Just as the sun creeps up over the Havana skyline on the 165th anniversary of José Martí’s birth on Sunday, a replica of a statue that sits in Central Park will be officially inaugurated in the Cuban capital.
The statue — a gift from U.S. donors through a fund initiated by The Bronx Museum of the Arts — was installed in Havana in October. But Cuba wanted to save the official dedication — and use it as a symbol of enduring friendship between the people of the two countries despite a deterioration in relations under the Trump administration — to coincide with the birthday of the island’s most revered patriot.
The original bronze statue of Martí on horseback by famed equine sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington has been a fixture in Trump’s hometown since 1965. Huntington’s original statue sits at Central Park’s Artists’ Gate on a granite pedestal donated by the Cuban government.
Huntington, who admired Cuba’s independence hero as a man of arts and letters, gifted the 18-foot Martí statue to the Cuban government for presentation to the people of New York. Completed in 1958 when she was 82, it was her last major work.
“Creating a replica at this time to present to the City of Havana is a fitting complement to the monument’s unique history,” says the website of the Friends of José Martí Sculpture Project, the Bronx Museum’s initiative to raise $2.5 million for fabricating, shipping and installing the statue in Cuba. The gift “to the Office of the Historian of the City of Havana will appropriately complete the original symbolic gesture and serve to strengthen the bridge between our two countries.”
“We are still fundraising — for several not yet completed items,” said Leanne Mella, the project director. Money is being raised to pay for a plaque that will be placed at the statue with all the names of the donors and for future exchange programs for Cuban and American artists, architects and urbanists, she said.
The driving force behind the Martí project was Holly Block, the museum’s former executive director who died in October. “She had long championed cultural exchange with Cuba,” said Mella. When Block learned of the admiration Eusebio Leal, historian of Havana, had for the original statue, “she determined to reproduce it as a gift to the people of Cuba from the people of the U.S.,” she said.
Martí, who died in battle on May 19, 1895 as he fought to win Cuba’s independence from Spain, is admired on both sides of the Florida Straits as a independence fighter and intellectual. But the twin statues and Block’s efforts on behalf of Cuban engagement haven’t been without controversy.
After completing the original Martí statue, Hyatt donated it to the city of New York in 1959, and the government of Fulgencio Batista sent a check to cover the cost of the pedestal. But the statue wasn’t mounted and languished in a Bronx storage yard for more than five years.
Cuba and the United States broke off diplomatic relations after the 1959 Cuban Revolution and Cold War tensions soured the relationship. The New York Times reported at the time that the State Department had advised against putting the statue on public display. New York complied despite entreaties from some anti-Castro exiles who said Martí was a national hero and dedicating the statue wouldn’t be a tribute to the Castro government.
Finally, a group of exiles decided to take matters into their own hands and attempted to mount a six-foot plaster model of the statue on the empty base in Central Park, according to a Times article from Oct. 10, 1964. They managed to get the head, but not the horse, atop the pedestal, before the whole thing was carted away by police.
The statue was finally mounted and dedicated the next year. “The political climate between pro- and anti-Castro elements in New York necessitated the delay of the monument’s unveiling until 1965” is the way the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation explains it on its website.
Decades later, when Block tried to engage with Cuba, there also was friction.
Two executive board members and four trustees resigned in 2016 in part because they felt the small museum was straying too far from its local mission and they were in disagreement over fundraising for the replica and a Cuban art exchange and show called “Wild Noise/Ruido Salvaje.”
Previously, the Bronx Museum had lent work from its permanent collection to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana in what Block hoped would be a blossoming exchange. But Cuban officials decided not to allow works from the Havana museum to be taken to New York for the show, apparently because of fears some of the art could be seized to satisfy claims by Americans whose properties were confiscated in Cuba shortly after the revolution.
The “Wild Noise” show was postponed but finally went on last year with Cuban art from the museum’s own collection and loans from collections outside Cuba.
The latest dispute came in October when the Martí replica was installed in Old Havana and reporters noticed two typographical errors — a misplaced accent and the world ciudad (city) misspelled as cuidad — in the brief biography engraved on the statue’s base.
The errors were corrected on Jan. 4, said Mella, and the statue is now ready for its Sunday debut at the 13 de Marzo Plaza.
Those invited to the inauguration of the Martí monument will be an interesting who’s who of Americans the Cuban government considers to be its friends in an era when Trump has added more restrictions on trade with and travel to the island.
Mella says many donors to the Martí project and the museum will be in Havana for the statue’s dedication, and Joseph Mizzi, the chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, will speak at the ceremony. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also plans to send a representative.
There’s no word on whether Cuban leader Raúl Castro will be in attendance, but Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of the Union of Young Communists, noted that it will be Castro’s last opportunity as president to pay homage to Martí on his birthday. Castro has said he will retire from the presidency on April 19.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi