Pulling Down History
The Cuban government has never given a full explanation for Fidel's deathbed edict forbidding any physical commemoration of his name and his legacy. No monuments. No busts. No avenues rechristened in his honor. It has always seemed strange since Revolutionary Cuba has always been so devoted to commemorating the figures it considers to have emerged from the island's heart and soul. You can't travel more than a mile anywhere in Cuba without passing the stark white bust of Jose Marti. It has been endlessly reproduced, so much so that it rivals the invasive marabu plant in being practically everywhere. Every city and pueblo has a Marti street, along with others named for Maximo Gomez, Antonio Maceo, Calixto Garcia and other heroes of Cuba.
But Fidel made it clear, in life and in death, that he did not want to see himself mounted in bronze or carved in stone anywhere in Cuba. Trying to tease out his reasons, his supporters declare that it was simply the commandante's wish to avoid any cult of personality around himself, although he showed himself quite willing to build up ponderous cults around Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos, Frank Pais, and others once they were dead. For his opponents, Fidel's reluctance to see himself commemorated or to imagine a future in which his visage would be erected in squares and plazas was a terrible subconscious fear that what he witnessed in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein would come to pass in Cuba, with mobs of his people tying ropes around his bronzed shoulders and pulling his statues to the ground.
History is made by men like Fidel, but even such dominant figures cannot control what happens after their days on earth are over. Those who are cheered as heroes can one day be jeered just as emotionally. And their significance in history is never static, moulded and eventually transformed by time and truth. In the Southern United States, the statues to Confederate heroes are now at long last being removed, their symbolism taking on terrible new meaning long after the Civil War in which they fought had its last battle. As the political tide continues to shift, attention is now also being turned to other monuments from other times, and a commission in New York City is now examining that vast city's historical markers. Expect a battle in October over the statue of Columbus, with Italian Americans on one side, and a collection of angry groups on the other.
In Mexico City, another center of history and memory, it is almost impossible to find any official mention of the most critical figure in the city's long history, Hernan Cortez. The only physical representation of the conquistador I was ever able to find while I lived there was in the basement of a public building just off the Zocalo, hidden in deep shadows and practically unknown. Cortez's actions tearing down the Aztec metropolis Tenochtitlan and laying the foundation for the creation of Mexico remains at the root of Mexico's continuing conflict about its own identity.
Monuments do not create history. Nor does their removal erase memory. We can yank down a statue but we cannot change any part of our past and the way that history has worked to shape who we are today. There is a fine line between commemorating a complex past and attempting to erase a difficult part of history.
History, like sculpture, is indeed etched in stone.