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Lessons from Cuba about reclaiming symbols of a painful past

The US and Cuban flags with Havana’s National Capitol Building in the background. EPA/Michael Reynolds

Lessons from Cuba about reclaiming symbols of a painful past

The US and Cuban flags with Havana’s National Capitol Building in the background. EPA/Michael Reynolds

History was made this week when Barack Obama became the first serving US President to visit Havana, Cuba in nearly 90 years. The symbolic occasion sets a new course towards normalising diplomatic relations between the two nations after decades of Cold War attrition, tension and US economic embargoes.

In Havana President Obama will encounter an uncanny replica of Washington’s Capitol building – the iconic El Capitolio, or National Capitol Building.

The history of the building over the past 90 years holds lessons about how countries deal with symbols of a painful past. Built by Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista to house the island’s congress in 1929, it was abandoned by the Communist Party after the revolution in 1959 and then reclaimed three years ago in a major restoration plan.

The story of El Capitolio

The 300-foot domed neoclassical El Capitolio, inspired by Washington’s Capitol Hill, reflected the island’s “sugar boom” prosperity at the time. No expense was spared on its opulent and lavish construction. It boasted a grand entrance with 12 massive granite columns and imposing Zanelli bronze sculptures. It also sported an ornate gold leaf dome, cedar and mahogany floor to ceiling panels and 60 different types of marble flooring. A 25 carat diamond was encased in the floor of the main hall to mark the Kilometer Zero of the Cuban highway.

It was the seat of government for Cuba until the revolution culminated in Fidel Castro seizing power in 1959.

In forging independence from American imperialism the Communist Party sought to purge itself of all symbols, artefacts, monuments and traditions connected to the old political order and bourgeois past. The congress was dissolved. El Capitolio was condemned as representing capitalist excess, government corruption, gangsterism and the dominance of American culture. Relegated to inferior status along with other buildings such as the Presidential Palace, El Capitolio fell into decay. The National Assembly of People’s Power relocated to a drab, functional convention centre style building in the Havana suburbs.

As part of the repositioning of Cuba under President Raul Castro, El Capitolio is undergoing painstaking restoration to return it to its former glory. In the first phase of the project the Communist government’s National Assembly has elected to move back into the Capitol 54 years after it relocated. The seat of government is once again in the heart of Havana. This move, coinciding with the normalising of relations with the US, is heralded as symbolic in terms of opening up Cuban society to the global community.

Purging the past

South Africa has close ties with the Cuban people because of their unfailing support for the anti-apartheid struggle and liberation movements on the continent. As Nelson Mandela observed, the

Cuban people hold a special place in the hearts of the African people.

As was the case when the 1959 Cuban revolution discarded the symbols glorifying an ignominious history, post-apartheid South Africa too is confronting the symbols of its painful past. A groundswell of voices from society is fiercely rejecting the monuments that memorialise colonialism and apartheid.

The #Fees Must Fall student protest movement started in 2015 with the #Rhodes Must fall movement. The initial focus of this movement was the removal of the statue of imperialist Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town.

Since then student activism and demonstrations have spread throughout the country. These have been accompanied by deeper conversations around racism, social justice and inequality in post-apartheid South Africa. Angry at being confronted on a daily basis by the symbols of the coloniser, students are demanding the removal of all monuments, pictures and images relating to the country’s oppressive past. Valuable paintings and collective archives perceived as representative of apartheid humiliation and oppression were destroyed in violent protests at the University of Cape Town.

The call for the decolonisation extends to buildings and public spaces. The decolonisation of universities is seen as integral to democratic processes and access to institutions of higher learning. Scholars such as Achille Mbembe observe that the colonial and apartheid-era architecture which dominates most campuses in South Africa is alienating and self-enclosing. The creation of alternative buildings and spaces that let in the dynamic African sunlight is suggested as more conducive to the pursuit of knowledge.

Re-storying cultural heritage

The rehabilitation of El Capitolio and its re-establishment as the seat of government is part of a larger renewal project of historic buildings in old Havana. This renewal offers important insights about how a nation which struggled to liberate itself from oppression preserves and interprets its heritage. Referring to the 1959 revolution, one of the principal architects of the El Capitolio restoration, Jorge Cisneros, says:

It symbolised at that time a continuation of something they wanted to erase.

Fast forward to 2013 and a different story begins to unfold under Raul Castro:

It is a jewel. It’s true there was a time during the era of capitalism that’s where all the bandits met, but not any longer now that it’s ours.

The once reviled building condemned to the ash heap of history has been reclaimed, embraced and celebrated with pride as a national treasure. The renewal has been accompanied by the re-invention of the narrative around this iconic building – a re-storying.

The El Capitolio story reveals that symbols are enduring, achieving iconic status in a nation’s psyche despite attempts by governments to purge them.

What South Africa needs is active, serious and participatory public engagement and debate on its cultural heritage. This entails difficult conversations and choices about what to remember and preserve. And how to interpret them. These choices are important to its identity and the narratives its people carry into the future.

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