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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

"an activist organisation that examines issues of censorship, freedom and ethics amongst library and information workers..."

ISC 13. Cuba Today, Tomorrow, Forever

Larry R. Oberg, University Librarian,
Mark O. Hatfield Library, Willamette University,
Salem, Oregon U.S.A.

My interest in Cuba dates back to my college days at UC-Berkeley. In the early 1960s, I - perhaps like some of you - was caught up in the protests that were common then against the Vietnam War and the student movement that surged around me. These events convinced me that weaknesses existed in our society. Fidel and Che's efforts to build a new and more just social order on their small island nation captured my interest and my imagination. I had wanted to join the Venceremos Brigades that took groups of American students and workers to Cuba for a couple of week's labor in the cane fields and then a tour of the island. But, it didn't work out. Marriage, kids, and graduate school took precedence.

In 1982, I got my first professional position in the Cubberley Education Library at Stanford University where I worked for one year as reference librarian. The strong international education focus of the Stanford programs prompted me to construct a bibliography of post-revolutionary Cuban education that I later expanded to cover health care and other human services and then published as a book. Because of restrictions placed upon travel to Cuba by our government, I was once again unable to visit the island.

So, when my friend, Rhonda Neugebauer, called me, now over a year ago, and suggested that I join the library tour of Cuba that she was planning, I jumped at the opportunity. Cuba had never left my thoughts entirely and Elian Gonzalez, very much in the headlines, was still in Miami. With any luck I would finally see what Christopher Columbus had called "The most beautiful land eyes have ever seen." This time, travel to Cuba was not only possible, but by some standards, easy. Today, a few fortunate U. S. citizens are permitted to travel to Cuba under Treasury Department restrictions. "Professionals visiting professionals" is one category that is legal under the terms of the U.S. embargo. For example, U.S. librarians who wished to attend the 1994 IFLA conference in Havana were permitted to go. And since Rhonda and I first went in March a year ago, at least one other North American library tour group has made the trip as well.

One of the many ironies of U.S. - Cuba relations is that the U.S. embargo does not prohibit American citizens from going to Cuba, rather it prohibits us from spending money on getting there and spending money during our stay there. This means that were you invited to Cuba by Fidel as an honored guest of the revolution, and he paid all of your expenses, going would be quite legitimate. But going as a simple America tourist is illegal and subject to a 200,000 dollar fine and twenty years imprisonment.

The truly perverse nature of our relations with this small island nation is emblematic of the times in which we live. For over forty years now, the U.S. embargo - the Cubans call it a blockade - has greatly limited Cuba's ability to purchase goods from abroad. Agricultural products, food and even medical supplies are prohibited, a condition that strengthens the argument that the embargo hurts the people rather than the government. The embargo also interferes with the free flow of information from and about Cuba. Bias in reporting constitutes a grave impediment to our understanding of the Cuban reality by making us dependent upon, and hence vulnerable to, the highly questionable and manipulative reporting that is common in much of our mainstream press and, indeed, even on our library listservs.

Since my first trip to the island with Rhonda in March of 2000, I have been back two more times. In the past year alone, I have spent more than three months in Cuba. Making up for lost time, I suppose. On these trips I have kept detailed written accounts of my impressions and activities. Here is what I wrote about my first arrival on the island: "When our small turboprop aircraft touched down at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport, the 60-odd passengers burst into prolonged applause. With Miami behind them, many applauded because they would soon be reunited with long-lost brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, even daughters and sons. Others because the lure of the revolution - an historic event of epic proportions - had drawn them into its sway. Still others applauded because their holidays in the luxury hotels and on the beaches of Varadero were about to begin. Our delegation of North American librarians, educators, and students also applauded, not certain why, really. Perhaps because we were now a part of that small elite group of U.S. citizens whom our government had deigned to allow to visit. Perhaps because the seventeen members of our delegation knew that at last they would meet their Cuban counterparts and learn about their values, practices and concerns. Perhaps also because we were visiting a neighboring country whose culture, economy, and politics are as obscure to most Americas as those of Tibet or Nepal."

One thing that is important to understand is that Cuba is a poor country. The economy is heavily dependent upon agriculture and, increasingly, tourism for the hard currency it needs to purchase abroad such scarce items as food, fuel, clothing and books. Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc - Cuba's primary trading partners - this small nation has suffered a financial crisis of considerable magnitude. Cubans refer to these hard times as the "special period." New trading partners and new sources of income have had to be found. Over the past several years, tourism has become a growth industry; a primary source for the hard currency Cuba needs to survive in an almost universally hostile world. A dollar economy has been introduced. This has had a salutary effect upon the economy, but a negative effect upon social integration. Tourists pay in dollars, Cubans pay either in dollars or in pesos, the national currency. Those Cubans who have access to dollars - estimated to be about 20 percent of the population - can afford more and live better than those who do not.

