A Library in Cuba: What Is It?
June 28, 2003
By FELICIA R. LEE
One of the last places you might expect a debate over free
expression is the American Library Association, the world's
oldest and largest organization of its kind and a longtime
champion of open access to information. But when the
subject is as politically charged as Cuba, anything is
So during the association's annual conference in Toronto,
which ended Wednesday, a little cultural cold war broke out
among members over what are known as independent libraries
in Cuba. Small lending libraries run out of people's homes,
they circulate materials that the librarians say are banned
by the government. To some members, the association has
been ignoring the repression of their colleagues and the
cause of intellectual freedom; to others, a small group has
been trying to hijack the organization to pursue an
The latest battle began after the arrests of about 75 Cuban
dissidents in March. Convicted of "mercenary activities and
other acts against the independence and territorial
integrity of the Cuban state," according to a statement in
Granma, the Cuban Communist Party daily, the dissidents
received prison sentences of up to 28 years. Fourteen were
Robert Kent, a New York librarian and in 1999 (a year after
the independent libraries began) a co-founder of an
informal group of librarians and others called Friends of
Cuban Libraries, has been pushing the association to speak
out on the harassment of the librarians. "For at least four
years, the A.L.A. has ignored, covered up or lied about the
persecution of people in Cuba whose only crime is to have
opened libraries," he said.
After the latest events, Mr. Kent and his supporters asked
the association to hold a separate debate on Cuban
restrictions that would have included five Cuban librarians
- all working for government libraries - who went to the
Toronto meeting. They also asked the 64,000-member A.L.A.
to pass a formal resolution denouncing censorship in Cuba
and demanding the release of the 14 jailed librarians.
In the end, the association allowed an "open mike"
discussion with the Cuban librarians after they gave
presentations, but deferred a resolution about Cuba to its
next meeting in January, saying its members needed more
"The reputation of the American Library Association will be
damaged by this," declared an outraged Mr. Kent about the
deferment of the Cuban resolution.
But Maurice J. Freedman, who has just finished his one-year
term as president of the association and is the director of
the Westchester County library system, dismissed Mr. Kent's
charges. The association is concerned with intellectual
freedom everywhere, but the facts on Cuba are still murky,
Winston Tabb, the outgoing chairman of the library
association's international relations committee, agreed.
"There was unanimous agreement that the resolution was not
ready," he said. "It's really complicated. There were
contradictory statements. People are positional about
"One of the questions was whether there was too much focus
on Cuba, and whether we should focus on freedom of access
to information and freedom of expression, generally," he
added. "Those questions arise in Cuba but they arise in
other places, too." Mr. Tabb, also the dean of university
libraries at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, cited
Turkey and Zimbabwe. (In the past, the association has
spoken against library censorship in South Africa and
recently condemned the destruction of the national library
Some members contend that it is important that most
independent librarians - there are about 100 still in Cuba
- are not professionally trained and are de facto political
"If you have 100 books in your home and you make them
available to friends, are you a librarian?" asked Edward
Erazo, the outgoing chairman of the association's Latin
American subcommittee and coordinator of library
instruction at Broward Community College in Davie, Fla.
"It's political. It has nothing to do with the fact that
they operate independent libraries."
"But who knows?" he continued. "It is Cuba. Are there books
that are not circulated?"
For others, the wave of arrests in Cuba offers compelling
reason to speak out. "Just this latest crackdown, when you
have independent librarians imprisoned, is evidence enough
that intellectual freedom is imperiled in Cuba," said Laura
Y. Tartakoff, a professor of political science at Case
Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "The A.L.A. record
when it comes to Cuba is deplorable. The fact that a regime
makes it a crime to establish a library in your home is
Michael Dowling, director of the association's
international relations office, says the problem has always
been competing versions of the truth. Even with several
library associations making fact-finding missions to Cuba,
there has been no definitive evidence that books are banned
and librarians harassed there, he said.
President Fidel Castro has said that no books are banned
but that Cuban libraries lack the money to carry every
available title. A 2001 American Library Association report
on Cuba said, "Considering the small readership of the
private collections and the lack of trained librarians, if
the U.S. government wishes to get information into the
hands of the Cuban people, the most effective way is to
deliver books directly to the extensive and active public
"By the same token," the report continued, "if the Cuban
government wishes to make information available without
censorship, it will allow the independent collections to
operate without interference."
Mark Rosenzweig, the director of the Reference Center for
Marxist Studies, a research center in New York City,
contends that Cuba has one of the finest library systems in
the developing world and that no books are officially
banned by the government.
He said he believed that the independent librarians had no
connection to professional librarians and were supported by
American anti-Castro groups. "These are a ragtag bunch of
people who have been involved on the fringes of the
dissident movement," Mr. Rosenzweig said of the independent
Mr. Freedman, the former library association president,
said some association members had even accused the
independent librarians of being "paid agents of the U.S.
Mr. Kent acknowledged that some of his 10 trips to Cuba
were paid for by Freedom House, a human rights group, and
the Center for a Free Cuba, an anti-Castro organization,
which have received grants from the United States Agency
for International Development. And the co-founder of the
Friends group, Jorge Sanguinetty, is a Cuban exile and
economic consultant whose main client is the aid agency.
But those government ties, Mr. Sanguinetty said, do not
change the reality of government-confiscated materials and
the harassment of librarians and their families.
Brigid Cahalan, a librarian at the New York Public Library
and a member of the Friends group, says she hopes that by
the January meeting, tempers will have cooled, and more
details will have been clarified. "Many in A.L.A. have not
seen it as an intellectual freedom issue," she said. "Maybe
they've started to rethink things, based on what they've
heard and read."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company