Cuban Libraries: The Report Before The CNN

Eliades Acosta Matos

A real flesh-and-blood librarian in Cuba is almost always a woman, a fact that is rarely of any interest to the ever-growing number of journalists and writers who say they are presenting the "real" Cuba in their articles. But since the true nature of life on the island is seldom presented in an objective way in major newspapers—the so-called "free and professional" press—then it shouldn't come as a surprise to us that little or nothing is really known of the 12,000 or so information specialists who provide an important social service in Cuba, a poor country besieged and embargoed by the greatest world power in history as if it were a criminal nation, or one which harbors a disease fatal to the rest of the world: that of showing that a different world is possible.

It is ironic that, in spite of this vile criminalization of an entire nation, this sinister persecution of a social enterprise which profoundly revolutionized the old structures of exclusion and injustice under which the vast majority of Cubans lived and suffered, Cuba boasts the highest rate of school attendance in the entire Third World, higher even that that in many developed countries. Nor does Cuba suffer from illiteracy: it has the highest per capita number of teachers, and is recognized by UNESCO as having one of the best school systems, capable of preparing its students with the highest quality education.

But none of these facts would seem to have any real importance for those who criticize and accuse Cuba.

It doesn't matter that no Cuban child has to beg in the streets in order to survive. It doesn't matter that education in Cuba, from preschool to university, is free and universal. Or that health care is available to all as well. Or that Cuban children and teenagers don't shoot each other in school, or murder their teachers in their own classrooms.

In fact, all these things seem to be irrelevant.

It doesn't matter that since September of this year [2002], Cuban schools employ one teacher for every twenty students. Only Denmark, where there is one teacher for every twenty-five students, comes close to achieving such a ratio.

It doesn't matter that there are 6,000 school libraries serving students in our educational system. Or that in the year 2002, 50,000 computers, televisions, and VCRs were installed in our schools—even in the almost one thousand rural schools which operate without electricity, and which were provided with solar panels as well, even in the 173 schools in remote areas which open their doors each day to teach only a single student.

None of this really seems to be important.

It doesn't matter that we have more public libraries here in Cuba than there are in Italy; that these libraries meet the standards set by UNESCO of being able to provide each citizen with at least three books; that last year our library system served more than eight million people—eight million from a total population of eleven million; and that book prices in Cuba are among the lowest in the world. It matters even less that all of these resources and services are provided to each and every Cuban citizen, down to the very last one, not only to the privileged elites, or to those with the greatest purchasing power; just as it is of no importance that all these successes, of which we Cubans are the most proud, were achieved in the middle of a war which has been going on now for 43 years.

The recent restrictions imposed by the U.S. government on the exchange of academic ideas and projects only confirm that the embargo doesn't recognize borders, and that the protestations of the U.S. to the contrary are purely rhetorical. The prohibition by the American authorities preventing Cuban librarians from traveling to Puerto Rico and to U.S. territories to attend professional workshops and conferences is compounded by their refusal to allow Cuban cultural institutions, including Cubarte and the National Library, to subscribe to bibliographic databases such as SAFARI ( and OCLC. It is clear to us that as long as the embargo laws remain in effect, we cannot live a normal life; we cannot escape from this reality.

As a matter of fact, we Cubans have been living under extraordinarily difficult circumstances for almost half a century now. Those of us who, like me, are younger than fifty years of age, were born and raised with the embargo; and now our children and grandchildren are living under these same conditions. The threat of experiencing first-hand the aggression of a foreign military power has never left us for a moment during this time. And all the while, much of the so-called "liberal and objective" press has devoted itself to poking around in the corners of our lives, relentlessly hacking away at the great work of social justice which we have achieved under such adverse conditions; and creating in its place a virtual Cuba which they make out to be the worst of all possible places on this earth. Recently—with notable cunning and using a surprising new onslaught of scandalous lies—these vile forces have focused their efforts on the work of Cuban libraries and librarians.

What are they accusing us of? What are these terrible mortal sins which we have committed, and which have earned us the harshest condemnations of these implacable judges?

