HAVANA – Repair it or demolish it? That is the prevailing question surrounding the Jose Marti “Anti-imperialist Grandstand” that extends in front of the US Embassy in Havana but which seems to be falling into ruin as Havana residents ask themselves what will happen to this symbol of the ongoing disagreements between Cuba and the United States that the late Fidel Castro ordered to be built.
“I don’t think the initial project will be abandoned, and even less so in the current circumstances,” Ulises Barnet – a local resident who each day walks his dog Negra along the esplanade running from the grandstand, which is now filled with rubble and broken cement slabs – told EFE
The “circumstances” to which Barnet alluded are the newly poisoned relations between Havana and Washington, which had been approaching normalization under former US President Barack Obama, although his successor, Donald Trump, has markedly increased US hostility toward the communist island by imposing new sanctions and engaging in incendiary rhetoric.
Many people think it’s strange that right at a time when Cuba is “returning to the trenches” it is also apparently allowing an iconic anti-imperialist structure to fall into ruin.
At the beginning of this week, the independent online daily 14yMedio reported that the grandstand that was erected just a few steps from Havana’s famous oceanside boulevard – the Malecon – may disappear to make space for a more pragmatic office building, but the government’s Cubadebate Web site came out on Thursday with a denial of that report.
“Under no circumstance are we going to demolish the Grandstand. It will have no other purpose than to continue being the venue par excellence for the struggle against imperialism,” an official with the provincial administration declared to the media outlet.
The site was inaugurated amid Cubans’ praise on April 3, 2000, by Fidel Castro during one of the tensest periods in the bilateral relationship: the push for the return to Cuba of “rafter child” Elian Gonzalez, who had survived a trip across the Florida Strait to Miami on a homemade raft, a trip during which his mother – who was trying to get him to freedom – died.
The grandstand, according to pronouncements when it was unveiled, was to have a seating capacity of 10,000 and room for 30,000 more standing, and the Cuban public immediately dubbed the site “The Protestdome.”
In the months during which the Elian Gonzalez battle raged, tens of thousands of Cubans – many of them children – jammed the Grandstand to demand the boy’s return to Cuba, where his father had remained, but they also attended dozens of concerts there and it was the site of assorted rallies for causes such as the independence of Palestine and Puerto Rico.
Until Elian was returned to the island, the megaphones at the grandstand were pointed directly at the US Embassy building.
It was also the site, however, where Cuba repudiated terrorism and war shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the US in an “expression of solidarity” with the victims, as Castro described it at the time.
In 2006, Cuban authorities added 138 huge flagpoles to the site in response to the placing at the US Interests Section – now the Embassy – of an electronic panel on which the US showed political messages that the Havana regime considered to be subversive.
The flags remained in place for three years after the US ceased operating the electronic panel.
The mysterious work currently being undertaken at the site is said to be part of a comprehensive remodeling to “return to the Grandstand the vigor and splendor it always had,” the Cuban official said.
The deterioration of the site got worse after coastal flooding caused by Hurricane Irma two years ago, when the area was submerged for two days.
The work there has included erecting a higher platform to reduce the impact of the waves during storm surges and using “more durable” materials. The site’s 10 towers and five metal arches are slated to be repaired, although currently there are huge chunks of cement lying everywhere and dust particles permeating the air.