BY CASEY WOODS | Miami Herald

An international network of Art Deco design enthusiasts that has roots in Miami is grappling with another South Florida obsession: the bitter, seemingly endless, battle over how to deal with Cuba.

Members of the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies, a loose association of groups dedicated to preserving the streamlined architectural style, are locked in a battle over whether to hold the group’s 2007 World Congress on Art Deco in the island nation.

Those who support the notion say that politics shouldn’t thwart efforts to save the country’s imperiled architecture. Others say it would be morally wrong to go and, for members from the United States, almost certainly illegal.

In recent weeks, the conflict has exploded into a hostile volley of e-mails—one of which alleged that an ICADS member was accepting handouts from the Cuban government in exchange for striving to ‘‘deliver’’ the convocation. The accused member has threatened legal action in response.

The rancor has astonished members on both sides of the divide. Many wonder if their once-genteel organization, which has hundreds of members in countries as far away as New Zealand and Australia, is forever changed.

‘‘It’s been a mean two years, and I’ve never experienced anything like this in my 50 years doing volunteer work,’’ said Rex Ball, the president of the Tulsa Art Deco Society, who has held the ICADS leadership post since 2003. “Before, the organization was such a pleasant social comrades kind of thing, and I certainly hope this won’t split it for good.’‘

By most accounts, the current conflict took root more than four years ago, after several ICADS members went on a tour of Havana and became impassioned about the need to save the country’s crumbling Art Deco buildings. At the group’s last world congress in South Africa two years ago, a bid was lodged to hold the 2007 gathering on the island nation.

But a selection committee later threw out the Cuban bid after deciding the island’s Art Deco group couldn’t accommodate a full-scale ICADS conference. Its nod went instead to Melbourne, Australia.

Pro-Cuba ICADS members launched a vehement protest, and the issue is slated to be resolved this week during the group’s 2005 world congress in New York.

The event is currently in full swing, with at least 250 delegates from 12 countries set to tour an Art Deco amusement park, eat soul food at Harlem’s Lenox Lounge, and toast the Chrysler Building’s 75th birthday.

On Saturday, representatives of many of the 26 voting member societies will take up the Cuba matter.

Those on the pro-Cuba side say that the arguments against holding the 2007 congress there are ideological and have no place in ICADS, a non-political organization.

Of more concern for the organization, they argue, is the need to save Cuba’s crumbling Art Deco architecture. As in Miami Beach, Cuba’s hard times had kept the buildings intact, but now they are decaying with such speed that they could soon be unsalvageable.

They need, some group members say, the attention that an international conference would bring.

‘‘If you told me that Fidel loves Art Deco, and wants to save it, I’d say `welcome, pal,’‘’ said Mitzi Mogul, who is the president of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles but said she spoke only for herself. “I don’t have to like you, but when it comes to this organization, if you’re saving Art Deco, that’s all I need to know.’‘

Opponents cite the potential legal barriers for U.S. members—and at least one has raised unflattering questions about the pro-Cuba side’s motives.

‘‘I believe the pro-Cuba group’s primary motivation is to save Art Deco architecture—that I don’t dispute,’’ said Tony Fusco, president of the Art Deco Society of Boston, and one of ICADS’ most involved leaders. “But I question what their motives are in pushing so hard specifically for this congress.’‘

On May 13, Fusco fired the first salvo in a scorching exchange of open letters in advance of Saturday’s showdown.

In his eight-page missive, Fusco detailed the legal obstacles to the congress and asserted that because the representative of the Cuban Art Deco Group, Alina Perez, was an employee of the Cuban Ministry of Culture, she was by definition an agent of Castro. He also implied that Mogul, the most ardent supporter of a Cuban congress, was receiving ‘‘entitlements’’ from Castro’s government in exchange for her work to ‘‘deliver’’ the event.

Pro-Cuba members fired off heated emails in response. Mogul told the Herald that she is considering a slander suit against Fusco.

‘‘I have an international reputation to defend and I will, because I have done as much or more for Art Deco than Tony has,’’ she said.

Key among the arguments against a convention in Cuba is the fact U.S. policy would most likely prevent U.S. citizens from attending.

Over the past two years, the Bush administration has dramatically reduced the number of travel licenses it grants to Cuba, with the goal of staunching the flow of foreign money into the country, according to an expert.

‘‘In this case, it is quite likely the administration would say, while the people’s interest in the architecture is sincere, that interest is outweighed by the financial and propaganda benefits to Cuba,’’ said John Kavulich, a senior policy advisor at the New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. “Individuals subject to U.S. law would likely not be able to attend.’‘

No matter the outcome this weekend, the Cuba debate is not likely to go away. Some delegates are already talking about a Cuba bid for the 2009 world congress.

But some wonder if the Art Deco group as it is today can survive that long.

‘‘This organization is all about a mutual network of people drawn together in a common bond, and this issue is the most divisive it has ever faced,’’ Fusco said. “I don’t want this to destroy it.’‘