Library Juice 4:9 Supplement - March 14, 2001



  1. Kent's ALA Campaign Rebuked at Conference
  2. Ann Sparenese's paper for the IRC Latin America & Caribbean Subcommittee
  3. Gay Cuba (by Larry Oberg)



Kent's ALA Campaign Rebuked at Conference
Date: Sun, 21 Jan 2001 17:38:53 -0500
From: Mark Rosenzweig <iskra[at]>
To: srrtac-l[at], plgnet-l[at]

Dear friends,

It seems only fair that I should tell you briefly, in a timely way, what
happened with what came to be called the "Cuba issue" at the mid-winter
conference of ALA. I will leave it to others more intimately involved to
give you the blow-by-blow description.

Robert Kent and his Friends of Cuban Libraries (FCL) group made their big
play for ALA support through the ALA International Relations Committee
(IRC), more precisely, at a meeting of the IRC's Latin America
Subcommittee. He and several supporters, Cuban-Americans (non-librarians, I
believe), made their case, as you have heard it repeatedly made on our
listservs.  The case against Kent was made by our friends, Ann Sparanese
and Rhonda Neugebauer, whose reports to the committee will be made
available shortly on these lists and on the PLG and SRRT/IRTF listservs.

They brilliantly, systematically and cooly laid out the case that Kent and
FCL  were not independent; that the "independent librarians" in question
were not librarians and not independent,; that the FCL case was based on
rumor,hearsay, deception, and partisan campaigning; that the FCL relied
heavily --and led others to rely -- on the partisan CubaNet --a propaganda
organ of the US National Endowment for Democracy for "news" from Cuba; that
FCL had misled IFLA's FAIFE into basing its letter in support of the
allegedly independent librarians on dubious testimony which was unverified;
that the brief references to the "independents" in the Amnesty
International report were never substantiated or confirmed; that the
evidence about the nature of Cuban librarianship and the national library
assocition (ASCUBI) was a misrepresentation; and that the evidence put
forward to the IRC characterizing the independent librarians, their mission
and their plight was highly suspect and contradicted everything which
people like John Pateman, Rhonda Neugebauer, Larry Oberg, eyewitnesses who
sought out these independent libraries, observed. I can't due justice here
to the effcetiveness of their presentations.

The result was that the IRC LA Subcommittee, which had prepared itself by
examining a truly impressive amount of documentation, issued a report
which, citing the complexity of the issue and the conflicting evidence and
testimony, recommended that the IRC and ALA Council take no action, i.e.
that they reject Kent's appeal. They further condemned all attempts to
block the flow of information between nations, including equally the US
blockade and censorship in this country  and whatever forms of censorship
exist in Cuba, stating moreover that heightened official relations between
ALA and ASCUBI would be a powerful force for mutual development and
encouraging librarians in the US to avail themselves of whatever
opportunities there were to meet and discuss with their Cuban colleagues.

The report of the IRC, brought to ALA Council, was accepted without
dissent. Therefore, the campaign to win recognitiuon by ALA by Robert Kent
& his FCL was soundly defeated. This doesn't meab he is necessarily going
to relent. So one shouldn't be surprised to hear more from him -- possibly
misrepresenting what occured at mid-winter. The report of the subcommitte
of the IRC is, however, available for your examination.

Congratulations especially to Rhonda Neugebauer and Ann Sparanese for their
leadership in this effort. Thanks are due to many others: Eliades Acosta,
Marta Terry, Larry Oberg, Al Kagan, and all those who participated in the
lengthy debate on the listservs as well as thopse who gave moral support to
us at mid-winter and during the lead-up to the conference. Thnaks are due
to the members of the IRC Latin America Subcommittee for all their hard
work in oreparing to judge this matter fairly.

Good sense, professionalism, respect for the complexity of the issues, and
an internationalist feeling for the necessity to heal the rift between the
US and Cuba through the lifting of the blockade and the encouragement of
collegiality. prevailed.