Cuba is the only one of the almost 200 countries in the United Nations which, in the eyes of the IFLA committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE), warranted a separate analysis, and two special reports, one in 1999, the other in 2001. And this year, we had the honor of welcoming a large delegation of representatives from ALA and FAIFE who traveled around the country, visiting our libraries—both real and false—and interviewing anyone they wanted, including writers, librarians, booksellers, and ordinary citizens. While Mrs. Susan Seidelin, director of FAIFE, checked our libraries, list in hand, and ended up finding all the "censored" works she had erroneously been led to believe would be missing from our shelves, an English fellowship student, Mr. Stuart Hamilton, roamed the streets of Havana "incognito"—like a character from a Graham Greene novel—interviewing those people euphemistically referred to by the agents of propaganda and psychological warfare against Cuba as "independent librarians."

In spite of this suspicious fixation with Cuba—as if Cuba were the country where intellectual rights and liberties were most threatened; as if Cuba, and not the United States, were the nation most often condemned on FAIFE's own website for outrageous violations of these rights and liberties; as if Cuba, and not the United States, were the country where, in some places, books by Mark Twain, Alice Walker, and Isabel Allende were prohibited and burned, and where national debate raged on whether or not "Harry Potter" belonged on library shelves—in spite of all this, the resolution on Cuba was approved with more than 86% of the votes cast by the delegates to the IFLA General Assembly, which met during the summer of 2001 in Boston.

And it's also worth noting that this resolution, supported by both Cuban and North American librarians, unequivocally established the position of the world-wide information community towards the so-called "independent librarians", urging the United States government to "broadly share information resources with Cuba, especially with Cuban libraries, not only with those independent non-governmental individuals and organizations" who represent the political interests of the U.S.

To the delegates who voted in Boston for the approval of this resolution, it's clear that one cannot be "independent" while representing the political interests of a particular country, whether it be the United States or the Kingdom of Tonga.

In fact, with regard to Cuba, what is being emphasized when the adjective "independent" is used with the noun "librarian"?

In the first place, it assumes that all other Cuban librarians are "official", simply because they are paid by the government; that is, the thousands of librarians who studied for years and passed exams in order to practice the profession, and who have worked every day under very difficult conditions, displaying an admirable creativity and spirit of sacrifice so that our country could become, as it has, one of the most cultured on earth. Following this same logic, what would we call the great majority of librarians in the world who work in the public sector of their respective countries, and who receive salaries from their respective governments, when they are able to pay them and are not forced to make budget cuts, as is happening right now with the libraries of the richest country in the world?

On the other hand, if the decisive criterion for calling some librarians "official", and others "independent" is who pays their salaries, then the "independent" librarians in Cuba cannot be called independent. Although they don't work for the Cuban state, they do, in fact, work for the American government, as has been incontrovertibly shown; they themselves have admitted it to visiting foreign librarians. The evidence is undeniable and well-documented, including the fees they charge for their services, the equipment they receive, the books which are delivered directly to their homes in vans belonging to the Oficina de Intereses de los Estados Unidos en La Habana, the Office for the Interests of the United States in the province of La Habana, and the generous emigration visas which they and their families are given as rewards for services rendered.

Secondly, if the criterion for distinguishing between the two groups depends on their respective ideological affiliations, then the matter becomes even more complicated. The vast majority of the Cuban people support the Revolution. If they didn't, they would not have been able to endure so many years of siege, embargo, and aggression, from terrorist attempts like the one in Barbados in 1973, to invasions like the Bay of Pigs in 1961, the nuclear threats in 1962, and the introduction of epidemics and disease. Cuban librarians and their professional organizations support the Revolution, and we are proud to say this loudly and clearly; it is a right we claim in the light of day and of which we are not ashamed. Not a single important intellectual or information specialist or writer has been successfully recruited for this subversive campaign. Can the so-called "independent" librarians prove that they are not working to undermine the Revolution? That they do not receive political orders and millions of dollars of financing from those agencies of the American government whose mission it is to sabotage the institutional order of Cuba, such as "Freedom House" and USAID, to mention only those organizations who act publicly, and who, more than librarians, act as conspirators, violating Cuba's laws in the service of a hostile foreign power?

