Private Libraries Draw Threats
(New York, NY), June 9, 2002
By Letta Tayler; LATIN AMERICA CORRESPONDENT
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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