U.S. Embassy and The Wall of Flags

[ 26 July 2016 - Tuesday ] 


As I wrote yesterday, the American Embassy is in the Vedado neighborhood where I am staying and is also not far from the Hotel Nacional.  Built beside the embassy is the Monte de las Banderas (Wall of Flags) and down the street from that is the USS Maine Memorial.  As I walked around I started to notice the really funny way that all these pro-American AND anti-American buildings, statues, and plazas were built in relation to one another, it was like diplomatic urban anachrony whiplash.  Traveling west to east here's what I saw:

1. Cuban Police Station with Cuban Flag

2. Embassy of the United States of America with American Flag

3. El Monte de las Banderas with Cuban Flag(s)  

4. José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform / Tribuna Antiimperialista José Martí (Notably the location of anti-American protests over the custody of Elián Gonzalez occurred.)

5. Statue of José Martí holding an infant (his son?  a representation of Elián González?) and pointing towards the American Embassy.  The statue's plaque reads: To timely impede with the independence of Cuba, that the United States extend through the Antilles and fall, with that force, over our American land. All I have done until now and what I have left to do, is for that. - José Martí, hours before dying in combat.

6. USS Maine Memorial built in 1925 in honor of the American sailors who died in the 1898 explosion of the Maine.

Along the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, bookended by the US Embassy on its western end and the USS Maine Memorial on the eastern end. 

The US Embassy with the Wall of Flags standing in its foreground.

A little bit about the embassy and Wall of Flags:

In January of 1961, President Eisenhower closed the American Embassy in Havana and severed all diplomatic ties with the country.  It wouldn't be until another 54 years and 11 U.S. presidents later (to Cuba's one president) that diplomatic relations were officially restored between the United States and Cuba on July 20th 2015.  Previously in 2006, an electronic ticker with 5' tall letters was installed on the fifth floor of the embassy, although at that time it would have been referred to as the American Interest Section Building, NOT an embassy.  The ticker was installed under the guise of reporting local news to ordinary Cubans but more often than not flashed criticisms of the Cuban government and pro-democracy propaganda messages.  Obviously this was no bueno for Fidel so in response he erected 138 flags at the westernmost edge of the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform.  The reason given for the black flags was that they represented the victims of the Bay of Pigs Invasion / Battle of Playa Girón and other attacks on Cuba made by the United States.  But Fidel knew what he was doing...all those flags waving in the wind successfully served to block the view of the 5th floor ticker's messages.    

While the ticker's switch has been permanently switched to the off position by order of President Obama in 2009 and there only flew one lone Cuban flag the day I visited, at one point the site looked like this:

What the Wall of Flags / Monte de las Banderas would look like full of flags. 

What the Wall of Flags / Monte de las Banderas would look like full of flags. 

In this view the photographer has his or her back to the American Embassy and the mourning flags have been replaced with the Cuban national flag.

Another time when the wall was full.

Another time when the wall was full.

And from the afternoon that I visited:

El Monte de las Banderas

Embassy of the United States of America

Base of the El Monte de las Banderas

"Homeland or Death"

At the end of the plaza is the USS Maine Memorial.

USS Maine Memorial

Interesting stuff...the Wikipedia page on the USS Maine Memorial in Havana reads:

The monument was crowned with an American eagle. Its wings extended vertically in such a way that a hurricane damaged the monument the following year. The original eagle was replaced in 1926 by one with horizontal wings. The first one is now in the U.S. Embassy building in Havana.

There were originally three busts of Americans: President William McKinley, who declared war on Spain; Leonard Wood, first military governor in Cuba, and President Theodore Roosevelt.

On 18 January 1961, the eagle and busts of the Americans were removed by a mob, because it was considered a "symbol of imperialism". The following inscription was later added:

To the victims of the Maine who were sacrificed by the imperialist voracity and their desire to gain control of the island of Cuba
February 1898 – February 1961

(A las víctimas de El Maine que fueron sacrificadas por la voracidad imperialista en su afán de apoderarse de la isla de Cuba.
Febrero 1898 – Febrero 1961)

The eagle's head was later given to Swiss diplomats. It too is now in the Embassy of the United States, Havana building. The body and the wings are stored in the Havana City History Museum. The museum's curator believes that good relations with the U.S. will be symbolized by the reunification of the parts of the eagle.

USS Maine Memorial - On top, where once an eagle stood.

And some extra-curricular reading if anyone is interested:

The Architectural Importance of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba

Cuba 'Blocking' American Messages - This one I love because you can see Fidel in that teeny little photo STILL wear his fatigues. Even more on the topic here.

Cubans, Swiss, Americans..oh my!  I didn't realize that the embassy never really closed...shoulda figured with us being imperialist and all though...