” Never forget”

noviembre 30, 2007

Dear friends all, I would very much like to greet Carmelo, in particular, and those members of Cuba’s Canarian Association in attendance, because on this day, when we are paying tribute to Nicolás Estévanes, we should not forget that he was born in the Canary Islands and that the way he identified with Cuba, its customs and soul, was to a great extent due to the similarity in the way the people’s personality has been shaped in those islands and ours.
I would also like to explain to the younger generation that the Marcha de Riego or Himno de Riego (March or Anthem of Riego), which was the anthem of the First and Second Spanish Republic, has been played in this same place since 1936 to accompany the memory of Mr. Nicolás Estévanes. He was a Republican and Minister of War of the First Republic. He is the man who – as far as I know, according to his own words – never regretted what he did in Havana on 27 November when he became the protagonist of a peculiar act of solidarity and love for the Cuban people.
Likewise, it is necessary to emphasize that Estévanes was not alone. Another great figure should be remembered this day – that of Spanish Army Captain Federico Capdevila y Miñán. Estévanes is, together with Capdevilla, like the symbol of a root of dignity and an unbreakable historical bond between the best and purest of the Spanish soul, and what binds us to it now, and forever. We are bound together in the Cuban reality, in what we are as a people, in our national identity, in what turns our own physical image into a kaleidoscope of features, colors and personalities, amalgamating a thousand kilometers off the Peninsula, and the [Canary] Islands, to form a nation born of different Spanish and African people, in the footsteps of extinct indigenous people, and also – to a lesser extent – of other ethnic groups and nationalities, which contributed to identifying our moral being.
And we are at the lobby of the Inglaterra Hotel, one of the most celebrated places in both yesterday’s and today’s Havana. That place has been closely linked to the history of successive generations of young Cubans – as shown by the stone plaques on different spots of the sidewalk, as far as the Telégrafo Hotel. It is a place where so many historic events occurred, due largely to its proximity to the theater, and the existence – inside the hotel building – of the renowned Louvre Room, after which the sidewalk and the street were named.
On 27 November [1871], at this time – which is why this ceremony is being held at 10:00am – the events resulting in the tragic shooting of the medical students took place in Havana. One of the walls of the engineers’ barracks – where executions took place – still survives, across from the site where the remains of Havana’s old prison are located,
at the end of Prado Avenue. Those wall fragments have forever become a symbol of the dignity of Cuban students, youth and people.

The big argument arising from this commemoration, and one that will always come around in our history, is the legal and moral debate about innocence. What is innocence? How can it be identified with another term, with other connotations, such as naivety? The students were not naïve. They were actually innocent of the crime they had been accused of – that of having scratched the glass on the tomb of Asturian journalist Castañón.
Today, Castañón’s tomb is, and even back then, was – after that 27th November – thought to have been scratched earlier, perhaps by the  diamond of a ring or a metal object, in a cemetery that was about to be abandoned. Actually, the new graveyard in Havana – named Christopher Columbus – was virtually opened with the tomb of those young students who were dumped in a common grave outside the city walls. As they were considered to have been grave desecrators – that most despicable of Cuban crimes – they were treated as such. They did not deserve to be buried in a cemetery. So they were thrown outside, one on top of the other.
If you visit Havana’s cemetery today, you will find both places. And if you look for the graveyard walls at the end, you will see the old wall and, across from it, the signs identifying the common grave. A little bit further is a shining monument by José Vilalta de Saavedra, a Cuban living in Florence, [Italy] by the time he was given the job. He was the same sculptor who made General Albear’s sculpture first, and that of José Martí, later.
The monument in question features a high needle that is a symbol of one‘s destiny. It is a marble monolith on top of which a crown has been placed to indicate that it marks a tragic end. The base of the monument is a square, upon which the doors to a hypothetical dwelling are opened, facing the public, and from where a woman’s figure emerges, adorned with a five-pointed star on her forehead and, surprisingly, instead of angel wings, she has butterfly wings.
Then, immediately behind, are two allegorical figures that are reminiscent of innocence and public consciousness. And then you can see portraits of the martyrs. There also lie the remains of Capdevila and the professor who would not let his students be taken from his classroom, in an act of violence. They both guard the mausoleum erected in the 1880’s, before Colonial rule came to an end in Cuba. Permission to have a public tribute, and the fact that it was destined to be erected in the cemetery of Havana – where there were not many big monuments yet – vindicated those students’ slurred honor. Such a monument was the moral restitution for an affront that could never be erased.
At the ceremony, speakers did the rest, as they explained the history surrounding the monument. Another no less important fact existed, motivating the choice of speakers – the return to Cuba as a grown man of Gonzalo Castañón Junior. Deeply moved upon his return to the city – he had left when he was still a little boy – he went to the old Espada cemetery, accompanied by a funeral procession, to remove his father’s coffin. But at the cemetery, there was a man accompanied by others. It was Dr. Fermín Valdés Domínguez, who had been one of the young survivors of that tragedy who served time in prison for a crime they never committed. When the ceremony was over, he kindly and respectfully approached Castañón Junior and asked: “Please, tell me if your father’s tomb was desecrated or not.” And Castañón Junior answered: “No, it was not.” Then Fermín Valdés – who was deeply moved – asked him if he would be willing to state that in writing and sign it before a notary, to which Castañón said that he would – and he did.