My goals and those of Rhonda as well, have always been to meet our Cuban counterparts, learn about Cuban libraries, and separate the myths that surround Cuba from the realities we hoped to discover. During my three recent trips to Cuba, I spoke with countless librarians, library support staff, educators, and scientists. I found them all to be open, receptive and desirous of establishing closer contacts with their North American counterparts. I learned a great deal about their dedication, hard work, and ability to offer quality services on limited budgets. I came away convinced that Cuban librarians are committed to the effective use of their scarce resources and the rapid development of appropriate electronic technologies. Their ethics and values are reflected in their efforts to build strong professional training programs for librarians and library technicians alike. And also in their desire to organize Cuban libraries in a way that equitably distributes materials and services throughout the country, while emphasizing service to children and the historically undeserved rural areas.

Cuban librarians carry out many of the same activities as their North American counterparts. They strive to build broad in-depth collections that reflect their cultural and national identity and provide access to information and reference services to students, researchers, other professionals and the Cuban population as a whole. They organize and preserve materials in diverse formats, create tools that aid patrons in the use of their collections and, increasingly, employ electronic technologies to organize, format and deliver information. As professionals, they participate in degree programs, conferences, instructional workshops and professional associations. They lobby for increased funding to develop coordinated library services, a national online catalog, and strong distance education programs.

Well, what does it feel like to be in Cuba? Here are a couple of notes from my diary. The first is a brief impression of Havana: "A lovely and remarkably clean city, Havana is graced with superb Colonial architecture, much of which, after centuries of neglect, has fallen into disrepair. Thanks to an international cooperative effort - several neighborhoods of Havana have been designated Patrimony for Humanity by UNESCO - considerable restoration work is underway. For example, many of the lovely buildings that front the ocean along Havana's fabled Malecon drive are being restored. Many of the pre-1959 American automobiles that famously dot Cuban streets are also lovingly restored - a symbol of Cuba's ability to live without our help. This week I am staying at the Hotel Habana Libre. Opened about a year before the revolution as part of the Hilton chain, it served as Fidel's headquarters in the heady months that followed his triumphal sweep into the city."

And here are a few of my notes about Santiago de Cuba: "Founded in 1515, Santiago de Cuba is the country's second largest city. A gregarious and cosmopolitan seaport on the southeastern coast, it was captured by Teddy Roosevelt's RoughRiders in 1898 during the long Cuban struggle for independence from Spain. (A struggle, incidentally, that we in the United States persist in calling the Spanish-American War.) On San Juan Hill, the site of the famous charge, some of us were hustled by a couple of thirteen-year-olds. Did they want money? No, they wanted pens for their schoolwork. "We're good students," they exclaimed, eagerly showing us workbooks in which page after page bore the annotation, "excelente." We gave them our pens and silently cursed the embargo. From San Juan Hill, the rugged Sierra Maestra Mountains are seen in vivid relief. It was into these hills that escaped slaves fled to elude capture, find freedom and establish maroon colonies. It was here that Fidel and his supporters sought refuge after their return from exile in Mexico. And it is here today, amongst this predominately black population, that Fidel continues to find some of his strongest support.

"Santiago de Cuba has a different feel from Havana and the population speaks with a rhythm and cadence that are immediately identifiable. It is hot and tropical and the people live in the streets. At the Biblioteca Publica Elvira Cape we drank fruit cocktails from a glass and spent our free moments on the library's rooftop patio, capturing the mountain breezes and marveling at our colleagues' ability to build a collection on a materials budget of 50,000 pesos a year. At the birthplace of Antonio Maceo, the "bronze titan" of Cuba's war for independence from Spain, a woman cried when she talked about Elian Gonzalez as her own young son played quietly in the courtyard. "After his kidnapping," she said, "I cried for weeks, almost without stop." In restaurants, the currency requirements are relaxed and we guiltily pay in pesos, not in the dollars Cuba needs so badly. A full meal for four with tip and numerous bottles of the excellent Cristal and Bucanero Fuerte beer cost the equivalent of eight dollars."

On our first trip, Rhonda and I visited several of the so-called "independent libraries," two in Santiago de Cuba, and this past March, on our second trip, some twelve more in the Havana area alone. Indeed, we visited every "independent library" in the Province of Havana that Mr. Robert Kent and his organization, Friends of Cuban Libraries, had listed on their web page. Friends of Cuban Libraries has widely publicized these "libraries" as bastions of freedom and free expression in a repressive society and their "librarians" as unfettered champions of access to information. Rhonda and I, however, came away with a much different impression. What we found were extremely small book collections - a few hundred volumes at the outside - housed in the living rooms or bedrooms of private homes. These so-called libraries bear no identifying signs and the books are unorganized. Most of the "librarians" could produce no circulation records. The one or two who did, showed us notebooks indicating that perhaps two or three books had been lent in the past month.

