Little Havana - Flagami

Historic museum vote exposes rift among Bay of Pigs veterans

Bay of Pigs Veterans Association Brigade 2506 members Jorge Infiesta Casals and Santiago Junt at the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana in 2011.
Bay of Pigs Veterans Association Brigade 2506 members Jorge Infiesta Casals and Santiago Junt at the Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana in 2011. AL DIAZ/MIAMI HERALD FILE

For nearly 30 years, the renovated Little Havana duplex off Calle Ocho has been home to artifacts and images from the failed CIA-backed attempt in 1961 by Cuban exiles to overthrow the communist regime of Fidel Castro. It has hosted international politicians, movie stars and grade school students and held memorials for the dozens who died during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

But should the Brigade 2506 Museum and Library itself become a piece of history?

That’s a complicated question now before Miami’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board — one made more difficult by an internal dispute among surviving veterans over the museum’s looming move to new digs in Hialeah Gardens.

“Definitely in 2015 we’re going to move the museum to a new location,” said Felix Rodriguez Mendigutia, president of the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association, 2506 Brigade. “Under those circumstances, it doesn’t help us to declare that a monument.”

“The museum is not moving,” said Frank de Varona, the veteran who submitted the application for historic designation.

The Bay of Pigs Veterans Association first inaugurated its museum and library 28 years ago inside a 1940s duplex at 1821 SW Ninth St., described by The Herald at the time as “run down.” The building was renovated and filled with items like combat boots, maps, flags, jackets and guns, and black-and-white photos from the invasion by the Brigade 2506, which had been trained by the CIA and landed at Cuba’s Giron Beach on April 17, 1961.

The invasion was ill-fated, and undercut by a lack of U.S. air support. More than 100 died and hundreds more were taken prisoner, leaving behind a proud and tragic legacy for Cuban exiles, many of whom returned to Miami.

But decades after opening the museum, the remaining veterans are getting older, and Brigade 2506 president Rodriguez says the association is making a smart move to Hialeah Gardens. There, in a municipal complex, he said both the funding and the operations of the museum will be preserved as members grow older and pass away.

The Little Havana facility, he said, is to remain an association headquarters and meeting space. But Rodriguez said the board of directors considers the property an asset, and designating it historic would only bind it in red tape. That could be a problem, he said, especially should there ever be a desire to sell it.

Furthermore, he said the board of directors had no clue the city was even considering historic designation until The Herald reported it several days ago. Esteban Bovo Sr., the board’s secretary, said the proposal comes after a rocky internal election in which two parties were divided along the lines of supporting or opposing a move.

The group supporting the move won.

“He went ahead and did the application without consulting us,” Bovo, who is also a curator, said of de Varona. “I don’t think he knows what he’s doing because it’s a detriment.”

De Varona said the pending move to Hialeah Gardens has nothing to do with his seeking historic designation, though believes the artifacts at the Little Havana site should stay put. He said his request was strictly about the importance of the facility and the potential to secure grants to help fund the museum.

“The whole area there is a cultural landmark for the Hispanic community,” he said. “When you get a designation like that you can ask for grants, and that will help us keep the museum alive when we’re all gone.”

City planners say they were unaware of any concerns about their efforts until this weekend, and decided to request a deferral Tuesday from the board in order to listen to any opposition and give the differing sides time to work out their differences.

“We were under the impression Mr. de Varona was speaking on behalf of the association,” said Planning Director Francisco Garcia.

Should the application be withdrawn, the issue would go away. Otherwise, Megan Schmitt, the city’s preservation officer, has recommended that the board allow her to investigate the merits of historic designation further on the grounds of the museum’s cultural and political importance.

“It’s clearly not about the building itself, the structure in which the museum is housed,” said Garcia. “It’s more the museum itself.”

Related stories from Miami Herald