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Freedom of Speech Questioned in Miami - 2002-04-18


Free speech is often a touchy subject in Miami, Florida, where passions run high on such issues as U.S. policy to Cuba, the Middle East conflict and a series of police shootings of African-Americans. Community leaders have launched a project to assess the state of free speech in Miami and to break down barriers to the open exchange of ideas.

Nearly three years ago, Beth Boone attended a concert in downtown Miami by the Cuban musical group "Los Van Van." Hundreds of irate Cuban exiles showed up to denounce the band, which works within Cuba's communist system. Police had to be called in when protesters began hurling rocks, bottles and other refuse at concertgoers. Beth Boone says she vividly remembers the scene and what she felt that night.

"I was disgusted by the behavior that I saw, with people becoming violent," she said. "Never in my life have I experienced palpable hatred like I experienced the night of that concert. The air was electric with venom."

Miami's image has suffered other black eyes in recent years. During the Elian Gonzalez saga, several people were attacked on the streets for publicly advocating that the Cuban shipwreck survivor be reunited with his father, who wanted to return with the boy to Cuba. Most recently, the Latin Grammy awards ceremony was moved from Miami amid fears that exile-led protests of a Cuban performer would ruin the event.

Miami residents were recently surveyed about freedom of speech issues. 38 percent of respondents indicated they do not feel at ease to openly discuss controversial topics such as U.S. policy to Cuba. Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen was hired to conduct the survey.

"There are still people in Miami that on issues having to do with, for example, Cuba, feel that there is only one acceptable point of view," he said. "And if you have a different one, they tend to react in a way that people find offensive."

Cuban exiles have been criticized for employing heavy-handed tactics that discourage an open exchange of ideas. They have been accused of hypocrisy using oppressive means to denounce the very repression they say they fled in their nation of birth.

Joe Garcia, who heads the Cuban-American National Foundation, says exiles have made great efforts post-Elian Gonzalez to improve their image. He insists only a tiny minority of exiles has ever resorted to violence and that the vast majority are freedom-loving people who understand and respect free speech.

But he adds that Cubans are naturally passionate people, saying that the vigor they bring to debates can easily be misinterpreted.

"There are a lot of victims in this community, and so when they express their opinions, they express them with tremendous vehemence," Mr. Garcia said. "Our eyes may bulge, our arms may flail but that does not necessarily mean that there is any greater lack of freedom here than there is anywhere else."

A civil liberties group known as "People for the American Way" is sponsoring a series of town hall-style discussions in Miami on free speech. The Florida director of the foundation, George Mursuli, says he sees evidence that Miami is changing for the better.

"Just last week, we had a Cuban national group perform," he said. "There was a very organized protest in front of the theater. The attendees had a great time, and the people that were protesting exercised their free speech rights. I think we have come a long way."

Pollster Sergio Bendixen, who did his survey for People for the American Way, agrees. He points out that Miami has more foreign-born residents than any other U.S. city, yet his polling data shows more than 90 percent of residents identify free speech as a critical element of democracy.

"Miami is getting better and better on the issue of freedom of speech," he said. "People know what it is; people can talk about it; people understand its importance to democracy."

Beth Boone, who attended the turbulent "Los Van Van" concert, is a Miami arts promoter who last year led a successful legal challenge to an ordinance that banned local government arts funding from going to support any concerts or exhibitions involving Cuban artists. She says non-Cubans are not without responsibility when it comes to protecting free speech in Miami and not without blame for any shortcomings.

"I think, in fact, that is a very vocal minority of people who want to keep Cuban artists out of here," she said. "And I believe there is a silent majority that want to see the work, and that the problem we face here is that not enough people are willing to break their silence and say "I disagree. I believe we should have contact with artists from Cuba."

Last month, a coalition of groups advocating an end to the longstanding U.S. trade embargo on Cuba met in Miami to explain and discuss their views. Cuban exiles showed up to voice their displeasure. Issues were discussed with passion but in a spirit of respect.

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