One of the most iconic landmarks in Key West may actually belong to the Cuban government

One of the most iconic buildings in Key West, built by Cuban exiles in the 19th century as they fought for independence from Spain and now a Cuban heritage center, is in the midst of a legal battle over its ownership.

The surprising question at the heart of the litigation: Whether the San Carlos Institute, on Key West’s storied Duval Street, actually belongs to the government of Cuba.

A lawsuit in Miami-Dade court, which claims Cuba is the San Carlos’ sole owner, seeks the sale of the institute, and the proceeds turned over as compensation to the family of a man killed by Fidel Castro’s forces in 1959.

The San Carlos Institute was founded by Cuban exiles in 1871 as a school and civic center, three decades before Cuba became a republic in 1902 after the Spanish-American War. The institute holds a special place for Cubans because 19th century writer Jose Martí, Cuba’s national hero, used the institute in 1892 to publicize his intention to create the Cuban Revolutionary Party, which led independence efforts.

Statue of José Martí inside the San Carlos Institute in Key West, Florida.
Statue of José Martí inside the San Carlos Institute in Key West, Florida.

After falling into disrepair and being rebuilt with private and state funding in the 1980s, the San Carlos currently houses a museum, a theater, a gallery and a conference center. It was one of the first bilingual and integrated schools in Florida, and it now offers educational programs for visiting high school students. The Institute became a symbol of Cuban exiles’ contributions to Key West and has regularly hosted major city events like the Literary Seminar and the Key West Film Festival. U.S. Rep. Carlos Gimenez, the former Miami-Dade mayor who now represents Monroe County in Congress, was sworn in at the institute for a second term last year.

“The San Carlos Institute is of great significance to the Cuban exile community. It was at the San Carlos where José Martí spoke and organized Key West’s exile community to assist Cuba during the struggle for independence,” said Giménez. “Key West is in my district and as the only Cuban-born member of Congress, I was honored to be ceremonially sworn in at the San Carlos. While I do not know the particulars of this case, it will certainly be my hope that the San Carlos remains in the hands of its current stewards to preserve this monument’s history for generations to come.”

Congressman Carlos Gimenez (FL-28) was sworn in to a second term in Congress on Feb. 27, 2023, at the historic San Carlos Institute in Key West, Florida.
Congressman Carlos Gimenez (FL-28) was sworn in to a second term in Congress on Feb. 27, 2023, at the historic San Carlos Institute in Key West, Florida.

Over the years, the institute, currently run by the not-for-profit corporation Instituto Patriótico y Docente San Carlos, Inc., has been the subject of bitter legal fights among different exile groups over its control. Court records show that at least part of the institute’s real estate is held in trust — with the government of Cuba as trustee and the institute as beneficiary.

Cuba’s Communist government has laid claim to ownership of the institute in the past.

When a group allegedly backed by the Cuban government unsuccessfully claimed to be the rightful owner of the San Carlos in a 1994 lawsuit, a Cuban diplomat wrote a letter stating that Cuba was “the title holder, owner and trustee of certain real property deeded to it in trust for the use and benefit of the San Carlos Institute.”

That letter was dismissed by a Florida judge, but the institute now faces a new existential threat. This time, a Florida court will decide if the San Carlos should be sold to pay compensation to Marilyn Wiederspan, whose father, Jose Velasquez Fernandez, was killed by one of Castro’s firing squads in the early days of the Cuban Revolution.

In a 2010 lawsuit against Castro, his brother Raúl, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and the Republic of Cuba, Wiederspan said her father, a lieutenant in the army of dictator Fulgencio Batista, was detained, tortured and killed for fighting Castro’s armed guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains. Her lawyer and cousin, William J. Sanchez, said Wiederspan was just six when her father was executed in February 1959.

In 2012, a Miami-Dade judge awarded Wiederspan $63.6 million in damages plus 4.75% annual interest, after Cuba failed to represent itself in court.