Mark Rosenzweig
ALA Councilor at large

2. Ann Sparenese's paper for the IRC Latin America & Caribbean Subcommittee

January 8, 2001

To:      Pat Wand
         Chairperson, ALA IRC Latin American & Caribbean Subcommittee

From:    Ann C. Sparanese
         SRRT Action Councilor

Subject:         Hearing on Charges by "Friends of Cuban Libraries"

Thank you for inviting me to speak before your Subcommittee. These
notes have been prepared for your consideration. I am the head of
Adult & Young Adult Services at the Englewood Public Library in New
Jersey. I have been an active member of ALA for ten years. As well as
serving on SRRT Action Council and its International Responsibilities
Task Force, I have been a member of YALSA's Best Books for Young
Adults Committee, the AFL-CIO/ALA Joint Committee on Library Service
to Labor Groups, and I am the current Chairperson of RUSA's John
Sessions Memorial Award Committee. I also have a long history of
interest in, and travel to, Cuba. I attended the 1994 IFLA Conference
in Havana and my most recent visit was this past November, when I
visited Cuban libraries and met with Havana members of ASCUBI, the
Cuban Library Association. I have followed with interest, and argued
against, the allegations of Mr. Kent since he began his campaign in
1999. The Social Responsibilities Round Table passed the attached
resolution regarding the FCL at midwinter conference one year ago. Mr.
Kent would like to present his proposal as a no-brainer, a simple
question, a single pure concept: intellectual freedom. But it is not.
This paper is respectfully submitted with the hope that the
subcommittee may approach Mr. Kent's requests with a fuller
appreciation of history, the facts and the issues.

  1. Who Are the "Friends of Cuban Libraries?"

This is how Robert Kent and Jorge Sanguinetty described themselves at
the outset of their campaign for Cuban "independent libraries."(1)

"Before going to the debate, however, the Friends of Cuban Libraries
would like to answer some inquiries from the public regarding the
goals and origin of our organization. The Friends of Cuban Libraries,
founded on June 1, 1999, is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit
organization which supports Cuba's independent libraries. We oppose
censorship and all other violations of intellectual freedom, as
defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regardless of
the ideology or leadership of whatever Cuban government is in office.
The founders of the organization are Jorge Sanguinetty and Robert
Kent. Jorge Sanguinetty resides in Miami. He was the head of Cuba's
Department of National Investment Planning before he left the country
in 1967. He was later associated with the Brookings Institution and
the UN Development Programme. He is the founder and president of
Devtech, Inc. He is also a newspaper columnist and a commentator on
Radio Marti. Robert Kent is a librarian who lives in New York City. He
has visited Cuba many times and has Cuban friends whose viewpoints
cover the political spectrum. During his visits to Cuba Robert Kent
has assisted Cuban, American, and internationally-based human rights
organizations with deliveries of medicines, small sums of money, and
other forms of humanitarian aid. On four occasions he has taken books
and pamphlets to Cuba for Freedom House and the Center for a Free
Cuba, human rights organizations which have received publication
grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development; on three
occasions his travel expenses were paid wholly or in part by Freedom
House or the Center for a Free Cuba. On his last trip to Cuba in
February, 1999, Robert Kent was arrested and deported from the

Many references to Mr. Sanguinetty appear on the WWW. He speaks
widely on the subject of returning free market enterprise to Cuba. As
a commentator on Radio Marti, Mr. Sanguinetty is or was an employee of
the United States government. Cubans on the island have always
listened to Miami radio and even some TV stations. But Radio Marti is
a propaganda station directly controlled by the most right-wing
elements of the Cuban-American exile community, the Cuban American
National Foundation (CANF). It is not a neutral voice or a bastion of
"free expression." It has never aired the voices of liberal elements
of the Cuban-American community who favor the normalization of
relations with Cuba. Mr. Sanguinetty is simply a professional
propagandist. In October 1995, President Clinton presented a $500,000
government grant to Freedom House for publishing and distributing
pamphlets and books in Cuba.(2)  The funds were also devoted to paying
for individuals to travel to Cuba as tourists in order to make contact
with dissident groups, organize them and fund them.(3)  Robert Kent is
evidently one of these couriers -another propagandist on an illegal,
paid-for mission on behalf of Freedom House.  He is not the only
American to be sent on such a mission(4) and be deported. Kent
evidently believes that by acknowledging his sponsor, this somehow
legitimizes his activities.  But it only demonstrates the nature of
his campaign as part and parcel of stated US foreign policy intended
to destabilize Cuba.

