Christopher Columbus – Explorer
In the pulsing moments of discovery, there must be a certainty, like in the weight of an anchor, when the first sighting of shore birds signals the end of a scurvy-laden voyage. Opposites like faith and certainty instantly change places releasing a bolt of electricity to the discoverer’s nerve stem. Mutinous thoughts are replaced with a faith that adheres to the treasure’s elusive gospel. It is no longer necessary to point out that the phrase, “Do not be afraid,” is mentioned in the bible 365 times. Emotion is truth. All other priorities are rescinded.
The main hook of Columbus’s venture – that contra-coordinates will profitably defy convention – said go West to get East in search of treasure (and Catholicism if need be). Yet, when the mantle of darkness was pulled away from the lands newly discovered, Columbus believed he was in India or China. That myth was sustained for four of Columbus’s voyages. It wasn’t until 1507 that Amerigo Vespucci was credited with clarifying Columbus’ discoveries as newly-found, non-Asian lands.
Nevertheless, Columbus said upon discovering Cuba, “The goodliest land that eye ever saw, the sweetest thing in the world.”
José Martí – Revolutionary
Born in Havana, Cuba, José Julián Martí y Pérez was the son of poor Spanish immigrants. Thanks to the influence of a teacher, he was able to go to high school just prior to the Ten Years’ War – Cuba’s first struggle for independence. Martí committed himself to the cause by publishing his first newspaper La Patria Libre (Free Fatherland) in 1869. His reward for denouncing a pro-Spanish classmate was arrest and a six-year sentence at hard labor.
Freed soon thereafter, Martí began the exile that would characterize the better part of the rest of his life. He went to Spain where he published, El presidio político en Cuba, an expose on conditions in Cuban prisons. He received his university education in Madrid and Zaragoza and then returned to North America.
From 1881 until his fateful return to Cuba in 1895, Martí spent much of his time in New York City. He reported on life in the United States for many newspapers in Latin America including Opinión Nacional (Caracas) and La Nación (Buenos Aires). He wrote everything from a magazine for children (Edad de Oro) to poetry (Versos sencillos 1891), to essays on the nature of the United States which he admired for its energy and industry as well as its notable statesmen, particularly the framers of the Constitution. However, he denounced its imperialist tendencies toward its southern neighbors.
Yet, despite his busy literary career, he spent much of his time planning the second Cuban struggle for independence. He insisted that the next war should be short (to avoid U.S. intervention) and fought with a “republican method and spirit” (to forestall the possibility of a military dictatorship.) In 1892 he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party to organize the coming struggle. At one point he even came to believe, rightly or wrongly, that there existed an, “iniquitous plan to put pressure on the island and drive it to war so as to fabricate a pretext to intervene in its affairs and with the credit earned as guarantor and mediator keep it as its own.”
By early 1895, his preparations were complete. He would set sail with the generals from the last struggle and considerable supplies from Fernandina, Florida.
Then, U.S. authorities seized the ships just as they were about to set sail. Martí arrived in Cuba without any special authority and no way to keep the generals in check. He was killed in a small skirmish not two weeks after he had arrived.
It was only in the 1920’s and 1930’s that Martí was embraced by a new generation of nationalist Cubans as “el apóstol,” and cherished by many other Latin Americans as well. As the great Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío noted, Martí belonged to “an entire race, an entire continent.”
Fidel Castro – The World’s First Media Revolutionary
Not long after Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959, the U.S. launched a clandestine invasion of Cuba called the Bay of Pigs, organized in secret by the CIA. U.S. President Kennedy withheld vital support at the last minute and the invasion failed. Castro then sought and obtained military support from the Soviet Union, and in 1963 the Cuban Missile Crisis culminated in a standoff between the two most powerful nations on earth.
Here is the text of a letter Khrushchev wrote to Castro not long after the crisis:
If, by giving in to popular sentiment, we had allowed ourselves to be swept up by the more inflamed sectors of the populace, and if we had refused to reach a reasonable agreement with the government of the USA, war would have probably broken out, resulting in millions of deaths. Those who survived would have blamed the leaders for not having taken the measures that would have avoided this war of extermination… In your cable of October 27 you proposed that we be the first to carry out a nuclear strike against the enemy’s territory. Naturally you understand where that would lead us. It would not be a simple strike, but the start of a thermonuclear world war. Dear Comrade Fidel Castro, I find your proposal to be wrong, even though I understand your reasons.
Che Guevara, put it like this: “Here is the electrifying example of a people prepared to suffer nuclear immolation so that its ashes may serve as a foundation for new societies. When an agreement was reached by which the atomic missiles were removed, without asking our people, we were not relieved or thankful…”
The Armageddon Castro longed for never occurred, but that moment was the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. In a 2010 interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Castro conceded that such an attack on the U.S. would have been a mistake. When asked by Goldberg whether his recommendation to Khrushchev still seemed logical to him, Castro responded, “After I’ve seen what I’ve seen, and knowing what I know now, it wasn’t worth it all.”
Barack Obama – U.S President
In 2016, two years after re-engaging with the Cuban government, President Obama visited Cuba and delivery a speech with a message of reconciliation. Here is an excerpt from his speech:
Our growing engagement with Cuba is guided by one overarching goal — advancing the mutual interests of our two countries, including improving the lives of our people, both Cubans and Americans. That’s why I’m here. I’ve said consistently, after more than five very difficult decades, the relationship between our governments will not be transformed overnight.
Donald Trump – U.S. President
In 2017, Trump changed course and all but disengaged with Cuba by dissolving Obama’s words and actions towards Cuba. Here is an excerpt from a speech Trump delivered to a crowd of anti-Castro supporters in Miami in 2017:
I am announcing today a new policy, just as I promised during the campaign, and I will be signing that contract right at that table in just a moment. Our policy will seek a much better deal for the Cuban people and for the United States of America. We do not want U.S. dollars to prop up a military monopoly that exploits and abuses the citizens of Cuba. Our new policy begins with strictly enforcing U.S. law. We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled.
The long drama that has played out in the last 500 years did little for future of the native Taino Indians (the tribe died out not long after Columbus’s first visit), the thousands of African slaves, the European colonialists and the mixed and vibrant society in present-day Cuba. Scarcity and depravity have defined almost every period, and while the price for that scarcity has been a gauntlet of human tragedy since the times of Columbus, we are hopeful that a deep well of refreshment and healing in Cuba brings the pioneer spirit to bear, and the story’s core shifts to the consoling certainties of life with a future – together with a force that continues to excavate the rich hidden depths of the Cuban people.