By LAURA STEWART | The Daytona Beach News-Journal
Alberto Jones paused in front of Daniel Serra-Badue’s 1941 painting, “Cuban Sweets,” and smiled.
“These are typical treats, homemade cookies with fruit in them, mostly guava,” said the Palm Coast resident, a native of Cuba.
Then he turned to another painting in the Cuban Foundation Museum, at the Museum of Arts and Sciences, and frowned.
“But what about the children of Cuba, who have never seen these works - and never will,” said Jones, 69, who has lived in the United States since 1980.
“My feelings are mixed. I’m proud about who we are, as Cubans, and angry because these works are here and not in Cuba, where they belong,” he said. “It hurts to think they’ve been deprived of the opportunity to see and enjoy such marvelous arts.
“These works belong to the people of Cuba.”
Yes, and no - not as long as the art is in the small museum, frozen in place half a century ago by the Cuban Revolution.
“The city is going to keep the exhibits at least until there is a more friendly government in Cuba,” said the city’s personnel director in 1962, after “Castro’s government” requested the art’s return. No official actions have happened since, and as far as museum and city officials know, Cuban officials have not called back.
The official story is on a bronze plaque at its entrance: “The Cuban Foundation Museum Collection was given generously by President Fulgencio Batista and his wife Mrs. Marta Fernandez Batista to the city and to the people of Daytona Beach in 1957,” it proclaims.
But the collection didn’t exist in 1957, the year the Batistas made a different gift to the city. They had lived in luxurious exile in Daytona Beach from 1945, following Batista’s presidential term, until 1948, when he won a senate seat. In 1952, he seized the presidency again, in a “bloodless coup.”
After 1948, the Batistas kept their home at 137 N. Halifax Ave., added an adjacent piece of property and bought a larger place for retirement, the former Olds mansion at 129 N. Halifax.
Life in Havana became more uncomfortable. Fidel Castro’s revolutionary brigades began attacking Batista’s regime in 1953, forcing him to live in a state of siege. He relished the welcome Daytona Beach provided on March 24, 1956: “Batista Day,” with its speeches, toasts, dinners and parade - and his last visit to his Florida home.
To return the favor, Batista played host to 16 city officials, among them Mayor J.H. Long and his wife, on a 1957 Havana junket. The highlight came at 5 p.m. Oct. 28 in the Presidential Palace’s Room of Mirrors, when he gave his properties at 137 and 145 N. Halifax Ave. to the city, and formalized the Cuban Foundation and its museum.
The properties, valued at $125,000, would become the museum - with renovations paid for by Batista - and Halifax Historical Society headquarters. The Cuban museum “will be maintained from the income of a $50,000 endowment fund Batista has established,” The News Journal noted. And, according to Batista’s local attorney, B.F. Brass, “all exhibits will be provided by the government of Cuba.”
A series of exhibits “will illustrate Cuban progress in art, history, culture, science and industry. They will be kept up to date by the Cuban government,” Brass said. But there was a reverter clause: If Batista’s former home was used for anything but the Cuban museum, the deed became “null and void.”
On June 4, 1958, two Cuban Air Force C-46 cargo planes landed at Municipal Airport. Along with workers to unload and install paintings, ceramics, photo-murals, a bust of Jose Marti, furniture, a working model of a sugar mill and other objects - everything for the museum’s first exhibit -were crates that did not go to the museum. Labeled “To Senor Presidente, Fulgencio Batista,” they went to his home.
When the museum opened on June 29, it showcased Cuban culture, from colonial times to 1958. Six rooms on the ground floor featured the island’s sugar, tobacco, fishing, hardwood and mineral industries.
Ceramics, a library and paintings filled the second floor. On the third level were a large map of Cuba, photographs and glassware. Throughout the museum, Cuban music played from more than 100 recordings.
“One room houses works of contemporary art; another has exhibits of 18th and 19th century art; and the third, 20th century works,” The News-Journal noted on Aug. 11, 1958. “In all, there are 39 paintings by some of Cuba’s best-known artists.
“There are portraits of Cuban heroes, scenes from everyday life, and landscapes depicting the beauty of Florida’s neighbor to the south,” among them modern works that had won first-place purchase awards in Cuba’s annual National Salon.
“Exhibits at the museum are to be exchanged periodically with others from the Cuban Museum in Havana,” the writer noted. “No exchanges have been set yet, however.”
They never would be.
At 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1959, recognizing that Castro’s forces were closing in, Batista fled Havana on a DC-4 loaded, according to reports, with up to $700 million in cash and art. Denied entry to the United States - where Batista had lost support in part to his regime’s perceived rampant corruption and brutality - the deposed dictator flew to the Dominican Republic before settling in Portugal. Batista died in 1973; Marta died in West Palm Beach in 2006.
For Tere Batista, now president of the Cuban Foundation that runs the Cuban museum, the story of the Daytona Beach collection is part of her childhood.
“I grew up hearing that the museum in Daytona Beach had come from my grandfather and his wife Marta,” Tere Batista, 43, a resident of Miami, said Thursday. But those works which went on temporary loan to the Cuban Foundation Museum 50 years ago are still here, part of a legacy that decades ago became a legend that has been endlessly repeated.
It’s one that fascinated Museum of Arts and Sciences director Wayne Atherholt. He studied old News-Journal clips in silence for long minutes late last week, and finally spoke.
“I’m amazed,” he said. “I never knew this - what a story. And what an opportunity for possible cultural exchanges with Cuba.”
Jones hopes so. “This art wasn’t his,” he said. “So how could Batista give it away? It belongs to the people of Cuba.”