2. What Are the "Independent Libraries"?

The "independent libraries" are private book collections in peoples'
homes. Mr. Kent and the right-wing Cuban-American propaganda outlets,
call them  "independent libraries" and even "public libraries." These
"independent libraries" are one of a number of "projects" initiated
and supported by a virtual entity calling itself "Cubanet"
( and an expatriate anti-Castro political entity
calling itself the Directorio Revolucionario Democratico Cubano.  The
Cubanet website describes what the "independent libraries" are, how
they got started and who funds and solicits for them. The index page
says that the organization exists to "assist [Cuba's] independent
sector develop [sic] a civil society..." This is the wording used in
both the Torricelli and the Helms Burton Acts, both of which require
that the US government finance efforts to subvert the Cuban society in
the name of strengthening "civil society." You will see on the "Who We
Are" page that Cubanet, located in Hialeah, Florida, is financially
supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States
Agency for International Development (USAID) and "private" "anonymous"
donors.  The "exterior" representative of the "independent libraries"
is the Directorio Revoucionario Democratico Cubano, also located in

3. Who are the Independent Librarians?

         You will read on the pages of Cubanet about the individual
"libraries" and their personnel. Not one of the people listed is
actually a librarian. Not one has ever been a librarian. Most,
however, are leaders or officers of various dissident political
parties, such as the Partido Cubano de Renovacion Ortodoxa and the
Partido Solidaridad Democratica.  This is documented on Cubanet,
although Mr. Kent never mentions these party affiliations in his FCL
press releases. We know absolutely nothing about the principles,
programs or activities of these parties, or why they have been
allegedly targeted. We don't know whether their activities are lawful
or unlawful under Cuban law.  Kent maintains that their activities are
solely related to their books - but in reality we have no idea whether
this is true and in fact, one of these "librarians" told one of our
ALA colleagues that this was not true!  By using the terms
"beleaguered,"  "librarians" and the buzzwords "freedom of expression"
and "colleagues" Mr. Kent hopes to get the a priori support of
librarians who might not look beneath this veneer. After all, isn't
this  the reason that the subcommittee will be considering their case
in the first place?  But I wonder if ALA is willing to establish the
precedent that all politicians with private book collections who
decide to call themselves "librarians," are therefore our

4. Who funds Cubanet, the Directorio, and the "independent libraries"
- and why is this important?

A recent book entitled Psy War Against Cuba by Jon Elliston (Ocean
Press, 1999), reveals, using declassified US government documents, the
history of a small piece of the 40-year-old propaganda war waged by
our country against the government of Cuba.  The US has spent hundreds
of millions of taxpayers' dollars over these years to subvert and
overthrow the current Cuban government - US activities have included
complete economic embargo, assassinations and assassination attempts,
sabotage, bombings, invasions, and "psyops."  When even the fall of
the Soviet Union and the devastation of the Cuban economy in the early
1990's did not produce the desired effect, the US embarked on
additional, subtler, campaigns to overthrow the Cuban government from
within.  One element of this approach is the funneling of monetary
support to dissident groups wherever they can be found, or created.
This includes bringing cash into the country through couriers such as
Mr. Kent, and increasing support to expatriate groups operating inside
the US, such as the Directorio, Cubanet and especially,  the Cuban
American National Foundation (CANF) The website Afrocubaweb
( has gathered information from the Miami Herald
and other sources to document the recipients of this US funding.
USAID, a US government Agency, supported the Directorio Revolucionario
Democratico Cubano to the amount of  $554,835 during 1999.  This is
the group that supports the "independent librarians" in Cuba and is
listed as their "foreign representative."  The money that they send to
Cuba, as well as the "small amounts" of cash that Mr. Kent carried
illegally to Cuba violates Cuban law, which does not allow foreign
funding of their political process.  Neither does the United States
allow foreign funding of its own political process - the furor around
alleged Chinese "contributions" to the Democratic Party is a case in
point.  The "independent libraries" may be independent of their own
government, but they are not independent of the US government. The US
government is not the only anti-Castro entity that has adjusted its
policy to changing times-- the most right-wing forces in the Cuban
expatriate community have also stepped up their support of dissident
elements inside Cuba over the last few years.  The Miami Herald
reported in September  2000 that "the leading institution of this
city's exile community plans to quadruple the amount of money it sends
to dissident leaders on the island..." This leading institution is the
Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), and the article reports
that part of the group's $10,000,000 budget will begin "flowing to the
island through sympathetic dissidents by the end of the year."  More
specifically, CANF will, among other declared activities, "increase
funds to buy books for its [Cuba's] independent libraries."(6)

5.  What is CANF? What is its record on free expression, intellectual
freedom, and democratic rights here in the USA?

         The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) was founded by Jorge
Mas Canosa, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and CIA operative,
at the behest of the Reagan administration in 1982.  It has become the
most wealthy and powerful voice of the right-wing Cuban community in
South Florida and has wielded extraordinary political power for the
last twenty years.  It has been connected to violence and terrorism
both in Cuba and in Miami. Its newest tactic, as described above, is
to "support" dissidents in Cuba, including buying books for
"independent" libraries, presumably to support "freedom of expression"
in Cuba.         Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty claim to be proponents of human
rights and frequently refer to the "landmark" IFLA "report." But they
seem to have no problem with their libraries' CANF connection, even
though CANF was the subject of a truly "landmark" report issued by
Americas Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, in 1992.  The
Americas Watch report on CANF is the first that organization ever
issued against a human rights violator in a city of the United States.
It states that "a 'repressive climate for freedom of expression' had
been created by anti-Castro Cuban-American leaders in which violence
and intimidation had been used to quiet exiles who favor a softening
of policies toward Cuba."(7) The executive director of Americas Watch
at that time, said "We do not know of any other community in the
United States with this level of intimidation and lack of freedom to
dissent."(8)  The report documents "how Miami Cubans who are opposed
to the Cuban government harass political opponents with bombings,
vandalism, beatings and death threats."(9) A campaign spearheaded by
CANF against the Miami Herald in the early nineties resulted in
bombings of Herald newpaper boxes and death threats to staff.(10)
Pressure from CANF closed the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture because
it showed work by artists who had not "broken" with Cuba.(11)  Anyone
who followed the Elian Gonzalez case this past year noted that
tolerance for dissenting views by Cuban Americans was completely
lacking in Florida and a hostile atmosphere was maintained by CANF
during the duration of the affair. Can you imagine what the life
expectancy of a pro-Castro "independent library" in the middle of
Little Havana would be, given this history? CANF does not respect
freedom of expression or democratic rights in the USA, yet it is a
direct financial supporter of Mr. Kent's independent libraries.
Neither Mr.Kent nor Mr. Sanguinetty have disowned this support - in
fact they haven't even mentioned it!  They have not chosen to examine
or criticize the lack of free expression among the very people that
give them succor and publicity here at home, yet they claim to be its
great champions in Cuba!

6. What about free expression and democratic rights in Cuba?

There is no doubt that political dissidence has its consequences in
Cuba. Those who want to overthrow the current socialist government are
considered political problems. Because of the declared and well-funded
US policy of seeking to  destabilize Cuba by creating and/or
instigating social unrest, the Cuban people consider these people to
be agents of US policy and enemies of the nation.  This view is shared
by the former head of the US Interests Section in Cuba, former
Ambassador Wayne Smith who says: "Since 1985, we have stated publicly
that we will encourage and openly finance dissident and human rights
groups in Cuba; this too is in our interest.  The United States isn't
financing all those groups - only the ones that are best know
internationally. Those dissidents and human rights groups in Cuba -
that are nothing but a few people - are only important to the extent
that they serve us in a single cause: that of destabilizing Fidel
Castro's regime."(12) This is the reality of a small country that has
been in a virtual state of siege by the most powerful country in the
world for more than 40 years. The US has engaged in invasion,
sabotage, assassination attempts against its leader and even the
maintenance of a military base against the will of the Cuban people,
as well as well-documented psyop and propaganda campaigns. With the
economic blockade, the US has sought to bring the Cuban people to
their knees by depriving them of sources of foodstuffs and denying
medicine to their children.(13)  Ambassador Smith: "Through these two
policies, economic pressure and human rights - we want to force the
overthrow of Fidel Castro and then install a transitional government
that we like - to reinstate the people we want and thus, control Cuba
again."(14) It is a fact of life that democratic rights suffer in any
nation under siege or engaged in war.  A view of our own history will
illuminate this point: simply look at the what happened to the
American people's freedom of expression, constitutional rights and
human rights during the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Cold War McCarthy
period and even during our most recent wars. Can we realistically
expect and demand that Cuba be the model of democratic rights in the
face of the unrelenting US economic and political aggression? Cuba
does not have a perfect human rights record.  But are we simply to
condemn Cuba for this situation?  Don't we, as US citizens, whose tax
dollar has been used for so many years to create this situation, have
a special responsibility to look at the full picture?  Shouldn't our
first concern be to change the policy that has directly contributed to
the limitation of democratic rights in Cuba? Even the UN special
rapporteur for human rights, while critical of Cuba, credited the US
policy for making the situation worse than it might otherwise be.(15)
Mssrs. Kent and Sanguinetty are asking this committee and the ALA for
a sweeping condemnation of Cuba on the basis of human rights.  But are
not food, education, medical care, income, freedom from violence, and
literacy "human rights"?  The Cuban people enjoy free medical care -
despite the US denial of Cuba's right to purchase basic medical
products - and have one of the highest per capita rate of doctors in
the world.  All Cuban children attend school and enjoy free education
through university. The Cuban people are an extraordinarily literate
people with many more libraries and books than people in most of the
undeveloped world, despite Mr. Kent's attempts to ridicule their
library collections with absurd claims that have been refuted by Cuban
librarians. Cuban workers have the right to an income even if they
have been laid off from work; they have a society free from violence
and no Cuban child has ever been killed by a gun in his/her school.
Racism, as we know it in the US, is not present there and vestiges of
racism are actively combated at all levels of society. If these are
taken as measures of human rights, Cuba comes out looking very good
indeed. This is not to say that intellectual freedom and complete
freedom of expression are not important. But Cuba's exceptional
success in fulfilling these basic human needs explains why the
majority of the Cuban people are not anxious to trade their current
situation for the "free market",  "wealthy exiles get their property
back" plans of Kent/Sanguinetty's sponsors in Miami and the US
government. Before the ALA passes judgment on Cuba, even in the area
of free expression, we need to look at the whole picture and we need
to have some first-hand experience. We cannot simply act on what one
ill-informed librarian and a professional expatriate propagandist  --
both with US government backing -- tell us.

7. How does US policy towards Cuba affect free expression and
intellectual freedom for US citizens?

For close to forty years, in various permutations, the US has
maintained a travel ban, which specifically denies the right of US
citizens to visit Cuba outside a small set of  "legal" and "licensed"
exceptions.  This means that if any US citizen  (any US librarian, for
instance) wants to travel to Cuba, simply to see for her/himself what
is going on there (not for any specifically academic or professional
purpose), this is against US law and punishable by fines and/or
imprisonment. If members of this subcommittee want to visit Cuban
libraries, simply to chat with your counterparts and even seek out the
"independent librarians" - it is not the Cuban government that is
preventing you, it is the US  government!  This is clearly an issue of
intellectual freedom(16) - but not to Mssrs. Kent and Sanguinetty.
They are purists.  They are only concerned about freedom of expression
and intellectual freedom in Cuba - not in the US- and only for Cubans
in Cuba, not in Miami! This is utter hypocrisy. Because of this
forty-year war against Cuba by the United States, it is not just Cuban
citizens who have seen their democratic rights limited, it is US
citizens as well.  To deliberately ignore this reality reveals the
claims and motives of Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty as deeply suspect.

8. What About the IFLA Report?

Why has the FCL been able to go forward with their accusations? The
answer is a report by the recently formed IFLA -FAIFE  (Free Access to
Information and Freedom of Expression) Committee.  The sole basis for
this action - the first such action taken by committee - was the
Friends of Cuban Libraries allegations, and several phone
conversations with the alleged librarians involved.  No member of
FAIFE ever visited these "libraries" or attempted to. No
"investigation" whatsoever was undertaken beyond these phone contacts.
Parts of the report were taken verbatim from the papers of Mr. Kent
and Mr. Sanguinetty.  Even the FAIFE report acknowledges the role of
financing by "foreign interests," but it does not seem to find this
point very important. It does not address the issue of who these
"librarians" really are, but accepts FCL's allegations that they are
librarians. The IFLA investigation meets no standards. Nevertheless,
it has bestowed on Mr. Kent's cause a certain legitimacy and has
allowed Kent to go the Canadian Library Association, and other groups,
which also reacted to the IFLA report and did no independent
investigation. In an especially crass but clever move, Kent even
managed to get a recently imprisoned Chinese American librarian to
make statements about a situation about which he has no knowledge.
Perhaps IFLA can be forgiven for not understanding the nature of US
hostility toward Cuba, and the lengths to which the US and the
right-wing Cuban expatriate elements will go to further their aims of
overthrowing the Cuban government. But the American Library
Association will have no such excuse.  Our own members and colleagues
have visited Cuban libraries and the "independents" (without prior
notification) and have testified as to their inauthenticity. They must
be listened to. This is already more than IFLA cared to do. The IFLA
report, and all that followed because of it, cannot be allowed to
grant any further imprimatur to the Kent/Sanguinetty campaign.

9. What about our real colleagues - the librarians of Cuba?

The charges that have been spread by Kent and his FCL have deeply
offended our real colleagues, the librarians of Cuba, and our sister
library association, ASCUBI.  Our real colleagues are beleaguered by
shortages of things as simple as paper, professional literature,
computers and printers - and much of this has to do with their
inability, because of the US blockade, to purchase any items from US
companies (or foreign companies doing business with the US).
Computers cannot be brought to Cuba from the US legally, even as a
donation by licensed travelers. True "friends of Cuban libraries"
would be concerned about these matters. It is time that we begin to
know our real counterparts/colleagues in Cuba.  It is time that we
begin to have the kinds of conversations and exchanges on all subjects
-- including intellectual freedom and censorship.  It is US policy,
not Cuban policy, which prevents us from doing so. As the
representative of US librarians, the ALA has an obligation first to
address our own country's limitation of freedom of expression and the
freedom to travel, then to criticize others.  The American Library
Association cannot allow itself to be the willing instrument of a US
government/CANF-sponsored disinformation campaign. If the ALA takes
any action at all on Cuba, it should be to call for an end to the
embargo and the hostile US policy towards Cuba which harms the
democratic rights, including freedom of expression, of both the Cuban
and US people.  ALA should begin in the spirit of the resolution
passed by the US librarians who attended the IFLA conference in Havana
in August 1994 (see attached). Copyright 2001 Ann C. Sparanese,MLS
Head of Adult & Young Adult Services Englewood Public Library
Englewood, NJ 07631 201-568-2215 ext. 229

1 See Most of
the activities carried out by the FCL take place on the listserves, of
which this site has an "anthology."

2 Franklin, Jane. Cuba and The United States: A Chronological
History. Melbourne, Ocean Press, 1997. p375.

3 Calvo, Hernando and
Katlijn Declertcq. The Cuban Exile Movement: Dissidents or
Mercenaries? New York, Ocean Press, 2000. p.130.

4 Ibid.

5 Another of
its stated purposes is  "informs the world about Cuba's reality", but
their news pages simply report only anti-government events or

6 "In Miami, Cuban Exile Group Shifts Focus" by Scott Wilson. The
Washington  Post Foreign Service. Thursday, September 14, 2000; Page
A03.  As quoted at

7 "Miami Leaders are Condemned by Rights Unit" by Larry Rohter. New
York times, August 19, 1992 Section A, Page 8, retrieved from

8 Ibid.

9 Franklin, p.300.

10 Op.cit.

11 Franklin, p 241, 242, 252,277.

12 Calvo & Declercq, pp 156, (interview with Ambassador Smith.)

13  "Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact of the U.S. Embargo on
Health and Nutrition in Cuba," A Report from the American Association
for World Health, March 1997.

14 Calvo & Declercq, p160.

15  Franklin, p 330.

16 In "The Right to Travel: The Effect of Travel Restrictions on
Scientific Collaboration Between American and Cuban Scientists," the
American Association for the Advancement of Science is every bit as
critical of the United States in limiting travel as it is of Cuba! The
report notes that the US government does not recognize the right to
travel as an internationally recognized fundamental right. .


3. Gay Cuba

Date: Thu, 1 Mar 2001 18:55:00 -0800 (PST)
From: Larry Oberg <loberg[at]>
To: PLGNet-L[at]



It is not without surprise that Kent & Company would announce the film
Before Night Falls. Based on a memoir by the late self-exiled Cuban writer
Reinaldo Arenas (Old Rosa, Farewell to the Sea, El Central: a Cuban Sugar
Mill), it chronicles Arenas' repression as a homosexual artist by Cuban
authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. I would imagine that Mr. Kent expects
to get quite a bit of propaganda mileage out of promoting the film
version. Recycling old news is, of course, stock in trade for what the
island Cubans call "the Miami mafia." To Kent & Company, Cuba stopped
changing 30 years ago and nothing has or, indeed, ever will change again.

