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A Modest Proposal: President Obama, While in Cuba, Check in on Julio Antonio Mella

Mr. President, please think about this: pay your respects to Julio Antonio Mella. Your doing so would be a courtesy to President Raul Castro, your host. Julio Antonio was a founder of the Cuban Communist Party and at the time was a mere student. In Cuba, he is a hero. And his birthday, March 25, coincides with your visit, almost.

I am assuming you and your advisors want to know all you can about the political orientation of leaders in places you visit. Julio Antonio contributed greatly to the outlook of Cuba’s leaders now, so let me explain.

Mella’s political activity in the 1920s became a reference point for rebellion in Cuba well into the 1930s. He is the symbolic link between revolutionaries led by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes and José Martí in the 19th century and those who’ve guided Cuba since January 1, 1959. Mella adapted the teachings of José Martí to the 20th century and beyond. He emphasized the revolutionary potential of working people and those who’ve been left out.

Mella thus shows us that the course of revolution in Cuba has been long. Many of our compatriots mistakenly think that the Cuban revolution only began about the time your host was a young man.

A look at Mella and what he did might enable North Americans like us to get rid of another fixed idea, the one about all communist parties being alike — that they copy the Soviet party led by Stalin. You undoubtedly know that the Cuban Communist Party has gone its own way, having been re-founded in 1965 and being well known for its pragmatism. The politically independent Julio Antonio Mella had something to do with that.

I would point out also that Mella was representative of Latin American communists whose ideas often differed from those of their European and U. S. counterparts. That’s the opinion of former Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon, whose list of such ideas includes:

“True personal bond with the struggle of the masses; Recapture of the indigenous and campesinos’ cause; Independent and creative ideology; Rescue of Marti’s ideology; Fusion of the Agrarian Reform and Social Revolution; Real incorporation of the revolutionary students’ movement; … and Relationship between national liberation and social emancipation.” Mr. President, you’ll realize that this last one is about us.

What I am saying, Mr. President, is that Julio Antonio Mella is someone you would do well to look up when you are in Cuba. Yes, he did die in Mexico in 1929 when he was 25 years old, killed by thugs obeying the Cuban dictator Machado. But even so he may still be around.

Mr. Alarcon recalled that, “One generation after another, meetings of the University Student Federation began by taking a roll call. When the name Julio Antonio was called out, the unanimous response given by those present was never rhetorical but represented a simple truth felt by all.”

A firsthand impression of the devotion Cuban young people and workers had for Mella may serve to show why he is remembered even now. The revolutionary journalist Pablo de la Torriente Brau was describing a procession September 18, 1933, in Havana.(1) The dictator Machado had been deposed and students were carrying Mella’s ashes, returned from Mexico, to a final resting place.

“The shouts of the immense, tumultuous crowd stir the air. Red flags wave, and there are revolutionary songs.” This was for Mella, the “precursor, hero, and martyr who knew how to insult the slobbering, senile monster Machado with word and action. This incomparable dynamo of human energy, with his iron profile, is today our symbol, the symbol of ardent youth striding toward the future. His simple name [is] united by a pool of blood to a universal idea, that of sacrifice for the ‘poor of the world.’”

Pablo sees someone in uniform looking on: “The insolent Marine, one of the Yankees whom Mella had fought against so forcefully, was astonished.”

He recalls Mella’s modification of “a fearsome phrase of St. Just, comrade of Robespierre [in the French Revolution], which says: There’s no rest for the revolutionary other than the tomb. But Mella pointed out that, “Revolutionaries are useful even after death; our body serves as a trench for combat for those who follow.”

Mr. President, allow me to put off for another day the whole story of Julio Antonio Mella. I only suggest that you and he could be friends. You have things in common.

You each had parents from another country and as young children you each went to schools in different countries. Julio Antonio’s father had roots in the Dominican Republic, and his mother was born in Ireland. He attended school in New Orleans, and of course in Cuba.

However, you have another link that Julio Antonio would not appreciate. Calvin Coolidge preceded you in 1928 as a U.S. president who visited Cuba while in office. He arrived in a battleship – a little excessive, don’t you think? – and hobnobbed with the dictator Machado, who promised that in his Cuba no strike would last more than 24 hours. You’ll remember that Machado was the one who had Mella killed. Mella’s friend Rubén Martínez Villena called him a “jackass with claws.”

And here’s a connection involving Mella himself. Mr. Coolidge grew up in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, and is buried in a cemetery there. Well – wouldn’t you know? – Julio Antonio’s own mother Cecilia McParland is buried in the East Clarendon, Vermont, Cemetery, just down the road. And I myself grew up in that state, a bit farther away.

So it turns out to be a small world. And that’s why you are surely doing the right thing stopping by in Cuba – if I may say so.

Note.

1 Pablo’s article appeared in “Linea,” a student publication. It is included in “The Journalist Pablo” (“El Periodista Pablo”), selection, notes and prologue by Victor Caseus, Letras Cubanas, Havana, 1898, pp.150-153.

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W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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