The Friends of Cuban Libraries
The Friends of Cuban Libraries are making available information on a BBC
broadcast focusing on Cuba's independent librarians, which was aired on May
1, 2002 (www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/meridw.shtml). The program,
featuring research and interviews by the BBC's Havana correspondent, Daniel
Schweimler, contradicts the American Library Association's ongoing denial of
Cuba's grim reality, namely the island's all-pervasive system of censorship
and the repression of Cuba's independent library movement.
In refusing to defend Cuba's volunteer librarians from persecution, the ALA
is also in violation of its Code of Ethics and its policy manual, which
declares that the ALA "opposes any use of government prerogatives which leads
to the intimidation of the individual or the citizenry from the exercise of
freedom of expression. ALA encourages resistance to such abuse of government
power and supports those against whom such governmental power has been
Since the BBC broadcast was aired, two of the volunteer librarians
interviewed on the program have received international awards for their
pioneering work in defense of intellectual freedom. Gisela Delgado was
awarded the Swedish Liberal Party's Democracy Prize, and Human Rights Watch
named Victor Rolando Arroyo as a winner of the Hellman-Hammett Prize, an
annual award given to persecuted writers and other defenders of intellectual
Here is the text of the broadcast:
[Introduction by a BBC correspondent]: "A few years ago at a book fair in
Cuba President Fidel Castro protested that the narrow range of books in the
country's public libraries wasn't the result of censorship or banning, merely
a shortage of funds. Two of his fellow citizens [Ramon Colas and Berta
Mexidor] decided to put that statement to the test by making their private
book collection publicly available. The project was such a success that
across the island there are now more than sixty libraries run from private
homes, stocking everything from children's fiction to books on religion and
mysticism to works by Cuban writers in exile. The BBC's correspondent in
Havana, Daniel Schweimler, set off to discover how they work.
[Daniel Schweimler]: "The Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman wrote that 'if
it's true that every Cuban knows how to read and write, it is likewise true
that every Cuban has nothing to read and must be very cautious about what he
writes.' Shortly after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, he sent
thousands of volunteers into the mountains and the inner cities to teach the
people to read and write. Cuba now has one of the best literacy rates in the
developing world. Most Cubans are unable to get access to words such as
these written by one of the best Cuban writers of recent years, Guillermo
Cabrera Infante, now living in exile in London:
[Voice of Cabrera Infante]: " 'One third of the [...inaudible], which is the
tragic story of my country, from island to garrison, from brothel to
barracks, from tropical paradise to hell on earth. It was in fact a sad
book, but everywhere readers complimented me on how funny it was.'
[Daniel Schweimler]: "Four years ago President Castro said there were no
banned books in Cuba, just a shortage of money to buy them. So his words
were put to the test by a couple living in the East of the island, who opened
up an independent library in their own home. The seed was planted, and there
are now more than sixty libraries across Cuba. They are, for now at least,
tolerated by the authorities, but many of the owners have been detained or
had books taken from them. Ricardo Gonzalez has about two thousand books in
his home in the West of Havana.
[Ricardo Gonzales, in translated voiceover]: " 'You can see that in this
library we are in the roof is broken, the shelves are made from bits of old
wood. But nevertheless people come, because that signifies freedom. But the
freedom is limited by the repressive organs of the Cuban state.'
[Daniel Schweimler]: "The state-run libraries and bookshops are full of works
about the Cuban Revolution, books by and about President Castro and the
Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, great Cuban writers of the
past such as Alejo Carpentier and Nicolas Guillen, and classic Spanish
literature. But they contain nothing the Communist authorities might regard
as counterrevolutionary or subversive. George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm,
for instance. Ricardo Gonzalez again:
[Ricardo Gonzalez, in translated voiceover]: " 'The readers are returning to
the library. But we have always had a few readers at this library, the Jorge
Manach [Library], who kept coming even during the worst times of repression
to borrow books and then circulate them to a wider audience.'
[Daniel Schweimler]: "The books are given by foreign tourists, embassies and
aid organizations abroad. Cubans who leave the country often donate their
collections. The service is free, the standard security measures taken to
ensure that the books are returned. The biggest problem, according to Gisela
Delgado, who runs a library in the center of Havana, is for borrowers to
overcome their fear.
[Gisela Delgado, in translated voiceover]: " 'We're doing an enormous amount
of work here to try and make available uncensored literature to the Cuban
people. At the same time we are seeing a cultural revolution, since a lot of
people are losing their fear. They are reading these famous books, which
they've been told were banned. Then they are writing their own testimonies,
free from the terrible censorship they have suffered these past 43 years.'
[Daniel Schweimler]: "She says that in four years she has not lost a single
book, and all, including the children's books, are looked after and returned
in good condition. Customers borrow works on a whole range of subjects, but
she says by far the most popular are those which talk about modern-day Cuba
from a perspective other than that put forward by the government. Andres
Oppenheimer's 'Castro's Final Hour' is one example.
[Unidentified reader of a selection from Oppenheimer's book]: " 'Only fear
of the unknown prevented a popular rebellion. Only the failure of U.S.
policymakers and Cuban exile leaders to allay these fears, and perhaps even
to recognize some of the early social gains of the Revolution, kept the Cuban
people from turning their discontent into active defiance.'
[Daniel Schweimler]: "Victor Rolando Arroyo, director of a library in the
western city of Pinar del Rio, says repression in the provinces is tougher.
[Victor Roland Arroyo, in translated voiceover]: " 'Some of our libraries
have been attacked during the night. Individuals have gone to the libraries
and taken books away. These are people we recognize. We know who they are
and have reported them, but the authorities have taken no action against
[Daniel Schweimler]: "Public transport is poor, and many readers live in
isolated communities. So Victor has formed a team to solve the problem.
[Victor Rolando Arroyo, in translated voiceover]: " 'We have a group of
volunteers, some on foot and others with bicycles, who cover the region
making contacts, offering books. What they do is explain which books they
have and what they are about. What all this does is encourage people to read
[Daniel Schweimler]: "The Cuban authorities view all those who oppose them as
counterrevolutionaries, often in the pay of the government's enemies in the
United States. The librarians say they are the peaceful vanguard of a force
working for democratic change in Cuba. The authorities distrustfully,
cautiously, are allowing the libraries to operate, having themselves created
a reading public with an appetite that is not easily satisfied."
[End of radio segment]