The Cuban Flag’s Descendents

As a symbol of independence from Spain, the Cuban flag has inspired a number of others, including those of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Catalan separatists.

The flag of Cuba, designed in 1849 by Venezuelan-Cuban soldier Narciso López and Cuban poet Miguel Teurbe Tolón to symbolize their effort to have the US annex Cuba from Spain. Whitney Smith writes:
The flag of Cuba, la Bandera de la Estrella Solitaria (“the Lone Star Flag”).

Cuba’s flag was originally designed in 1849 in New York City by Venezuelan-Cuban General Narciso López and Cuban poet Miguel Teurbe Tolón to symbolize the effort to have the US annex Cuba from Spain.  The star represented the new star to be added to the US flag for a hoped-for State of Cuba.  Whitney Smith writes: “The red triangle stood for strength and constancy, but it may also have reflected Masonic influences (triangles are Masonic symbols for equality and were found in a number of other flags in the former Spanish empire).”

The flag of Puerto Rico, first presented in 1892 to the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Committee in New York City, which adopted it in 1895. It is unclear who designed it, but it was understood as an adaptation of López' flag. One account claimed that it came to Antonio Alvarado as an after-image of the Cuban flag he had been staring at on the wall of his Manhattan apartment. (Actually, however, the perceptual after-images of red and blue are green and yellow, respectively, not blue and red.) Different shades of blue are in use, sometimes representing different positions regarding PR's future status; the Cuban government's website shows both Royal Blue and Old Glory Blue versions.
The flag of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico’s flag, an adaptation of López’ flag, was first presented in 1892 to the PR Revolutionary Committee in New York City, which officially adopted it in 1895. There are differing accounts of its creation; e.g., Antonio Vélez Alvarado said it came to him as an after-image of a Cuban flag he had been staring at on the wall of his Manhattan apartment. (Actually, however, the perceptual after-images of red and blue are green and yellow, respectively, not blue and red.) Different shades of blue are in use, sometimes representing different positions regarding PR’s future status; the territorial government’s website shows both Royal Blue and Old Glory Blue versions.

Puerto Rico’s flag is easily confused with Cuba’s (and, by the way, is identical to a Norwegian shipping company’s).  One way to keep it straight is to note that unlike Cuba’s it has red and white stripes, just like that of the US, in which Puerto Rico has commonwealth status.  Another way is to remember this meme:


Flag of the Philippines.
Flag of the Philippines.

The “three stars and a sun” flag of the Philippines, like that of Puerto Rico, dates from the time of the Spanish-American War. It was designed by revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo in 1897, while he was exiled in Hong Kong.  Although the influence of the Cuban flag is often claimed with respect to its design and colors, and is plausible given the general context of the breakup of the Spanish empire that started in Cuba and spread to the Philippines, there does not appear to be definitive evidence for this.  The equilateral triangle was used in both as a Masonic symbol for equality (see the Whitney Smith quote above), but this may have been coincidental, as the Philippine revolutionary group Katipunan was masonic in its origins.  The evidence may be circumstantial, but some level of inspiration from López’ Cuban flag seems likely.

The Senyera estelada (
The Senyera estelada (“starred flag”) of Catalan separatists.

The Catalan separatists’ Estelada was designed by Vicenç Albert Ballester i Camps in 1918.  Ties between independent Cuba and the separatists were deep and longstanding (and Cuba today still has a small Catalan community of 3600). Twelve years earlier, the Centre Catalanista de Santiago de Cuba (Catalanist Center of Santiago de Cuba) had been established.  In the 1928 Catalan Constitution of Havana, exiled separatists declared both independence and the Estelada to be the national flag.  In the current Catalan independence movement, the “classic” white-star-on-blue-triangle flag is very much back in vogue, alongside a large number of variants.

Infographic by Redditor /u/tpa_bcn
Infographic by Redditor /u/tpa_bcn

Flags in Cuba – A Trip Report

by Ted Kaye, Vexilloid Tabloid #45 (April 2014)

I recently visited Cuba and saw a profusion of national flag use—often as an instrument of political messaging.  Here’s a sampling.

