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Cuban center a hidden treasure

It's not hard to understand why the Cuban Historical and Cultural Center is one of Tampa's better-kept secrets. Accessibility is not its strong suit. The cultural center is open officially only Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and then only for certain hours of the day or night.

It is hidden away on the second-floor of the Cuban Civic Center, which itself is situated well out on the fringes of western Hillsborough County, just a few hundreds yards from the dead end of Memorial Highway.

But a visit to the cultural center is worth any trouble it takes to get inside. This place is a jewel _ Orlando Rodriguez's jewel.

Rodriguez, the Cuban-born president of the center, sees the facility as a gift from Tampa's Cuban community to the generations that will follow.

Inside are beautiful photographs and drawings illustrating key moments in Cuban history and in the history of the Cuban exiles who helped build Tampa.

There is an 1892 photo of revolutionary hero Jose Marti standing on the steps of an Ybor City cigar factory exhorting workers to join his fight for independence.

There are books on Cuban baseball, stacks of Cuban albums and dresses from pre-revolutionary times.

There are exquisitely preserved magazines and newspapers from before the turn of the century, including a Chicago Daily Tribune from the day the battleship Maine was blown up in Havana's harbor. The event helped ignite the Spanish-American War.

And there is no shortage of Cuban kitsch, all of it donated by local Cuban-Americans. Out of somebody's attic came menus from Havana's Tropicana and Sans Souci nightclubs. Out of someone's closet came 50-year-old Cuban lottery tickets and bottled sand from Cuban beaches.

"We want the generations that follow us to be able to learn about their roots, their history, their cultural background," says Rodriguez, a recently retired Special Forces colonel who is more than happy to give individual tours to anyone who is interested.

Rodriguez's dream is to move the museum to Ybor City, where it can grow into a nationally recognized Cuban research center.

"I have something to offer," he says. "The only thing I need is a place."

Mario Quevedo, editor of the local Spanish-language newspaper La Voz Hispana, is a member of the center's board of directors. Since its opening three years ago, says Quevedo, the facility has subsisted entirely on donations.

The Cuban Civic Center downstairs, for example, donated some of its space to house the exhibits.

"The cultural center is acting strictly as a depository," Quevedo says. "We're concerned that history will be lost, not only by the younger generations, but by society as whole."

Some of the history the center is trying to preserve is current.

The historic changes in Eastern Europe during the last year have stirred tremendous excitement among Cuban-Americans, many of whom believe the Communist regime in Cuba may be the next to fall.

That excitement recently prompted Rodriguez and other former Cuban political prisoners to send a "Soldier to Soldier" letter to all members of the Cuban armed forces. The message, which urged the armed forces to rise up in revolt, is displayed prominently inside the cultural center.

"It is going to happen," says Rodriguez. "The question is just when."

Barry Klein is bureau chief of the Times Northdale office.