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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 16. In the Spirit of Wandering Librarians

By John Pateman

"I never felt Cuban until I learned to read and write" - Juan Martinez, campesino (peasant)

In 1961, hundreds of thousands of Cubans together confronted a social problem that still concerns much of the world today - illiteracy. Through mass mobilisations, the country's students, teachers, workers and peasants achieved in one year what was apparently impossible : the goal of basic literacy for almost Cuba's entire population.

In 2002 I visited Cuba for the fifth time, to rediscover the energy, dedication and youthful spirit of those who participated in this brilliant literacy campaign in Cuba. I visited libraries, bookshops and museums in Santiago de Cuba, Guantanamo and Havana. The highlight of my trip was being awarded the "Distincion Por La Cultura Nacional" by the Cuban government for my work in support of Cuban libraries and the Cuban Revolution.

Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba, the island's second biggest city, is also known as the Cradle of the Cuban Revolution. It was here, on 26 July 1953, that a small group of revolutionaries, lead by Fidel Castro, attacked the Moncada Barracks, a hated symbol of the corrupt US-backed Batista regime. The attack did not succeed and Castro was detained in prison for nearly two years. After his release, Castro went to Mexico where he organised another attempt to overthrow the hated Batista government. In November 1956 he sailed with 82 others, including Ernesto "Che" Guevara, on the cruiser "Granma" from Mexico to Cuba. They arrived in Cuba on 2 December 1956; this was one week before I was born and I have felt in this, and many other ways, a very close affiliation with the Cuban Revolution.

Following the Triumph of the Revolution in January 1959, the Moncada Barracks were turned into a school. A small museum is attached to the school, telling the story of the attack on 26 July, evidence of which are the bullet holes which can still be seen all around the entrance to the building. The museum has a bookstall and I purchased a copy of `Island in the Storm" by Gail Reed. This is an account of the Cuban Communist Party's Fourth Congress, which was held in Santiago de Cuba in 1991. This proved to be the most critical meeting in the Revolution's history, as it came soon after the collapse of the People's Democracies in Eastern Europe and the imminent implosion of the Soviet Union. Cuba relied on these countries for 85% of its trade, and so began what the Cuban's call their "Special Period in Peacetime". This Special Period has not yet ended, but the economy has improved as a result of tourism and a number of other economic measures taken by the Cuban government. Socialism is still alive and well in Cuba, but they now face the new threat of George W. Bush and his war on the so-called "axis of evil".

Architecturally, the 4th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba left an indelible mark on the city in the form of the soaring Hotel Santiago de Cuba, the huge Teatro Jose Maria Heredia, the dramatic Antonio Maceo Monument, the new train station and the modern terminal building at Antonio Maceo International Airport. In addition to visiting these, I also went to several bookshops, including the Libreria Internacional (which has a good selection of books in English), Libreria Manolito del Toro (good for political literature) and Libreria Viet Nam (one of the top bookstores in town). All of these bookshops were well stocked and well used, a testimony to Cuba's thriving book publishing industry.

The price of books is also remarkably cheap, and well within the income of the average Cuban. A new programme has been launched in Cuba to enable each family to develop its own library in the home. A selection of books, known as the Family Library, can be purchased for as little as 60 pesos. This forms part of the Cuban National Reading Campaign, and is also designed to undermine the so-called "independent library movement", funded by the US Interests Section in Havana. This movement is neither independent nor to do with libraries. It consists of small collections of books in the homes of political dissidents who are seeking residency in the US. Backed by the US based "Friends of Cuban Libraries" (sic) and Robert Kent, this movement has been discredited by the signing of agreements in support of state run Cuban libraries by the American Library Association (ALA) and the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA).

