Monday June 12, 2006

What's up with 'A Visit to Cuba'?

visit to cuba book cover

Over on Net for Cuba, Agustin Blazquez argues passionately for the removal of Vamos a Cuba and its English counterpart, A Visit To Cuba, from school libraries (via 26thparallel). The two books are in the middle of a giant debate, because it’s a “unreasonably sunny portrait of life under Fidel Castro.”

Blazquez’s argument boils down to this: if you remove books offensive to other groups (as is the school board’s policy), then you must remove remove this book, because it is extremely offensive to Cuban-Americans. The problem with that argument, of course, is that it could be used to remove books about nuclear power from schools if they are deemed offensive to environmentalists, or to remove books about computers if they offend the Amish.

No, the only sensible reason to remove a book from a school is if the book could be harmful to children. That would actually be the case if it misrepresented the political situation in Cuba. I haven’t seen the book, so I can’t make up my mind for sure. According to the description on Amazon, the book covers “land, landmarks, homes, food, clothes, work, transportation, language, school, free time, celebrations, and the arts.” It’s unclear how a denunciation of the Castro regime, or even depictions of suffering, would fit into this program: the book is intended for grades 2 to 4. What’s more, it’s part of a series, and I’m guessing the rest of the volumes don’t discuss the politics of the nations they’re from.

But yes, it’s a touchy subject, and it’s certainly possible that some of the pictures in the book cross the line. I suspect that what’s happening here, though, is that we have a book that is free of politics, and that is what bothers the Cuban-Americans. Any opportunity to criticize the Castro regime should be seized, and any such opportunity missed should be condemned. And while I’m generally sympathetic to that attitude, I don’t believe it should be extended to a book intended for little children. If all the it does is make the idea of people living in Cuba more of a tangible reality for children, then it’s doing exactly what it should to prepare them to understand the situation Cuban people live under. With any luck, by the time they’re old enough to learn about the specific politics, the Castro regime will be long gone, and Cuba will be democratic and prosperous.

Update: it’s gone.

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  1. gansibele    Mon Jun 12, 11:30 PM #  

    You hit the nail in the head. Basically these people are demanding that the book teaches children about torture and repression. It makes as much sense as demanding that a “Vamos a Brasil” book featured children living on the favelas.

    I read the text of the book published by Conductor in his blog and it’s just a neutral description, in very general terms, of how Cuban kids live (and I was one). Seeing politicians pandering over the issue and hearing exaggerated claims like “it’s deeply offensive to our community” only reinforces the perception that Cubans are intolerant, unreasonable people.

  2. John    Tue Jun 13, 12:29 AM #  

    Gansibele, ditto. So with you.

  3. Steve Klotz    Tue Jun 13, 08:50 AM #  

    The problem isn’t that particular book and this particular issue. The problem is books generally, and their insidious impact on enlightening readers. Remember, Miami has a reputation to uphold, as recently reported in (by way of Rick at SOTP:

    The city of Miami has the lowest brainpower rating of any large community in America. Two-thirds of its adults never went to college. Nearly half—47 percent—didn’t even graduate from high school.”

    Get that book the hell off the library shelves before some kid hurts himself! Fire the librarians and sack the schools! To prepare young Americans for the 21st century, teach ‘em soccer. That should delight not only the Cubans, but the South Americans, Europeans, and sub-Saharan Africans all at one fell (Nike) swoop.

  4. Coconut Grove Grapevine    Tue Jun 13, 12:06 PM #  

    Better hidden behind a fence than under a skyscraper.

  5. White Dade    Tue Jun 13, 02:00 PM #  

    I am sure I am far from the only person who can appreciate the irony of a bunch of people who complain about communism arguin for the banning of a book, right?

  6. alesh    Tue Jun 13, 06:50 PM #  

    There is a certain amount of irony to it. The flipside of the irony is the inhumanity of living under totalitarianism, and the rage that comes of seeing that inhumanity covered up.

  7. gansibele    Wed Jun 14, 12:18 AM #  

    But what do you do with that rage? Do you turn around and do the same things you despised?

    After having to read Vargas Llosa, Cabrera Infante, Borges and Kundera in secret, the last thing I want to do is ban a book.

