14ymedio, Xavier Carbonell, Salamanca, 24 September, 2023 — From a distance, it looks like a cork split in two. On closer inspection, it could be a piece of furniture found in some minimalist or ethnic furniture catalogue, a tribal artifact. In any case, nothing of value, nothing worth going to war over or making a fuss about. The Spanish – legalistic to the point of naivety – have done everything possible to ensure that the issue does not get out of hand. But how to convince Havana to return Antonio Maceo’s chair, which Cuba has had since 2018?
A couple of weeks ago the mayor of Palma de Mallorca, to whose municipal government the piece belongs, met with the Cuban consul-general in Barcelona to let him know that he had sent a letter to the Office of the Historian of Havana, reminding him that the deadline for returning the chair is November 16, Saint Christopher’s Day.
The mayor is not unaware that the last officeholder, Eusebio Leal, is dead and that his position has been vacant for several years. What he does not know, I am sure, is that Leal’s ghost still communicates with a group of spirit mediums, almost all of them women, who tend his grave and smoke out any undesirable candidates for his job. The regime finds it easier to deal with this coalition of midwives – Perla Rosales, Magda Resik* and company – than it did with the hyperactive Leal, whose presence remains problematic even in death.
Eusebio Leal’s ghost still communicates his wishes to a group of spirit mediums, almost all of them women
So when Palma’s mayor told the consul-general that he had sent a letter to a dead man, the Cuban diplomat must have smiled sardonically. He nevertheless posed for a blurry official photo and no doubt said, yes, he would see that the letter had gone to the correct address. Such is diplomacy Havana-style, so similar to that of the Vatican when the situation calls for it: political spiritualism mixed with affection, tobacco and indifference.
When Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez took Maceo’s chair to Cuba in 2018, he must have known from the look on Leal’s face that the item would not be going back to the Iberian Peninsula any time soon. Leal’s eyes gleamed – already the eyes of a dead man – when he touched the chair’s back, where the letters A and M, had been carved next to a star. Maceo was shot dead in 1898, during a battle at Punta Brava, shortly after jauntily declaring, “This is going well.” The victorious Spanish general, Valeriano Weyler, later made off with the chair. Back in Spain, the item remained in the possession of his family along with other objects from Cuba until 1931, when Weyler’s descendants gave it to the city of Palma.
It seems the chair that once belonged to Maceo — a leader known for his stammer, about whom Jose Martí once joked, “He doesn’t hesitate when you think he would, just when he’s talking about an issue he cares about or his man” — was kept discreetly, or secretly, out of sight until a journalist happened upon it and wrote an article. It must be one of the few pieces of furniture to have a biography written for it.
Judging from Spanish press accounts, officials believe the chair is safe, as Leal promised it would be, and on display in a special room. But because so few mementos remain of the mestizo leader, whom one Catalan newspaper renamed “Antoni” Maceo, the palm tree trunk is a “treasure of incalculable value in reinforcing the revolutionary message that lives on in the post-Castro era.”
Leal wrote the then-mayor of Palma, beseeching him to extend the loan, claiming the Cuban people needed the chair
It is not surprising that the Mallorcans are so concerned about the fate of the chair considering they believe it to have a kind of miraculously irradiating power. Shortly before his death, Leal wrote to the then-mayor of Palma beseeching him to extend the loan, claiming the Cuban people needed the chair because it housed “an important part of our country’s soul.” The mayor relented. After the extension, a friend of the Cuban regime in Mallorca, Gerardo Moyà, observed ironically that he had “little doubt” the chair would remain in Havana.
Then it was learned that Madrid was hoping to do a trade: the chair in exchange for something else (like Cortés’ stool perhaps, or a terracotta water jug from Avellaneda). If Havana is feeling generous, perhaps it could send over another famous chair: the “untouched throne” from the Palace of the Captains General, which has been waiting for centuries for a king of Spain to sit on it. It looked like that might happen in 1999 when Juan Carlos was visiting the island and Fidel Castro offered him the seat. More alert than the authoritarian Castro, the Spanish king declined: “All of Spain would have to sit on it,” he said, “and they wouldn’t fit.”
We will have to wait until St. Christopher’s Day to find find out what Leal dictates from his office in the underworld to the soothsayers at the Office of the Historian. As far as the mayor’s letter goes, it’s better not to push too hard. Madrid and Havana will find a way to forgive each other.
*Translator’s note: The deputy executive director and director of communication respectively for the Office of the Historian.
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