A massive flag hangs in Havana’s Museo de la Revolución.
A massive flag hangs in Havana’s Museo de la Revolución. Photo by Ted Kaye.
The flag as artwork at the Muraleando arts community. Photo by Ted Kaye.
The flag of the city of Havana. Photo by Ted Kaye.
The U.S. Interests Section (without diplomatic relations we have no embassy). When in 2006 the Bush Administration erected a giant scrolling news feed on the building, the Cubans immediately responded by placing 138 enormous flagpoles in front of it, each flying the Cuban flag. Photo by Ted Kaye.
The flag poles flying their flags. Photo by Ted Kaye.
Flags fly over the headquarters of the Catholic Church. Photo by Ted Kaye.
The flag flies over the museum at the Bay of Pigs. Photo by Ted Kaye.
A private flag display on a crumbling building in old Havana. Photo by Ted Kaye.
Flags festoon the entrance to a small revolutionary museum. Photo by Ted Kaye.
Professor Avelino Couceiro (right), a fellow vexillologist, secured our entrance into the normally-closed Hall of Flags in the city museum to see the nation’s most historic flags.
Historic flags on display at the Havana city museum.

Flags and Emancipation in Cuba

“Raising the Cuban Flag on the palace, Havana, May 20, 1902”

Esther Allen has an excellent piece in NYR Daily about the history of US-Cuba relations, including this fascinating story about the Cuban flag:

For its part, the US government had had an eye on Cuba at least since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Thomas Jefferson tried without success to buy the colony from Spain. Half a century later, a Venezuelan adventurer named Narciso López recruited a band of filibusters in the United States to invade the island. Supported by Mississippi Senator [and future Confederate president] Jefferson Davis and others, López hoped to annex Cuba to the US as a slave state, thereby bolstering the Southern states’ clout in the Senate and averting the threat of civil war. The flag López created—red, white, and blue, with stripes and a star—flew for the first time in lower Manhattan in the year 1850, raised by The New York Sun over its headquarters at the corner of Nassau and Fulton Streets in a show of support for annexation.

López’s scheme failed, but commitment to slavery would remain an element of US-Cuba relations for some years thereafter. [ … ] The first act of the Cuban independence movement after it declared war on Spain in 1868 was to free the slaves under its jurisdiction, but the Spanish Empire devoted enormous resources to maintaining its last footholds in this hemisphere. The Cuban insurgents lost their first war of independence in 1878, and slavery remained legal on the island until 1886.

By that point, the flag the filibusters had brandished—“López’s flag” as the Cuban insurgency’s greatest leader, José Martí, called it—had become the banner of independence. The lives lost in its service transformed it from a petition for annexation into the flag of Cuban sovereignty. The great Cuban ethnomusicologist Fernando Ortiz coined a term for this complex cultural process, which he identified as a fundamental dynamic of Cuban history. He called it transculturación and believed that it grew out of the resilience of the Africans, brought to Cuba against their will, who coopted the alien cultural symbols available to them to create new and vibrant meanings from the unspeakable trauma they had endured.

“Secretary of State John Kerry, and other dignitaries watch as U.S. Marines raise the U.S. flag over the newly reopened embassy, Aug. 14, 2015, in Havana.” (Associated Press photo)

Jumping ahead to the present day — which recently saw the US flag hoisted at the US Embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961 — Allen concludes with some observations about Cubans’ attraction to our flag:

Walk down any street in Cuba and you’ll also encounter riffs on the American flag. Reporters from the US have been surprised to note that Cubans like to sport shirts or leggings emblazoned with the flag of a nation that has embargoed their country for more than half a century. And why shouldn’t they? After all, the Cuban flag evolved from the same shapes and colors. None of us can say what any person means by the design on the t-shirt he happens to be wearing; it may be an expression of support for the Cuban government’s policy of normalization, an expression of antipathy for the Cuban government, or the proud showing off of a gift from an uncle in Rochester, New York, or a sister in Union City, New Jersey.

Reuters photo, from La Mula.
Reuters photo, from La Mula.

For more from a nice photo essay on the US flag as a fashion statement in Cuba, check out Los cubanos ya se lucen la bandera de EEUU (“Cubans are already wearing the US flag”), from the Peruvian site La Mula.