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Librarians at the Gates | The Nation

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Librarians at the Gates

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A librarian responds to the Cuba Library initiative included in this report.

The Cuban Library Controversy

About the Author

Joseph Huff-Hannon
Joseph Huff-Hannon is an independent writer and producer, and a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Awards for Young...

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One person's martyr is another's terrorist, and while it may seem extreme to discuss librarians within this context, when discussing librarians and libraries in Cuba the conversation quickly turns to extremes. Take the case of the independent library movement.

Founded in 1998 by Ramon Colas and Berta Mexidor in Las Tunas, a small village on the eastern part of the island near Santiago de Cuba, and starting with a library located in their home, the project expanded to include 103 independent libraries and 182,000 registered patrons by 2003. "Although a few libraries in the capital have somewhat balanced selections, these are of course the libraries that the government showcases to journalists and tourists," says Colas, who now lives with his wife, Berta, in Jackson, Mississippi, after arriving in the United States as political refugees in 2002. "Most libraries in the country have nothing by Cuban or foreign writers who are critical of the regime; no Mario Vargas Llosa or Susan Sontag, nothing by such important Cuban writers as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, Daina Chaviano. Our goal was to offer access to a diversity of viewpoints that did not exist in your typical Cuban library in the countryside."

"They moved to the US after their children began receiving threats. Before that Ramon was arrested and detained, and the government forced Berta to apply for a divorce, on account of Ramon's 'anti-revolutionary' activities." This from Robert Kent, librarian at the New York Public Library, ALA member and co-founder of Friends of Cuban Libraries, which bills itself as an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting intellectual freedom in Cuba. "In 2003, when the Cuban government cracked down on political dissidents, it jailed fourteen librarians in a series of one-day trials that meted out, on average, prison sentences of twenty years or more. The most common charge was for 'dangerousness.'" Numerous public intellectuals and writers--Ray Bradbury, Nat Hentoff, Katha Pollitt, Noam Chomsky and Andrei Codrescu among them--have spoken out strongly against the 2003 crackdown. Amnesty International has designated the imprisoned librarians as "prisoners of conscience." Library associations around the world have drafted forceful statements of condemnation. Not so the ALA.

"So far we have not allowed our good name as the largest library association in the world to be used as an instrument of US foreign policy toward Cuba," states Mark Rosenzweig, an ALA councilor-at-large. Rosenzweig alleges that the Friends organization has strong intelligence connections, and that many if not all of the independent libraries and librarians in Cuba are funded by USAID. "The project is part of the Bush 'transition for Cuba' plan, a front for the stated US policy to destabilize Cuba. These people are neither 'independent' nor 'librarians.'"

"All we are asking of the ALA is that it has the intellectual courage to hold Cuba to the same standard as other countries," remarks Colas. "We think it's a matter of principle. Our opponents think it's a matter of politics."

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