So Now the Bonapartists Too? (I)

Dmitri Prieto

Once upon a time back in the 19th century, there was a rebellious Italian named Orestes Ferrara.  Some historians hold that in his youth he was an anarchist.  Had that been true, he would have been one of the dozens of liberal socialists who came to the Caribbean to fight for “Cuba libre” when the war for independence broke out in 1895.

By the end of that conflict Cuba was occupied by the US army and governed via military orders.  The Republic was born in 1902 as a US protectorate.  In the meantime Ferrara apparently backed away from his former militant political stance, adopting a position of capitalist liberalism.

He obtained Cuban citizenship for having been a mambi independence fighter and went on to participate in the sanguinary government of the dictator Gerardo Machado.  Later he was involved in the 1940 Constituent Assembly after that politician’s fall.

A liberal, in short, he became famous in that assembly for his fervent anti-communist allegations, though certainly not all them were so far-fetched in that context (he said, for example, that there was freedom of speech in Stalin’s USSR, but just one time for person).  It also seems that he conspired against Mussolini together with the Italian mafia in the Americas.

A hateful figure for many people, but a famous teacher, Ferrara inhabited a beautiful mansion right beside the hill where the University of Havana is headquartered.  There, he was devoted to his great passion: the adoration of Napoleon Bonaparte.  He amassed a remarkable collection of expensive paintings and other objects related to the French emperor.  But, in addition to his liberal ideas, this Italian had money.  In fact, he was one of the most successful capitalists in Cuba.

After the insurrectional victory of 1959, the government expropriated the house, transforming it into a museum of the most unusual type for a country in the Americas in full social transformation under Marxist precepts.  It became nothing less than a Napoleonic museum in the center of Havana.

Today I found out that the museum — the only one of its type in Latin America — has been reopened following restoration work.  This is interesting news for the lovers of history, among whom I include myself.  But the story doesn’t end here.

It turns out that a relative of the namesake of Napoleon Bonaparte came to Havana to re-inaugurate the historic building dedicated to her ancestor.  We saw it in TV!  I was surprised how — in an manner unusual for the solemnity of the occurrence promoted by the two republics (Cuban and French) — our national television news gave the woman such noble treatment, referring to her as “Her highness the princess of Napoleon” followed by her Christian name and her last name.

Republics usually don’t recognize the holding of nobility.  Some even go so far as to prohibit it in their constitutions.

Another fact that I just found out is that there are “active” successors of the Napoleonic dynasty.  I had no idea that the Bonapartes still had people invoking their imperial ancestry that originated from that humble Corsican gunner.

My interest in the French nobility ended when I found out that monarchists still exist among groups such as French Action, which preaches the return of the Bourbons.

For me, the Napoleons were something characteristic of the 19th century.  This time period is another historical event whose validity — I believe — requires a public commemoration of its most recent anniversary.

However, it seems that for the imperial highness, and other not-so-imperial ones, the same as it was it for Orestes Ferrara, Napoleon is more important than that other event. 

[to be continued…]

One thought on “So Now the Bonapartists Too? (I)

  • I visited the museum back in 2004. it was an unexpected find in Havana, a real gem. The villa itself is worth the visit.

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