In Cuba, Private Libraries Draw Threats

Newsday (New York, NY), June 9, 2002 Sunday 


Havana - The phone calls start in the middle of the night and continue on the hour until dawn. "Your time is up," a male voice threatens. Then the line goes dead.

Gisela Delgado Sablon has been receiving these calls since December, when she became director of the Association of Independent Cuban Libraries. She says she is being targeted for helping Cubans read what they want to read. In the past four years, more than 80 independent lending rooms have sprouted in homes and apartments across this island nation, offering books and magazines that often are not available in state-run libraries. The libraries' proliferation, despite harassment and threats against their directors and some of their readers, make them an important testing ground for greater individual freedoms in communist Cuba.

Most U.S. readers would consider the offerings in these renegade libraries benign. The bulk of the 3,200 volumes in Delgado's library - a small, humid room in her third-floor walk-up apartment in Havana - are books such as tattered legal tomes, detective novels, poetry compilations and translations of classics such as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

But Cuban President Fidel Castro's government, which exercises almost total control over the dissemination of information, brands the libraries as subversive. "They are centers of conspiracy against the Cuban revolution," said Rafael Dausa, a foreign ministry official.

"This is what bothers the government," Delgado countered as she held up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a recent edition of the Spanish-language Diario Las Americas, a Miami-based daily that is critical of the Castro regime.

Since his 1959 revolution, Castro has increased Cuba's literacy rate to nearly 100 percent, the highest in Latin America. But state-run libraries bar Cubans' access to much of their materials unless they carry an authorization card from their employer or university.

"I can't just walk into a public library and ask for books on Afro-Cuban religion," said Luis Antonio Bonito Lara, a retired engineer and avid reader. "I can't even ask for copies of Granma from two years ago without special permission. It's enormously frustrating."

Bookstores offer a few bestsellers, along with classics from such authors as Marcel Proust and longtime Cuba resident Ernest Hemingway. But at 10 U.S. dollars each, which is almost an average monthly wage, they are out of most readers' reach.

Some books, like George Orwell's anti-authoritarian "1984" - the most frequently requested novel in Cuba's independent libraries - simply aren't available in stores or state libraries, even if catalogs list them.

Two professors created the first independent library in 1998 in the eastern city of Las Tunas, saying they were inspired by Castro's comment that year that "there are no banned books in Cuba, just no money to buy them."

Government officials contend the independent libraries were created and funded by the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana and Cuban exiles in Florida whom they brand the "Miami Mafia."

Independent librarians readily say they receive books from Cuban exiles and from the U.S. mission, but also say most come from European donors. They deny receiving any outside funding. Conservative lawmakers including Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C.), would like to provide direct U.S. aid to the libraries - something not all librarians here would welcome because they don't want politics muddying their mission.

Delgado, for one, calls herself a "cultural activist" rather than a dissident. Still, she says groups of men whom Delgado believes are state security agents have threatened her and have four times raided her library, emptying its shelves.

"The government is terrified of these librarians, but how can it throw people in jail just for reading books?" said Robert Kent, a New York Public Library research librarian from Queens who heads a group called Friends of Cuban Libraries. "For the most part, they try to oppose the libraries in a subtle way."

For example, the government evicted the professors who founded the first independent library from their house, prompting them to move to Miami.

However, actions against librarians who are human rights activists can be more severe. Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva - a blind librarian and human rights leader from the central Cuban city of Ciego de Avila who also heads an association for the blind - has been jailed since March, when he was arrested for protesting a police attack on a local journalist.

State security forces severely beat Gonzalez and confiscated books in his library including his Braille collection, according to international human rights groups.

Dausa, the foreign ministry official, denied the government is targeting librarians. However, he warned, "if someone violates the law they shall be brought to justice ... for example, if they are fomenting plots against constitutional order."

Independent library directors hope former President Jimmy Carter's visit to Cuba last month, in which he met with some librarians and called for free speech, will soften the government's stance on unbridled reading.

In the meantime, Delgado continues to receive nighttime threats from her anonymous caller.

Copyright 2002 Newsday, Inc.  Newsday (New York, NY)