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HAVANA -– As the sun was rising early Sunday, a replica of a New York statue of Cuban independence hero José Martí was inaugurated on what would have been his 165th birthday in front of a crowd that included the island's top leaders and hundreds of Americans.
After the U.S. and Cuba announced they would restore diplomatic relations in late 2014, the Bronx Museum of the Arts began to raise $2.5 million, from mostly U.S. donors, to make a copy of the statue as a gift for Cuba, with the aim of strengthening the bridge between the two countries.
But President Donald Trump has taken a harder line toward Cuba and reversed some of former President Barack Obama’s historic policy changes.
Relations were strained further after a series of mysterious incidences that affected the health of U.S. diplomats. The U.S. withdrew most of its personnel from the island and expelled 17 Cubans from their Washington embassy.
Nonetheless, the museum and American supporters of the statue and stronger relations with Cuba went forward with the gift.
Sunday’s inauguration was by invitation only. The communist government’s guest list included over 300 Americans. U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee and Karen Bass, both California Democrats and Roger Marshall, R-Kan., were among the Americans who attended, said Leanne Mella, the project director for the Martí monument. Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American and former Commerce Secretary under former President George W. Bush, was spotted at the event by NBC News.
Gustavo Arnavat, an adviser to the Bronx Museum, traveled to Havana for the inauguration and said Martí represents a unifying force between Cubans on the island and those in the U.S. “I don’t know a single Cuban on or off the island who doesn’t revere him,” said Arnavat, who is Cuban-American.
Martí, was a renowned poet, essayist, patriot, and martyr who epitomizes Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. He spent 15 years in exile, and lived in New York longer than anywhere else. He opposed U.S. domination over Latin America, wrote about democracy and warned about dictators.
Arnavat a former director of the Interamerican Development Bank, who also advised the Obama administration on U.S. relations with Cuba, recalls learning about Martí. Arnavat memorized Martí's poems during his early childhood in Havana, something reinforced by his parents after they left the island and settled in Hialeah, a suburb of Miami. For many Cubans, the admiration transcends generations.
“I have spoken to my children about José Martí, of course, in the same way that my parents always taught me about José Martí,” he said.
The original 18-foot bronze statue, which sits in Central Park’s Artists’ Gate, was sculpted by American artist Anna Vaughn Hyatt Huntington, when she was 82 years old. It depicts Martí moments before his death in 1895, during a battle against Spanish colonial rule.
It was the last major work of Huntington, who admired Martí. She “presented the statue as a gift to the Cuban government for presentation to the people of New York City,” according to New York City Parks and Recreation.
The sculpture was completed in November 1958, but remained in storage in the Bronx until it was erected in 1965. “The political climate between pro- and anti- Castro elements in New York necessitated the delay,” according to Parks and Recreation.
The relationship between the U.S. and Cuba had soured after the 1959 Cuban revolution, when the communist government began confiscating American properties and businesses. It culminated in a diplomatic break in 1961.
But in 1957, anticipating the statue would be unveiled, the government of Fulgencio Batista, who was president of Cuba at the time, gave a $100,000 check to cover the cost of the dark granite pedestal on which the statue stands, according to a 1964 New York Times article.
The article states “despite several appeals by anti-Castro Cuban groups to Mayor Wagner and the State Department, all explaining that José Martí was a national hero, the George Washington of Cuba, and dedication of the statue would not be recognizing the Castro regime.”
The monument was finally unveiled in 1965 and The Central Park Conservancy conserved the monument in 1992, with funds raised by Cuban-Americans across the U.S.
The idea to gift a copy of the statue originally came from Holly Block, the museum’s former executive director who passed away in October.
The museum has a long history of cultural exchanges with Cuba, but the statue’s replica brought some controversy with it.
In 2016, two governing executives resigned along with four other trustees citing lack of transparency. They criticized Block, and singled out two of the museum’s projects related to Cuban art.
They were especially concerned about spending $2.5 million to create the statue’s replica as well as an exchange of artworks with Havana. They felt the money would have been better spent on education and programming for the local community it serves.
The museum followed through with its plans. Mella said “we received about 100 donations from individuals in amounts as small as $10.” She calculated about 40 percent of the donors were Cuban-American. The Friends of José Martí is still raising money for extra items, like a plaque with donors’ names.
The statue arrived in Cuba in October and was installed then, but the government wanted to hold the official dedication on the anniversary of Martí’s birthday.
Lisandro Pérez, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, which advocates for engagement with Cuba, said the event comes at a “particularly telling moment, when relations between the two countries are not what they should be.”
Cuban-American pianist, Dayramir Gonzalez, who attended the inauguration with his brother and young son, thinks the people of the U.S. and Cuba should strengthen their ties.
“I think it’s the time to continue growing that amazing relationship," he said, " because at the end of the day, when politics gets in the middle of everything, the people are the ones who suffer."
Orlando Matos reported from Havana and Carmen Sesin reported from Miami. Video by Roberto Leon.