Cuba Cages Librarians


A drive is under way to gather a million signatures by May 4 in support of bills in Congress to amend Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. The bills seek to restore the privacy safeguards in the Constitution that John Ashcroft eliminated by giving the FBI the power to get bookstore and library records through the compliant secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, without informing readers, book buyers, the press, or anyone else.

Harvesting these protesting signatures are 40 organizations and 81 individual companies, including libraries, bookstores, book publishers, as well as writers, and other ardent advocates of everyone’s freedom to read. Among them:

The American Library Association, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, PEN American Center, various state library associations, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Barnes & Noble, New York University Press, Random House, and Simon & Schuster.

If you want to sign on, you can contact: Christopher Finan, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (212-587-4025), 139 Fulton Street, suite 302, New York, NY 10038.

As I told Chris, with whom I’ve worked in many First Amendment battles, while I am impressed by this assembly of mass indignation in the tradition of James Madison, there’s something missing.

So far as I know, in this congregation of freedom-to-read activists, not one on the list—except for PEN—has said or done anything about the torment that 10 independent librarians in Cuba are undergoing in Fidel Castro’s gulag, along with 65 other pro-democracy dissidents rounded up in the dictator’s crackdown in April last year.

The governing council of the American Library Association, an organization on the list, disgraced itself in January when it overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to a final report at its mid-winter meeting telling Castro to let the librarians out. Apparently there are members of the council who romanticize Fidel, as do some Hollywood celebrities.

By contrast, at the book fair in Havana (February 5 to 15) this year, German PEN, part of an international group of writers that has successfully achieved the release of imprisoned writers in a number of countries, petitioned Castro to liberate the locked-up dissidents, including the librarians. The plea was rejected.

All 75 of these prisoners of conscience, as Amnesty International has designated them, are the subject of a report by a representative of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, French magistrate Christine Chanet. She reports that she “has received particularly alarming information about the conditions of detention of these people” in Castro’s “unprecedented wave of repression.”

On February 14, Kevin Sullivan of the Washington Post foreign service gave details of the hell that is Castro’s gulag. One of his sources is Oswaldo Paya, organizer of the Varela Project, which gathered signatures of more than 10,000 courageous Cubans calling for democratic reforms. Castro tossed them aside.

Kevin Sullivan reports that Paya and other activists said “that about 20 of the jailed dissidents were suffering from such serious health problems as kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and extreme weight loss.

“The State Department and human rights groups have appealed to Castro’s government to immediately release the most gravely ill prisoners, ‘but it’s been a complete stonewall by the government on this issue,’ said Eric Olson, the Americas advocacy director for Amnesty International in Washington.” Just like the American Library Association stonewalled.

Paya adds that many of these gravely ill prisoners are getting no medical treatment in what he calls “medieval cages.” He says: “I would like to make an appeal to the world’s conscience. It seems like there is a lot of indifference about the reality of human rights in Cuba.”

I am hoping that the library associations in individual states, along with journalists, authors, and book publishers who are engaged in collecting the million signatures, will join Oswaldo Paya in demanding the release of the imprisoned Cuban librarians. After all, Ashcroft has not put any American librarians in “medieval cages.”

Is there no concern among these groups and individuals about this alarming news from an actual police state?

In the January 12 New Statesman in England, there is an article by Joan Smith, chair of the Prison Committee of English PEN, and Adolfo Fernandez Saínz, a journalist serving a 15-year sentence as one of the 75 dissidents. Joan Smith writes: “According to Saínz’s wife, Julia Nunez Pacheco, he is being held in a minuscule cell without any running water, electricity or the most basic hygiene facilities… . Even so, Saínz has managed to write an article and smuggle it out of jail…. We have recently heard that Saínz was badly beaten up early last month when he tried to prevent inmates from attacking another political prisoner.”

Saínz’s article appeals to the conscience of the world. Toward the end of this January 12 declaration of rights by Saínz and Joan Smith, there is this call:

“All those who stand for freedom and democracy must condemn the Castro regime in all its forms, a regime that has imprisoned all those who have opposed it, including human rights activists and journalists.”

Saínz, the New Statesman says, is “likely to be denounced not just by his own government but by people on the left whose nostalgia for the Cuban revolution makes them willfully blind to the abuses committed by this dinosaur Stalinist regime.” The blind are not only in Britain.

When Castro admirers on the ALA council refused to tell him to release the dissidents, the council’s final report merely mewled “deep concern” for those left in prison.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Tweedledum reads Alice a poem telling of the Walrus and the Carpenter, who, having invited young oysters to join them for a walk along the briny beach, suddenly began to eat their unsuspecting companions.

And the Walrus, with sobs and tears, showing deep concern, “sorted out those of the largest size,” saying, “I weep for you,” as he ate every one.

During National Library Week (April 18 to 24), I hope rebellious rank-and-file American librarians, ignoring their governing council, will speak for the release of their brothers and sisters in Castro’s three-feet-wide and six-feet-long cells. The International Red Cross is forbidden to visit, as it has been by Castro since 1989.