In Castro’s Gulag—Librarians


In the July 2003 issue of The Progressive, a monthly magazine for which I write, there was an ad: “Anti-War, Social Justice and Human Rights Advocates Oppose Repression in Cuba.” The signers were a number of prominent, persistent critics of Bush, Ashcroft, and others in the government. Among them: Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Matt Rothschild (editor of The Progressive), the late Edward Said, and Cornel West. They oppose the Bush embargo and other economic sanctions on Cuba, but they condemn:

“The arrests of scores of opponents of the Cuban government for their nonviolent political activities, and the shockingly long prison sentences—some as high as 28 years—imposed after unfair trials. According to Amnesty International, the arrestees include journalists, owners of [independent] private libraries, and members of illegal opposition parties. . . .

“The imprisonment of people for attempting to exercise their rights of free expression is outrageous and unacceptable. We call on the Castro government to release all political prisoners and let the Cuban people speak, write and organize freely.”

There has been no answer from the Cuban dictator. And in his gulag, as Blanca Reyes—wife of imprisoned independent journalist and poet Raúl Rivero—reports: “Even Fidel Castro, when he was jailed for armed rebellion against dictator Fulgencio Batista, didn’t have to suffer such conditions. . . . The filthy cells are infested with cockroaches and mosquitos.” Rivero is afflicted with phlebitis and other aliments.

There are prisoners who urgently need medicine, which many are not getting. Amnesty International declares all these 75 prisoners—sentenced in April after a one-day trial from which foreign journalists were banned—”prisoners of conscience.” José Miguel Vivanco—executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch—charges that “Cuba is flouting fundamental human rights norms.”

And in the Hague, Netherlands, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, declaring “the fundamental right of all human beings to access information without restriction,” has condemned this brutal exercise of Castro’s dictatorial power.

It is worth noting that since many of these prisoners of conscience are more than 50 years old, they will spend the rest of their lives in the gulag—suffering, in some cases, lives shortened by disease and the eventual abandonment by the world press.

In this country, the 10 independent librarians have been abandoned by, of all people, America’s public librarians—that is, by the democratically elected American Library Association Council that sets policy for the ALA’s 64,000 members, the largest organization of librarians in the world.

The American Library Association annually sponsors Banned Books Week in the nation’s libraries with the rallying cry: “Free People Read Freely,” and its membership booklet proclaims “the public’s right to explore in their libraries many points of view on all questions and issues facing them.”

In our libraries, anyone can borrow George Orwell’s 1984 or a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—but these and many other “subversive” titles are banned in Cuba’s state-run-and-controlled libraries. However, until Castro’s April crackdown on Cuba’s dissenters for the crime of advocating freedom of thought, the independent librarians, from their homes, did make these proscribed publications available.

The refusal of the American Library Association to join the demand to release the prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the American dissenters against Bush in The Progressive is all the more shameful in view of its members’ rebellion against John Ashcroft in this country.

In an increasing number of libraries here, signs are up warning patrons that under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the FBI is empowered to come into libraries with a list of books to be matched with the names of their borrowers in a search for links to terrorist activity. The signs also point out that the law forbids the librarian from telling anyone—including the names of borrowers matched with certain books—that the FBI has come.

In resistance, at many public libraries, as soon as books are returned the records of their borrowers are shredded so that there will be nothing for the FBI to find. This has greatly irritated John Ashcroft, who finally said he has not implemented Section 215 of the Patriot Act. But he carefully did not say that he will never send in the FBI to find out what you’re reading. So the shredding goes on.

While American librarians—whom Ashcroft calls “hysterics”—deserve credit for being on the front line against this secret fishing for subversives, none have been threatened with prison time by Ashcroft. But 10 librarians in Cuba have been put away for 20 years and more for not going along with Castro’s endless Banned Books weeks.

In June, at the American Library Association’s main annual meeting in Toronto, there were members who wanted the ALA to live up to its principles. But Cuban independent librarians were denied a speaking place on the program while Castro’s librarians were given the freedom to speak for nearly three hours. There was no demand from the ALA to release the imprisoned independent librarians, and the issue was sent to various committees for further discussion at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in San Diego from January 9 to 14.

I am not optimistic that a majority of the ALA Council will, at last, recognize in January what José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch said in September at the New School University in New York, at a discussion honoring five Cuban dissidents with the school’s University in Exile Award:

“I hope we can all agree . . . that no one should have any illusions about the character of the Cuban government. No one should romanticize any aspect of this cruel system or make any excuses for Fidel Castro’s abuses. The crackdown on dissent in Cuba is not the fault of the United States or the fault of the U.S. embargo or the fault of the Cuban American community. The responsibility lies with Fidel Castro, period.”

Ask your public librarians if they will insist that the American Library Association finally speak for the librarians in Castro’s gulag. To be continued.