  8. Hose B    Wed Jun 14, 09:24 AM #  

    It’s a subtle point, but removing a book from a library because it’s inaccurate, distasteful, or inappropriate is not the same as “banning” a book. The authority in question here (the school) lacks the power to “ban” books. It selects some volumes for display and doesn’t select others: the question here is why it would “de-select” one it already selected. And if the answer is, “because the community doesn’t want it,” then it could be fairly said that it’s accommodating the community. Which is something public institutions ought to do.

    That noted, it’s all horseshit grandstanding by an irrational stereotype of a foaming Cuban who is embarrassing us all, Cuban and non-Cuban alike. Don’t immigrants ever learn? First thing the Pilgrims did when they came here to escape their own religious persecution is persecute other religions. 350 years later, Cubans arriving to escape Castro’s political persection start their own campaign of political persecution.

    Guess it all depends whose ox is gored.

  9. John    Wed Jun 14, 06:28 PM #  

    Okay, I was just in Cuba and I never had a problem bringing in or out books and I noticed at least a few of the titles that Gansibele mentioned in the library of my host/family. (I may be misinterpreting that she was implying Cuba.)

    And I am more than sick of Alesh’s “totalitarian” deal as if this could not be applied to a whole bunch of nations, including many in our backyard (all the more appalling b/c of U.S. government involvement that creates/maintains it). I also find it striking b/c he does not deal w the political prisioners and suppression in the U.S. Selective moralizing for the sake of pandering may be more egregious than not failing to have any moral perspectives whatsoever…

    Hose B makes some good points whether we agree on the general characterizations or not. One of the things I find incredible is that in the war of manipulation and propaganda, a very real way of getting around things is by bureacratic decisions by those with an agenda. While I have family in Cuba that would foam at the mouth (and regularly do in our conversations) about me saying that a book is banned in Cuba b/c it is not available, they will split the semantic hairs.

    There is so much more that I could write on this but it is simply not worth it, and not here. Stop fingers! I told you not to bother!

  10. gansibele    Wed Jun 14, 10:21 PM #  

    First of all I’m a he. Second, I mention authors, not titles. Third, what are you taling about? I read them in Cuba, so obviously they exist there. I borrowed them from friends (writers, painters, etc) who brought them into the country. But you won’t find them on the bookstores, with the exception of a compilation of Borges essays published in the early nineties, and “La ciudad y los perros” published before Vargas Llosa broke with Cuba. You won’t find them in the curriculum of Cuba’s schools (again, “La ciudad y los perros” is the exception).

    You wouldn’t find either (in books or lessons) these Cuban authors: Zoe Valdés, Reinaldo Arenas, Edmundo Desnoes (even though he’s being “rediscovered” right now), Daina Chaviano, Jesus Díaz and many others.

    When I was growing up, those authors and a bunch of others were banned. You could get in real trouble if you brought one to school. In the nineties, as part of the process of “rectificación de errores” (correction of mistakes), some of tose attitudes relaxed. But still those books wouldn’t be published or sold (except for during Havana’s Book Fair, and that’s an event closed to the general public and the books are sold in US dollars).

    And I’m not even going to get into the subject of the illegal independent librarians and how you can go to jail for the crime of lending a banned book. Don’t believe me? Here’s Ray Bradbury:

    Bad in Havana, bad in Miami. Period. I’ll make sure to duplicate my annual ACLU fees so they can slap those pandering dunces on the School Board with the lawsuit they deserve.

  11. gansibele    Wed Jun 14, 10:42 PM #  

    And you know what the saddest part is? Tomorrow Castro is going to be gloating over this. Way to give him yet another chance to show the world what intolerant extremists Cuban exiles are. A phyrric victory if there was ever one.

  12. Hose B    Wed Jun 14, 10:43 PM #  

    John’s dead on in at least one regard: ass-clenched bueaurocrats with an agenda, particularly one created by policy stooges above them, can enforce as strict an ideological repressive state as a booted militia. And from the standpoint of the little guy, it’s all the same damn thing. Just as one mugger can ruin an entire neighborhood, one dipshit (with an agenda) on a board can screw over an entire school system.

    “Pandering dunce,” gansibele? I like it a lot.

  13. alesh    Wed Jun 14, 11:10 PM #  

    For the record, the US government’s meddling in foreign countries (14 regime changes in the last 100 years) is reprehensible. And all governments are contemptible to the extent they operate totalitarianism. But the fact that it’s not unique does not in ANY WAY WHATSOEVER excuse the government of Cuba. It needs to be overthrown. Furthermore, I believe that anyone who visits the country without compelling reason to the contrary is giving tacit approval to the government.

