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Havana’s Anti-Imperialist Plaza

by Melissa García Lamarca

Source: Melissa García Lamarca

During my visit to Havana a month ago, several taxi drivers eagerly pointed out the “Tribuna Anti-Imperialista” (Anti-Imperialist Platform, also known as Plaza). Such keenness, added to the space’s intriguing name and design, made a closer visit irresistible.

Source: Melissa García Lamarca

One of the most eye-catching elements on the site is a life-sized statue of the Cuban icon José Martí, clutching a child in one protective arm while pointing vehemently in the opposite direction. The child represents Elián González, the sole survivor of a boat of Cuban refugees that capsized on its way to Miami in 1999, who was the center of a dramatic conflict between the two countries. Martí’s finger is pointed accusingly at the U.S. Interests Section Office located at the end of a linear plaza capped in several places by metal arches.

Source: Geneva Guerin

Built in 1952, the U.S. Interests Section Office was originally the U.S. embassy. The area in front, as pictured below, was known as Dignity Plaza. After Fidel Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista in the 1959 revolution, the building was used by the Swiss embassy, which represented U.S. interests in Cuba until the U.S. opened its own office in the 1970s. The statue of José Martí and Elián, as well as the metal structures, were erected hastily in 2000 while U.S. courts were reviewing Elián’s case. At the time, the area became a site for daily protests organized by the Cuban government.

The U.S. embassy in the 1950s, with Dignity Plaza in front. Source: ETH Studio Basel

Anti-Imperalist Plaza in 2006. Source: ETH Studio Basel

The plaza’s most recent transformation took place in 2006, when the Cuban government built a mount of flags (el monte de las banderas) with 138 flagpoles. I was told this was done to block the Interest Section’s view of the city, although other sources say it was to obstruct an electronic display board on the side of the U.S. Interest Section Office that displayed messages about Cuba’s social situation and human rights.

A February 2006 inscription at the base of the flags tells yet another story:
This mount of flags serves as a response from the people of Cuba to the clumsy arrogance of the U.S. government: 138 Cuban flags will wave with dignity in front of the eyes of the empire, to remind it, starting today, of every year that the Cuban people have struggled, since our founding fathers gave the cry for independence in 1868. Like then, before the bright shadow of this great mount of flags, we continue fighting as free men and women.

Source: Juventud Rebelde

Today, the site is used largely for rallies and protests against the U.S. The flagpoles sometimes carry black flags adorned with a single white star to represent those fallen in Cuba's fight against terrorism. As I was wandering around, I noticed a group of kids who had appropriated part of the plaza to play a pick-up game of soccer, giving the space a more lived in feel. Concerts sometimes take place as well —Audioslave was the first U.S. rock band to perform an open air concert in Cuba, attracting 50,000 people to a free concert in 2005. As the country is poised on the brink of massive change, with a new regime likely to emerge in the not-too-distant future, time will tell how use of this space evolves.

This is part of a collection of featured places from around the world. If you’d like to share photos of a place you find interesting, please add them to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org and we’ll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

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