This week’s edition of Sculpture Saturday features a sculpture of José Martí by the great Cuban sculptor Juan José Sicre. Martí (1853 – 1895) was a Cuban author, journalist, publisher, poet, and political philosopher who became a Cuban national hero through his role in his country’s liberation from Spanish rule.
The sculpture is part of the memorial to Martí that is located on the north side of the Plaza de la Revolución in the Vedado area of Havana. The memorial consists of a star-shaped, 358 ft (109m) tower, a 59 ft (18m) statue of Martí surrounded by six columns, and gardens. It is said to be the world’s largest monument to an author.
In the original proposal for the memorial, the statue of Marti was placed on top of the tower but was moved to the tower base when construction began in 1953 on the 100th anniversary of José Martí’s birth. The statue and memorial are made of marble from Cuba’s Isla de Pinos.
Marti is an unusual character in that he was revered by the far right and the far left. The statue and Memorial were completed in 1958 by right-wing Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista during the last year of his rule (1952 – January 1, 1959). After Batista’s ouster, Fidel Castro adopted a version of Marti’s ideology as a guide for the Cuban Communist Party. Castro used Marti’s Memorial and statue as a backdrop for his notoriously long-winded Plaza de la Revolución speeches to the Cuban people.
There is no doubt about Marti’s fierce commitment to an independent Cuba. His position on other political issues is more ambiguous. Marti was a great admirer of the educational system in the United States and the U.S. Constitution (especially freedom of speech). Yet during the 14 years he lived in the United States, Marti saw that the U.S. failed to live up to many of the ideals under which it was conceived. He noted racism, a professional political class, a disinterest in politics among the masses, and a small class of super-elites who pulled the political strings behind the scenes. In 1882, Marti predicted that these departures from the founding ideals placed the U.S. in danger of large-scale social conflict. See, Kirk, John M. (November 1977), “Jose Marti and the United States: A Further Interpretation” (PDF), Journal of Latin American Studies, Cambridge University Press.
It is remarkable what an observant outsider can see that many in the middle of a situation can’t. The Memorial and sculpture should be included in the itinerary for any first-time visit to Havana. The view from the top of the memorial is reportedly fantastic. When I visited in February 2017, the elevator was under repair but should be open to visitors by now.