    I could talk until I’m blue in the face about how fucked up Guantanamo is… but this isn’t that blog. Call me up and we can talk about it one day.

    you’re right, gansibele: tomorrow, castro’s going to be reading this very blog, and gloating. that hurts the worst of all.

    but i think the beaurocrats are scared shitless of this whole issue, and pissed off at the librarian who ordered the book. It’s like the bush administration and the Dubai port deal.

    I mean, i stand by my original position, but look at the cover of the book: it’s a bunch of kids dressed in uniforms of whatever’s the closest thing to the boy scouts in Cuba. Unfortunately, over there anything, INCLUDING AN OUTDOOR CHILDREN’S ORGANIZATION becomes a political weapon of repression and control. It’s shit like this that fucking clueless asshole idiots like white dade can’t even begin to comprehend, and it’s why Cuban-Americans who want this book out of children’s way have a legitimate point, even though I don’t agree with them.

  14. gansibele    Thu Jun 15, 12:45 AM #  

    Alesh, I agree with you, but here’s another perspective. You want to know what I see in that cover? I see myself and my friends, wearing that uniform, with those blue bandannas. And I’m sorry, but at that age, having no idea of politics; I was busy just growing up, running around, playing baseball, laughing, enjoying my three toys per year, eating whatever food there was. Just being a kid. And I’m sorry again if this offends people in Miami, but I was as happy as I could have been. Maybe I didn’t know any better, I didn’t know I was supposed to be miserable. Maybe my parents, like every parent in a difficult situation, tried to make my childhood the best possible one. So to me, the people who say the book is a lie are in a way trying to deny my childhood. They are saying I didn’t feel that way and it’s just not true. When my nine year old daughter asks me how was life growing up in Cuba, what I tell her is pretty much what’s on the book, just what a Cuban kid, any Cuban kid, will tell her. And when she asks me why I left, then I tell her about Castro and communism and forced labor and censure and repression. But one thing does not deny the other.

  15. Steve    Thu Jun 15, 09:13 AM #  

    You got one helluva lotta nerve, gensibele, deploying actual facts, genuine personal experience, and common sense to defend a position so at odds with accepted dogmatic propaganda and the ideological idiocies that pass for wisdom in this town. Why can’t you just get back in lockstep with the unwashed mob who know better than the rest of us what’s good for everybody, including little whippets like yourself who actually understand something about it?

  16. Manola BBB    Thu Jun 15, 10:23 AM #  

    That’s an interesting perspective Gansibele.

    What I find even more troubling is that, as Rick pointed out in his post, they also removed OTHER countries, not just Cuba. And for the life of me I can’t figure out what was problematic about Greece.

    I stand by the point that this is a huge elephant turd that should have never popped out of anyone’s ass and that had no one brought it up, the book would be quietly collecting dust unto oblivion.

    Like you’re that target 2-4 year old kid who’s gonna take this book home and your mom and dad are not going to know what you’re reading? Like this is porn or something that you have to stash it under your bed? And like that kid is going to grow up completely misled for the rest of his life?

  17. nonee moose    Thu Jun 15, 11:09 AM #  

    out of the mouth of babes…

    did anyone catch what the board’s student advisor said? “She said Vamos a Cuba could be used to teach students how to question the accuracy and bias of information they find in books and online.”

    i had meant to post yesterday, and didn’t get the chance. the book is a library book, not a textbook used in the classroom. it is incomplete at best, inaccurate at worst. on that score, let it join a long and distinguished list of NYT bestsellers. if nothing else, it offers a perfect opportunity for parents to calmly, and responsibly, fill in any and all perceived blanks for their own children, as they see fit. sort of the “da vinci code treatment”.

    the fact that the book was singled out doesn’t bother me. the motivations were misguided and narrow-minded, and perhaps even reactionary and opportunistic, but even that circumstance is all too common in other meatier contexts. it was nevertheless the right of those who protested to do so.

    the blame is on the spineless school board. they are the ones sworn to uphold the Constitution, in their official capacity. they are the ones entrusted to know better.

    gansibele’s points are well taken. you know what’s funny? if the book had been written for 10-12 year olds, it may have flown under the radar. who knows what those self-sufficient little latchkeys are up to… but since it was for younger kids, and given the state of educational progress, the alert-reader parent had to get involved. chalk one up for responsible parenting. amazing.

