That sun of the moral world
Cintio Vitier and the Cuban Revolution
Cuba recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Cintio Vitier, Cuban poet, critic, essayist, and novelist who died in 2009. The commemoration included a sixty-minute television news program devoted entirely to the author of Ese Sol del Mundo Moral (“That sun of the moral world”), originally written in 1974 and republished and reprinted in several editions. The book is a history of the Cuban Revolution, but more than a history, it is “an essay of philosophical reflection on the Cuban Revolution,” as was observed by Abel Prieto, former Minister of Culture; a reflection that gives emphasis to the moral character of the revolution. Its central concept is that the morality of Cuban political culture, intertwined with the persistence of hope, was the base of the triumph of the revolution.
Prieto, who now is President of the Casa de las Americas, maintains that the book is more relevant today than ever, when the world is so full of decadence. He called upon Cuban youth to read the book in order to renew their appreciation of Cuban culture. The book, he noted, is not written for academics, but for cultured readers.
I have a personal story with respect to Ese Sol del Mundo Moral. When I gave a presentation in 2014 at an academic conference in Moa, province of Holguín, the organizers of the event gave me a copy of the book. I found it so full of insight that I cited it frequently in my 2018 book on Cuba. Indeed, a reviewer criticized what he considered my overly extensive use of it, which I ignored in the final revision of my book. I consider Ese Sol del Mundo Moral to be one of the two most insightful books on the Cuban Revolution, the other being Jesus Arboleya’s La Revolución del Otro Mundo (“The revolution of the other world”). The two books are complementary in their insights: Arboleya, who served as a Cuban diplomat in Washington, focused on the neocolonial relation between the USA and Cuba; whereas Vitier revealed the moral, indeed spiritual, character of the Cuban revolution. Influenced by Vitier, the subtitle for my 2018 book is “The Light in the Darkness.”
In the preface to Ese Sol del Mundo Moral, Cintio Vitier wrote:
We believe that moral consciousness exists and is developed in each country with its own formulations and arguments that can be understood as a “living ethic” that is a historic expression of spiritual motivation. Therefore, when we speak of a “Cuban ethic,” we are not referring to an exceptional or exclusive phenomenon, but to the manner in which human moral problems are presented and confronted, in fact, in the political and intellectual history of Cuba. Similarly, one could speak of a Vietnamese, French, or Mexican ethic. Our premise is that autonomy is always the foundation of universality.
Vitier maintained that during the failed war of independence of 1868 to 1878, the people united in arms came to know themselves as the living nucleus of the nation, born from the defeats and the victories of whites and blacks fighting together against Spanish troops. When a country enters into a revolution, he wrote, the first thing that is discovered is the moral substance of human life. Economic and ideological contradictions are expressed as alternatives of life and death, and each person is compelled to take sides, to choose between justice and injustice. “The fusion in combat of blacks and whites, of masters and slaves who ceased being masters and slaves . . . taught Cubans . . . the true face of the nation: that face, lined with tears and splashed with blood, was the face of justice and freedom. The military chiefs and the masses knew it, the heroes known and unknown knew it, and even the half-hearted, the opportunists and the traitors knew it.” A new geography emerged in the consciousness of the people, the geography of the marches and battles, of the victories and defeats.
Vitier reflects on the evolution of José Martí in exile, and he observes that Martí had arrived to believe in a democratic, popular revolution that made no distinctions on the basis of class or race. Meanwhile, on the island, autonomy within the Spanish empire had become the prevailing thought, expressed either in the form of a reactionary conservatism or a limited liberal reformism. Thus, there emerged two Cuban political cultures: a decadent autonomism on the island, and a revolutionary consciousness in exile. Vitier maintains that Martí’s creative political and intellectual achievement was the synthesis of the various currents of thought of the Cuban emigration, and to connect it to revolutionary action. Vitier stresses Martí’s belief in the equality and universal identity of all persons of diverse colors; and his identification with the oppressed and the poor of the earth, seeking redemption for all of humanity.
Vitier writes that the key to Martí’s achievement was that he accepted the challenge of the impossible. One must believe that the impossible is possible. How can the impossible be possible? For Martí, Vitier maintains, the impossible is attained through dedication to truth, honor, and integrity. Truth is the primary duty; the duty to truth is at the root of the human being. There cannot be political liberty without spiritual liberty, which occurs when human beings again know their true selves. The true human being does not seek to live better, but seeks to follow the road of duty. On this basis, “the impossible is possible,” and “the dream of today will be the law of tomorrow.”
Vitier takes the reader through the travesties of the Cuban neocolonial republic. He writes of the Cuban political class turning over enormous portions of territory to North American capitalists. In this context, he penned the memorable lines, “The colony was an injustice; it was not a deception. The Yankee neocolony was both things.”
