A juxtaposition of beauty and heartache will soon open to the public at a former landfill in Hialeah Gardens.
On one side of the property is the new Brigade 2506 museum that will display war memorabilia, including one of the B-26 bombers used during training of Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba.
Adjoining the museum is a botanical garden featuring tropical plants, fruit trees and fish-filled ponds.
The B-26 bomber will be brought in pieces from Guatemala and installed in the museum before it opens next to Westland Park at 13501 NW 107 Ave. The museum will open to the public at some point after the plane arrives.
On display along the walls of the new space will be about 800 photographs from the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba to topple Fidel Castro in 1961. Replicas of some of the weapons used in the battle will also be on exhibit.
“That airplane will be the jewel of the museum,” said Félix Rodríguez Mendigutía, former president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, Brigade 2506.
Rodríguez, a former CIA agent who participated in the capture of Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia in 1967, said he started trying to obtain one of the airplanes used in the training about two years ago.
He first sent letters to Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales but received no reply. But then he ran into Morales during a visit to the CIA museum in Virginia with Sen. Marco Rubio, the Republican U.S. senator from Florida.
“It was a coincidence that he was visiting the CIA museum, so I asked Senator Rubio to come with me to approach him,” he said. “I explained to him that we were very interested in recovering the airplane, that it meant a lot to us and that we were going to open a museum in Hialeah Gardens and wanted to bring the airplane here. After that, I remained in contact with his intelligence officials.”
Rodríguez said he was later invited to Guatemala and met with Defense Minister Gen. Luis Miguel Ralda.
The Brigade 2506 veterans knew the B-26 was on exhibit as a “historic airplane” at the repair shop at Guatemala City's La Aurora Airport. The B-26 was one of 18 airplanes the U.S. government provided to Cuban exiles for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which began on April 17, 1961, and ended in disaster two days later after Castro marshaled thousands of forces to defeat the brigadistas.
“No one wanted to let go of that plane,” Rodríguez said, adding that the negotiations to move it to the museum “were not easy. It was a process of persuading them of the deep meaning it had for us Cubans. It was a plane given to them to justify the overflights of Guatemalan territory at that time. But I managed to get the support of the president and the minister of defense.”
“Right now the airplane is in pieces, at the La Aurora Airport, waiting for us to bring it” to Miami, he said. “We are waiting a final authorization from the Department of State … Since this is a military airplane, it requires permits for electronic systems. But this airplane was built 80 years ago. It has no electronics.”
“It has almost no instruments, but we needed an authorization from the (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives)," he added. “They put down that the plane had a machine gun. Now it has nothing, but routine paperwork is required for the authorization to bring it into the country.”
Rodríguez said the paperwork with the U.S. Department of State should be finished soon. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
A total of 1,113 fighters were captured by Castro's forces and were kept prisoners for 20 months. When they were released they were greeted as heroes in Miami. The 5,000 square foot museum will pay homage to these heroes with several exhibition areas, including a library with memorabilia from the failed invasion, which resulted in more than 100 deaths.
He hopes the Doral-based U.S. Southern Command can transport the plane to Miami, but said the museum has already lined up donors willing to pay for a different transportation.
Southcom confirmed that efforts are underway.
"The Government of Guatemala agreed to donate the aircraft to the City of Hialeah Gardens, who owns the Brigade 2506 Museum, and those two entities are the primary parties in the exchange," José Ruiz, Southcom spokesman, said in statement. "The U.S. government supports cultural exchanges between the United States and Guatemala and has helped coordinate the government of Guatemala’s request for the U.S. government’s authorization to permanently transfer the B-26 aircraft to the City of Hialeah Gardens.
"This approval is required because the aircraft was originally donated by the United States to Guatemala as a part of the Military Assistance Program," Ruiz said. "The City of Hialeah Gardens and the Guatemalan government are responsible for managing all other aspects of the transfer, including transport."
Esteban Bovo, a 2506 veteran who is working with Rodríguez on the museum, said there are “many tears” behind the displays. “There are many images of friends we lost, who gave their lives for the dream of winning freedom for our homeland,” he said.
The association has its headquarters and a museum at 1821 SW Ninth St., in Little Havana, not far from the monument to the brigadistas who fought in the battle . The move has stirred controversy within the Brigade 2506 ranks.
In 2016, in commemoration to the 55th anniversary of the invasion, some 200 Brigade 2506 members gathered the Hialeah Gardens site to announce the construction of the future museum. Rodríguez said at the time that moving the museum to Hialeah Gardens was not a popular decision, but necessary "because the association does not have enough resources to maintain the existing site."
Bay of Pigs Veterans Association President Johnny López has said the new museum was the work of just "a small number of members of our association" and that it has "no relation or affiliation with our organization." López also said the museum's name should be changed because it's already taken and would only confuse the public.
The old B-26 will be installed in the garden behind the new museum, built on 10 acres of the 45-acre site.
A port of the site was used as a garbage dump years ago, said Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset de La Cruz. De La Cruz obtained $3.2 million in state funds to transform the former garbage dump into a botanical garden of five acres, with plans to add another 10 acres later. Westland Park sports facilities now occupy the remaining acres.
“There were two garbage mounds in this area, and we managed to obtain a $2 million subsidy from the state, first to clean up the area and then to plant the garden,” De la Cruz said during a recent tour of the site. “We started this work three years ago. About 24 (municipal) employees worked cleaning the land, and we also contracted the company Waste Management.”
The city is banking on the garden becoming a community showpiece, complete with plants, fruit trees, ponds, walking trails and spaces where agricultural classes may be held. An opening date has not yet been set.
“This type of garden allows us to educate our community about the importance of protecting the green areas of our city,” he added. “In many areas, trees and plants are eliminated to put in cement. I am convinced this is a way to teach our people to protect our environment.”
De la Cruz added that the garden will offer free Wifi “so our children will come to do their homework in a healthy and secure manner. The parents can accompany them and take advantage by exercising with pleasant walks while the children do their homework.”
The garden will feature 45,000 plants native to Florida as well as areas dedicated to tropical fruit trees such as mango, avocado, plantains, plum and grapefruit. Local school children will be allowed to harvest the fruit and sell it at farmers markets, with their schools keeping the money collected.
The site will also feature fountains and koi fish ponds, a walking loop and five roundabouts built by Seminole tribe members with cypress lumber. Access to the botanical garden will be free for everyone at least during the first year, and remain free afterward for Hialeah Garden residents.
De la Cruz added that he plans to reach an agreement with Miami Dade College and Florida International University to have their agriculture students give classes in the garden's amphitheater.
Follow Enrique Flor on Twitter: @kikeflor