By W.T. Whitney Jr.

May 15, 2024


Taking note of International Workers’ Day, several Latin American news sources this year cited José Martí’s 1886 essay “A Terrible Drama;” two of them republished it, here and here. There Martí reports on events in Chicago in 1886 and the fate of the so-called Haymarket Martyrs – seven labor journalists and agitators railroaded to prison and given death sentences.  Another received a 15-year prison term.

Martíwho would become Cuba’s national hero, was living in exile in the United States. He relates how strikes for the eight-hour day were underway on May 1, 1886 in Chicago and nationwide, how the Chicago police killed one striker and wounded others on May 3, and how a mass protest against police violence took place the next day in the Haymarket area. There, a bomb exploded, seven policemen and four workers were killed, and dozens were wounded.

The court lacked evidence that the defendants, anarchist by inclination, were involved in the violence of May 4. Martí describes the execution of four of them and the suicide of another. An appeals court judge commuted the sentences of two defendants to life in prison. In 1893, Illinois Governor John Altgeld pardoned those two and the remaining prisoner.

The Socialist International in 1889 declared May Day to be an annual celebration of labor militancy.

José Martí’s account, “A Terrible Drama,” is a foundational contribution to the history of the U.S. labor movement. Martí defended working people – U.S. workers in his writings, and Cuban workers in words and deeds, from 1886 on. The combination of author and story points to a connection between U.S. labor activism and workers’ struggles in Cuba. Its time has come.

The U.S. economic blockade of Cuba, lasting decades, has led to shortages, misery, and despair. Nations of the world voting annually in the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly condemn the blockade. It violates international law.

Domestic opposition to U.S. policies on Cuba, while persistent, vigorous at times, principled, on-target, and diverse, has fallen short. U.S. government measures aimed at destabilization remain in force.  Upping power of the people with labor combativeness would make a difference.

Unions and labor activists know how to organize and how to confront recalcitrant political and economic leaders. They will be active on Cuba’s side, once they realize that working people’s struggles in the two countries are linked, or so our theory goes. In addition:

• Labor unionists involved in struggle count on unity, the power of numbers, and sometimes solidarity from counterparts, often from abroad.

• The current Cuban Revolution is the product of a revolutionary tradition. U.S. workers confronting their own government on Cuba would be expressing solidarity with a revolution whose progenitor, Jose Martí, defended U.S. workers fighting for the eight-hour day.  They would be paying back.

• Social revolution and ordinary labor struggles are battles of ideas. The writings of Martí, maximum leader of Cuba’s early revolution, speak to Cuban and U.S. workers alike. In that way they are connected.

Martí wrote about working people and their lives.  He contributed greatly to the ideas and substance of revolutionary struggle in Cuba and also defended African-descended and poverty-stricken Cubans with a seemingly unqualified egalitarianism. For example:

• “And let us place around the star of our new flag this formula of love triumphant: ‘With all, and for the good of all.’”

• “A nation having a few wealthy men is not rich, only the one where each of its inhabitants shares a little of the common wealth. In political economy and in good government, distribution is the key to prosperity.”

• “In Cuba there is no fear whatever of racial conflict. A man is more than white, black, or mulatto. A Cuban is more than mulatto, black, or white … True men, black or white, will treat each other with loyalty and tenderness for the sake of merit alone.”

Workers are oppressed

Responding to the Haymarket affair in his “A Terrible Drama,” Martí reflects upon the situation of U.S. working people:

“The nation is terrified by the increased organization among the lower classes … Therefore the Republic decided … to use a crime born of its own transgressions as much as the fanaticism of the criminal in order to strike terror by holding them up as an example …. Because of its unconscionable cult of wealth, and lacking any of the shackles of tradition, this Republic has fallen into monarchical inequality, injustice, and violence …

“In the recently emerging West … where the same astounding rapidity of growth, accumulating mansions and factories on the one hand, and wretched masses of people on the other, clearly reveals the evil of a system that punishes the most industrious with hunger, the most generous with persecution, the useful father with the misery of his children – there the unhappy working man has been making his voice heard.”

Martí’s “A Terrible Drama” appeared in La Nación newspaper in Buenos Aires in January 1888, some 19 months after the Haymarket events. The delay may have stemmed from Martí’s ambivalence about the anarchist leanings of the accused. Previously published segments of his report do appear under the title “The First of May, 1886” in historian Philip Foner’s anthology of Martí’s writings published in 1977. Excerpts follow:

“Enormous events took place in Chicago, but rebellion exists throughout the nation. In the United States … a firm and active struggle has been in preparation for years … …[T]hings are not right when an honest and intelligent man who has worked tenaciously and humbly all his life does not have at the end of it a loaf of bread … or a dollar put away, or the right to take a tranquil stroll in the sunlight… Things are not right when the one who in the cities … lives a contemplative life of leisure so exasperating to the miner, the stevedore, the switchman, the mechanic, and to every wretched person who must be content with seventy-five cents day, in raw winter weather …Things are not right if shabby women and their pallid children must live in tenement cubicles in foul-smelling neighborhoods. …The reasons are the same. The rapid and evident concentration of public wealth, lands, communication lines, enterprises in the hands of the well-to-do caste that rules and governs has given rise to a rapid concentration of workers. Merely by being gathered together in a formidable community which can, at one stroke, extinguish the fires in the boiler and let the grass grow under the wheels of the machinery, the workers are able successfully to defend their own rights against the arrogance and indifference with which they are regarded by those who derive all their wealth from the products of the labor they abuse.”

Deeds and words

Martí acted on behalf of working people. He organized Cuba’s independence struggle that culminated in war with Spain in early 1895. Under his leadership, the process became a social revolution.

From exile in New York, Martí outlined goals, strategies, and methods. Traveling widely, he arranged for Cuban exiles in the United States, Central America, and the Caribbean – many of them workers, many African-descended – to select the revolution’s leadership, provide funding and supplies, and approve goals and proposals. Martí persuaded the military heads to accept civilian leadership. He created and edited the independence movement’s newspaper Patria.

Aware of U.S. aspirations to dominate Cuba and the entire region, Martí led in confronting U.S. imperialism – never good for workers. In 1891 he wrote “Our America,” an essay demonstrating commonalities among diverse peoples inhabiting all the land extending from the Rio Bravo (the Rio Grande) south to Patagonia. Martí highlighted their shared cultural and political orientations that set them apart from U.S. and European societies.

In a letter to a friend shortly before he was killed in battle on May 19, 1895, Martí insisted that: “It is my duty … to prevent, by the independence of Cuba, the United States from spreading over the West Indies and falling, with that added weight, upon the other lands of Our America.”

Attacking military installations of the Batista regime on July 26, 1953, revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro were honoring José Martí, born 100 years earlier. For Castro, Martí was “the Apostle of Independence … whose ideas inspired the Centennial Generation and today inspire and will continue to inspire all of our people more and more.”

For the sake of justice and in view of connections with Cuban workers, U.S. working people would do well to press upon their government the necessity to end the blockade of Cuba. Labor unions, the principal means for expression of workers’ sentiment and power, have prime responsibility in this regard.

They would be acting as did West Coast dockworkers who blocked arms shipments to Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship, cargo arriving from apartheid-ridden South Africa, and, recently, arms shipments bound for Israel. U.S. unionists actively opposed their government’s support for authoritarian El Salvador in the 1980s and supported Iraqi workers after the U.S. invasion there. They collaborated with Mexican miners and other workers over many years. Recently U.S. unions issued statements and approved resolutions calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.


-W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.


SOURCE: This article first appeared in CounterPunch.

Photograph Source: Cantelar Antimperialista – CC BY 4.0