USS Maine Monument
Havana is a city with many memorials to people who have fought for Cuban independence. So it seems perfectly fitting for a monument to be a metaphor for the long and complicated relationship between Cuba and the United States. That memorial stands along the Malecón and honors the 266 US sailors and Marines who died in the explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor on February 15, 1898. Later investigations would conclude that the explosion was caused by a fire in a coal bunker that ignited the ship's ammunition, but at the time Spain, of which Cuba was then a colony, was accused of mining the ship. Whether in retaliation or as pretext mattered little: the US declared war on Spain and quickly defeated her army and naval forces in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines Islands. Spain ceased to be a colonial power, and the US became one.
The Cuban people were so grateful to their presumed liberators that they commissioned the monument, a stylized ship’s prow flanked by two cannon salvaged from the battleship, and a pair of Corinthian columns topped by the American eagle. When I tell two friends visiting the island how the memorial came to be in the presence of a young, politically-educated Cuban tour guide, she quickly interrupts me to say “we didn’t learn THAT in school!” I suppose not.
Sadly, time has been little kinder to the monument than fate was to the ship. A year after it was dedicated in 1925 a hurricane blew the bronze eagle from its perch. My friend David Rodriguez tells me the popular story that the eagle landed feet first, staring north across the Florida Strait toward the United States. It was replaced by one with streamlined wings to resist future hurricanes that lasted much longer but ultimately met an end similar to its predecessor. This eagle was torn from its perch by a group of Cuban revolutionaries in 1961 who saw it as a symbol of American imperialism, a sentiment reflected in an inscription added at the order of Fidel Castro.
Cubans were plagued with various sorts of US meddling throughout the twentieth century. The Platt Amendment enacted by Congress in 1903 granted conditional independence to Cuba, while retaining veto power over any decision made by the Cuban government that the US disliked. The United States enabled and supported rulers like Fulgencio Batista, whose corruption fomented the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Then, fearing a communist state so close to its borders that it inadvertently had helped create, the US imposed an economic embargo that persists well into the twenty-first century and has made life even more difficult for the Cuban people.
I visit the monument on a warm Christmas day. As I contemplate its significance and the interconnectedness between our countries that it represents, I notice others around me: a Cuban family chatting as they gaze out onto the gulf stream, a young girl posing for photographs, a man playing soulful notes on his trumpet. For them it appears to be simply a place to gather, to be.
In 1953 the United States built a new embassy just down the avenue from the monument. In a decidedly Cuban twist of irony, it is directly in the line of fire of one of the Maine's cannon. When I first notice this I think it might be a bad omen until I recall another legend. When the second eagle fell from its perch it was broken, and its wings and body ended up in the Havana City History Museum. Its head came into the custody of the Swiss, who were the caretakers of the US embassy during our diplomatic absence from Cuba. The Swiss returned the head to the US in 2014, and it now hangs in the ambassador's office. According to this legend, good relations between the US and Cuba cannot resume until the eagle's head and body are reunited. Perhaps the cannon is just pointing the way.