BOT approves $10 million gift from Benjamin Leon, Jr. for CasaCuba

President Jessell shakes hands with Benjamin Leon, Jr. at the 1/18 BOT meeting | Elise Gregg, PantherNOW

Elise Gregg | Editor-in-Chief 

The Board of Trustees unanimously voted this afternoon to approve a $10 million gift from Benajmin Leon, Jr. for FIU’s CasaCuba project. 

The money will be used for the creation of a new building for the Cuban heritage project, which was founded in 2017, presently housed in Primera Casa. 

“FIU and CasaCuba will tell the story of Cuban heritage, Cuban determination and Cuban innovation,” said FIU president Jessell during the Jan. 18 meeting.

The new CasaCuba building would be named the “Benjamin Leon, Jr. Building” after Leon, whom trustee Roger Tovar called “a prominent voice in the Cuban exile community”. 

Leon came to Miami-Dade from Cuba in 1961, working with his family to establish and expand a variety of healthcare businesses and initiatives starting in the 1970s. 

Benjamin Leon, Jr., addresses members of the press before the BOT meeting to approve a $10 million donation for CasaCuba | Elise Gregg, PantherNOW

“We cannot allow years to go by, generations to go by, and let Cuban history, our history, your history, your parents’ history, my parents’ history to die,” said Leon to members of the press before the meeting. “We needed to create something — and this is CasaCuba.”

The Leon family also helps support the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, with the Benjamin Leon Family Center for Geriatric Research & Education established by a gift from the Leon family and Leon Medical Centers.

Separate from the Cuban Research Institute and Latin American and Caribbean Center, CasaCuba is meant to preserve Cuban arts and culture, particularly the legacy of the Cuban-American community. 

With a new building on the horizon CasaCuba director, Lili Betancourt Space, said in an exclusive interview with PantherNOW that their main focus will be on that building for the foreseeable future.

“We are so excited about it, and we are hoping that it is a positive experience and engaging for everyone that’s involved with it,” said Betancourt Space. “That it’s meaningful and relevant, but we have a long way to go to figure out how everything’s going to play out.”

The $40 million, 43,000-square-foot building is expected to open in 2027, housing the university’s Cuba-related collections, including classrooms and other academic space.

Jessell said during the BOT meeting that the location for the new building will be at the 107 Ave. entrance to the Modesto Maidique Campus.  

Leon addresses the press in Spanish before the BOT meeting. | Elise Gregg, PantherNOW

Betancourt Space emphasized that with an artistic and cultural goal of preserving Cuban heritage, she doesn’t expect FIU’s current hiring freeze to affect the project.

“We are not bringing folks from Cuba, that’s not the mission,” said Betancourt Space to PantherNOW. “The focus is really on this rich heritage.”

“That’s also what Mr. Leon’s gift allows us to do — to get out there and be clear on what the goals are for CasaCuba.”

Jessell, during the BOT meeting, however, highlighted the role of examining policy and conducting research through CasaCuba, along with FIU’s existing Cuban studies certificate and over 70 Cuba-related courses. 

“CasaCuba will be a gathering place for researchers, students, policymakers, community members and visitors from around the world to learn about Cuba and the Cuban diaspora,” said Jessell. “To gather and exchange ideas and explore the richness of Cuban heritage and pride and to facilitate the nonpartisan discussion and study of Cuban affairs.”

Words from BOT chair Roger Tovar also implied that CasaCuba may develop a focus on providing opportunities for Cuban scholars and researchers.

“CasaCuba will offer unprecedented opportunities to support the work of Cuban scholars and policymakers across the globe while showcasing and preserving for generations to come, the richness of our Cuban history,” Tovar said during the meeting.

Bringing in researchers or faculty from Cuba for the CRI or other academic work remains a difficult task, with Cuba included on the list of “countries of concern” by state law and Board of Governors regulations.

With Jessell calling FIU a global leader in terms of Cuban studies and the preservation of Cuban culture, the development of CasaCuba stands starkly against those laws and the hiring freeze.

“FIU is an icon university in our city, in our county, in our state, in the country,” said Leon. “It’s a university of all people, people from all over the world.”

“There could not be a better place for CasaCuba to exist than FIU.”

The meeting ended with student body president Alexander Sutton expressing student anticipation, particularly from Cuban and Cuban-American students, on a place to celebrate Cuban heritage.

“Thanks to your gift today that’s gonna be the case,” said Sutton. “They’re going to have one place to come together and share in their common culture and celebrate it.”

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