It was a dialogue between two victims – [one,] the son of the martyr of political fundamentalism, who had died in the strange land of Key West, where he went – in a defiant act – chasing Cuban emigrants, who were accused of grave affronts to the mother country’s dignity, meaning, of course, Spain.
This provided the legal basis for the unequivocal fact that an atrocity beyond human comprehension had been committed, something that had already become a general conviction after the atrocity of 27 November 1871 was over.
The Count of Balmaseda – then Captain-General of the Island, and the first volunteer in Cuba – arrived that night by train from the countryside in eastern Cuba, where he had served as Commander, seeking to crush the uprising and give strength to the army with his presence.
People from the upper class waited for him to express their support, and to give him an explanation of what had happened in his absence. Such decision [to execute the medical students] had been taken by somebody else – the vice-captain general, who was under pressure by the volunteer corps to prove that even though he was a Cuban [I mean, a Cuban of Spanish descent], his Cuban blood did not come before his loyalty and military duty to Spain.
The Count of Balmaseda dismissed them all, uttering grave and severe words. He had before him an important political debate from the city, as consuls from foreign nations were sending out to England, France, the United States and Germany the alarming news of what had taken place in Havana, in addition to other events.
That terrible morning, because of what had been consistently reported by the press, and pasquinades everywhere, a feverish and confused crowd turned out at the Punta esplanade. People were more or less aware of the two calls made by a temporary court in one of Havana’s prison rooms, which no longer exists. What has survived is a visiting room or chapel, where the students spent their last hours.

It was there that a Commander – López de Ayala – who was going to lead the firing squad the following day, came to see them. His brother was a minister in Spain, an outstanding poet and a man of letters. López de Ayala himself, as Captain of the Volunteer Corps, and the 5th Batallion (which was led by the fifth magnate, Mr. Ramón de Herrera – Count of La Mortera, and founder of La Tropical Manufacturing Consortium) was astonished when he interviewed the students as he found them in a psychological state that left him speechless. They were, as people say, obsessed with their imminent martyrdom.
They spoke to him and gave him letters that he promised to give to their addressees – mothers, girlfriends and fathers. They also gave him some objects such as yokes, tiepins and watches that were their last mementoes. Such letters are at the National Archives and, as they are not frequently published, we are not aware of the situation they reveal; a state of mind – as López de Ayala said – showing hallucinatory signs and an inability to reason.
And the following day, they finally walked to the improvised execution place, as they could not be shot down there. It would be up there, at the fortress. Down there, at the esplanade, a stage platform was usually put in place together with another implement – the garrote. That same garrote had been used in heroic Spain against Mariana Pineda, and it was used to meter justice – or rather injustice – to a number of Cuban revolutionaries and politicians at that time, including General Narciso López, who had been killed 30 years before in 1851. So the garrote could not be used; that was not possible, because the ceremony would become macabre and interminable. Improvisation was required. The captives were placed in pairs, between the windows of the warehouses.
Sometimes art conveys a naïve portrait of the facts, presenting a heroic image which does not coincide with reality. The picture that we are familiar with – the one that is on display at the University Students’ Martyr Room – shows the students in the lyrical beauty of martyrdom, at the moment when the blindfolded groups are facing execution, some of them standing, and others on their knees. But it was not like that – they were in pairs.
It was José Martí who later explained thoroughly the news and comments he had received from Cuba. They all [the students] faced death with admirable and strange serenity, and courage. Not one of them begged for mercy, or fainted, or suffered the final disheartenment – neither before, nor at the moment when they were robbed of their lives at a very young age, without just cause.
We must not forget the great poet Gabriel de la Concepción – Plácido – when he cried out in his prayer to God, because of the ignominy he suffered. We must not forget that he nearly had to be dragged [in front of the firing squad], as he was terrified in the face of such a cruel fate. We must not forget poet Juan Clemente Zenea, whose hair turned grey in one night – or at least in a few days – before he was executed. The students did not act thus.
Finally, after the execution was over, that officer wrote a testimony to his brother, saying that the university was a den of vipers and conspiracy. He said that they [the students] were proud of not attending the rhetorical and tiresome History class, which gave a view that ignored the real existence of problems in colonial Cuba – not just those in one of Spain’s provinces overseas – where the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II [of Borbón] had allegedly been broken – something that no one was ever able to prove. She was deposed in 1868 after a coup d’état. At the end [of the testimony], he wrote a terrible thing: “they [the students] did not die as criminals, because they were not criminals – they died as victims of their political hallucinations.”

