May 20 and the Constitution
May 20, 1902, the day the Republic of Cuba was born, is an episode in our history marked by the contrast between the virtues and defects of our political culture. A reflection about what happened at the Constitutional Convention that gave us the first republican constitution, allows us to consider what happened before and after the Republic and reevaluate the conduct of those making such a decision.
The delegates charged with analyzing the constitutional amendment that endorsed the right of the United States to intervene in Cuba, omitted the Isle of Pines as part of the national territory and imposed the sale or lease of land for naval bases, ended up accepting it. Two possible options were placed before them. One, reject the Amendment—which had the force of law and imposed conditions of military occupation, without the Liberating Army, without the Cuban Revolutionary Party, without their own State or government, and with an exhausted people, orphans of civil instruments and institutions. The other, negotiate and give birth not to the desired Republic, but to the Republic possible under the circumstances.
The delegates, counting on no more than their dignity and ability, fought until the final blow: a report signed by the Secretary of War saying that the President, “is obligated to sign it and to sign it as it is… he cannot change nor modify it, add or subtract from it,” as a condition for ending the military occupation. Faced with such a scenario they opted for the possible, from which to gestate the nascent nation. The facts were condensed in the testimony of José N. Ferrer, one of the delegates to the convention: “I understand that I have already resisted enough and that I cannot resist more. I considered it useful, helpful and necessary to oppose the Platt Amendment while there was hope that it might be modified or withdrawn by the American Congress… Today I consider that opposition useless, dangerous and fruitless…”
And so the Republic was born, without absolute independence, but with incorporated civil and political rights: that of habeas corpus, freedom of expression, the rights of assembly and association, the right of movement, freedom of religion, the right of suffrage, and division of powers and others that would allow the emergence from economic prostration, the recovery of the Isle of Pines, the dismantling of the Platt Amendment in 1934, the overthrow of Machado and the convening of the Constituent Assembly that gave live to the advanced constitution of 1940. What would have happened if these men had opted for violence? No one knows, history is what happened.
What came after cannot be attributed to the decision of those Cubans, almost all for independence. The causes are the root evils of our culture: the caudillos, the violence, intolerance, exclusion, the use of power as a personal patrimony or by groups lacking in ethics. Factors that prevented the confluence of the emancipatory deed with the public-spirited citizen and that obstructed the completion of the nation.
What was advanced is inseparable from negotiation, rights and freedoms, just as what brings us to a halt is responsibility for our secular ills that today are expressed in hopelessness, social apathy, double moral standards, escapism and criminal conduct; all a challenge for those of us who aspire to a Cuba of dignity and love.