By Saul Ortega and Nelson Gassett
“[I]t is critical to listen to as many diverse voices as possible. When it comes to Cuba, we do exactly that.” -President Barack Obama, responding to questions from blogger Yoani Sanchez, November 19, 2009
On November 15, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review a lower court decision upholding the banning of a children’s book (“Vamos a Cuba”) in Miami-Dade County Florida’s schools. The ACLU claimed the Miami school board’s decision to remove the book from public schools because it presented too rosy a view of life in Cuba denied free speech and due process.
On December 3, Havana’s municipal authorities declared they would remove from schools and libraries donated copies of “Let Us Go To Miami!” The Education Ministry supported the decision and asked Cuba’s National Library to remove the book from its shelves because the cover showed Cuban American children laughing en route to school. The action stemmed from a complaint made by surviving members of Fuldo Talenito’s family. Talenito, a militiaman, died during the April 1961 CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs.
The south Florida controversy arose in 2006, when a parent of a Miami elementary school student protested the book’s presence in the school. “As a former political prisoner in Cuba,” wrote Juan Amador, the student’s father, “I find the material to be untruthful.” The book “aims to create an illusion.”
A Miami librarian said “Vamos a Cuba” and the English-language version, “A Visit to Cuba,” part of a 24 book series, allowed readers, four to eight years old, to get a sense of other countries. Amador claimed one passage particularly offensive: “People in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do.”
This implies children’s lives in Cuba resemble U.S. kids’ experiences. This “distorts the reality of Cuba,” Amador maintained. Rather, hardship, not happiness, characterizes Cuban life.
In Havana, Talenito’s relatives complained that a book showing happy children in Miami represented a false picture of life there and more importantly disgraced the memory of the Cuban patriot who fought the counterrevolutionaries. “His memory must be vindicated,” said his widow, Megana Virtud. “Everyone knows Cuban Americans suffer in Miami,” she claimed. “Under capitalism children don’t smile. They’re afraid they will be murdered at school.” She was apparently referring to the September 15 stabbing death of Juan Carlos Rivera by a fellow student at Coral Gables High School. Rivera’s parents had recently emigrated from Cuba to Miami.
The People’s Tribunal in Centro Habana decided not to consider the book banning case on appeal. One presiding judge, on condition of anonymity, said: “What’s the big deal? Only kids would read the book.” Havana police removed and burned several copies of the text in front of the library at the Revolution Square.
“Once again, this shows communists are driven by ignorance and a blind rejection of freedom,” said Frankie Comelon, a spokesman for Miami’s Freedom for Cuba House. “In Havana, they banned a perfectly objective children’s text.”
By not reviewing the banning decision, the U.S. Supreme Court tacitly affirmed a 2-1 ruling by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming the school board’s removal of the book as not violating the First Amendment. Rather, the Atlanta-based court agreed that the school board’s decision was based on substantial factual inaccuracies in the book. None of its witnesses could attest to having seen Cuban children smiling en route to school. The two judges upholding the ban dismissed thousands of photos submitted by the ACLU of laughing and singing Havana children dressed in school uniforms as possibly doctored.
Those against banning “Vamos a Cuba” claimed removing the book was censorship. The Miami-Dade School Board asserted its banning of the book rested on inaccuracies and omissions about life in Cuba. “Possibly a few school children still smile or even sing in Havana, but the vast majority suffer from hunger and repression,” said Comelon.
Agreeing with the ban, appeals court judge Ed Carnes explained. “Suppose the book stated: ‘People in North Korea eat, work, and go to school like you do.’ We probably could all agree that statement is factually inaccurate.” The one dissenting Appeals Court judge said the school board should offer students more books on Cuba, not fewer.
Howard Simon, Florida director of the ACLU, said: “These books were removed under the guise of ‘inaccuracies,’ but the real reason …was because the books ran afoul of the political orthodoxy of a majority of the school board members.”
One burly book ban supporter swore to “teach Simon a lesson in orthodoxy he’ll never forget.” He refused to give his name and warned he’d teach RUIDOSO NEWS a similar “lesson” if it printed his threat.
Ortega and Gassett are Saul Landau and Nelson Valdes. This fictionalized sections of this report demonstrate how ridiculous censorship is — wherever it may occur.