Those who tear down monuments, dismantle statues, or deface figures display their lack of culture and blatant disrespect. Monuments celebrate important milestones in a people’s history, some for the good by paying homage, and others for the bad by way of a reminder.
I do not speak of those monuments erected by living individuals or by their followers in attempts to sow the personality cults that have and continue to plague so many societies around the world. I remember, for instance, the proliferation of Lenins throughout every park, plaza, and other public spaces of the extinct Soviet Union or, in our own country, the massive production of José Martí’s face, even from plastic, and its placing in the most unlikely and least appropriate of places. Things that happen, no doubt.
In the early years of the Revolution, authorities tore down statues and monuments that were not pleasing to them or that did not respond directly to their political and ideological interests, most of the time with the consent of the people. Among these were those dedicated to the Republic’s first president, Don Tomás Estrada Palma, the U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who participated in the Battle of San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba, the Republic’s second and fourth presidents, José Miguel Gómez – later restored – and Alfredo Zayas and the Victims of the USS Maine, from which the bronze eagle that crowned it was brought down and shattered to pieces.
I will stop at this last event, considering the recent reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, which were absent for more than half a century.
In 1913, fifteen years after the tragic explosion of the USS Maine in the Port of Havana, the then-President of the Republic Mario García Menocal decided to erect a monument near the sea for the victims. Architect Félix Cabarrocas was chosen to oversee its construction, which began in 1924 and ended in 1925 under the tenure of President Alfredo Zayas. On the day of its inauguration, 8 March 1925, both Cuban and American personalities attended, including President Zayas and American General John Pershing. Two canons and part of the ship’s anchor’s chain that had been recovered in 1911 were placed at the base of the monument. In addition, two 40-feet tall columns were erected, which originally did not hold an eagle, subsequently crowned with a bronze one with open wings, created by Cabarrocas. On the marble, in bronze letters, it read: “To the Victims of the USS Maine. The people of Cuba”.
In October 1926, a violent hurricane struck Havana causing much destruction. The resistance of the eagle’s spread wings against the gusts of wind caused it to fall, breaking them but leaving the body and head intact. After its restoration, the eagle was transferred in 1954 to the gardens of the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Cubanacán, where it can still be found.
Following the falling of the first eagle, Cabarrocas created another more aerodynamic one that offered less resistance to wind, with its wings positioned vertically as though it were readying to take flight. The new design was placed atop the monument and remained there until it was violently torn down by a crane, during the anti-American protests in April 1961, days after the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
At that time, an official announcement was made saying it would be replaced by a dove sculpted by Pablo Picasso, which never arrived, it seems to have lost its way on the long flight. The monument’s inscription was replaced with anti-imperialist one, more in line with the tone of the time. Later, the Anti-Imperialist Platform, popularly known as “the Dumbdrome,” was erected between the U.S Interest Section and the mutilated monument.
On one of the plaza’s ends stands a statue of José Martí holding a child in one arm and pointing accusatively at the U.S. Interest Section with the other. Some disrespectful jokesters say he is showing his child where visas out of the country are issued. On the other end, a bizarre “Forest of Flags” blocks the view of a screen installed on the façade of the diplomatic premises displaying messages and news in an illuminated banner. This was all constructed during the height of the “Battle of Ideas’” ideological excesses, a time when marches by the “combative Cuban people” followed one after another and political meetings were held each week in every municipality.
Some deteriorated fragments from the body and wings of the eagle were eventually displayed in the Museum of the City of Havana, in the old Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the historic residence of Havana’s governors. Along Havana’s Malecón, in one of the U.S. Interest Section’s patios, one can also find the eagle’s head, in perfect condition.
Since the recent developments give the impression that anything is possible, maybe one day not too far away, the head returned to unite the eagle’s body with its wings, perhaps will return to the pedestal where it belongs, finally allowing Havanans and visitors alike to enjoy the monument in all its splendor, and maybe the original inscription, clear and simple, will be substituted for the current one. Now that the monument is in the process of being restored, now would not be a bad time. It could be another sign that things are really changing.