When this is said, and you are taken aback by the undisputable [facts], that the coffin was never desecrated, and the glass was never scratched, we find the motivation to enter the university searching for different students in different classrooms incomprehensible. This was done amidst a climate of galloping corruption, by the chief of police, who visited some of the students’ houses, trying to blackmail their parents – most of whom were rich – asking them for money in exchange for a more lenient sentence; when we see an angry Capdevila at the courtroom, trying to prove that such sentence, which did not comply with the legal code in force, was legally monstrous; when we feel that old Generals Clavijo and Benet are in prison – two Spanish generals who opposed that illegal act; when we see the second court of lay judges, presided over only by members of the volunteer corps, passing a death sentence; when we remember that from the balcony of the Captains-General Palace, the names of those who were supposed to die were shouted to please an angry crowd; then we realize that the year 1871 in Havana was about much more than the execution of those young students, whose innocence – as explained by Dr. Luis Felipe Lerruá in his wonderful analysis, after a brilliant essay by Dr. Carlos Rafael Rodríguez in 1971 – is beyond question, according to any Cuban, human or patriotic measure we know.
We must remember that on that corner, where there is now a restaurant which has been given so many names, the father of one of the students – Alonso Álvarez de la Campa – had his personal business. He was one the richest, and had just given to his battalion – the Fifth Battalion – the new rifles with which his own son would be shot. We must remember that over the fence of the cell, a volunteer shouted at young Aloncito: “Alonso, not even your father’s millions will save you!”
It was class hatred. It was a confrontation between one of the lowest and most opportunistic members of a decadent society, against a Cuban-born upper class youth, viewing him as the image of infidelity, rebelliousness, and a vocation for Cuba that was underlying and present in young people’s soul.
When José Martí heard the tragic news in Spain, he described the overwhelming grief that he felt in a wonderful and immortal poem which permeates the air today, and starts with the following verse: “¡Cadáveres amados los que un día ensueños fuisteis de la patria mía…!”, [Beloved corpses who were once daydreams of my homeland …!”] Today we are not going to the students’ monument, as Martí said, with our martyrs’ blood up to our waist. We are not going there. Too much time has passed for us to want past or future revenge! We are going to that wall that once became a torrent of blood, where Cuban families later took their children to show them a place that should not be forgotten, and to remember the essence of this nation’s foundation, a nation of which we are all sons and daughters.
A few years after the last war in Cuba ended, with US intervention, a group of revolutionary youth – most of whom were of Spanish descent -heard that people, whose democratic and patriotic ideals they shared, were fighting in Spain for the Second Republic and did not hesitate to join them in the struggle. Who was the first and most outstanding of all? Pablo de la Torriente Brau – a Cuban patriot, a comrade of Rubén Martínez Villena, [Julio Antonio] Mella and those young people who were part of the great founding generation of the University Students’ Federation (FEU). More than nine hundred went to Spain.

Forty-three years ago, when I started coming to this ceremony, which I believe I have only missed on four occasions, when my predecessor – my late teacher Dr. Emilio Roig – decided to place the image of Estévanes here as a dignified symbol of the Spanish people, to remember Mr. Mariano Martí, and so many Spanish citizens who gave their life and talent to Cuba against all legal, moral and political errors, atrocities and crimes committed in any colonial system; when Cuba was opened to Spanish immigration with no hard feelings; when out of three Spanish people leaving Spain, two came to Cuba; when the Asturian and Galician Centers, and many others, were erected on this street as symbols of a hatred-free country; when a Spanish soldier who settled in eastern Cuba fathered the Commander in Chief and General Raúl himself; when we are all part of that history either by blood or ideas; then we can say that those who went fighting for the Second Republic saluted it as passionately as José Martí, who lived near the plaza where it was proclaimed. The crowd was nearby, on Arenal Street, opposite the Palace from where Republicans came out to proclaim the Second Republic, when young José Martí – living in exile on 40 Tetuán Street, just near Puerta del Sol (the Sun Gate) – heard the cries and walked out jubilant. Later in his famous speech, on behalf of the Spanish Republic, he asked politicians why they had the republic there and not here, because when he met with Cristino Matos in the latter’s office, the former put forward Cuba’s rights very forcefully, and then he was moved to hear the politician repeat his own words at the courtroom. When he [José Martí] shouted together with other young people behind the black car in which there was that terrible man who had contributed to the crime in 1871, calling him a bastard and a criminal, placing that mantle of shame – as he called it – on him, that was the denunciation, on the streets of Madrid; all of the foregoing paved the way for today’s ceremony.
That is why, when a speaker was required to pay people’s last respects to the man Pablo de la Torriente Brau, who was killed at Majadahonda, at the entrance to Madrid, during that last battle for the Republic, the most eloquent, the most original of all Spanish poets at that time – only preceded by Lorca – the Orihuela little shepherd Miguel Hernández said: “Pablo, you are taking with you Spain’s sun in your eyes and Cuba’s in your bones.”
Thank you very much.


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Historiador de la Ciudad de La Habana 2011
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