Who Speaks for Liberty in Cuba?


The Cuban people are the freest people on Earth.
—Ignacio González Planas,
Cuban minister of information and communications, Juventud Rebelde, January 18

Years ago, at the Cuban mission to the United Nations, I asked the revolutionary Cuban icon Che Guevara, who professed not to understand English, “Can you conceive of any time in the future when there will be free elections in Cuba?”

Not waiting for the translator, Guevara laughed heartily at my simplemindedness. “In Cuba?” He said, and moved on.

All these years, there have been men and women in Fidel Castro’s prisons who exemplify a quality that Albert Camus described in The Rebel as characterizing those who are impelled to resist tyranny:

“The part of himself that he wanted to be respected he proceeded to place above everything else and proclaims it preferable to everything, even to life itself.”

I have enormous respect for the 75 nonviolent, pro-democracy rebels now serving sentences in prison of 20 or more years after Castro’s crackdown in April of last year. The fearful dictator acted after tens of thousands of courageous Cubans put their names to the nonviolent, nationwide, pro-democracy Varela Project. Castro could not fit all those rebels in his gulags, so the crackdown was intended as a warning to future projects advocating an end to the dictatorship.

Because of my respect for these rebels, I am focusing on the stunning refusal of the great majority of the governing council of the American Library Association—so safely fearless in resisting John Ashcroft and his Patriot Act—to tell Fidel Castro to release the 75 prisoners, including the librarians.

There are those on the council who claim the April crackdown was Castro’s response to increasing moves by the Bush administration to bring about regime change in Cuba—ranging from the embargo and other punitive laws to statements by Bush and Colin Powell indicating the need for Castro’s removal.

These administration calls for the end of Castro’s rule will, I believe, lead to further Castro crackdowns on independent Cuban journalists and human rights workers, who are not agents of the United States government any more than are the individuals in a number of countries who sent books and other materials to the independent librarians in the spirit of the Varela Project and to show independent Cubans that they were not alone.

I agree with many of the Varela signers who want the embargo lifted, and I think the administration’s loose talk of regime change in Cuba is counterproductive macho posturing that does no one any good.

But why do the Castro defenders on the ALA’s governing council have such influence that they have placed the entire American Library Association in the humiliating position of refusing to at least demand the release of fellow librarians in Cuba who have risked—and now suffer—so much to defend the freedom to read?

The reason these private, independent libraries came into existence was clearly shown in a report by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions in the Hague, Netherlands, an organization with which the American Library Association often cooperates—and which it often commends.

The August 2001 IFLA “Report on Free Access to Information in Cuba” was written by Susanne Seidelin, director of the IFLA/Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression office. Citing the March 2000 “Regulations of the Public Libraries Network in Cuba,” Seidelin, who made her own visit to the official Cuban libraries, concluded:

“There is no doubt that a wide range of information or literature expressing current opinions is unavailable in the libraries of Cuba. Even when publications are held, their use may be restricted or monitored to the extent that ordinary people may be inhibited or even prevented from gaining access to them.”

She continued: “It can be argued that the fast growing number of independent libraries indicates the existence of [an] information gap and that they help by supplying a need that otherwise cannot be filled by [official] public libraries.” (Emphasis added.)

The International Federation of Library Associations is not an agent of the CIA or any other part of the Bush administration. And the censorship policies of the Cuban official libraries were put in place by Fidel Castro, not Dick Cheney. So again, why the hell was the huge majority of the policy-making council of the American Library Association afraid to call for the release of the independent librarians who were brave enough to “supply a need that otherwise cannot be fulfilled” by Castro’s public (sic) libraries?

A key official of that Cuban library system is Eliades Acosta Matos, director of Cuba’s National Library (Biblioteca Nacional). He kept track of the proceedings of the ALA’s council during the mid-winter meeting in San Diego, maybe through the ALA’s website.

After Karen Schneider’s free-the-librarians amendment was overwhelmingly defeated by the ALA’s governing council, there was an exchange of messages between Acosta and Steve Marquardt, an ALA member who believes in everyone’s right to read—everywhere.

From Acosta’s message to Marquardt: “I send to you the text of the report on Cuba approved in San Diego.” Clearly pleased that Schneider’s amendment had been rejected, Acosta said triumphantly, “Ask yourself why the resolution proposed by Ms. Schneider was defeated.”

Acosta then gave the same answer for the defeat of the resolution that a number of members of the ALA council have also been giving: the “aggressions” of the American government against Cuba, including “lies and subversion, such as the ‘independent libraries.’ ”

Here we have a Castro official understandably approving of that particular part of the ALA’s final report that avoids any direct affront to the Maximum Leader by refusing to tell him to release the independent librarians.

By the way, the final report recommended that the UN Commission on Human Rights conduct a special investigation in Cuba of “freedom of access to information and freedom of expression, especially in the cases of those recently imprisoned.”

Among the members of the UN Human Rights Commission are: Cuba, and such other protectors of free expression as China, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. Has the ALA’s governing council no shame?

Mr. Acosta in a subsequent message asks tartly, “What does Mr. Hentoff know of the real Cuba?” I know that if I were a Cuban, I would be in prison.