Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Dictatorship antidote more speech not less

Posted on Wed, Jun. 28, 2006

Dictatorship antidote: more speech, not less

The controversy over the children's picture book Vamos a Cuba is now
more than 2 months old, but the bitterness surrounding the effort to ban
it continues to grow. Time -- said to so graciously heal wounds
elsewhere -- in Miami seems only able to reopen them.

In April, School Board member Frank Bolaños was an aspiring
middle-of-the-pack politician, the book was a largely unknown volume and
the incipient outrage over its inclusion in school libraries came
stamped with an election-year manufacture date.

Today, after an emotional board meeting, a book-ban vote and a lawsuit,
Vamos a Cuba, like so many controversies before it, has become a bloated
symbol of the Cuban community's supposed rocky relationship with the
First Amendment and a reminder of the lingering tensions that continue
to define Miami.


It began with one parent's disquiet over a book he deemed too favorable
toward Fidel Castro's Cuba. And it might have ended there if not for the
cynical political manipulation that too often attends issues of this sort.

By the time School Board member Robert Ingram said he was afraid that
someone ''might find a bomb under their automobiles,'' it was clear that
this had all become about much more than a book.

Ingram's comments at the June 14 meeting offended many Cuban Americans.
But in a way, Ingram was simply following the script written by Bolaños.
A few days before the banning vote, Bolaños said: ``They will have a
choice to either define themselves on the side of truth and with the
Cuban community or on the side of lies and against the Cuban community.''

In framing the debate in such stark us vs. them terms, Bolaños invited
ethnic interpretation, a move that placed him firmly in the finest
demagogic tradition. Worse than that, Bolaños' comment was based on the
lie that the Cuban community speaks with one voice. And that was Bolaños
at his most dictatorial: In one stroke, he excluded the many Cuban
Americans who disagree with him from his definition of ``Cuban.''

It is perfectly possible to come from a family that suffered terrible
losses in the Cuban revolution and be opposed to the banning of a
children's book. The one has nothing to do with the other. Bolaños'
attempt to link the two is more than dishonest; it's as offensive as the
suggestion that all Cuban Americans are bomb-throwers.


Dictators fear diversity; it's why they go to such great lengths to
impose uniformity of thought and belief. For a long time in Miami, the
most politically active exiles displayed a weakness for tactics that
mirrored those of their eternal enemy.

In the last few years, that has begun to change. Howard Simon, who heads
Florida's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, traces ''the
watershed moment'' to the 1999 concert for the Cuban band Los Van Van.

'It was when they said, `OK, they have a First Amendment right to
perform,' '' Simon said. ``And we have a First Amendment right to protest.''

Since then, when Cuban-American leaders have needed legal support,
they've often turned to the ACLU.

Jose Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue and human rights activist Ramón
Saúl Sánchez have both sought -- and gotten -- the ACLU's help. And in
2001, when exiles were told they had to hold their planned demonstration
against the Latin Grammys more than two blocks away, it was the ACLU
that supported their right to protest closer to the arena in Miami.

Next month, the ACLU will be back in court, this time to try to keep
Vamos a Cuba and 23 other books in the children's series on the shelves.

There's no doubt that people like Bolaños can still mobilize exiles with
time and bitterness to spare. But the ACLU's stand against book banning
is an important show of support for the rest of us who believe that the
best antidote to dictatorship is more speech, not less

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