Cuba Pays Homage to Maine Sailors  
By John Rice 
Associated Press Writer
Monday, February 16, 1998; 3:15 a.m. EST 

HAVANA (AP) -- Despite 40 years of hostility toward the United States, Cuba marked the 100th anniversary of the explosion of the U.S. battleship Maine with an honor guard and floral wreath for the 267 American sailors who died in Havana's harbor. 

The flowers are ``a clear message to the people of the United States of respect, of affection, of gratitude'' for those who aided Cuba, said Eusebio Leal, official historian of the city of Havana. 

A brisk wind whipped the Cuban flag Sunday as an honor guard of soldiers marched to place the wreath at the foot of a monument on Havana's Malecon boulevard that honors the dead of the Maine. 

At the time, Americans blamed the explosion on a Spanish mine or bomb, and two months later the United States joined Cuban independence fighters to end Spain's nearly four-century hold on the island. 

Later, investigators said it may also have been caused by an accidental explosion on the battleship itself. 

Cubans claim their own forces were already winning the war against Spain. The U.S. failure to leave Cuba when the war was over -- and its insistence on the right to intervene in the Cuban republic for decades afterward -- cast a shadow over relations between the two countries. 

``The republic was not the child of the revolution,'' Leal said. ``It was the abortion of independence.'' 

The tall twin columns of the monument -- not far from the current U.S. Interest Section in Havana -- rise to a barren platform from which a U.S. eagle was pulled down in 1961 as relations between the two nations soured. 

Leal said he hoped the eagle would someday be replaced by ``the dove of peace.'' 

U.S. diplomats in Cuba bypassed the official ceremony and held a separate, small commemoration at Havana's Colon Cemetery, where the bodies of Maine sailors were buried before they were moved to the United States.