Vitier writes of Julio Antonio Mella, who was formed in the moral and intellectual environment established by the teachings of Martí. But Mella had experienced the “rotten fruit” of “representative democracy.” He had seen what Martí could not imagine: the participation of the Cuban national bourgeoisie in the imperialist project of the USA; the participation of ample sectors of the middle class in the corruption of the Republic; and the loss of direction and the “moral blindness” that defined the society of the Republic. From Mella’s vantage point, Martí’s formulation of a society made by all and for the good of all, in which the national bourgeoisie and the working class would cooperate, seemed impractical. Anticipating Fidel, Mella synthesized the thinking of Martí and Marxism; he sought to forge a movement of workers and the poor, with an anti-imperialist projection.
Vitier writes of Rubén Martínez Villena, a poet who became the de facto leader of the Cuban Communist Party and the National Worker Confederation of Cuba in the early 1930s. Martínez Villena’s verses of 1923 had described the “moral blindness,” the “inertia of the soul,” and a “profound sensation of the impossible” that characterized the neocolonial republic, and they evoked the sun that illuminates the revolutionary imperative that would cast aside the fatalistic sense of the impossible, driven by a “yearning for the salvation of the beloved land.”
Vitier maintains that that the 1933 so-called government of 100 days “emitted an impressive series of truly revolutionary laws and decrees.” He describes it as “an audacious anti-imperialist offensive, the first realized in Cuba from power.” With reference to Antonio Guiteras, he writes, “As incredible as it seems, Cuba was governing itself in the person of that pale, serious, direct and unyielding youth of twenty-six years of age.”
In Ese Sol del Mundo Moral, Cintio Vitier writes that there were three periods of disillusionment and fatalism during the Cuban revolutionary process that began in 1868. The first followed the Pact of Zanjón of 1878, which ended the first Cuban war of independence without the attainment of independence or the abolition of slavery. The second followed the U.S. intervention of 1898, which ended the second war of independence with U.S. imposition of the structures of the neocolonial republic. And the third followed the fall on January 15, 1934 of the only independent government during the neocolonial republic, leading to the consolidation of power by Batista and the deepening of the core-peripheral neocolonial relation with the USA. Each period of disillusionment lasted approximately twenty years, and they were characterized by a fatalistic belief that the transformation of unjust structures of domination through heroic action was impossible.
In the case of the period of 1933 to 1952, Cuba had evolved to be a functioning neocolonial system, and the fictions of the neocolonial republic prevailed. Vitier writes that politicians elected on false promises robbed the public treasury and pretended to be public officials with legitimate authority in a system of representative democracy. The materialist consumerism of the “American way of life” pervaded the island, provoking distorted and unrealistic expectations among the people. The country was empty and hollow.
But the soul of the nation was alive, Vitier maintains. “It lived in the quiet suffering of the poor or middle-class family, in its capacity for resistance and hope, in its irrepressible popular laugh, in its unbeatable music, in the lamp of the intellectual, in poetry.” The nation that Martí had envisioned lived, hidden in the quiet sufferings and hopes of the people. Intellectuals played an important role. Many sought “to discover and show the true face of the nation” in different ways, but united in “the common faith in education and culture as the road to national salvation.” Some, for example, sought to discover and exalt the ethical values that formed the foundation of Cuban nationality in the nineteenth century. In this vein, the anthropologist Fernando Ortiz described the saving virtues of Cuban culture, with particular emphasis on the immense contribution of the population with African roots to the Cuban social conglomerate, thus pointing to a de-colonization of Cuban culture. Others analyzed the complex work of José Martí, focusing on particular aspects of Martí’s thought, including the ethical, political-social, literary, journalistic, philosophical, and educational dimensions. Juan Marinello, for example, made a presentation at the Union of Writers and the Academy of Sciences of the Soviet Union, demonstrating the anti-imperialist character of Martí’s political thought and its opposition to the Cuban neocolonial regime. Marinello and others placed the work of Martí in the context of Latin American thought.
Cuban poetry also expressed a political and hopeful message in the context of the frustrations of the neocolonial republic, Vitier maintains. Nicolás Guillen, a member of the Communist Party of Cuba since 1937, was a poet whose work gave voice to the people, the concrete, exploited, and suffering people of the frustrated republic. He and other communist intellectuals believed that literary and artistic expression was a form of struggling for liberty and justice. In addition, Cuban poetry of the period affirmed the possibility of the impossible. Rejecting an interpretation of the impossible as meaning “not possible,” it sustained that the impossible possesses a light that most people cannot see, and a force that the prevailing attitude does not know. But the hidden light of the impossible can be made visible, and its unknown force felt. Human hopes can experience incarnation. In the depths of the national soul is found a thirst for the historical coming, for the incarnation of poetry in reality.
Thus, Vitier maintains, during the period of disillusionment from 1933 to 1952, Cuban intellectuals kept hope and faith in a dignified Cuban nation alive. They affirmed an ethical attitude in the face of corruption and the pursuit of personal gain and particular interests. They prevented the country from falling into a corruption so pervasive that it corrupted the soul of the nation.
