A U.S. Library vs. Fidel


Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 10, 1948

Fidel Castro, I’m sure, never heard of the small town of Vermillion, South Dakota, until late last year, when the Vermillion Public Library—founded in 1902, on the eve of the Progressive era in American politics—began to gain international attention by becoming the first, and only, American library to call attention to Castro’s imprisoning of 10 of Cuba’s independent librarians to sentences of more than 20 years.

Spurred by Mark Wetmore, vice president of the library’s board of trustees, the Vermillion library voted on November 18 to sponsor and support the Dulce Maria Loynaz Library in Havana, Cuba.

In March 2003, Castro’s State Security police arrested 75 Cuban dissenters: journalists, human rights workers, and labor organizers, along with independent librarians who provided access to books excluded from Cuba’s censored library system. These “subversive” independent public librarians were sent to Castro’s foul prisons, along with the other dissenters.

During the raids on these independent libraries, the offending books were confiscated, and many of them burned. The Dulce Maria Loynaz Library was one of the targets, but it remains under the directorship of Gisela Delgado, who was not imprisoned.

The Vermillion Public Library is now sending books to its sister independent library in Havana. The first two shipments included Spanish-language editions of George Orwell’s 1984 and a collection of the works of that formidable freethinker Mark Twain.

What has made this signal of solidarity against repression most notable is that this small town in South Dakota has not only defied Castro but has also shown the hypocrisy of the national American Library Association—the largest organization of librarians in the world—whose governing council last year overwhelmingly defeated an amendment from one of its members to demand that Castro immediately release the 10 independent librarians, along with the other 65 “prisoners of conscience,” as Amnesty International has described them.

Although American librarians stood up to John Ashcroft’s Patriot Act provision empowering the FBI to seize library records, including the readers of suspect books, the policy makers of the ALA didn’t want to overly offend the Cuban dictator. (Some members of the ALA governing council are Fidelistas who serenade Castro’s health care system but are silent about his secret police—and the gulag in which he keeps Cubans who will not be silenced. The Fidelistas prevailed in that ALA vote.)

I have found it astonishing that not until the Vermillion Public Library’s sponsorship of an independent Cuban library has an American public library reached out to any of the courageous freedom libraries in Cuba.

In addition to Vermillion, the French cities of Paris and Strasbourg have also formally adopted some of Cuba’s independent libraries. And in a December 15 statement, the presidium of the general board of the Polish Librarians Association—whose members have experienced the censorship of Soviet occupation—demanded the release of the Cuban independent librarians, saying:

“The measures of the Cuban government are aimed not only against the persecuted librarians, but also against users, whose access to alternative media and publications thus becomes constrained. . . . The Polish Librarians Association is appealing for uniting the efforts of all individuals and organizations which treasure freedom of expression and intellectual independence.”

Also supporting the beleaguered independent librarians subject to Castro’s crackdowns and the burning of books is the Library Association of Latvia. The library community of that country has associated itself with the Polish librarians in solidarity with its brothers and sisters in Cuba.

An additional supporter is the presidium of the executive committee of the Association of Library and Information Professionals of the Czech Republic. The Czech librarians, quoting Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, call on Castro to respect “the right of people in every country to ‘seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’ ” They too remember Soviet occupation.

Next week: How one person, Mark Wetmore of Vermillion, launched this sole declaration of universal freedom to read from an American library—and his advice to public librarians and their boards around this country on the steps they can take to sponsor an independent library in Cuba.

As Mark Wetmore told the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota: “Our material support [sending books] will probably never be very overwhelming. But just letting them [the independent Cuban librarians] know that someone outside Cuba is concerned about them, we think that’s very important.”

Vermillion library trustee Jack Powell adds: “Cuba is sensitive to what other countries say about them. If other libraries would follow what’s been done, it would make it more likely that these people who’ve been imprisoned would be released.”

America’s librarians know what the Vermillion librarians have done. The January 2005 issue of the American Library Association magazine, American Libraries, had a story on Vermillion, and Steve Marquardt, dean of libraries at South Dakota State University, is informing every U.S. state library association newsletter about the Vermillion freedom initiative. How many American librarians will respond?