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Tiny park presents political challenge in bid to honor Cuba's José Martí

Demonstrators raise Cuban flag at Jos? Mart? Park in Novem-ber after U.S. moves to normalize relations with the nation.
Demonstrators raise Cuban flag at Jos? Mart? Park in Novem-ber after U.S. moves to normalize relations with the nation.
Published Jun. 11, 2017

It's a simple project, really, especially for a developer who is helping transform an entire historic district:

Spruce up tiny José Martí Park in Ybor City so it stands as a more fitting memorial to the man considered the George Washington of Cuba — the poet, journalist and soldier killed in battle while helping free the island from colonial rule in the late 1800s.

But first, developer Ariel Quintela has to navigate a web of sometimes competing interests who exercise some measure of control over a plot of land not much bigger than a basketball court.

The walled-in park is owned by Cuba, making it an asset subject to seizure by Americans who have won civil judgments against the communist government as victims of terror since it took power nearly 60 years ago.

The land is managed by the city of Tampa — but with financial support from local hardliners who are sworn enemies of the Castro regime.

And it's a must-see stop during visits from officials from the communist government now that restoration of diplomatic relations has helped pave the way for them to visit.

"I want this to be apolitical," said Quintela, 58, who commissioned a redesign for the park and has offered to pay for the work. "This is a sense of pride for our history, community and humanity."

The park at the corner of E Eighth Avenue and N 13th Street, on Ybor City's western edge, features a tiled path leading from the entrance to a statue of Martí chiseled six decades ago, along with a colorful mural of Cuba and its states, and bust of Gen. Antonio Maceo — Martí's partner in the War of Independence against Spain.

Quintela's plans call for using bricks from old Ybor City road surfaces to create a walkway along the perimeter and through the park.

Along the brick path would stand eight slanted, slate pillars embedded with historic markers that together would tell the story of Martí's life.

At the center, a new bronze statue of Martí would be installed.

The plans also call for up to four additional monuments to patriots from Martí's fight for freedom.

A burnished park fits into a theme Quintela is pursuing for the western Ybor City corner.

On three sides of the park, he is putting up four buildings housing homes and businesses and each named for one of the patriots.

"Why not make this park a central scene?" he said.

• • •

Quintela and his partners are involved in redevelopment projects and new construction from one corner of the Ybor City Historic District to the other. All told, they have spent $5.7 million buying property and their total investment may amount to $34 million, they have told the Tampa Bay Times.

The park project he proposes would be in addition to $170,000 in renovations planned there by the city of Tampa — among them, reinforcing portions of the park's wall and protecting the painting. The work has not been scheduled yet.

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"The whole park needs tender loving care," Quintela said. "I still need to get the right blessings but I'd be ready to start today."

Mayor Bob Buckhorn is intrigued by Quintela's plans, but he has a caveat: First consult the nonprofit Cuban Historical and Cultural Center, which has helped look after the park for nearly three decades.

The organization, made up of anti-Castro hardliners, has washed the tile path and paid for repairs to the Martí statue through the years.

"They have given blood, sweat and tears to the park," Buckhorn said. "If this is going to happen, it will be good for everybody."

Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney who works with the cultural center, wants to sit down with Quintela.

"Let's make this a good faith community decision," said Fernandez, who paid the $123 storm water assessment on the park last year. "If it honors Martí properly, why would I say no?"

• • •

Martí visited Tampa some 20 times from 1891 to 1894 as he planned and raised money for the fight against Spain.

During a trip here in 1893, Spanish agents sought to poison Martí, but Ruperto and Paulina Pedroso — who lived where the park stands today — famously nurtured him back to health.

In 1956, a Havana couple who owned the Pedroso property deeded it to the Cuban government for a Martí memorial. Cuban President Fulgencio Batista donated money to develop it.

In early 1960, local interests who backed Fidel Castro's overthrow of Batista paid for installation of the Martí statue.

Any action on ownership of the park land was later frozen, Buckhorn said, as part of the travel and trade embargo imposed on Cuba after Castro embraced communism. The city of Tampa took over landscaping and other maintenance.

Property taxes are waived, as they are for any city park, according to the Hillsborough County Tax Collector's Office.

Over the years, vandals targeted the park, so in 1990, Mayor Sandy Freedman entrusted extra upkeep to the cultural center group.

Since 1996, when Congress passed a law allowing civil lawsuits against Cuba by Americans deemed victims of "terror attacks" there, an estimated $4 billion in judgments have been issued and more than $200 million in frozen assets awarded.

The United States continues to hold $243.5 million in Cuba-related assets, according to the non-profit U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. José Martí Park may be the last piece of Cuban property among them, said Richard Feinberg, senior fellow in the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institute.

The park land has a market value of $83,040, according to the tax collector's office.

Attorney Fernandez knows of no claimants seeking to seize the land, perhaps because his group is on the same side politically as they are.

One example: Whenever a rally was announced there by those who favored normalizing relations with Cuba, the Cuban Historical and Cultural Center arranged to lock the gates.

This practice ended in the early 2000s when the city handed a set of keys for the park to the late Al Arteaga, a leader from the anti-embargo side. Arteaga pulled weeds and cleaned off the graffiti there, said his daughter, Sylvia Alvarez.

As for developer Quintela's political leanings?

He left Cuba at age 4 with parents who rejected the rise of communism.

But he laid out his park designs for Cuban ambassador José Ramón Cabañas during a visit in May to the Tampa Bay area, including Ybor City. Quintela also has attended events promoting relations with Cuba.

Still, when pressed for his opinion on Cuba policy, he insists it doesn't matter.

"I want to tell Martí's story."

Contact Paul Guzzo at Follow @PGuzzoTimes.