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Cuba’s truth lies in the pain of the exiled

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Myriam Marquez
February 11, 2009

Thousands of white foam crosses stretch across Tamiami Park in Miami—a somber reminder of the lives lost the past 50 years under the ironclad communist rule of Fidel and Raul Castro.


Each cross bears a name and date of death. They were killed by firing squads. Died beaten or of untreated illnesses as they withered away in prisons. Or they were swallowed up by a fickle sea—men, women and children fleeing a ferocious regime that for a half century failed every basic want of the human spirit searching for freedom to just be.


To be left alone. To say what we want, read what we want, live where we want and study what we’d like. To be.


That is Cuba’s truth. It’s ugly and wrenching in its control of every aspect of people’s lives.


The pain of almost 2 million exiles throughout the world too often gets answered with a shrug or the roll of the eyes. Old history, they’ll tell us. Nice beaches and women and rum and cigars, they’ll retort.


Juan Amador Rodriguez is among the survivors. He and his wife, Dianelys Correa, took a raft and exited north when he was 24 years old, among thousands who were sent to the U.S. base in Guantanamo during the 1994 rafter crisis.


When Amador was 17, he was arrested at his home after a snitch for the neighborhood block committee for the “Defense of the Revolution” noticed he had an inner tube, a paddle and plans to leave. When state security agents checked his mother’s home, they found a copy of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Infamy!


He spent three years and nine months in three prisons in Cuba, convicted of having in his possession “enemy propaganda” and trying to leave without a permit. Human rights as enemy propaganda—that’s Cuba’s truth under the Castro brothers.


“I can say I was free in prison,” he told me last Friday. “Everybody else on the island was already imprisoned, controlled. I, at least, was free to yell the truth in my cell. What else could they do to me?”


Once the couple arrived in Miami, they worked hard, started a family and struggled with the heartache of leaving behind their parents. When Amador’s daughter Yilen was assigned a project in elementary school, she chose to write about her parents’ homeland and checked out a book on the “reference” shelf of her school library.


She proudly handed him the book and asked him to help her with the project. He was thrilled to help—until he read the sugarcoated depiction of life in Cuba in the children’s book “Vamos a Cuba.”


“I don’t want my daughter at that age to have been exposed to the dead from firing squads or other tragedies,” he said. “But the book tells kids that their lives are the same there and here. It’s just not so.”


A federal appeals panel in Atlanta ruled last week that the Miami-Dade School Board has the right to apply accuracy as a criteria for educational purposes and yank a book that fails the test. It’s a victory for thousands of parents, though the ACLU plans to appeal.


“This book raised questions for my daughter as to the reasons that her father had to leave Cuba and why her grandmother, who has been denied a visa by the regime, hasn’t been able to visit her,” he said. “As a father, I’m not going to permit that my daughter be lied to in a book that claims to be a factual reference. In Cuba, that’s what we faced. Not here.”


Accuracy matters—even in children’s books, particularly in children’s books that distort reality for propaganda’s sake.


Imagine a kids’ book about life on the plantation during slavery that claims children were treated the same regardless of race. Or a book offered in public school about Nazi Germany that never mentions the Holocaust. It would be unacceptable.


Amador read his daughter the Cuba book “until the very last page. I told her, ‘This Cuba doesn’t exist. These are not the reasons that you had to be born here.’”


Amador isn’t out to attack the First Amendment or ban the book. He makes a wise distinction between offering the book in a public library where there’s choice and offering it in a public school as among the limited “reference” books available. Offering “Vamos” as a factual text ignored the school district’s own accuracy rules.


As the appeals court noted, both sides in this case agreed that the book contained factual errors that distorts what life is like in that dictatorship.


The truth lies in those crosses in Tamiami Park—an annual event that brings hundreds of people to walk through and pray.


Emilio Subil, who arrived in the United States as a child through the Pedro Pan program, is among the Cuban Memorial’s volunteers who set up the crosses each year. Many of the crosses break and have to be replaced, he noted, adding, “The crosses will break but our spirit won’t be broken.”


Because the truth matters.


Myriam Marquez is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to her via e-mail at mmarquezmiamiherald.com.

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