a freehand being their folk singer of record. In a clear line going all the way back from Fidel Castro to José Martí, Cuba has always celebrated the artist and poet—even when they have repressed their political enemies. That “girl from Guantanamo,” the refrain of Guantanamera, “Guajira Guantanamera,” whoever she was, was an amazing Muse to Martí’s inner poet. She gave Pete Seeger one of his signature songs—a song that reached out beyond Pete’s English language audience and allowed him to connect with Latinos as well, the minority who found themselves at the center of the recent Presidential election. I have sung it at hundreds of nursing homes in Los Angeles and never failed to have a roomful of caregivers and hospital staff—the ones who care for our frail elderly, in the City of Angels they truly earn the name—singing along, just as Pete taught us to do. I just noticed something else today—in the California section of The LA Times—a photo taken at Havana University of students in mourning for Fidel, during the nine days of mourning leading up to the burial of his ashes in the Santiago cemetery by José Martí.

I wonder why the university wasn’t named for this tyrant, “El Comandante”, “Líder Máximo”, “El Loco”, or one of his other nicknames—as our own president-elect surely would have done. But it’s not—even after 57 years it remains simply Havana University. Had it been in New York it would have been renamed Castro University. The fraudulent founder of Trump University would have seen to that. Perhaps even at this late date there are a few lessons in humility we could still learn from the George Washington of Cuba. I have.

But it’s not just poets and artists who mourn Fidel: during the 1960s at UCLA in SDS I met Lenor de Cruz who wanted to go to Cuba long before it was acceptable to do so. SDS President Carl Oglesby figured out a way to take a small contingent of student radicals to Havana to see what their idealized country looked like up close. Thanks to Carl—SDS poet—the “Venceremos Brigade” was born. Lenor didn’t go there to study, or gaze at displays of revolutionary art. She went there to get her hands dirty—picking sugar cane. She wanted to see how peasants lived, how day-to-day life was in a society that began far beneath their social ladder. She went there to work.

It was not so much a revolutionary experience for most of those for whom Batista—the US-backed dictator whom Castro and Che Guevera overthrew—was only a name; it was rather a revelatory experience that made them appreciate their own incredible good fortune and privilege in living in the USA. In ways that never became so clear from reading Marxist literature on the class struggle, they understood it all too well by temporarily leaving their privilege behind, and simply immersing themselves in the real struggle of hard labor just to survive. In the process they could not help but fall in love with Cuba—and her people. It became—even for just a few months—a life-changing experience. It was for Lenor.

My personal experience came later—after I moved back east to go to graduate school at SUNY-Binghamton. I fell in love with a Cuban girl who wound up leaving me to go back home at the end of the school year. We fell out of touch, but I never forgot her, and how she carried her exceptional country with her wherever she went. For a while every song I wrote was for her—and in my devotion I came to understand José Martí—and to feel that I too got a glimpse of his Muse—his “Guajira Guantanamera,” “Country girl from Guantanamo.”

I had all too easily assumed that like the right-wing Cuban exiles one reads about in the papers these days and hears interviewed on the radio, from Calle Ocho in Miami’s Little Havana to anti-Castro historian Carlos Eire at Yale University, she too would take the first opportunity to become an exile herself. But she wouldn’t hear of it. Abandon Cuba? Never! Just like me, underneath the radical antiwar protester, she loved her country. She has stayed with me all these years; Fidel’s death brought her back in all her luminosity.

Like Martí’s “hombre sincero,” truthful man, I wanted to share her with you before I go.

Viva Fidel!—for creating a vision of a new kind of country for her to come home to. Perhaps all the bad things Sen. Rubio now says about Castro are true: the brutal dictator side by side with the daring rebel and liberator. But I saw Cuba in her eyes—and I will never forget it. Happy 2017! On New Years Day (in 1959) the Cuban Revolution succeeded.

Los Angeles folksinger and Local 47 member Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton. Ross may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

  

All Columns by Ross Altman