Havana restores monument to victims of USS Maine

By Peter Orsi

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Feb. 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Historians say the explosion was probably an accidental ignition of the Maine's own munitions, but the conspiracy theory still commonly circulates in Cuba even among the intellectual class and official media.

Communist Party newspaper Granma has written that the Maine victims were "immolated to serve as a pretext for American intervention that in 1898 prevented the island from gaining true independence" — ignoring the fact that Cuban rebels had failed to oust the Spanish on their own for decades.

The Maine eagle's head was mysteriously delivered to Swiss diplomats, who had agreed to act as protectors of U.S. property in Cuba. Today it hangs in a conference room at the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington maintains in Havana instead of an embassy.

After relations were partially re-established in 1977, longtime foreign service officer Wayne Smith, who had been in Havana in 1961, returned and arranged to see the body, wings and tail, which are currently out of sight in a musty storage room of the Havana City History Museum.

"I have been the faithful custodian of the body," City Historian Eusebio Leal, told The Associated Press. "Smith told me that until the body and the head are reunited, there won't be good relations between Cuba and the United States."

U.S. diplomats also possess the monument's original eagle, toppled by a hurricane in 1926. Since 1954 that earlier bird has presided over the immaculate gardens of the Interests Section chief's official residence.

A plaque at the base calls the eagle "a symbol of the enduring friendship" between Cuba and the U.S.

"I'm just happy we have it. I don't know how it got here. Somebody got ahold of it, saw it and gave it to us," said John Caulfield, the Interests Section chief since 2011.

Coincidentally, the U.S. State Department recently sent two specialists down to repair the first eagle, which was cracked and tarnished green.

Like many structures in Havana, the monument on the seafront Malecon boulevard had become seedy from decades of neglect. Marble lion heads were damaged or looted, and the fountains used as trash receptacles by passers-by.

Workers in blue jumpers recently removed scaffolding that had shrouded the columns for months, revealing gleaming-white marble scrubbed clean of grime. Gone are the rusty stains beneath the two 10-inch guns that were salvaged from the Maine. The statues are a lustrous bronze again after corrosive salt air turned them bright green for years.

Leal said his office, which has restored hundreds of historic structures in recent decades, intends to finish remaining tasks like getting the fountains working and re-landscaping two adjacent plazas in the coming months.

Amid the ongoing renovation, a return to the monument's original spirit of friendship seems unlikely — at least for now.

"Certainly we have as much wish for that to be true today as we did at the time," Caulfield said of the U.S. resolution inscribed on the monument proclaiming Cuba has the right to be free. "I hope that we and the Cubans will see a new relationship with the United States that allows those words to be true."

Leal said he too hopes for warmer ties, but first Washington must end the 51-year economic embargo and abolish "anti-Cuban" laws.

Can he envision a bronze eagle resuming its perch someday atop the twice-decapitated monument?

"On the occasion of a friendly visit by a U.S. president," Leal said. "I wish President Obama would be the one to do that."

Associated Press writer Anne-Marie Garcia in Havana contributed to this report. Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter_Orsi

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