The so-called "independent librarians" that we interviewed spoke to us openly and without any apparent fear of reprisal. Several had been arrested, but admitted that these arrests had nothing to do with their "library" work. Rather, they were the result of activities carried out to undermine the Cuban government, for example, attempting to aid Cuban citizens to leave the country illegally. Many of these "independent librarians" are also members, or indeed leaders, of the so-called independent journalist movement, a group of political activists whose ultimate aim appears to be to harass and undermine the Cuban government.

A number of the so-called independent librarians told us that they depend upon gifts of printed materials, fax machines, telephones, and video and audio recorders that, in many cases, are delivered directly to their homes by members of the U. S. Interest Section in Havana. Some admitted that they depend upon financial support, and owe allegiance to, their allies in the anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami and elsewhere abroad. It became clear to us that most of these "independent" librarians fall into two or three distinct categories: leaders or officers of various dissenting political groups, those attempting to ingratiate themselves with the U. S. Interest Section in order to "jump the queue" and receive an immigration visa to the United States, and others who are politically engaged evangelical Christians.

The "independent librarians" claim that they make available books that are censored or otherwise unavailable in the state-supported libraries. Rhonda and I always asked for the authors and titles of these books. Reinaldo Arenas, Cabrera Infante and - you may be surprised - Vaclav Havel were frequently cited. But, when we checked, we found that all of these books were listed in one or another of the state-supported library catalogs. We came away convinced that the so-called "independent libraries" are not libraries by any standards we might apply, but rather fronts - public faces - for fledgling anti-government groups in Cuba.

The Friends of Cuban Libraries, the North American organization that promotes the "independent library" movement in Cuba, has made innumerable appeals to librarians around the world to support what they would have us believe are our beleaguered Cuban "colleagues." Rhonda and I, however, found that these so-called "independent librarians" are neither librarians, nor independent, nor certainly, our colleagues. Indeed, the primary allegiance of these people appears to lie in furthering their own partisan political goals, not in providing library services to the Cuban people. Our true Cuban colleagues, I believe, are the trained and dedicated librarians - like Marta Terry here beside me today - who work in the national library, the provincial libraries, and the many public, special, and school libraries throughout Cuba. These are the real Cuban librarians, the folks who struggle to build collections and provide quality services to the Cuban people under the most difficult of conditions, conditions significantly aggravated by our own deeply immoral embargo.

The Friends of Cuban Libraries and their sympathizers wish to conduct a sterile and abstract discussion of Cuba and its libraries, a conversation devoid of context. In this manner, they can hold Cuba to an abstract standard that no other country in the world - certainly including our own - is held to, or can claim to have reached. More useful, it seems to me, is to view this small island nation within the rich context of current reality. The important questions are: How well is Cuba doing compared to the rest of Latin America? How well is it doing relative to our own country? How much progress has it made over the past forty years on a variety of fronts, including intellectual freedom and freedom of access to information? A vision of Cuba and its libraries very different from that of Mr. Kent and the so-called Friends of Cuban Libraries then emerges.

In conclusion, I want to quote from my journal again. "As our journey neared its end, our delegation hosted a farewell reception for some thirty of our newfound Cuban friends. Many professional relationships were sealed over conversation, music and mojitos. Rhonda and I came to Cuba not to find fault, but rather to understand the challenges faced by our colleagues in this complex and rapidly changing society. We came away with great respect for the real Cuban librarians who demonstrate remarkable determination, dedication, and grace under considerable fire. We resolved to aid them by working to increase the exchange of people, materials, and programs between U.S. and Cuban libraries; by finding productive roles for Cuban librarians in appropriate ALA forums; and by encouraging the donation of badly needed reference and other works to the state-supported Cuban libraries."

Here is the last brief paragraph in my diary: "The night before our leave-taking, we attended a performance of Tula by the renowned Cuban National Ballet. Shortly before the curtain rose, a group of young local balletomanes in the front row jumped to their feet to acknowledge the presence in the audience of the ballet's legendary founder and current general director, Alicia Alonso. Everyone applauded lustily and long for one of the twentieth century's greatest ballerinas. Early the next morning our plane departed Havana for Miami."

I believe that any American librarian who visits Cuba with an open mind will come away, not only wishing to see an end to the U. S. embargo, but also with a keen desire to help build closer relations with our true Cuban colleagues. I know that Rhonda and I did. Thank you. June 12, 2001


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