Little Havana - Flagami

Miami’s Bay of Pigs museum won’t be declared historic

The Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana has served as an important cultural and political institution for Miami’s Cuban exile community. U.S Senator John McCain takes notes on Oct. 24, 2012 during a stop in Miami.
The Bay of Pigs Museum in Little Havana has served as an important cultural and political institution for Miami’s Cuban exile community. U.S Senator John McCain takes notes on Oct. 24, 2012 during a stop in Miami. EL Nuevo Herald

A divisive effort to declare the Brigade 2506 Museum and Library in Little Havana a historic monument has fizzled in the face of opposition. But a rift over plans to move the institution to Hialeah Gardens continues to simmer among veterans of the failed CIA-backed invasion of Cuba.

Brigade veteran and book author Frank de Varona said Monday he withdrew the application he submitted in September to the city of Miami’s preservation office due to protests from the veterans association board of directors.

The city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board could have voted Tuesday to investigate whether the Brigade’s converted duplex off Calle Ocho should be preserved as a cultural monument. City staff recommended approval, largely due to the importance of the museum’s collection. But de Varona took the decision out of their hands, saying he doubted the board would ever make the museum historic without a unified membership behind the effort.

“Our only intent was to save the museum where it is,” said de Varona. “I don’t want to hit my head against the wall. They’re not going to approve it.”

At the heart of the dispute is a disagreement over how to preserve the legacy of the Bay of Pigs after the surviving veterans — all in their 70s or older — have died.

Brigade leaders say they’ve already solved the issue by agreeing to move many — not all — artifacts to Hialeah Gardens, where the city would maintain a museum. But de Varona and others believed historic designation would preserve the current facility in the heart of the Cuban exile community through government protections and open up funding opportunities in the form of grants.

The Bay of Pigs Veterans Association first inaugurated its existing museum and library 28 years ago inside the 1940s duplex at 1821 S.W. Ninth St. The building was renovated and filled with documents and artifacts from the failed April 17, 1961, Bay of Pigs invasion, during which CIA-trained exiles stormed Giron Beach to try to overthrow Fidel Castro’s regime.

Many of those artifacts will be moved to Hialeah Gardens next year, when a facility built with the help of a $1 million state grant opens. The association still has enough money to keep open the Little Havana facility for two years, according to leaders, but the pending move caused turmoil among members who worried the current museum will be eventually closed or sold.

Hoping to save the facility, de Varona and others began meeting with Miami officials and, in September, decided to seek historic designation. Association leaders say they were unaware of the effort, and started calling city officials to protest when it was reported in The Herald. They said they have no plans to close the current facility, but feared historic designation would complicate any potential attempt in the future to sell the building should it be necessary.

“I’m glad they retired the application,” said Esteban Bovo, Sr., association secretary. “Let’s suppose we can keep the house. For how long? It’s a childish illusion.”

De Varona said he has been savaged by critics on the radio for his efforts. He recently sent out a letter co-signed by dozens of other veterans that criticized leadership for being secretive about the move and called their opposition to historic designation “inexplicable.” He told the Herald the group isn’t opposed to the Hialeah Gardens museum, but worries that moving it out of Little Havana will damage its popularity and subject it to the whims of the city’s council.

“This has divided and caused serious disagreements among the brothers of the brigade, who have always been united in the struggle for the freedom of Cuba,” he wrote.

He also said their effort was supported by Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. But Regalado wrote a letter Monday to veterans association president Felix Rodríguez Mendigutía, downplaying the building’s significance and clarifying that historic designation wouldn’t bring any support from the city.

Reached Monday, Hialeah Gardens Mayor Yioset De La Cruz said his city is committed long-term to the museum, and that thanks to the state grant, its purpose is intended only to be used as such.

“That property,” he said, “can only be used for the 2506 Brigade museum.”

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