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Miami's Casa Bacardi keeps flame burning for South Florida exiles
CubaNews / February 2003

By Larry Luxner

It’s named after the world’s largest rum distiller, but Casa Bacardi has almost nothing to do with rum — or any alcoholic beverage.

Rather, Casa Bacardi aims to be the world’s first interactive cultural center dedicated to the history and culture of Cuba.

“This is for anybody who wants to know about Cuba, not only Cuban-Americans but all visitors to Miami,” explains director Jaime Suchlicki. “It’s the only place like it anywhere in the world.”

Casa Bacardi opened in May 2002 thanks to a $1 million grant from the Bacardi Family Foundation. Yet aside from a large portrait of Emilio Bacardi Moreau and a few photos of 19th-century distilleries, Bacardi’s presence here is decidedly low-key.

Suchlicki said the rum company attached “absolutely no conditions” to its generous gift, other than its wish “to preserve and disseminate Cuban history and culture.”

And that it does quite well. Casa Bacardi’s first exhibit was a Smithsonian Institution gallery of original photos of Cuba taken in 1902. The current exhibit tells the story of Cuba’s cigar industry through hundreds of colorful cigar labels and cigar-box displays.

And on Mar. 1, Casa Bacardi will kick off an exhibition on Cuban painters — both those living in Cuba and those living abroad.

The museum, open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and weekends from 2 to 5 p.m., also has a cinema for daily screenings of films about Cuba, along with a music pavilion where visitors can put on headphones and enjoy over 2,000 Cuban songs spanning nearly a century of recorded music from Benny Moré to the Buena Vista Social Club.

Adjacent to the music pavilion is the Cuban Information Center, featuring Cuba On-Line — a comprehensive archive of Cuban history and information. At computer stations, visitors can test their know-ledge of the island by taking one of several quizzes on Cuban history.

While the focus is clearly on culture, not current events, Suchlicki concedes that “it’s impossible to stay away from politics in Miami.”

To that effect, Casa Bacardi, through its link with ICCAS, has sponsored thought-provoking seminars ranging from “How to Accelerate Transition in Cuba” to “Castro, Biotechnology and Terrorism.”

Not too long ago, Casa Bacardi sparked a little controversy when Suchlicki invited defector Alcibíades Hidalgo, Raúl Castro’s former chief of staff, to speak about the Castro regime.

“Some people were unhappy that I brought him here because, until recently, Hidalgo was a supporter of Castro,” said the director. “But we welcomed him because this is an academic institution. Some people feel I’m not hard enough on Castro, some people feel I’m too hard. You can’t please everybody.”

On the other hand, current Cuban officials are never invited.

“They don’t give equal sides to the story in Cuba, so why should I give them a platform?” he asked. “It would be an insult to this community, sort of like inviting an official of Nazi Germany to explain his government’s position to the Jews of New York during World War II.”

Suchlicki also said he won’t host guest speakers from the University of Havana or any other Cuban institution of higher learning — at least not until Castro is dead, overthrown or voted out of office.

“We have no problem with individual researchers or people coming back and forth. But we don’t have any institutional relations with any institutions in Cuba,” he explained. “These are all arms of the Cuban government, and as long as I’m the director, that will be our policy.”

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