But cashing in has proved difficult.

In 2015, a Manhattan federal judge denied Wiederspan’s petition to get compensation by tapping a portion of the $1.7 billion fine imposed on French bank BNP Paribas for violating the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

In October 2023, Wiederspan’s lawyers asked Florida Circuit Judge Barbara Areces to allow them to collect damages by seizing assets owned by Cuba in the U.S. — with an eye on the sale of the San Carlos, currently valued at $4 million by the Monroe County Property Appraiser’s Office.

The members of the San Carlos Institute volunteer board of directors learned in January that the order was sent to the Monroe County´s sheriff’s office, and they are now trying to prevent the sale.

Who owns the San Carlos?

What will happen next depends largely on how the judge interprets property laws.

The Institute was first built in the 1870s on land donated by Cuban exiles to the Instituto Patriótico y Docente San Carlos, an unincorporated organization at the time. The building was destroyed by a hurricane in 1919, and its directors got a donation from the Cuban government to rebuild it and house a Cuban consulate in Key West. A court document at the time shows that a year later, in 1920, members of the San Carlos board put some of the institute’s real estate in a trust and “conveyed” the properties “unto the Republic of Cuba… in trust for the use and benefit of the San Carlos Institute.”

Wiederspan’s lawyers presented the document in court to argue that Cuba is the sole owner of the property and that the current not-for-profit board running it does not have title and is “merely an occupant.”

“The San Carlos Institute [board] is a sham,” Sanchez., Wiederspan’s lawyer, said.. “They do not own the property.”

The institute’s lawyer, Warren P. Gammill, told the Herald that Cuba only holds a “bare honorary legal title as honorary trustee” of the property, adding that the not-for-profit running it is “its beneficial owner.” He argued in court that the Instituto Patriótico y Docente San Carlos has had exclusive possession and control of the San Carlos Institute since 1871.

“You cannot simply take and sell property that is owned by the Republic of Cuba as trustee for the benefit of a third party,” he said.

A judge’s decision to grant the institute a hearing to present evidence is pending.

Justice Department weighs in

Wiederspan’s efforts to collect damages are facing a separate challenge: the U.S. Justice Department asked the Miami-Dade judge to void the previous final judgment and deny any request to seize Cuban assets, saying the case does not meet the requirements to file suit against Cuba in a U.S. court.

In 2017, a federal judge in New York denied, on similar grounds, Wiederspan’s request to have her Florida court judgment validated in federal court.

Much earlier, in 1962, a Florida court also ruled the San Carlos Institute could not be seized to pay damages to Castro’s victims because Cuba had sovereign immunity from lawsuits.

The law later changed. Under the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, Americans can sue foreign states for acts of terrorism under certain conditions, among them that the victim must be a U.S. national or a U.S. government contractor.

The Justice Department argues that Velasquez, the Batista army lieutenant, was neither.

Wiederman’s lawyers have questioned the DOJ’s request to intervene in the case, more than a decade after the original judgment, as “excessively untimely.” Sanchez also claims that because the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower helped fund Batista’s army and provided training and weapons, the Cuban army was in essence a contractor to the U.S. government, meaning Wiederspan’s claim qualifies under the 1976 law.

Objects in the collection of the San Carlos Institute in Key West.
Objects in the collection of the San Carlos Institute in Key West.

While the legal case unfolds, Rafael Peñalver, the long-time director of the board of the San Carlos Institute, said he is grappling with the possibility that the place he has dedicated much of his time and efforts might disappear. He said the irony is not lost on him that the institute, which he describes as a bastion of Cuban culture and the fight for a free Cuba, might perish at the hands of a Castro victim.

“The Institute is the only thing we have left as a patriotic institution,” said Peñalver, a Cuban-American lawyer. “It has become a place of pilgrimage where parents take their children and leave there knowing more about Cuba.”

“It would be devastating if we lose it.”