Let it be said in passing that Section 180 of the U.S. Code provides penalties of ten years in prison for those who work for a hostile foreign government within United States territory, as James Petras has shown in a recent article. "Professional intrusion," a punishable offense under both Cuban and American laws, is proclaiming oneself "director" of a library, entering a profession under false pretenses, and receiving monetary compensation for it. These "brave and dedicated freedom fighters"—as their defenders like to call them—earn in one month, in the comfort of their homes, without lifting a finger, 2.2 times more money than I earn each month as director of the National Library of Cuba, in charge of providing services to some 400 users every day and preserving a collection of more than three million documents.

Are we facing a professional problem related to the general principles of librarianship which all of us share in our noble profession? Or, on the other hand, are we having a political discussion having to do with the actions of political agents in the service of the all-out war which has been waged against the Cuban Revolution by the administrations of ten successive U.S. presidents?

If we agree that we are not discussing applications of the Dewey Decimal System, or metadata, or preservation issues concerning national bibliographic and digital patrimonies, or ways to strengthen collaboration between Cuban, Canadian, and North American librarians, then what, in fact, are we talking about, when, in spite of the resolution approved in Boston, "independent librarians" continue to be labeled as such, even when they obviously are not? When, in the name of principles which are not demanded of the United States, a country that attacks the free flow of ideas and information with its own laws concerning Cuba, the victim is condemned for being small and weak, not the executioner, who is big and powerful?

There is not the slightest doubt that in fact we are dealing with a political agenda rather than a professional issue. As a result, I wonder if professional groups such as those who have organized this conference ought not to distance themselves from their professional objectives of taking political positions toward one side or another. And furthermore, I wonder if they are capable of taking a position based on Cuba's internal situation without regard for external factors, especially the embargo, and the relentless harassment which the island suffers at the hands of the American government. Based on this decision, would these organizations be willing to issue statements and take clear positions on the innumerable political problems which today plague the modern world? Would they agree to do this, for example, concerning the conflict between Israel and Palestine, or the ongoing war with the Iraqi people? Did they condemn a war like this one, which resulted in not only thousands of innocent civilian victims for the benefit of the military-industrial complex, and transnational oil interests, but also caused the looting and destruction of the National Library, the National Museum, and dozens of other important sites which were the patrimony of all mankind?

The campaign that continues even today seeks ultimately to create a climate conducive to isolating Cuba and ruining her international reputation, in order to mount a military attack on the island. The most reactionary groups of Cuban exiles in Miami have worked frantically—and quite successfully—to create the slogan filled with hatred and frustration, which they unveiled when they gathered for the only public demonstration in the world in support of the Iraqi war: "Iraq now, Cuba later."  Military aggression against Cuba, they say, is the only possible way to "resolve" the Cuban problem, thus following the examples of the American government, which has reduced the already-reduced academic and cultural exchanges with the island, and the European Union, which has virtually prohibited them altogether. It is the tacit recognition of their defeat in the exchange of ideas with Cuba, in the exchange of ideas country-to-country.

What do they have left, then, after having exhausted completely, without success, all possible means short of bombings and invasion, even when this will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of human lives, and not just Cuban lives, but those of citizens of other countries as well?

Since the early days when Cubans fought for their liberty during thirty long years, practically alone, we have been a country that expects nothing from other governments, but much from other people. We know very well that throughout history we have received much support and solidarity from the people of the United States and Canada. And this is what we hope for in these tragic moments filled with danger, when the destiny of humanity once again is played out on an island in the Caribbean.

This is what we hope for from our colleagues attending this conference. This is what thousands of Cuban librarians believe and desire as well, those who have never been, or will ever be, interviewed by the big information media, but who, at this very minute, are introducing our children to the unforgettable pleasure of reading their first book.

Translated by Jane Carpenter

About the Author

Eliades Acosta Matos is director of the José Martí National Library of Cuba.
Email: eliades [at] bnjm [dot] cu

Jane Carpenter is Cataloging Librarian at The Newberry Library.
Email: carpenterj [at] newberry [dot] org

© 2005 Eliades Acosta Matos


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