A Journey to the Seed

ALFREDO PRIETO*

HAVANA TIMES, February 1 – I’ve always admired Thomas Jefferson, one of my favorite protagonists of the revolution of the 13 colonies, for two reasons: his liberal, profoundly democratic spirit -the antithesis of Federalist Alexander Hamilton- and his defense of minority representation.

Jefferson: “Nothing would be more suitable”
Jefferson: “Nothing would be more suitable”

However, my feelings take a negative turn when I connect him with Cuba. Let me explain: At the beginning of the 19th century Jefferson was one of the first to conceive of the possibility of annexing the island to the United States. This took place in an internal context where the idea of territorial expansion was just becoming a reality, first with the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon Bonaparte (1803) and later that of Florida from Spain (1819). With this expansion “the way South” was open, as Jose Marti denounced in a warning letter hours before his death at Dos Rios in 1895.

Jefferson’s statement that “nothing would be more suitable” that is to say, the idea that Cuba constituted “the most interesting addition that could be made to our system of states,” would become one of the most damaging political tendencies of the century for the existence of the Cuban nation. It would be backed by enthusiastic supporters on both sides of the Florida Straits, motivated by such diverse reasons that the historian needs to examine each one concretely because the ideas behind annexation were not always the same.

What’s certain is that ever since, although with ups and downs, Jefferson’s proposals would remain inscribed in many ways in Washington’s policies regarding Cuba, characterized not only by the problem of incorporation/assimilation, but also by  paternalism.

The 19th century produced numerous expressions of paternalism, but without a doubt one of the most representative in the narrative that Cubans weren’t ready for self government, a true mantra before and after the first US military intervention (1898-1902). This conception hid or ignored the actual political and civic culture that had developed in Cuba during the wars of independence.

The US press of the period – and not only in the media owned by William Randolph Hearst- frequently portrayed Cuba as a young woman with a huge black iron ball marked “Spain” around her ankle, receiving classes from a blond teacher (to exist, they had to learn). This was graphic testimony that annexation had once again become an attractive idea to important sectors of US society and its politicians.

US Interests Section in Havana
US Interests Section in Havana

This image, generated by a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant power elite, was often accompanied by racist suppositions presenting the island as a jungle inhabited by black watermelon eaters, a civilization inferior to the neighbors of the North. This was the same stamp that was used to characterize the rest of the Caribbean, and in particular Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

But the idea of annexation is not just water under the bridge. I have frequently seen it raise its head -sometimes directly, others more subtly- in programs and speeches of the exiles (and those around them) recycling an albatross that should already have been buried by its own weight.

There are without a doubt several ways of looking at this. In my opinion it has been the bequest of a political class that since 1959 has delegated in the US government the opposition that it was incapable of articulating for itself, an opposition based strongly on the ideal of the Platt Amendment and the realities of geopolitics (“the Americans aren’t going to permit communism 90 miles from their coasts”). And that, unfortunately, has not disappeared. For that reason perhaps, Jefferson’s successors are condemned to repeat the failure of the losers.

*Cuban essayist and editor who lives in Havana.



One thought on “A Journey to the Seed

  • Jefferson is one of my pantheon of heros, too. He represents the democratic, decentralized, division of power. He trusted the farmer, the tradesman, the worker (though not too much; he knew they tended to have narrow, parochial self-interests which were often unable to transcend to the greater good) and was their champion against the New England bankers and merchants who were the first sectors from whence sprang imperialism. He did have his little faults, but even these were endearing (e.g. Sally Hemmings). After all, the ultimate solution to racism is procreation–where the “other” becomes self, thesis/anti-thesis/synthesis…or is it sin-thesis?. On the other hand, a relationship betwixt master and slave can hardly be called equal, and equality should prevail in love–or at least sensual–laiasons. Then again, in our own times inequality in relationships persist, and for the same reasons, though less traumatic than slavery.
    I have a similar reproduction of Jefferson on my wall. What a writer! The best sections of the “Federalist Papers” are written by him. Like most of our Founding Fathers, he was a Child of the Enlightenment, a student of history, who knew what they wanted–and what failed in the past (Greece and Rome); this was there motivation for building that wonderous structure which is our Constitution. Alas! No matter what beautiful structures we may build in our mind’s eye, nevertheless, our failings–as a race–subvert and ultimately demolish them! Still, we still do persist–whether in Cuba or in the U.S.A. or any nation–in trying to build something better, and this is as much in our nature as is our failings. Certainly Jefferson was incorrect in his desires for the young America to annex Cuba. I calk this up to ignorance and folly, faults which we are all, every last one of us, guilty.

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