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Schools Told to Reinstate Banned Cuba Book

July 25, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — A federal judge Monday ordered the Miami-Dade County School District to restore a children's book about Cuba to school library shelves, delivering a blow to fiercely anti-Communist Cuban exiles who complained the book sugar-coats contemporary life in their homeland.

"Vamos a Cuba," or "Let's Go to Cuba," had been pulled from elementary school libraries last month after Cuban-born parents and politicians denounced its depiction of life in the island nation ruled by Fidel Castro as misleading, propagandistic and a waste of taxpayers' money.

After months of heated debate and all-night meetings, the nine-member county school board voted June 14 to ban "Vamos a Cuba" and 23 other titles in a series on life in foreign countries, prompting the American Civil Liberties Union and Miami-Dade's Student Government Assn. to sue the district alleging free-speech violations.

Two review committees and the county schools superintendent had advised the board that removing the book might be seen as political censorship.

After hearing testimony from both sides Friday, U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold on Monday issued a preliminary injunction requiring the school district to keep the books available at its 30-odd elementary school libraries until a court hears and rules on the lawsuit.

"The only books in contention in this case are library books, books that are by their nature optional rather than required reading," Gold wrote in his 89-page decision.

By banning the books, he added, the school board was infringing on students' rights to consider them for leisure reading, which "goes to the heart of the 1st Amendment issue."

The book, intended for kindergarteners through second graders, has become a target of anti-Castro exiles for its failure to address the rule of the Castro regime.

"This is a book of lies and of omissions about the real state of life in Cuba," said Juan Amador, the parent whose complaint about the book made it a cause celebre among Miami's Cuban-born public officials.

A former political prisoner who fled Cuba on a raft 11 years ago, Amador said he didn't want his 9-year-old U.S.-born daughter exposed to a book "that suggests life is magnificent there."

During the protracted board meetings that followed Amador's April complaint, teachers, librarians and elementary curriculum experts deemed the books, available in English and Spanish, a harmless children's series that left out politics and controversy in consideration of its intended readers.

During Friday's hearing before Gold, school board attorney Richard Ovelman said the board's decision to ban the 24-book series was justified on the grounds that it "homogenizes and sanitizes" life in the countries portrayed, ignoring key differences such as the lack of individual rights in Cuba.

In presenting the ACLU's case, attorney JoNel Newman said that the book debate was being used as a campaign issue as south Florida candidates vie for the important Cuban American vote.

"It was only when the politicians got involved that the books were removed," Newman said in apparent reference to school board member Frank J. Bolanos, who led the charge against "Vamos a Cuba" ahead of filing last week to run for the state Senate.

The book debate also prompted State Rep. David Rivera to resign from the school district review committee after all 16 other members urged Supt. Rudy Crew to refrain from banning the books. Rivera is up for reelection.

Bolanos said he took up the issue in response to "taxpayers telling me they don't want to see tax dollars wasted on this kind of false, misleading, Communist propaganda." Castro's regime has described the book as an accurate portrayal of contemporary life in Cuba, Bolanos said, which he thought proved the book lacked credibility.

"At the end of the day, I will abide by the court ruling, as we all should. But having said that, I have to say I'm disappointed that the information provided in his [Gold's] injunction suggests this is being looked at as a 1st Amendment issue," said Bolanos.

Even some exiles have been critical of the political stir created over "Vamos a Cuba."

"We left Cuba because we didn't want to be told what to read and what not to read," said Sylvia Wilhelm, head of the Cuban Bridges group, which seeks to improve people-to-people ties between the U.S. and Cuba.

"If they don't like what this book says, they should write another story and let the people decide which one they want to read."

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