Sunday, June 04, 2006

essay on recent law forbidding study in Cuba

Miami Herald
Sunday, June 4, 2006

In My Opinion
Act's real aim is to halt research about Cuba

By Ana Menéndez

Congratulations to state lawmakers for making it almost impossible for Florida scholars to travel to Cuba and four other ``terrorist states.''

Why stop there? Let's go after scholars wanting to travel to other unsavory states such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Ohio, where it recently took 1½ hours to execute an inmate who could be heard moaning and making guttural noises as he died.

Only problem is that Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, is a friend. Pakistan, despite an appalling human-rights record, is an ally. And Afghanistan may be on its way to becoming the world's largest narco-state, but it's our narco-state.

And Ohio's exiled community has yet to become a force in local politics.

Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Travel to Terrorist States Act on Tuesday, proving once again that political leadership today has less to do with moral courage than it does with creating the illusion of it.

The bill was sponsored by Miami Republican David Rivera, who did a brilliant public relations job with it -- persuading people that it was an innocuous little bill that merely prevented state funds from being used for travel to Cuba.


In fact, state funds have never been used to finance travel to Cuba, said Lisandro Perez, past director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University. The institute has never needed state money, Perez added, having received more than $1 million from private foundations since 1991.

But Rivera should know that. That's why, while publicly crowing about ''tax payer money,'' Rivera worded his bill to outlaw the use of private foundation money as well.

So the Travel to Terrorist States Act is not really aimed at making sure taxpayers don't fund travel to Havana, since that is not happening anyway. It's also more than harmless pandering to that ever-dwindling segment of the exile community that models its political strategy on the ostrich.

In wording, timing and effect, the bill seems aimed at shutting down FIU's Cuban Research Institute, whose activities depend on private grant money. Its passage represents a serious interference with academic freedom that should trouble those Florida residents who fled just this kind of demagoguery.

Luckily we still live in an open society, and the bill will not avoid legal scrutiny.

''A challenge in the courts is inevitable,'' said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.


The depressing thing is that such a seriously flawed bill could ever pass. Its unanimous support is an example of how easy it has become to play the Cuba card and how terrified lawmakers are of seeming soft on Castro.

Rivera, who once tried to deny Medicaid to anyone traveling to Cuba, is not the only politician skilled at using people's hopes and fears to shore up his power base. Take School Board member Frank Bolaños, who made a big fuss about the need to ban a children's picture book on Cuba right before announcing a run for state office.

The Travel to Terrorist States Act is an assault on the pursuit of knowledge that is a vital part of any thriving democracy. Far from striking a blow against oppression, the bill would create the sort of intellectually stunted environment it seeks to condemn.

A healthy society allows access to even those ideas it deems threatening or offensive, whether they're found in Cuba, Saudi Arabia or the Southern Ohio Correctional Institution. In an increasingly complex world, the cause of freedom is served by more understanding, not less.

''I think there's very little to be gained in a setting where you have a totalitarian dictatorship that controls all sources of information and determines what kind of research can be conducted in those regimes,'' Rivera told me Friday.

On that point we both agree.

Ana Menendez
Ana Menéndez was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Cuban exiles. She is the author of two books of fiction, which have been translated into several languages: In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable book of the year and whose title story won a Pushcart Prize; and Loving Che, a national best-seller. She was a journalist for several years, first at The Miami Herald, where she covered Little Havana until 1995 and later at the Orange County Register in California. She has also lived in Turkey and South Asia, where she reported out of Afghanistan and Kashmir. Since 1997, she has taught at various universities including, most recently, as a visiting writer at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a Bachelor's degree from Florida International University and a Master's from New York University.

1 comment:

Michael Caputo said...

July 8, 2006

By Frank Bolanos

Mr. Frank Bolanos is a member of the Miami-Dade School Board

If the Newark, New Jersey school board decided to issue "Little Black Sambo" as a third grade reader, how would that largely African-American community react?

Famed progressive educator Carl L. Marburger posed this question in 1974, when he said controversial schoolbooks in rural West Virginia showed the public school system's "astonishing insensitivity to local cultural values."

Those aggrieved local folks endured the insults, catcalls and jeers of the liberal elite until Marburger, a self-described liberal's liberal, spoke up and gave them pause. Today, the Miami-Dade school board and I are being accused of censorship for our efforts to remove from school libraries "Vamos a Cuba," a children's book that paints a false and distorted portrait of life in communist Cuba.

If the teachers' unions, Herald columnists, the ACLU and Fidel Castro himself are to be believed, the Miami-Dade school board is pillaging school libraries, burning books, oppressing the intellectual freedom of helpless children, and stomping on the First Amendment.

None of this is true; this is not a First Amendment issue. Censorship occurs when government refuses to allow people to purchase material, not when it refuses to provide that material at no charge.

Just as the First Amendment grants basic freedoms to those espousing even the most repugnant of views, I support Alta Schreier's right to author and publish "Vamos a Cuba." I defend the right of any Miami bookstore to sell it and I defend the right of any American to read it. Indeed, let the author promote and sell her book and compete in the marketplace of ideas.

But taxpayers must not be forced to subsidize falsehoods, propaganda or insulting imagery. As Thomas Jefferson, wrote, "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."

Simply put, Jefferson, a framer of the Constitution our critics cite, would see no reason for our schools to spend sparse taxpayer money to promote the circulation of misinformation and lies many in our community equate to oppression and the loss of liberty and life.

If our public schools provided "Little Black Sambo" to African-America children, I would stand with their parents as this would be offensive, racist and an inappropriate use of tax dollars. If our public schools put the grotesquely anti-Semitic children's book "The Poisonous Mushroom" into libraries, I would stand with Jewish parents to oppose this abhorrent act and misappropriation of public funds. The struggle against Cuban communism is no less important.

In 1995, the Miami Herald was forced to trash an entire section after an offensive cartoon of Martin Luther King, Jr. was mistakenly printed inside. Over the nationally syndicated cartoonist's objections, editors made the bold decision to pull a half million copies of the magazine.

They did it by hand; it took two full days. It was hard and expensive work to correct a mistake that took only moments to make. Similarly, a foolish decision by an entrenched bureaucracy had to be corrected and has cost our school district valuable time, money and focus.

After the mess, the Herald's executive editor at the time wrote that the newspaper's First Amendment obligation is "to present the broadest range of perspectives and opinions in its news and opinion pages. But a newspaper also has an obligation to protect its readers from the outrageously offensive or the egregiously insensitive."

If such an obligation exists at a privately funded newspaper, certainly Miami's public officials have a responsibility to assure taxpayers aren't forced to subsidize racism, anti-Semitism or communism with public dollars.

Likewise, taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for entrenched and misguided bureaucrats who want to whitewash the horrors of life under Fidel Castro and his brutal regime.