Wednesday, February 25, 2015

In Cuba, a long-forgotten landmark of U.S. culture

In Cuba, a long-forgotten landmark of U.S. culture
By Nick Miroff February 24 at 10:38 AM

HAVANA — Many of the Cuban diplomats negotiating detente with the United
States — talks resume this week in Washington — are graduates of Cuba's
Advanced Institute for Foreign Relations. It's the Castro government's
foreign service school, located in a drab, blockish building along
Calzada street in Havana's Vedado neighborhood.

Less widely known is that the building was originally constructed as the
Instituto Cultural Cubano-Norteamericano (U.S.-Cuba Cultural Institute),
and was once a mainstay of the two countries' deep and complicated ties.

Like many buildings whose pre-1959 use didn't fit with Fidel Castro's
post-revolution plans, it was taken over and repurposed soon after the
rebel convoys rolled into Havana. The institute's days as a center for
U.S. cultural promotion came to an abrupt end, and its long-time
director, historian Herminio Portell Vila, fled for Miami.

With the United States and Cuba now moving toward restoring long-broken
relations, it's not hard to imagine such an institution returning again
at some point — though not likely at its former location.

Inaugurated in 1943 at the height of World War II, the institute began
with 200 students, offering courses in English and U.S. history. Its
Marti-Lincoln Public Library, named for Cuba's national hero and the
venerated U.S. president, was one of the first in Havana to allow users
to check out and borrow books in the style of an American public
library, according to Cuban journalist Waldo Fernandez Cuenca.

Fernandez recounts this history in the December issue of Palabra Nueva,
the magazine of the Havana archdiocese, and said the library's entrance
featured a painting by the prominent Mexican muralist David Alfaro
Siqueiros (who, ironically, was a militant Stalinist).

"I wanted to rescue this forgotten history," Fernandez said. "It was an
example of the close ties and cooperation between the two countries."

The library's shelves soon filled with donated books from the U.S.
government and well-heeled American supporters, many of them prominent
U.S investors in Cuba. Library visitors had access to all the current
editions of Time, Life, Vogue and the like.

As an extension of American culture, it was also at times an extension
of the United States government. This 1945 State Department cable shows
that American military officials tasked Portell Vila with providing a
report on the Cuban educational system, with the goal of hiring Cuban
civilians for U.S. military bases in Cuba.

When the United States closed its base at San Antonio de los Baños at
the end of World War II, the secretary of the War Department transferred
more than 4,000 volumes to the Institute's Marti-Lincoln library,
according to Fernandez. The library was well-known for its collection of
military history, especially its World War II materials.

Cubans seeking scholarships to study in the United States flocked to the
institute. By the late 1940s, it processed more than 800 applications a
year from Cubans wanting to study aviation, meteorology and other
courses at U.S. schools.

With its popularity growing, the institute moved in 1950 from its
original location along Old Havana's Prado Boulevard to a new site in
Vedado, erecting a six-story edifice with 23 classrooms, a huge library
and capacity for thousands of students.

Then Vice President Richard Nixon visited the institute during a trip to
Havana in 1955, calling it "a vital element in the U.S.-Cuba
relationship that grows closer every day" in a letter to Portell Vila.

With Castro's rise to power and a rapid deterioration of U.S.-Cuba
relations, the institute came under a cloud of suspicion. This article
appearing last year in the communist party daily Granma made rare
mention of the institute's existence, describing it as beachhead for
American espionage and "an institution dedicated to influencing and
penetrating Cuba's scientific, academic and cultural sectors."

After taking control of the building and its well-appointed library
collection, the new Castro government kept the school's original
function as a language academy, though English-speaking instructors were
replaced by Russian and German ones. The old name lived on, according to
Cubans who studied there and knew it as the "Lincoln school" well into
the 1970s.

When the language academy shut down in the 1990s, the building was used
as Education Ministry offices, then became the new training academy for
Cuba's Foreign Ministry, located just two blocks away.

Today it is not among the storied Havana landmarks associated with
pre-Castro Cuba and the ill-fated era of U.S.-Cuba intimacy, like the
iconic Hotel Nacional or the Cuban Capitolio. But Fernandez, who dug up
much of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Institute history using copies of its old
newsletter, "Dos Pueblos," said it's a legacy worth revisiting.

"In the end, I think its contributions to Cuba were more positive than
prejudicial," he said. "It didn't even last two decades, unfortunately,
but maybe some day something like it will emerge again."

Source: In Cuba, a long-forgotten landmark of U.S. culture - The
Washington Post -

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