October 22, 1999

Castro fears the modest Cuban independent libraries

Frank Calzon
Published Friday, October 22, 1999, in the Miami Herald

Castro boasts that most Cubans know how to read and write, but what they are allowed to read and write is a different matter.

The International Federation of Library Associations is circulating a letter to Fidel Castro denouncing "events in Cuba which clearly violate the basic human right of intellectual freedom". The federation urges Castro to stop the harassment of independent librarians, "including threats, intimidation, eviction, short-term arrests and the confiscation of their incoming book donations or existing book collections.''

The independent libraries (often simply a room or a corner of someone's home) are a recent development in Cuba. Castro confiscated all property in the early 1990s and nationalized even private libraries. But at the 1998 International Book Fair in Havana, he assured foreign guests that "in Cuba, there are no prohibited books, only those that we do not have the money to buy.''

Berta Mexidor Vazquez, an economist in Tunas province, welcomed the statement ``as an opportunity to create independent libraries, to provide access to books, magazines and other publications to which there is no access in state institutions because they were being considered enemy propaganda.''

Since then, 18 independent libraries have been established. Unfortunately, the international federation reports, ``on Aug. 23, the Cuban police raided the home of Ramon Colas'' and his wife, Berta Mexidor, evicting the couple and ``their two children from their home, which doubles as the location of the independent Felix Varela Library.''

The government also confiscated the book collection of an independent library in Santiago, which specialized ``in after-school programs for children, [and] the police issued warnings to the parents of children, who visited the library.''

Totalitarian regimes pay attention to cultural matters: books are as suspect in North Korea as in Havana. Castro boasts that most Cubans know how to read and write, but what they are allowed to read and write and what punishment they receive for disobeying Castro's dictum of ``inside the Revolution everything; outside the Revolution nothing at all'' is a different matter.

In the new book Cuba's Repressive Machinery, Americas Watch denounces the use of such charges as ``enemy propaganda,'' ``clandestine printing'' and ``dangerousness,'' which according to Cuban law is ``the special proclivity of a person to commit crimes, demonstrated by conduct that is observed to be in manifest contradiction with the norms of socialist morality.'' The criminal code also ``provides for `therapeutic measures,' including detention in a psychiatric hospital.''

Havana objects to many books. A few years ago when a diplomat was expelled from the island, the incriminating evidence included an AFL-CIO booklet on how to organize a union meeting, and Animal Farm, published years before the Cuban Revolution. Cuba's book stores have ample stocks of books that nobody wants to read: The Speeches of Fidel Castro, the Complete Works of Lenin and Marx, critiques of the United States by radical writers. They have none of the biographies of Castro published abroad, books about the transitions to democracy, and nothing by or about Alexander Solzhnytzin, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, or Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the Cuban-exile novelist honored by Spain with its prestigious Cervantes Award.

Cubans realize that their country is an exception in a world in which information, laptop computers and the World Wide Web are unencumbered by ideology. Cuba's independent librarians demonstrate great courage by creating a space where their fellow Cubans, by the miracle of reading a book, can escape from the regime's systematic haranguing.

I wonder whether any of the groups lobbying to lift the U.S. embargo that claim to care for the Cuban people, or any of the universities sponsoring academic exchanges with the island, will ask Castro to stop this outrage and extend a helping hand to Cuba's beleaguered librarians.

Frank Calzon is the executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.

Copyright 1999 Miami Herald

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