I saw it last week in Havana. It had just been placed on the broad esplanade that runs along la Avenida de las Misiones from the Museo de la Revolución (née Palacio Presidencial) to the Havana Tunnel and Máximo Gómez’s monument on the Malecón. In fact, the day I saw it must have been the first or second day after the statue was hoisted onto the massive pedestal. Most of my friends who live in Havana were not aware that it was finally up. Yet there it was, with Martí about to fall off his rearing horse as the fatal bullet strikes him, just like in New York’s Central Park.
If I did not know the story behind the statute’s appearance on this Havana boulevard, I would have thought it had been magically transported there (Star Trek style) from its site just inside the Park at the top of the Avenue of the Americas. It is a identical down to the original inscriptions on the base. It did not get there by magic, however, but primarily by the sheer perseverance of two people who made this project the legacy of their twilight years: Eusebio Leal Spengler, the Historian of the City of Havana, and Holly Block, Director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts, who passed away this past October 6. Their idea was to have the replica in Havana stand for the enduring friendship, despite official hostilities, of the peoples of Cuba and the United States.
I admire what Eusebio and Ms. Block have accomplished. When I first heard of the project – casting in upstate New York a replica of the bronze statue, shipping it to Havana, and building a duplicate granite base – it seemed utter folly. The cost. The logistics. The politics. They all seemed insurmountable. I remained skeptical and not a fan of the project, for three reasons.
First, the cost, which I understand was considerable and which, as a gesture of friendship from the people of the United States, could have been channeled into supporting more utilitarian programs than this large symbolic one. An unromantic position, I know, but one shaped by an understanding of the many needs of the Cuban people.
Second, the statue itself. Aesthethically, it is a powerful sculpture. The pathos of the falling hero, the horse on its hind legs with muscles bulging, mane flying, and terror in its eyes. But this is not a statue for a poet, writer, and political organizer.
The only reason the bronze Martí is on a horse is because Anne Hyatt Huntington, the sculptor and wife of a millionaire, who donated the statue to New York City in 1959 (it was not installed until 1965), specialized in equestrians – she loved horses. So when do we know for sure that Martí was ever on a horse? When he galloped towards Spanish troops and was shot off his mount in eastern Cuba on May 19, 1895. I can think of very few examples of statues that show their subjects at the moment of their deaths: Jesus Christ, the two thieves, and St Sebastian (with the arrows) although I am sure there are others. For the uninformed observer, it is an enigmatic portrayal. As one colleague totally unfamiliar with Martí once asked me after viewing the statue: “what is happening to him and his horse?” In a nod to Martí’s civilian status, but making matters worse, Huntington put a business suit on him, a touch that is not only visually dissonant, but also historically inaccurate. We know from the letters he wrote from Cuba that he wore, as one would expect, the white uniform of the rebel troops.
Third, very simply: does Cuba need another statue of Martí?
But as I stood last week gazing at the replica on the Avenida de las Misiones, I was glad that Eusebio and Ms. Block persevered. The statue looks great there. I’ll go further, and on a limb: it actually looks better there than in Central Park. The replica is on a broad esplanade with nothing around it, giving it a perspective appropriate to its
monumentality. The space in Central Park, on the other hand, is busy and constrained, the monument is on a small space closely flanked and shielded on two sides by a low wall and tall trees. From Central Park South, the statue is visible only from only a few angles. It is practically invisible from the Park.
So despite my misgivings, I welcome this new addition to Havana’s already crowded statuary landscape. It is a statement, in bronze, of the historical connections between New York and Cuba.
My only lingering regret is that the extraordinary effort spent on this project may have stalled forever a much less ambitious yet equally meritorious plan that has long been embraced by many Cuban New Yorkers: placing a plaque in the Financial District, at 120 Front Street, where Martí did most of his literary and political work during the fifteen years he lived in Manhattan. The row house with the walkup office are long gone, and the area is crowded with skyscrapers, but there is an open public space almost exactly at that address, where a plaque could be easily placed and be accessible to visitors.
If a massive New York statue can be replicated and sent to Cuba, how hard can it be to place one more plaque in a city with thousands of commemorative plaques?