The Biblioteca Elvira Cape is SAntiago's largest public library. It is just off the city's main square, Parque Cespedes (where Fidel announced the Triumph of the Revolution from the balcony of the Town Hall in 1959), and is almost opposite the famous Casa de la Trova, (where members of the internationally renowned Buena Vista Social Club regularly appear). The Elvira Cape library was founded in 1899, the same year as the nearby Museo Municipal Emilio Bacardi Moreau, one of Cuba's oldest functioning museums. The museum was founded by the famous rum distiller and first mayor of Santiago de Cuba, Emilio Bacardi y Moreau (1844-1922). His wife, Elvira Cape, was an outstanding sociologist. They are both buried at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, which also contains the tomb of Jose Marti, Cuba's national hero. Bacardi rum has not been produced in Cuba since 1959, when the company fled the Revolution and relocated to the Bahamas. The Bacardi company has financed attempts to overthrow Castro and so you are advised not to drink Bacardi rum; instead you should ask for Havana Club, an authentic, superior and ideologically sound Cuban rum.


Guantanamo is most famous for its US naval base near Caimanera, 21km south of the city of Guantanamo. In 1903, the US government used the Platt Amendment, imposed on Cuba as a condition of independence, to slice off 116 sq km of Cuban territory at the mouth of the Bahia de Guantanamo. In 1934, US President Roosevelt agreed to a Cuban request to change the grant in perpetuity to a 99-year lease, although both sides must agree before the lease can be terminated. The base is a thorn in the side of US-Cuban relations and Castro appears on Cuban TV each year vowing never to cash the cheques which he is sent by the US government for leasing the base. More recently, George W Bush provocatively built a high security prison, "Camp X-Ray", at Guantanamo to house alleged Al Quieda prisoners. Camp X-Ray was clearly visible when I visited Mirador de Malones, a 320m high hill which affords a sweeping view of the entire base. Using a US 25-cent telescope made in Covington, Kentucky, I could observe the US flags fluttering at Bortheat Gate and pick out American vehicles driving along the roads. More disturbing was the sight of Camp X Ray, which has been built close to the edge of the base, next to a massive mine field. The day of our visit was extremely hot, and I could imagine the suffering of the detained prisoners who are being held in the most barbaric of conditions.

By contrast, the city of Guantanamo itself is bustling with a population of 208,000 and many charming colonial buildings, including the Museo Municipal, which is housed in an old colonial prison built in 1860. Local architect Leticio Salcines (1888-1973) left a number of impressive works around Guantanamo, including the provincial library, the market building, the train station, and his personal residence, the eclectic Palacio Salcines, which is now the Centro Provincial de Arte. I visited the city's main bookshop, Libreria Asdrubal Lopez, and the provincial public library, the Biblioteca Policarpo Pineda Rustan, a former city hall built between 1934 and 1951. Trials of Fulgencio Batista's thugs were held here in 1959, and a number were killed when they grabbed a rifle and attempted to escape. I was given a tour of the building which included a large ground floor lending library, the children's section (in a colonial style courtyard), the reference and audio libraries (on the first floor), and the roof, which gave me a panaramic view of the city.

The library is open 8am to 9pm weekdays, 8am to 5pm Saturday, and 8am to noon Sunday. Late evenings and Sunday opening are a feature of all Cuban public libraries. With a total weekly opening time of 78 hours, these are far in excess of the UK Public Library Standards, and an indication of how socially inclusive the Cuban library system is. Cuban libraries are used by people from all backgrounds, men and women, Black and White. Last year Cuban libraries were actively used by 8 million Cuban people, from a population of 11 million. This represents 72.7% of the Cuban people; in the UK public libraries are only actively used by 30% of the people.

Public libraries are one of the Triumphs of the Cuban Revolution, and they are a legacy of Cuba's radically successful Literacy Campaign, in which hundreds of thousands of young people were able to reduce their country's grave illiteracy rate to below 4% in one year alone. Not before and never again has a nation been capable of such a rapid, massive improvement in the cultural level of their people. Forty years later, with illiteracy rates in the Third World at critical levels, it is even more important to understand the Cuban example and the way it informed and effected social change. In 1961 the crisis of illiteracy was tackled with such dynamism that for one year, books and pens came symbolically alive.


