Frank Talk About Free Speech

Attorney Victor Diaz chats up the ACLU's Howard Simon

Victor Diaz and Howard Simon have been in the news lately. Diaz, a local attorney, figured prominently in a story about efforts to discourage the Miami City Ballet and other arts groups from challenging Miami-Dade County's so-called Cuba ordinance. That law prohibits the county from supporting any individual or organization doing business, directly or indirectly, with Cuba or Cuban nationals.

Simon, who is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, figured prominently in a recent federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU that seeks to overturn the Cuba ordinance, particularly as it applies to art, culture, and entertainment. In response to the ACLU's request, Miami federal Judge Federico Moreno last week temporarily suspended a provision of the ordinance that required arts organizations to sign an affidavit assuring compliance with the law before they could seek county funding.

Also last week, both men wrote opinion pieces that appeared in the Miami Herald. (Diaz is a "visiting member" of the paper's editorial board.) Those are reprinted below. This past Friday Diaz and Simon met at the New Times office, where they discussed the Cuba ordinance, freedom of expression, and a deeply divided community. --Jim Mullin


VICTOR DIAZ

It has become fashionable for certain liberal voices in the Cuban-American community to state categorically that they speak for the "silent majority" of Cuban Americans. I uphold their right to hold and express their liberal views, but the degree of popular support for those views should not be misrepresented.

The Herald's public-opinion polls show a high degree of agreement among Cuban Americans on most issues of U.S.-Cuba policy. A greater respect for minority views should be encouraged, without silencing the right of the majority to exercise its collective clout. Being in the minority entitles one to have his or her views heard and respected, but that doesn't mean that minority views should be expected to prevail over those of the majority.

The same can be said about the effort under way to repeal the Miami-Dade County ordinance barring county-subsidized groups from presenting artists from Cuba. One cannot read the ordinance and claim the ban to be "censorship and intimidation."

The ordinance doesn't prohibit anyone from sponsoring or presenting a Cuban artist or group in Miami-Dade County. It simply prohibits the use of county halls or auditoriums and county subsidies if one engages in those activities. Anyone wishing to present Los Van Van using his or her own money and permanently forgoing public subsidies can do so. There is nothing in the ordinance to stop them.

Rational discussions of such issues require a balanced presentation of the underlying facts, particularly when dealing with an issue of such emotional volatility. We share a responsibility to try to understand both sides of this issue before arriving at the unshakable certainty that so often characterizes opinions in South Florida.

The views that ultimately should prevail ought to be the most persuasive to the greatest number of people.


HOWARD SIMON

Is it possible that, at long last, we might have an open discussion of Miami-Dade County's Cuba policies?

Not too long ago, local politicians simply retaliated against those who failed to toe the line. Recall the firing of Peggi McKinley from the Media Advisory Board for questioning the economic impact of the county's cultural embargo -- an action still being challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union?

Of course county commissioners have acted irresponsibly by using the Cuba ordinance to drive business elsewhere -- an estimated $40 million from the lost Latin Grammy Awards and another $130 million by rejecting the 2007 Pan-American Games, all because Cuban nationals might participate. But this issue is more about censorship than about damage to the local economy.

Censorship is not merely the crude seizure of magazines from airport newsstands; it also is being imposed locally by the power of the purse.

Yesterday a federal judge rightly ordered Miami-Dade County to accept applications for arts and cultural grants without requiring applicants to sign an affidavit swearing that they do not engage and have not engaged in business with a Cuban national, the government of Cuba, or persons engaged in business with Cuba. The judge referred to provisions of the affidavit as "offensive."

At issue in the lawsuit filed by the ACLU are not just grants but the right to use publicly owned county facilities for artistic and cultural events. Currently arts groups aren't even permitted to use private funds to stage an event that involves a Cuban national.

County commissioners illegally impose such requirements despite federal law that exempts artistic, scientific, and cultural exchanges from the embargo on trade with Cuba. The U.S. District Court's initial ruling came yesterday because that was the deadline for submitting the affidavits and grant applications.

Florida International University now faces economic retaliation from county commissioners for showing Life Is to Whistle at the recent FIU/Miami Film Festival, apparently in violation of the Cuba ordinance. The film nonetheless added to the public's understanding of the difficulties of life under Castro -- just as the plays of the South African playwright Athol Fugard gave us a better understanding of life under apartheid.

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