A U.S. Librarian Defends Castro


Ann Sparanese, a member of the governing Council of the American Library Association, has written a letter to the Voice criticizing my columns about Fidel Castro’s prison sentences of 20 and more years for 75 Cuban dissenters, including 10 independent librarians. To her credit, she says, “I don’t have the right to speak for the entire American Library Association.”

She is exercising her First Amendment right to speak for herself—the basis for the intellectual freedom, including the freedom to read, that until now the ALA has considered fundamental to people everywhere.

At an upcoming midwinter meeting in San Diego, from January 9 to 14, the ALA plans to decide whether it will indeed live up to its principles and finally support the locked-up independent librarians in Cuba. It has refused so far.

Ann Sparanese writes: “In Nat Hentoff’s articles, ‘In Castro’s Gulag—Librarians,’ December 17-23, and ‘Criminalizing Librarians,’ December 24-30, he claims that Victor Arroyo is an ‘independent librarian,’ but the Amnesty International report he cites does not even mention the word library, librarian, or even books in its description of Arroyo.

“Also, Hentoff is mistaken about why the dissidents are in prison. The laws under which they were convicted criminalize collaboration with, or aid to, a foreign power seeking to overthrow the Cuban government. The Law of Protection of the Independence of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba (Law 88) was passed in 1999 in direct reaction to the passage of the Helms-Burton Law by the U.S. Congress in 1996. Helms-Burton tightens the economic embargo against Cuba and appropriates millions of our tax dollars every year for the overthrow of the Cuban government, euphemistically referred to as ‘transition.’

“Those arrested were convicted of receiving aid from U.S. agents for the purposes of regime change, not for distributing copies of 1984. Even Amnesty International devotes quite a bit of ink to the role of U.S. policy in creating conditions for the ‘crackdown’ in Cuba.

“And Cuba is not the only country to forbid the influx of foreign support to subvert its political process; so does the United States. The Helms-Burton Law and the USA Patriot Act are both overreaching U.S. laws which jeopardize civil liberties here and in Cuba. Both should be repealed. Without Helms-Burton, the Cuban laws would lose their rationale and those imprisoned might be freed. Many of us disdain the idea that our cherished professional values should be enlisted in the service of the wrong-headed and provocative foreign policy of our own government.”

I welcome Ann Sparanese’s letter because in answering it, I can prove the brutal fact that even if the Helms-Burton Law and the USA Patriot Act were repealed, Fidel Castro’s pervasive repression of dissenters in Cuba would not abate, since it is the very foundation of his rule. Also, there remains a division among the American left regarding Castro’s recent crackdown that needs answering.

As for Victor Arroyo, I cited in my column a report by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, an organization that exposes the silencing of journalists, often at some peril to its own members.

The 52-year-old Arroyo was charged with having an independent library, Reyes Magos, in the city of Pinar Del Río. The prosecutors added, underlining the gravity of his crime, that the library had some 6,000 volumes.

In this country too, Tom Paine was reviled by the British crown as a traitor because his Common Sense stirred the colonialists to continue yearning for freedom.

Amnesty International, declaring Arroyo a prisoner of conscience, noted that he was a member of the Union of Independent Cuban Journalists and Writers. One of the accusations against Arroyo, who is sentenced to 26 years in prison, was that he had won the Lillian Hellman/Dashiell Hammett human rights prize by Human Rights Watch. Both were American writers of the left.

What, Ann Sparanese, does that award have to do with the Helms-Burton law? Or is it “Human Rights Watch” that got him in trouble?

In her letter, Sparanese omits mention of my referring, in the “Criminalizing Librarians” column, to the detailed answer by Amnesty International to those whose claim that the 75 imprisoned dissenters, including the 10 independent librarians, endangered Cuba’s national security. From Amnesty’s June 3, 57-page report: “Cuba: ‘Essential Measures’? Human Rights Crackdown in the Name of Security”:

“The dissidents were not charged under articles of the Penal Code covering spying or revelation of secrets concerning state security (articles 95-97), and the evidence given [against them] does not point to such activity . . . (Emphasis added.)

“Whatever the merits of the Cuban government’s argument with the United States over its practices in Cuba, a review of the limited information contained in the trial documents indicates that the specific behavior for which dissidents were prosecuted was nonviolent and seemed to fall within the parameters of legitimate exercise of fundamental freedoms rather than those of any recognizable criminal activity . . .

“Despite the Cuban government’s claims that such acts threatened national security and therefore warranted prosecution, the above activities constitute legitimate exercise of freedoms of expression, assembly and association, and cannot in themselves justify the authorities’ repressive reaction.” (Emphasis added.)

Civil libertarian Sanford Berman, an ALA member, a winner of its Equality Award and the prestigious Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award, writes of the imprisoned independent librarians: “Some collected books and other literature for borrowing by anyone interested. Some held meetings and talked. Some mounted human rights posters. Some committed the heinous crime of visiting prisoners and their families.

“None advocated the violent overthrow of the Cuban government. None stockpiled munitions. Not only were some 10 voluntary, private, independent librarians among the 70 detainees, but their books and other materials were also confiscated and have since reportedly been burned as ‘worthless.’ ”

As for the notorious Castro Law 88, Amnesty International notes that the Castro crackdown was “the first time” it has “been applied in criminal proceedings in Cuba. This development is of grave concern, as elements of the law, mirroring other aspects of the Cuban legal framework, appear to place unlawful restrictions on internationally recognized rights.” Next week: Castro speaks, and unintentionally adds to the shame of the American Library Association.