Their plan to pull a children's book called Vamos a Cuba from school library shelves across Miami-Dade County had already attracted national media attention and provoked protests in Cuba. A legal challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union had sparked rumors of a showdown in the nation's highest court. Which was why leaders of the old guard exile community had called this meeting: to ensure a united front at the press conference scheduled for the next morning.
The press conference to be held at the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana would be a carefully managed, media-friendly event. This private strategy session, convened at the tiny headquarters of La Junta Patriotica Cubana, was a more freeform affair. Yes, they were here to discuss the book in question, a vile piece of propaganda. But there were other issues to talk about first.
"Angelina Jolie has a tattoo of Che Guevara ... like Mike Tyson," said Emilio Izquierdo as he shook his head in mild bewilderment.
Izquierdo, a former political prisoner whose inexhaustible hatred for Fidel compelled him to protest the 2001 Latin Grammys, at which Cuban musicians performed, went on: "We're in a war of great magnitude. The United States is changing. We have to take off our shoes at the airport. There are attempted acts of violence against our public transportation." Cubans are under threat, too, he said, stabbing his meaty fingers at the air. "Extreme people on the left, they don't like us because we don't like socialism. People in the extreme right, they don't like us because we don't live in Liberty City, because we created our own economy. We are the only minority that people can say horrible things against."
On this point everyone could agree the old-timers squeezed into guayaberas, the Bay of Pigs veterans, the politicians, and the enraged ex-kindergarten teachers alike. Miami's Cuban exiles were being overlooked, insulted, persecuted. Once again, they were being forced to rally in their own defense.
Their oppressor is a 32-page book from the Vamos series, which had been in Miami-Dade public school libraries for five years before anyone complained. During that time, no one had questioned why Vamos a Colombia fails to mention decades of kidnappings by leftist guerrillas or why Vamos a China omits any mention of the millions who starved during Mao's Great Leap Forward. But after one parent's initial complaint, critics of Vamos a Cuba came out of the woodwork. The book's reference to July 26 as a dance-happy "carnaval" was off-base, critics said, because under Castro, the day had become little more than a joyless, speech-filled commemoration of the revolution. Rock paintings described in the book as 1000 years old actually dated to the Sixties. And as for chicken and rice being the favorite dish in Cuba: How are you going to eat chicken and rice if there's a shortage of both?
Izquierdo, one of several who had called for the meeting, sat at the impromptu dais, a plastic folding table. He was surrounded by a gallery of other exile luminaries, all of them eager to bask in the sudden spotlight of the Vamos a Cuba controversy. Miami-Dade school board member and state Senate candidate Frank Bolaños nodded his head occasionally. Activist Ana Margarita, known for having mistakenly married a man later revealed to be a Cuban spy, smiled wanly. Servilo Pérez, a political prisoner for more than twenty years in Cuba, held his head in his hand as he listened. Later they would be joined by Julio Cabarga, a major figure in exile politics since the Seventies and president of the Junta, a group dedicated, in the words of its manifesto, "to the noble endeavor of liberating one of the last holdings of Soviet and Communist imperialism."
As Izquierdo rambled on, cell phones in the audience occasionally broke into frantic Latin dance rhythms, echoing off the room's gray tile floor. Two young girls, daughters of school board candidate Manny Anon, squirmed in the front row until Anon gave them the okay to go outside.
Finally Izquierdo got to the point. He held up the now-infamous cover photo of Vamos a Cuba. It showed a group of smiling children dressed in blue-and-white school uniforms, which also serve as uniforms for the Pioneers, Cuba's Communist youth group.
"I don't want to see a photo like this," he said. "It makes my stomach sick."
Juan Amador was also on hand that night. A boyish-looking 36-year-old lunch truck entrepreneur, Amador had given rise to the Vamos a Cuba controversy this past spring, after his nine-year-old daughter, a third-grader at Marjory Stoneman Douglas Elementary School, brought home a copy of the book. The simplistic travel book, also published in English, is part of a series meant to introduce kindergarten through second-grade students to life in various countries.