By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Killing time outside a Little Havana restaurant, with his candidate still inside, Caputo radiated a focused intensity. The 44-year-old consultant described himself as a "cold warrior" who is also, oddly enough, a Grateful Dead fanatic. He maintained that the book-banning issue has been a "gift" to his candidate. Campaign contributions to Bolaños skyrocketed in the weeks after he took his stance, and droves of reporters have descended on the relatively unknown politician.
For the opposition those, like Seamans, who say Bolaños is grandstanding for political gain Caputo had no patience. People might not want to face this ugly truth, he said, but America and its freedoms are still under attack from an old foe. "The last vestiges of Communism will live and breathe in America. It's in the school system. Some bureaucrat bought [Vamos a Cuba] ..." with the intention of tweaking the Cuban exile community, Caputo said as he stabbed the air with an imaginary shiv. "Somebody did this."
What Caputo considers an act of principled self-defense has been largely viewed, outside the exile community, as shameless pandering. Miami Heraldcolumnist Leonard Pitts, for instance, decried the creation of an atmosphere "where you can get pelted with batteries for being insufficiently anti-Castro." Ray Taseff, chairman of the ACLU Greater Miami Chapter Legal Panel, called Bolaños's stance "irresponsible. It's demagoguery at its best."
Coky Michel, a Coral Gables Senior High School teacher and Cuban immigrant, put it more succinctly: "These people make me vomit." Michel said she's tired of a vocal and extreme minority speaking for all Cuban-Americans.
As the vitriol has increased, some, like eighteen-year-old Ron Bilbao, have found themselves caught in the ideological crossfire. A senior at South Miami Senior High School and president of the district's student government association, Bilbao was asked to sit on one of the district book review committees. "I hadn't even read the book yet," he recalled recently. "Nobody had even seen it." Unaware of the emotions swirling around Vamos a Cuba, Bilbao went to the committee's May meeting in the studios of radio station WLRN expecting a low-key gathering closed to the public. Instead he found himself on a small stage with other committee members, facing an audience and a video camera recording their every word.
"It was pretty frightening," Bilbao said of the meeting, marked by hissing and whispering from an audience of about two dozen, most of them Cuban.
"We were at a conference table and [proponents of the ban] were all around us, and it was a pretty tiny room," Bilbao said. "If you said something that was for keeping the book, they'd whisper 'Communist' in the background." A few times, someone stood up, shouted a profanity, and then left, slamming the door, Bilbao recalled. "Everybody was on edge."
During lunch breaks, audience members approached Bilbao to impress upon him the pain caused by Vamos a Cuba. Bilbao, a Venezuelan-American, tried to make clear he had no animus toward the Cuban community. "I sympathize with them, I really do, but at the end of the day, we're talking about a book for elementary school children," Bilbao said, pointing out that the book is not part of any school curriculum and not required reading. "You don't just ban a book because it's painful to you. I don't even know why we're banning books. It's kind of embarrassing. Next thing you know we're going to be talking about segregation in the schools."
Sitting on one of the plastic-covered dining room seats in his Sweetwater home recently, Juan Amador the man who touched off the Vamos a Cubacontroversy said he understood why non-Cubans had trouble understanding his perspective. "If I were a North American, I'd probably say the same thing: 'All this mess for a book.'" The problem, he noted, in rapid-fire Spanish, is that most North Americans can never truly understand what it's like to live in Castro's police state, "a place where you fear to dream."
While his daughter played in her bedroom, meowing loudly like a cat, Amador tried to explain himself by way of a biography. Born and raised in a little wooden house in central Havana, he quickly found himself ill-suited to Castro's socialist revolution. As a young boy, Amador, tired of constant shortages and of seeing his mother's face tight with worry, began fantasizing about leaving Cuba. At age seventeen, he was caught trying to escape by boat and thrown in jail for nine months. "It was the first time I felt free, because I didn't have anything else to lose," Amador said. As a college student, he was arrested for denouncing the regime and served four more years.
When he was released, Amador found that his friends had deserted him and his family no longer accepted him. Believing he had nowhere else to turn, he finally succeeded in making the dangerous journey across the Florida Straits in 1995, on a raft he had built secretly over several months. But the memories of his childhood will never leave, Amador said, and the longing for home will never ease. "If the regime falls at 6:00, I'll be in Havana by 6:30," he said flatly.