Over the past year, I have spent nearly three months in Cuba on two
different occasions, much of that time in Havana, but also in a variety of
other cities, including Santiago de Cuba. As a gay man, it was personally
important to me to find out as much as possible about the status of gays
and lesbians in Cuba. What I found contrasts sharply with the portrait of
gay life in Cuba drawn by Arenas. His take may have been accurate for its
time (I cannot claim to know), but I suspect it was considerably
exaggerated. (I say exaggerated because Arenas' fantastic claim to have
bedded 5000 guys in something like two years is not credible. And, if we
are to believe him, every young stud on the island between the ages of 15
and 22 was constantly on the alert to jump his bones. Well, maybe not.)

To prepare for my visit, I read the book, "Machos, maricones, and gays:
Cuba and homosexuality," by the Canadian, Ian Lumsden.  Lumsden is a
luke-warm supporter of the revolution and gives a fairly critical take on
Cuban gay history during the early years of the revolution and the current
status of gays on the island. It is a useful introduction. I also watched
the film "Gay Cuba," made around 1995. It consists mainly of a series of
interviews with gay guys and lesbians who speak frankly about their lives.
(One of the producers of the film, an interviewee himself, now works as a
tour guide and gave me useful background information on the film.) Gay
Cuba was shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin American
Cinema to public and critical acclaim. However, a few of the Cuban gays
who had seen it had reservations and told me that they felt it gives an
accurate, but incomplete, picture of gay life on the island.

Gay Cuba is not the only documentary on Cuban gay life. A perhaps more
interesting take is "Mariposas en el Andamio," (Butterflies on the
Scaffold). Mariposa is a Cuban term for drag queen and the film documents
the daily life and the performances of Cuban drag queens in a neighborhood
called La Guinera. At my request, I was invited there for a special show.
La Guinera was very poor before the revolution and remains what we might
call working class. Many of these drag shows are sponsored by the local
CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) and play to large and
wildly enthusiastic audiences. (If you're wondering, the performers were

What I found in Cuba was a gay community with many parallels to the gay
community in North America and a few differences as well. For one thing,
there are no laws on the Cuban books that discriminate against gays. (This
is to be contrasted with the United States where all too many states
retain outdated sodomy laws and where, increasingly, repressive
legislation is enacted at the state level.) I have talked with literally
hundreds of gays (mostly men) in Cuba and I found none who believe they
are being persecuted by their government. Discrimination by individuals is
reported, however, and there is also a lot of resentment of the residual
macho attitudes that remain stubbornly embedded in some levels of Cuban
society, attitudes tht perpetuate highly dichotomized sex roles and
prejudice against homosexuals amongst the population at large. But none
reported active or systematic repression by the state.

One question that I always asked gay guys was "would you feel comfortable
holding hands with your boyfriend on the street?" About 80% responded with
a qualified yes. Many stated that they do just that. (Two guys or women
holding hands is not an uncommon sight in Havana.) But some also said that
they would stop holding hands in front of a police officer. Not unlike
societies to the north, Cuba recruits a high percentage of young macho hot
dogs to their police force, some with a chip on their shoulder against
gays. But, I want to make it clear: No gays that I talked to reported
governmental repression, although many older Cuban gays did talk about
"the bad old days."

It seems to me that it is important to put Cuba's past record of
mistreatment of gays in its proper perspective. For example, thirty-five
or so years ago, in Boise, Idaho, hundreds of gay men were persecuted,
driven from their homes and families and imprisoned in one of the more
infamous anti-gay actions in our history. Florida itself has a dreadful
record in terms of gay rights and only about 10 years ago in Adrian,
Michigan, the police staked out a public park for months and then arrested
over 30 men at their homes, in front of their wives and children and, in a
couple of cases, grand-children. (With one exception, all of these guys
were married self-identified heterosexuals.) Cuba's past record on gay
rights may be no better than our own, certainly nothing to be proud of,
but in my experience gays in today's Cuba are better off than they are in
any other Latin American society (check the murder rate in Rio) and better
off than they are in many states in our Union (think Matthew Shepherd).