    hypocrisy has taken solid form before our eyes. I am Cuban-American. So this is what shame feels like…

  18. conductor    Fri Jun 16, 12:39 AM #  

    I agree with Gansibele, who I know personally, on this issue. But I also resent like hell the broad brush indictment that some of the posters here have made about Cuban Americans. I and several prominent Cuban-American bloggers (I don’t include myself among the prominent ones) have expressed doubts about or have come out against removal of the book. But let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good slur. If you want to blame someone blame people like that Jackass that voted for removing the book and then said he couldn’t vote his conscience because he felt threatened. He deserves to be beaten up, but not for his vote but rather for being a slandering piece of shit.

  19. alesh    Fri Jun 16, 08:03 AM #  

    True. But did I hear correctly: one of them also say he voted agains the book so the ACLU could sue?

    I’m not sure I see the utility (or even sanity) of that, but there it is.

  20. Rick    Fri Jun 16, 08:40 AM #  

    While it may be convenient to pin blame on one school board member, the fact of the matter is that there were 6 votes for the ban. Granted, not all of them were as outspoken as Ingram, but all apparently felt they were representing their constituency.

    The Cuban-American community really needs to look at itself and quit blaming others for it’s difficulty in understanding this issue.

    Robert attempts to do this over at 26th Parallel but one of the most prominent voices amongst Cuban-American bloggers acts like Wednesday didn’t even happen. This, after he lamented that the book would never be banned because Cuban-American concerns are always “brushed aside and ignored.” Well, guess what? They weren’t. Now how do you feel about that, Val?

    Really, we all would love to know.

  21. Elian Gonzales    Fri Jun 16, 09:13 AM #  

    Conductor is right to resent the stereotyping he’s reading here and elsewhere. Expecting as large, established, and complex a population as is the Cuban-American community to reflect unanimity of opinion on an issue—any issue—is at best naive, and at worst very biased. Some Cubans think it’s right and good, others think it’s wrong and bad, and everything in between. Just like non-Cubans and everybody else.

  22. conductor    Fri Jun 16, 10:42 AM #  

    Anyone that wants to read the entire contents of the book and read descriptions of the photos can do so here

  23. nonee moose    Fri Jun 16, 11:15 AM #  

    Alesh, you heard right about ingram’s statement regarding the ACLU lawsuit. i think it’s bullshit, though. the only thing his vote in the majority does is allow him to move to reconsider the vote, since that can only be requested by someone on the prevailing side.

    agree with conductor, also, that ingrams statements were slanderous, and they unmask him as a demagogue. and oh yeah, for the uninitiated… THAT’s what a pussy looks like.

    And Rick, you’re right, there were 5 other votes on that dais, but for all their misguided motivations, and that is my opinion, ingram seemed to be the only one who took the coward’s way out, and THAT’s offensive. And as for the cuban community blaming others for it’s lack of understanding? exactly what the fuck are you talking about? there’s that broad brush again… please, when you refer to the cuban community, kindly use the term “you people”, it’s less confusing for the natives…

  24. gansibele    Fri Jun 16, 12:53 PM #  

    Conductor and nonee: I understand the depiction of Cuban Americans as a monolithic bloc is not accurate (you know waaaay more times than not I’m not with the majority) and offensive. I don’t even think an absolute majority will support the banning of the book. But unfortunately the vocal faction, the Vigilia Mambisas and Radio Mambís, talk loudly as if they represent the feelings of every Cuban in Miami. The people who wanted the book banned, Bolaños, Rivera, Blazquez, et al; claimed the book was offensive to the community -not part of it, not some of us. So we can’t have it both ways.

    I thought about going to the School Board meeting and requesting to speak to at least present my perspective and say as part of this community this book is not offensive to me. I regret now not doing it.

    Personally I don’t agree with Ingram, but I can understand why he voted that way and said what he said. I refrain from posting in certain places and doing certain things because there’s a bunch of nuts and cowards out there, a lot of public information available a click of the mouse away and you never know what threats are for real (and I’m not saying they represent Cubans as a whole but don’t deny they exist). Having a family, I just don’t feel like dealing with that crap, even if it’s just a keyed car or a dumb letter, and I imagine Ingram neither.

