Politics in Ybor City park
By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS
Published November 6, 2006
TAMPA - Three blocks east, blockbusters blare in surround sound at a 20-screen Muvico theater. One block south, nighttime revelers hop bars to throbbing bass beats. But at night, all is quiet in the grassy, gated Jose Marti Park.
Many passers-by don't pay much attention to the 0.14-acre park at 1303 E Eighth Ave. Little do they know that if they stepped under its arch, they could enjoy a visa-free passage onto Cuban soil. Literally.
University of South Florida historians proved it 30 years ago. Hillsborough County property records reflect it. Tampa Parks and Recreation officials confirm it: The park, dedicated to late 19th century Cuban freedom fighter, poet and orator Jose Marti, has belonged to the Republic of Cuba since 1956.
Here's what an International Studies team at USF found in a 1976 investigation, and published in the Tampa Historical Society's journal, The Sunland Tribune, in 1977:
On that land once stood a wooden boarding house, owned by Afro-Cuban patriot Paulina Pedroso. As Marti traveled to Tampa, mustering efforts to free Cuba from Spanish rule, he often stayed there. It was there where he recovered from an assassination attempt, as Pedroso's cigar roller husband, Ruperto, stood guard. Legend has it, the scratching of Marti's pen could be heard outside in the silence of the night.
Marti died in battle in 1895, but Cuba gained its independence. The Pedrosos moved to Cuba in 1910 and sold the property. It passed through several hands, and was purchased in 1951 by a couple living in Havana who wanted to give the property to the Cuban state as a memorial to Marti.
In 1956, they transferred the ownership to "Estado Cubano," or the Republic of Cuba. Fulgencio Batista's administration officially accepted the property, and the American consul in Havana certified the transaction.
The house was razed and Batista donated money to establish a park. Then, Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and everything got confusing.
"The park was established when Cuba was free and democratic," said city Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Linda Carlo. "Once it became a Communist country, the city was in a quandary of 'What do we do with it?' "
City officials decided they would maintain the park's lights and irrigation, but leave it in the hands of the Cuban-American community in Tampa. They may not have known how divided the community was, and still is today.
One island, two sides
In the early 1960s, the park was hub for clashes between pro-Castro and anti-Castro Cubans, said West Tampa historian Maura Barrios. That tension didn't fade with the decades.
In 1990, former Mayor Sandy Freedman entrusted park management to an anti-Castro activist group called the Cuban Historical and Cultural Center, which still manages the park.
It's led by retired U.S. Army Col. Orlando Rodriguez and a group of former political prisoners. Attorney Ralph Fernandez pays the taxes.
In 1999, a group of more liberal anti-embargo Cubans, who also uphold Marti as a hero, rallied at the park to collect humanitarian aid to send to the island nation.
Exiles met them at the gates with bullhorns and signs of protest that read, "Castro loves your money, but hates your guts." Maura Barrios, a volunteer with the donation drive, said the protest became intimidating and event organizers had to call police.
After that, Barrios said, anti-embargo Cubans were locked out of the park.
"They'll lock it up if anyone who doesn't agree with the position wants to use the park," Barrios said.
The park is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. If someone wants to open the park on weekends, they have to call the number on the gate, Rodriguez's home.
"But it's preferred if you stick to the schedule," Rodriguez said in Spanish. "If not, every time someone would get there, they'd call to ask to be let in."
Rodriguez doesn't deny that the park is locked for political reasons. The arm of the Marti statue has been broken several times. He considers it pro-Castro vandalism.
He says pro-Castro speech isn't welcome inside the park. Rodriguez says he and the exile group are "guardians" of the tiny remaining patch of free Cuban soil. But that protection, critics say, comes at the cost of free speech.
Rodriguez's group painted the park's once bronze-colored Marti statue white, to symbolize the purity of Marti's message about democracy, and mirror the white marble Marti statues throughout Cuba.
On either side of the walkway leading into the park, trees are rooted in planters named after each of the historic provinces of Cuba. Each of the planters contains Cuban soil brought from the respective province.
For pro-embargo, anti-Castro Cubans, this is the closest they will ever get to their homeland before they die - a land they left because they felt they lost their liberties.
Rodriguez sees any hint of sympathy for Castro's Cuba as yet another invasion of his homeland.
"We represent the Cuban republic," lawyer Ralph Fernandez said. "Why are we going to let these pinkos come in and deface what Jose Marti stood for?"
Barrios finds it ironic that people who champion democracy would limit speech on free Cuban soil.
Rodriguez said some speech is, in the end, a threat to democracy.
"For the people who represent a totalitarian system like Castro's to come speak about freedom of expression - it's laughable," Rodriguez said. "It's the least thing they represent."
Barrios has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, but no action has been taken. A small victory: She got a key to the park.
"We have more locks than she does," Fernandez said. "And a great deal more courage."
At the center of all the noise, Jose Marti's statue quietly watches over it all - for most of the day, from behind bars.
[Last modified November 6, 2006, 00:06:54]
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