Evidence of the 1961 Literacy Campaign can be found all around Havana, which has its own Literacy Museum and archive of the campaign. While walking through the Plaza de Armas in old Havana, I spotted a copy of "Alfabeticemos" on one of the many bookstalls selling secondhand tomes. Published in 1961, "Alfabeticemos" was one of the two text books used by the Literacy Brigades. As well as teaching people to read, this book also taught people about the Revolution, Co-operatives, Nationalisation, Industrialisation, Racial Discrimination, Friends and Enemies, Imperialism, International Unity, Democracy and other concepts. The other teaching manual, "Venceremos", used phrases that explained some of the profound social reforms of the Cuban Revolution : the campesinos now at last are owners of the land; the campesinos cultivate their land; the Cuban land is rich; Cuba is not alone; united we overcome aggression. They (i.e. The United States) will not be able to stop the Revolution.

The Plaza de Armas also contains the main city library, the Biblioteca Publica Provincial Ruben M Villena. This library has recently been renovated, with financial assistance from Spain. It is open 8am to 8.45pm weekdays, 8am to 4.30pm Saturday, a total of 72 hours per week. In the lobby there was a selection of books and journals from all over the world, many of which have been donated by solidarity organisations. Among these I spotted the "Morning Star", the only English language daily socialist newspaper, and "Cuba Si", the journal of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign.

The Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti, on the Plaza de la Revolucion, is open to the public, but you must leave your bags in a cloak room. Cuba's National Library occupies 16 floors of books, magazines, a children's library and some exhibition space. Its hours are 8am to 9pm Monday to Friday, 8am - 6pm Saturday, a total of 75 hours per week. I was given a guided tour of the building by Siomara Carrillo from the Relaciones Internacional Department. My tour included the new books section, the audio visual library and the braille collection. These collections can be found in every Cuban library, another indication of how socially inclusive the system is.

Afterwards I had coffee in the office of Eliades Acosta, the Director of the National Library, who was attending a library conference in Mexico. I met his wife, and she gave me several copies of "Revista", the official journal of the Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti.This journal is published twice a year, in January and July. The issue for July-December 2001 celebrated the centenary of the National Library, 1901-2001. I was also given a copy of "With Honour, Courage and Pride" (2), the defense statements at the sentencing hearings of the five Cuban patriots unjustly condemned by a Miami Federal Court. To find out more about the "Miami Five" and to join the campaign for their release, contact the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. I was also given access to the National Library web site, which contains a wealth of information about this valuabe resource, including collections, services, publications and news. Little was I to know that I was soon to feature as headline news on this website !

The reason for this was that Eliades Acosta had recommended me to the Cuban Ministry of Culture for the "Distincion Por La Cultura Nacional". This medal, which is rarely given to non-Cubans, is awarded to those who have contributed to Cuban culture. In my case, the Cuban government conferred the award on 22 January 2001 in recognition of my work to support Cuban libraries. This included my setting up of the Cuban Libraries Support Group in 1999 and my support for the Cuban National Reading Programme. The award ceremony took place at the National Library at 10am on 29 August 2002. When I arrived, dressed in a traditional Cuban shirt or guyaberas, I was ushered into a room where the Cuban flag stood next to the Union Jack. I was introduced to the Vice Minister for Culture, Mr Ismael Gonzalez, and the ceremony began with the playing of the Cuban and British National Anthems. The citation for the award was given by Mayte Vigoa de la Uz, Cadre Director of the Ministry of Culture. Her speech began "The solidarity and the fraternity with the people of Cuba have been developed for the world in the heart and in the work of men like John Pateman". The medal was pinned on me by the Vice Minister who gave me a very firm Cuban hug of friendship and solidarity. I made a short acceptance speech which ended with the slogans "Long Live the Cuban Revolution ! Long Live Comrade Fidel Castro ! Venceremos !" We were then served with rum cocktails while I talked with the Vice Minister and he explained the important role that Culture plays in the Cuban Revolution. He also offered me a job in the National Library, but explained that I had more important work to do for Cuban libraries in the UK before I could take up the offer.

As I left the National Library I looked across Revolution Square at the huge Ernesto "Che" Guevara mural on the side of the Ministry of the Interior. As I stood and thought about this revolutionary country, its wonderful people, dedicated librarians and national heroes, the following came to mind : "And if someone says we are just romantics, inveterate idealists, thinking the impossible, that the masses of people cannot be turned into almost perfect human beings, we will have to answer a thousand and one times : Yes, it can be done; we are right. The people as a whole can advance" - Che Guevara


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