Cuban society, like most North American and European societies, is
undergoing a profound review and reconceptualization of its attitudes
towards gays and lesbians. Most of you probably know about the film
Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film to deal openly and directly
with homosexuality. (If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.) What you may
not know is that the film was wildly popular in Cuba (indicating, no
doubt, a repressed need to talk about this issue). Apparently it played
simultaneously at 10 or 12 theatres in Havana for months to lines several
blocks long.

Another seminal incident along the road to acceptance for Cuban gays
occurred in 1996. Pablo Milanes, a Cuban nova trova singer who has
achieved quasi-sainthood amongst the island's population, wrote a song
about gay men entitled Original Sin (available on his CD entitled
Origines), a song he dedicated to all Cuban homosexuals. Introduced at his
annual holiday concert held in the vast Karl Marx Theater in the Miramar
neighborhood of Havana, El Pecado original took the audience and the
country by storm and did much to advance the cause of gay acceptance.

For me, one of the most striking things I learned about Cuba during my
recent visits was the vitality of the cultural and intellectual life,
particularly, of course, in Havana. Gay themes are prevalent in the
theatre, in lectures and in concerts. For example, I recently saw a play
entitled Muerte en el bosque (A Death in the Woods), about the
investigation of the murder of an Havana drag queen produced by El Teatro
Sotano in its Vedado theatre. Through the investigation of the crime,
Cuban attitudes toward and prejudices against gays are examined at every
level of society. (It also included a terrific drag show during the

On a lighter note, a group called La Danza Voluminosa (voluminosa as in
volume; come on, you get it!) produced a marvellously funny and dramatic
ballet version of Racine's Phedre, with gender-blind casting. (Yes, Phedre
was danced by a man.) And a one-man (yes, one man) stage version of
Strawberry and Chocolate played to considerable success this season. It is
also worth noting that in last December's film festival in Havana, easily
half of the Latin American films shown had gay themes or subtexts.

It may be of some interest to note that theatre tickets cost Cubans 5
pesos (25 cents). Movies cost 2 pesos. To me, a striking contridiction in
Cuban society today is the contrast between the rich cultural and
intellectual life that is available and affordable and salaries that makes
the purchase of a bar of soap an event that has to be planned for. In
Havana, gay-run and gay-clientele restaurants are not hard to find, try
the elegant French cuisine at Le Chansonnier, for example, or La Guarida,
located in the apartment in which Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed. The
famous (and rather infamous) Fiat Bar on the Malecon continues to attract
hundreds of gay twenty-somethings who, on weekend nights, spill across
this emblamatic Havana thoroughfare and line the sidewalk facing the sea.

In sum, I believe that what I have given you in this posting is context.
Context that allows the discussion of Cuban libraries and other issues
that Kent & Company generate on this and many other lists to be cast in a
light that is not shed by Mr. Kent's narrowly focussed torch. Context is,
of course, precisely what Mr. Kent wishes to avoid. By insisting upon a
discussion of "intellectual freedom" unfettered by the realities of the
world, he can set a very high bar for Cuba and easily find her wanting.
(So, pick a country, guys, we can all do that.)

I, for one, do not believe it helpful to hold Cuba to an abstract standard
that no other country in the world (certainly including my own) 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. How well is Cuba doing
compared to the rest of Latin America? How well is Cuba doing relative to
our own country? How much progress has Cuba made on a variety of fronts,
including intellectual freedom and access to information over the past
forty years. A vision of Cuba very different from that of Mr. Kent's then

Gay culture in Cuba indeed may have been repressed 30 years ago. Where
wasn't it in that pre-Stonewall age? But, this is not the reality of what
I found in today's Cuba. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Out magazine (a
slick and trendy guppy publication) would feature Havana as "The New gay
hot spot ... hot boys, drag-heavy bars, and a whole lot more" in its
current February 2001 issue if Cuba were as repressive as Kent's
colleagues state. By insisting upon a sterile discussion devoid of context
Mr. Kent constructs a reality in which any discussion the very real and
quantifiable progress Cuba has made since the beginning of its revolution
is ruled out of bounds; it also has the advantage of protecting him from
discussion of his own highly questionable sponsors and their thinly veiled

My suggestion is not to engage Mr. Kent and his agents directly. The most
effective way of dealing with provocateurs is to discuss the issues, but
ignore the provocations.

Larry R. Oberg

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