Fabiola Santiago

Say no to Cuban Exile History Museum — or any other kind — on public bayfront land

Artist rendering of a new Cuban Exile History Museum
Artist rendering of a new Cuban Exile History Museum

In a penny-pinching county with dire needs like public transportation that go without proper funding, one would think that a multimillion dollar vanity project might readily get the boot.

But not when it’s named the Cuban Exile History Museum — and six members of the Miami-Dade Commission are seeking re-election.

In this scenario, a breathless email from a publicist arrives in your mailbox telling you that “the fate” of this museum will be decided by county commissioners at a 9:30 a.m. meeting on Thursday, Jan. 18. Museum organizers say they were told commissioners will take up the issue of leasing the prime, public waterfront land in downtown Miami behind the AmericanAirlines Arena to their non-profit.

Only the highly controversial item isn’t on the agenda of the commission’s Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee, chaired by museum supporter Commissioner Javier Souto. Why? Oversight? Misunderstanding? Or a scheme to deal with an unpopular topic under the radar without public input? I couldn’t get an answer from Souto’s office, but a museum organizer told me Friday that the meeting has been postponed over a contract issue with the Miami Heat, which uses the lot as overflow parking.

Museum organizers, however, are expecting to lease the land for $1 a year to continue fundraising for the $77 million cost (earlier estimated at $99 million), begin construction, and meet an opening date of 2022. That’s not what the commission had approved. The agreement was: Come up with the construction costs first, then we consider leasing the land. And there will be no county subsidies.

Whatever the case, it’s a good time to vet the museum in the light.

Parcel B, as the land at issue is known, should remain open green space that spills into Museum Park for all Miamians to enjoy. Period. It shouldn’t be turned over to this group or any other.

Miamians need more public green, not more private concrete on public land.

And, does Miami really need yet another taxpayer-subsidized Cuban museum when there’s not enough patronage of the existing ones?

I’m a proud Cuban-American, the daughter of true exiles who lost everything and never recuperated from the losses — an exile myself because I cannot freely return to my native land — and the answer is clear for me: No.

There’s nothing unique about the idea of a Cuban history museum. There’s a well-meaning feeling of pride behind it, but misguided in the articulated vision of this group, which sounds more like promotion than scholarship. A serious “world-class” historical museum is professionally curated by experts on history, culture, anthropology, sociology. It’s not an ode to the success of one group’s American Dream.

For the latter, is it not enough that most of Greater Miami-Dade is a living showcase of Cuban contributions, culture and history?

Plus, let’s count some of the significant repositories of historical Cuban treasures that already exist:

There’s a brand new taxpayer-funded Cuban museum in Miami, the American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora — “The Cuban” for short. It cost taxpayers $10 million and it was given $550,000 in operational funds this fiscal year despite the beautiful building being empty of visitors for most of the week.

What’s the logic here? Cubans can’t get it together in one museum so taxpayers need to hand over land worth some $100 million for another?

Promoters claim this other museum will be an “Ellis Island.”

But our Ellis Island already sits across from Parcel B. It’s the lovely, historical Freedom Tower, known as El Refugio to the 250,000 Cuban refugees processed there from 1965 to 1971. Cuban-themed historic and art exhibits have been held there to great success.

There’s already a Bay of Pigs Museum devoted to the memory of veterans and memorabilia from the 1961 failed invasion, which this museum also purports to highlight. The decades-old Bay of Pigs museum also has received thousands in public funds throughout the decades and has new quarters in Hialeah Gardens.

There are also significant repositories and collections of art, culture, music, and history at the University of Miami and Florida International University.

So I ask again: Do the residents of Miami-Dade County need yet another Cuban museum — and on public land promised to downtown residents as a green space — when all of the above museums lack patronage and endowments to sustain themselves?

Rightfully so, other groups are resentful of Cuban dominance over the public purse strings and the political power that allows public expenditures on what should be private institutions funded by endowments from all those successful people the Cuban Exile History Museum plans to feature.

African-American community leaders, including those who sit on the County Commission, are demanding that if the Cuban museum is given the green light to build, that it share the space on that prime site with a museum that honors their community’s contributions as well.

County dollars should go to fund institutions that serve all of the population, bring in tourism dollars, and have a proven track record of success.

You want to build a new museum to your greatness?

Buy the land — and pay for it.

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