  25. nonee moose    Fri Jun 16, 01:15 PM #  

    gansi, i don’t disagree, but here’s the thing. he said what he said. so his vote is supposed to innoculate him? on a good day that might be true. this was not a good day…

    look, i don’t deny the existence of vocal recalcitrants who may be prone to violence. as far as i’m concerned, hunt them all down, because there is no justification whatsoever, WHATSOEVER, to operate like that. but unless mr. ingram was waving a documented threat, not hypothetical future threats, then his statements were by default aimed at a community as a whole. that is reckless and irresponsible for a public official…at best. And as someone involved in the world of simple majorities, he should know better than to insinuate absolute terms. So that makes him what?
    Stupid? Careless? or worse?

  26. gansibele    Fri Jun 16, 01:52 PM #  

    I thought what he said was stupid too. I agree with you that an elected official should not express himself that way. It just adds more fire to the fire and gives validation to the bigots out there. Believe me, I know Ingram is no saint. He has been shown to be a demagogue before and probably was just trying to get a dig in that’ll resonate with his constituency.

  27. J R    Sun Jun 18, 02:51 PM #  

    It’s funny to see the left bending over backwards to defend a book that pays tribute, subtly, to the most racist nation in the western hemisphere.

    Black people have no power, hold no political office, etc, in Castro’s Cuba.

    White people suck, why don’t you go make another movie about the eeeevils of Wal-Mart.

  28. alesh    Sun Jun 18, 07:16 PM #  

    I’m glad you find it amusing, JR.

    I suppose you think censorship is a smart way to promote minority rights.

  29. Tere    Mon Jun 19, 12:15 PM #  

    Gansibele is quickly becomming one of my favorite blog-world people.

  30. gansibele    Tue Jun 20, 11:45 AM #  

    After all my tsk tsking about your renting Tere? Wow.

    I enjoy your Mom blog a lot too. I showed it to my wife (a Gables lover as well) who was six months pregnant at the time. I tought you insights as a first time mom were quite illuminating.

  31. Tere    Tue Jun 20, 12:03 PM #  

    Ganisbele, even though you frown upon my housing choices, you still seem like a reasonable fella! And I’d like to think I’m open-minded enough to take a good tsk-tsking every now and then. As it is, my entire family ganged up on us about the whole topic over the weekend, and THAT was quite a show!
    And I’m glad you and the wife enjoy the Mom Blog – I appreciate feedback!

  32. Raul    Wed Jun 21, 02:24 PM #  

    Has anyone seen School Board member Frank Bolanos’ new political campaign add??!!...a color copy of the cover of the book Vamos a Cuba!!! how much more obvious can this whole thing can be!??

  33. Susan    Tue Jul 4, 12:21 AM #  

    I don’t have children, but I occasionally tune into the Miami Dade County School board meetings on NPR. A few months ago I heard a teacher begging for funds for adequate textbooks for her students (I believe the teacher was from Liberty City). I believe it was the same meeting the board discusssed their costly office renovations…An inadequate supply of books, in my opinion, is a cause worthy of a public outcry. Don’t take books away from the kids in the community, make sure they have enough!

  34. Michael Caputo    Fri Jul 7, 11:22 PM #  

    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.


  35. alesh    Sat Jul 8, 11:27 AM #  

    responses to above at HiddenCity and StuckOTP.

  36. bill    Sun Jul 16, 04:43 PM #  

    I had an argument with the idea that Little Black Sambo should be ‘banned’ in schools, in the ‘70’s when Carl L. Marburger possed his ‘How would you feel’ question. I was a Black Panther at the time and, although many years have past, I continue to have an argument with the idea that the book should be nothing but offensive to blacks.

    That book, or any other, which can be taught including it’s various exingenes of truth and fiction can be safely presented to an educated student. Little Black Sambo does have a place in Americas history and, as such, should be presented for what it was/is therby assuring a thourghly educated populace. I would not want the book to come up in discusion, only to have my child ignorant of its meaning and its history.

    The same logic should hold sway with the presentation of “Vamos a Cuba” be it inside or outside of the classroom.
    What claim can be made for a free society if such is not the case?

    This is now and has been a primary problem in the USA … its claim as the most free state in the world often overshadowed by its racism/sexism/classism and the various other ‘isms which define the true USA.

    As the world becomes ‘more free’ it shine the light on the many gaps in free thought here in the so called leader of the free world ….