Book is bad, but ban it?

The Miami-Dade School Board wants a book out of its libraries because it paints a rosy picture of life in Cuba. Not so fast, others say.

Published July 5, 2006

MIAMI - When it comes to teaching schoolkids about Cuba, what do you tell a 5-year-old?

Do little ones need to know about food rationing and the rigors of the communist education system? Or will smiling faces and sunny beaches suffice?

After what they went through to leave the island, some Cuban-American parents feel passionately that their children should be taught the unvarnished truth of how difficult life can be there.

Others say that dictating what children learn about Cuba is something worthy of Fidel Castro; it's just not the American way.

The story has unfolded in another, classically American way: The Miami-Dade School Board decided a book in the county's school libraries painted too rosy a picture of life on the communist-run island and ordered it removed. And the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit.

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The 32-page book, A Visit to Cuba, is meant for students in kindergarten through second grade. It sat on library shelves for years until earlier this year, when a parent, Juan Amador, raised an objection at a School Board meeting.

A former political prisoner in Cuba, Amador says his attention was drawn after his daughter brought the book home from school. He complained that the book - the Spanish version is called Vamos a Cuba - did not accurately depict life in Fidel Castro's Cuba, at least as he knew it.

"The Cuban people have been paying a dear price for 47 years for the reality to be known," Amador told reporters.

The School Board's staff said the book should not be removed: In a 16-1 vote, the board's review committee governing school materials recommended against taking the book off the shelves. The board's attorney also argued against the ban, warning that members could be legally exposed if the court determines they acted for political - not educational - reasons.

The board disregarded its own staff and lawyer. Last month, in a 6-3 vote along ethnic lines, Hispanic members of the board deemed the book unfit.

Was politics behind the vote?

Frank Bolanos is the School Board's most outspoken critic of the book. He also is running for a seat in Tallahassee against Alex Villalobos, the former Miami Cuban darling of the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Three other board members who voted against the book are running for re-election to the board.

The board's decision not only banned the Cuba book, it also ordered the removal of 20 other books in the series, featuring a wide range of countries.

The ACLU lawsuit contends that the School Board exceeded its authority, violated its own procedures and failed to provide proper legal grounds for ordering the book removed.

"The Miami-Dade School Board's decision to defy U.S. law prohibiting censorship ... is a slap in the face to our tradition of free speech," said JoNel Newman, an attorney for the ACLU.

Already facing public ridicule, even from more open-minded Miami Cubans, the School Board is facing the embarrassing prospect of being taught a lesson by its own students, who joined the ACLU lawsuit.

Analysts say the board's decision seems unlikely to hold up in court. While public school teachers enjoy a good deal of latitude in the classroom, different rules apply in libraries, according to William Zieske, a Chicago lawyer specializing in library issues. "The U.S. Supreme Court sees the public school library as an area of private inquiry where students have more rights," he said.

In the last similar book censure case, the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that school boards did not exercise "absolute discretion" over school library books, except where content might be deemed "vulgar" or "educationally unsuitable." Students also enjoyed a First Amendment right to access to information, the court ruled.

"That's still the law of the land," said Howard Simon, executive director of the Miami chapter of the ACLU. "Books cannot be removed because of objection to content."

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Most everyone seems to agree that A Visit to Cuba is a lousy book. To keep the language simple for small children, it ends up spouting a series of fairly misleading generalities. Among these literary gems is the sentence: "People in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do."

The book's cover shows happy-as-can-be schoolchildren dressed in the less jolly uniform of the Pioneers, a Communist Party organization to which all students must belong. It also blithely describes how Cubans enjoy eating "chicken with rice," while Cuba's beaches "are good for swimming and boating."

Cuban-Americans can be forgiven for finding such comments offensive, if not laughable. Chicken is a rare delicacy for most Cubans. Its best beaches are limited to tourists. Boating for pleasure isn't what Cuban rafters had in mind when they set off for Florida in the tens of thousands in the 1990s.

When the issue of whether to remove the book came before the School Board, several board members spoke out in support of Amador.

"This book should never have been allowed to be inserted in our public school libraries," Bolanos said. Barely hiding a political agenda, he warned board members that they faced a choice of voting "with the Cuban community or ... against the Cuban community."

But others board members opposed removing the book and complained of political pressures. Many in the Cuban community have since come out against Bolanos, describing his efforts to get the book removed as dictatorial politics worthy of Castro himself.

"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," Ana Menendez, a Cuban-American columnist, wrote in the Miami Herald.

The political climate around the meeting reminded some participants of the Cold War days when anything in Miami that smacked of communism aroused the ire of some Cuban-Americans.

"It was very heated, pretty frightening," said Ronald Bilbao, 18, past president of the Student Government Association who sat on the review committee and was hissed at. Bilbao said he found the book offensive, "but that's beside the point. You don't ban books in America, period."

For now, at least, A Visit to Cuba remains on the library shelves. The ACLU scored an early victory in court last week when a judge asked the School Board to leave the books alone until he makes his ruling.

Meantime, the ACLU is suggesting a simple solution. Instead of removing A Visit to Cuba, it suggests books offering different perspectives about the island should be added to shelves.

"The answer to speech and books that you don't like," said Simon, "is more speech and not censorship."

David Adams can be contacted at dadams@sptimes.com.