The New York Times
February 14, 1998
Havana Journal: Remember the Maine? Cubans See an American Plot to This Day
By LARRY ROHTERAVANA -- The old monument still towers over the Malecon, Havana's tattered seafront promenade, but it has been stripped of most of its original busts and plaques, including the eagle that once crowned it. Clearly, even after 100 years, remembering the Maine has a different meaning in Cuba than in the United States.
"To the victims of the Maine, who were sacrificed to imperialist greed in its fervor to seize control of the island of Cuba," reads an inscription at the base of the memorial.
Only two rusted cannon and a weathered tablet listing the 267 American sailors who died in the still-unexplained sinking of the battleship remain intact at the site.
As generations of schoolchildren in the United States, Cuba and Spain have been taught, the Maine blew up in Havana on Feb. 15, 1898, leading to a four-month war that freed Cuba from Spanish rule and made Puerto Rico an American possession.
Now, with the centennial of that war looming, Cuba has embarked on a campaign to selectively revive memories of the conflict as a tool to be used, scholars and diplomats say, in disputes with the United States and Spain.
The Cuban government's position is perhaps most succinctly conveyed in the title of a new book, written by a prominent Cuban historian, about to be published here: "'98 -- The War That Does Not Cease."
From President Fidel Castro on down, officials are seizing every opportunity to portray the conflict as the beginning of a century of American hostility and avarice toward Cuba and to minimize the United States role in what is known here as the Spanish-Cuban War or the Second War of Independence.
Castro set the tone in welcoming remarks to Pope John Paul II on Jan. 21 that attacked the United States as well as Spain. Cuba, he maintained, "had to fight alone for its independence," and in doing so fell victim to "a veritable holocaust" at the hands of Spanish colonial oppressors.
"Today," Castro continued, "genocide is again being attempted when some try to subdue this people, which refuses to accept the dictates and rule of the mightiest economic, political and military power in history, by means of hunger, illness and total suffocation."
Subsequent comments made clear that he was referring to the 37-year American economic embargo of Cuba, especially the 1996 Helms-Burton law tightening such sanctions.
A week later, on the 145th anniversary of the birth of Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero, Castro's brother Raul, the country's defense minister, lashed out even more strongly. In a speech in Santiago, where much of the war was fought, he announced plans to put up new monuments to the rebel Mambi army "that the Yankees refused to let enter" Santiago and to the victims of the Spanish, whose toll he put at 300,000.
In an interview at Jose Marti National Library here, Eliades Acosta Matos, who is director of the institution and author of the forthcoming book on the war, offered the standard Cuban interpretation of the sinking of the Maine: that the United States itself probably did it. The same "powerful economic interests" that had an interest in doing so, he argued, may also have been involved in a conspiracy that may have been responsible for the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley.
Acosta said a series of conferences and discussions of the war would be held here throughout 1998, along with expositions of documents and photographs from the period. Such commemorations, he said, are a matter of "historical justice" and of reminding Cubans how their national identity was forged.
"Everyone wants to forget, but 1898 is still alive and relevant, and we ought to be able to bury it," he said. "A century later, the main actors in the war still have important differences. Relations with the United States and Spain are not normal, and Cuba is still defending itself from nearly 100 years of blockade and disrespect for its liberty and right to self-determination."
But Jaime Suchlicki, author of "Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond," an English-language history widely used in the United States, takes another view. He notes that before Castro seized power in 1959, most Cubans were taught that "Cuba became independent as a result of U.S. help" and that there was no knowing "how long it would have taken Cubans to defeat the Spaniards had the Americans not come in."
As for the sinking of the Maine, "conventional historiography taught that either the explosion was an accident or that Cubans did it themselves to provoke American intervention," added Dr. Suchlicki, who is a professor of history at the University of Miami. "Accusing the U.S. of blowing up the Maine is just a way of linking the war to all of the propaganda that blames the U.S. for Cuba's current problems."
It was gratitude for the U.S. role in the struggle for independence that led Cubans to build the monument to the Maine, which was dedicated in 1925, damaged by a hurricane a year later and subsequently restored. But in May 1961, just days after the Bay of Pigs invasion, a crowd assembled at the site to hold an anti-American rally and to watch as a crane toppled "the eagle of imperialism" from its pedestal atop a pair of 40-foot columns.
Today, the shattered remains of the eagle's wings and body lie in a heap at a downtown museum. There, groups of visiting schoolchildren are taught that the American intervention "sought to invalidate 30 years of immense pain and glorious battles," according to the museum display that the sinking of the Maine was merely "a pretext for the U.S. to participate in the Spanish-Cuban War."
The head of the eagle was rescued by Cubans sympathetic to the United States and turned over to the Swiss Embassy, which handled American interests in Cuba after diplomatic relations were broken in 1960. It is now mounted on a wall in a snack bar at the American Interests Section, Washington's quasi-embassy here, awaiting better relations between the countries.
"A lot of Cubans say they look forward to the day that the head and the body of the eagle will be reunited," said Michael Kozak, the senior American diplomat here, who has a copy of the intact eagle on display in the garden of his official residence.
At San Juan Hill in Santiago, where Theodore Roosevelt led the famous charge against Spanish troops that eventually propelled him into the White House, the authorities have taken a different approach.
At the top, there are monuments to Cuban combatants and even one honoring "the Spanish soldier, who knew how to die heroically in the performance of his duty," but nothing commemorating what Roosevelt called "the great day of my life."
"This park has been all but forgotten," said its unofficial caretaker, Eliezer Jorge Montelier, 21. Anything that once acknowledged Roosevelt's feat "has been removed," he added, though a pit for Cuban soldiers has been dug at the summit in recent years, "in case of an enemy invasion."
But Santiago is eager to attract tourists, and so there are plans to restore the original English-language plaques at San Juan Hill and open a historical museum near Siboney Beach, where 15,000 American troops landed in June 1898. With a centennial conference on the war to be held in Santiago in late June and early July, Acosta promised that the treatment given the American role in those events would be evenhanded.
"Americans died for the freedom of Cuba, and that should be recognized," he said. "But others wanted to annex Cuba, and that should be criticized. If relations with the United States improve, all these things can be re-examined more fairly."