By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. supporters of improved relations with Cuba joined the top leadership of the Caribbean country on Sunday to inaugurate a replica of a New York statue of its independence hero Jose Marti.
Just a few years ago, the hundreds gathered for the event overseen by Cuban President Raul Castro would have been in a celebratory mood, but the brief ceremony at daybreak in Havana's colonial district was a sober affair.
With the advent of the Republican administration in Washington, a pall has fallen over the two countries' fragile detente.
U.S. President Donald Trump, whose hometown of New York donated the statue, has imposed new restrictions on travel and trade with the Communist-run island and disparaged what he calls the “terrible and misguided” policy of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, toward Cuba.
Throughout Sunday's event, Castro and other officials sat stone-faced.
"I was hoping for a party, but since I arrived yesterday, we have all been commiserating over the situation," said a banker who donated to the $2.5 million project and asked for anonymity.
Since August, tensions between the two countries have deteriorated further over a series of alleged attacks affecting the health of U.S. diplomats in Havana.
The United States has withdrawn a majority of its diplomats from the city and expelled 17 Cubans from their Washington embassy, all but ending consular services and most contact.
After Obama and Castro announced a detente in 2014, the Bronx Museum of the Arts decided to gather donations to make a copy of the sculpture as a gift for Havana.
The equestrian statue depicts Marti moments before his death in a cavalry charge in 1895, during the fight against Spanish colonial rule.
A handful of U.S. politicians and many more businessmen and representatives from the arts and Cuban-American community attended the event, which marked the 165th anniversary of Marti’s birth.
Joseph Mizzi, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, said the statue symbolized the friendship between the people of both countries.
A letter was read from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio stating his city was proud of its friendship with Cuba.
Marti, a poet and political essayist, was living in New York when he drew up plans for an invasion of Cuba as part of the rebellion against Spain.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)