Miami Works to Create a Cuban Exile Museum

by | April 28, 2014 AT 3:32 PM

By Douglas Hanks

Miami's waterfront has a new art museum, with a science museum on the way. Does it have room for one dedicated to Cuban exiles, too?

Advocates of what would be Miami's second museum devoted to Cuban immigrants are pushing county leaders to turn over county land behind the AmericanAirlines Arena to house the proposed 80-foot-tall complex, which would cost as much as $125 million to build.

The plan is facing push-back from the Miami Heat and some elected officials, who see disruptions from putting a large building on the waterfront spot's compact footprint. But the group behind the museum sees the addition as a fittingly prominent platform for highlighting a central part of Miami's history.

"We feel the site is the perfect place to preach not to the choir only, but to the public at large," said William Muir, a Bay of Pigs veteran and a lead organizer of the proposed historical museum.

"You have all of the tourists from the cruise ships there. And you have all of the Latin American tourists in downtown. What better place?"

A recent county report cataloging the challenges for the museum's site plan has revved up focus on the matter, with various interests girding for a larger fight.

Audrey Edmonson, the county commissioner whose district includes the proposed site, known as Parcel B, said she's planning a resolution that would bar construction on the land in favor of a park that nearby residents could use. Marc Sarnoff, the Miami city commissioner representing the area, said he's opposed to putting a new museum on the waterfront, even on available land in the city's existing Museum Park nearby.

"Give me a break," Sarnoff said. "How about having some grass?" The debate over the exile museum touches on enough hot topics to qualify for its own exhibit on contemporary Miami politics.

The three acres of county land sought by the Cuban Exile History Museum was promised as a park and soccer field when voters first approved construction of the tax-funded AmericanAirlines Arena in 1996, but it now serves as a truck and equipment depot when the arena hosts the circus and major concerts.

As the Heat gingerly pushes back on the idea of a museum rising next door, team executives are also pursuing a deal with Miami-Dade over extending their virtually rent-free lease on the arena and a yearly county subsidy of about $6.4 million in hotel taxes. Backers of the exile museum aren't asking for public construction dollars, but also haven't ruled out seeking government help if the private sector falls short.

"We are going to do everything possible to do this strictly without Miami-Dade County involved in the financing," Muir said. "The first thing we need is a site. We can then start attracting the donations with the idea of doing this privately."

Miami-Dade already subsidizes a different Cuban museum in Miami about 3 miles away. The Cuban Museum received $10 million in county construction dollars for its new Coral Way home, which is slated to open next spring.

Aside from questions over public resources, the exile museum debate is sure to touch on some of the diciest territory in local politics. The subject of Cuban-Americans' central role in Miami can be a sensitive one for other ethnic groups.

In February, Javier Souto urged his fellow county commissioners to be especially deferential to Cuban-American concerns since "Latins here pay more taxes per capita than anybody else" and "out of the Latin people, the prevalent community is the Cuban community."

Commissioner Dennis Moss, the county's senior African-American elected official, called Souto's remarks "offensive" and stated: "Black folks built this community. To simply say that, well, Latins came to this town and all of a sudden, this town is what it is _ I resent that."

That moment also helps explain why Muir and others see an exile museum as so fitting for Miami, given the central role Cuban immigrants play in the local political leadership. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez was born in Cuba, as were Rebeca Sosa, the chairwoman of the Miami-Dade County Commission, and Tomas Regalado, the mayor of Miami.

Museum organizers say they plan to highlight the success stories of Cuban exiles, the umbrella term for immigrants who left Cuba after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959. They also want the museum to attract tourists interested in the tumultuous events that helped spawn the exile community, including some that were milestones in U.S. history.

Among the exhibits cited as possibilities: the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the 1980 Mariel boatlift, the Miami-based rafter-search operation Brothers to the Rescue, and the 2000 custody drama over young Elian Gonzalez. The museum also plans to study the impact of Cuban exiles in the United States, including an exhibit that Muir credits to Gimenez and describes as comparing Miami's prosperity with Havana's decay.

"You can't really tell the Miami story without involving the contribution of the exile community," said Cuban-American county Commissioner Esteban "Steve" Bovo, whose district includes Hialeah, and whose father is a Bay of Pigs veteran. "We won't shy away from a healthy debate."

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