In Ese Sol del Mundo Moral, Vitier quotes a manifesto released on July 23, 1953 by Fidel Castro, which called upon the people to “continue the unfinished revolution that Céspedes initiated in 1868, Martí continued in 1895, and Guiteras and Chibás made current in the republican epoch.” The revolution, the manifesto declared, was the revolution of Céspedes, Agramonte, Maceo, Martí, Mella, Guiteras, and Chibás. This single revolution, having evolved through different stages, now was entering a “new period of war.” The initiation of the new stage was proclaimed dramatically three days later, on July 26, when Fidel led an attack on the Moncada military garrison in Santiago de Cuba. The intention of the assault was to seize weapons for the launching of a guerrilla struggle in the mountains. The assault failed, and 70 of the 126 assailants were killed, 95% of them murdered after capture by Batista’s solders in a four-day period following the assault.
Vitier maintains that, even though the Cuban intellectual class during the period 1933 to 1952 had kept alive an ethical attitude, there had emerged among the people by 1953 the sentiment that an ethical attitude is not enough; one must act. Vitier interprets the Moncada attack as a great act, which broke the barriers that were confining the movement to the verbal expression of an attitude, an act that opened the possibility for a new stage in the Cuban Revolution. Moncada, moreover, was a heroic act that called into being a new stage of struggle that would advance through personal courage and sacrifice. Vitier quotes Fidel’s defense of the Moncada attack:
It seemed that Martí would die during the centennial year of his birth, that his memory would be extinguished forever. . . . But he lives; he has not died; his people are rebellious; his people are dignified; his people are faithful to his memory. There are Cubans that have died defending his doctrines. There are youth who in magnificent selflessness have come to die beside his tomb, to give their blood and their lives in order that he would continue living in the soul of the country.
Thus, the Moncada assault involved heroic sacrifice, in which young Cubans risked and sacrificed their lives. It brought to the political foreground the Cuban tradition of personal and collective sacrifice in defense of national dignity. And it was a collective act, advancing rejection of the established order from ethical attitude to revolutionary practice. Moncada responded to the needs of the people and the revolution in that historic moment, providing an example of heroic struggle that the people were able to understand and were ready to support. Moncada, as described by Vitier, was an “enormous, ripping and creative new force that would project itself over the future of Cuba in an irresistible form.”
The struggle continued, and the remarkable personal characteristics of Fidel continued to be manifest, as Vitier explains. On December 2, 1956, Fidel and 81 armed guerrillas, having trained in Mexico and having traveled by sea for seven days, disembarked from the yacht “Granma” in a remote area of eastern Cuba, with the intention of establishing an armed struggle in the mountains known as the Sierra Maestra. The Granma disembarking, however, was a complete strategic failure. The boat arrived two days behind schedule, thus undermining the strategy of a simultaneous uprising in Santiago de Cuba, intended to distract Batista’s army. As the rebels disembarked, they encountered swampland so difficult that they had to abandon most of their weapons. Three days later, they were surprised and routed by Batista’s army, dispersing in small groups and in different directions.
But Fidel would not be deterred, Vitier reports. When twelve of them were able to regroup under the protection of a local peasant, Fidel was jubilant. “We will win the war,” he declared. “Let us begin the struggle!” Vitier quotes Universo Sanchez, one of the twelve, who declared that it was “a faith that moves mountains.” The faith of Fidel is not, observes Vitier, “a religious faith in supernatural powers, but a revolutionary faith in the potentialities of the human being.” It is an “uncontainable force” that “sees in history what is not yet visible.” Such faith proceeds from and is nurtured by three sources: “a moral conviction that defends the cause of justice; profound confidence in the human being; and the highest examples in human history.” And such faith is integrally tied to a dynamic view of human history: “for the revolutionary, it is not a matter of history been but of history being, where the highest examples continue acting; not of a stagnant and fixed human being but of the human being becoming, in evolution.” And this becoming is above all “oriented toward duty.”
Vitier maintains that the unshakable faith of Fidel, “contagious, irradiating and attracting with the moral magnetism of heroism, . . . became a live experience in the terrain of the struggle.” Whereas the skepticism of the theoreticians could see only the objective conditions and the correlation of forces, revolutionary faith sees the possibility of changing these conditions and forces, following the highest examples in human history. And this faith would be fed by the evolving social dynamics in which it was acting: The rebel army in the mountains and the clandestine struggle in the cities were creating new objective conditions. Vitier believed that the revolutionary faith of Fidel saved the revolution from falling once again into the abyss of the impossible, in which its fulfillment does not seem possible. Fidel was driven by a faith that was “nurtured by analysis” and that therefore could discern the reality hidden by the appearance of the impossibility of things, and it could discern that what appeared to be impossible was, in reality, possible and attainable, through commitment to duty and to truth, and through sacrifice.
Cintio Vitier taught us to appreciate the most important characteristic of Fidel Castro: his deep conviction that there is no force on earth that can stop the forward march of the people, when the people are united in commitment to the duty to discern the essence hidden behind the appearance of things, and are prepared to make any sacrifice to attain that just world that our wisest leaders have foreseen.
We intellectuals and activists of the United States and other societies of the North have much to learn from Cintio Vitier and the Cuban Revolution that he so profoundly understood.
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