Cuba’s real libraries

By Diana Barahona

July 18, 2008

La Habana – The José Martí National Library is located in the Plaza de la Revolución, across from the José Martí monument and museum. This is the famous plaza where huge public spectacles take place, dominated by the image of Ché which takes up the side of a tall building.

The library, which houses Cuba’s patrimony, was moved into its current building in 1958, and it has the modern style of that period. Undoubtedly a major reason for its move away from Habana Vieja is the fact that whenever there is a major storm, the parts of city closest to the ocean are inundated.

My acquaintance with the library began several years ago when I was visited by two L.A. area librarians who, along with others across the country, were supporters of Cuba’s libraries and of their Cuban colleagues. Their professional association, the American Library Association, was plagued by the impertinent demands of a New York City library employee named Robert Kent, who had made a few trips to Cuba in the late 1990s in support of a small number of paid dissidents who claimed to be independent librarians. Kent wanted the ALA to condemn Cuba for allegedly harassing these noble employees of the United States government and proclaim its institutional support for them. As ridiculous as the whole thing seems on its face, some actually allied themselves with Kent, including Nat Hentoff of the Village Voice and some Eastern Europeans—especially the professional anticommunist Vaclav Havel.

One problem Kent had was that he was finally caught with a fake passport, instructing one of the dissident librarians (an undercover agent) to take photographs and study the security of the house of Cuba’s first vice president, Carlos Lage Dávila. The agent, Aleida Godínez, is not, as Kent claimed, a dubious file of Cuba’s intelligence services, but a flesh-and-blood person who is willing to tell the story to anyone who cares to listen.

To set the record straight once again, Cuba has 413 public libraries, in addition to its 600 school libraries. They are so advanced that they offer special services to the disabled, such as talking books, books in Braille and others. There is also some Internet access for patrons to do research and programs created by professionals for children as young as three years to introduce them to the joys of reading.

An article in Granma today, Lecturas a diario, by Pedro de la Hoz, expands further on the success the Cuban Book Institute has had in encouraging the habit of reading. These programs include the well-known International Book Fair, the libraries’ Minerva book clubs, Summer Readings, Book Nights, the University Book and Reading Festival, Fairs in the Mountain, Book Saturdays, the opening of literary cafes and more.

Cuba has many highly educated professionals, which is an intentional achievement of the revolution. Poor in raw materials, the country is rich in human capital, which allows it to apply ingenious solutions to a variety of problems. They take pride in this, and so the creation of fake professionals in journalism and library science by the dissident industry is an affront to professionals everywhere. Washington has taken the idea of civil society and created a fictitious one that exists only on paper for propaganda purposes. It doesn’t matter that nobody ever reads the journalism of paid dissidents or takes out a book from an independent library, since the goal is to get the international media and organizations such as the ALA, the CPI and AI on board condemning Cuba.

Our host, José Manuel, is an economist who fought in the revolution; he told us an amusing story about the fake civil society. Still very active at 70, he was recently called on to teach local militia members how to use mortars. They’re assembled in the plaza in uniform, doing their weapons training, when they receive word that the Ladies in White are coming. The decision is taken to clear the plaza to avoid a provocation, but some women who happen to be there are fired up and want to confront the Ladies. José Manuel is arguing with the women when he spies Interests Section chief Michael Parmley sitting there, surreptitiously taking digital photographs. It doesn’t take any imagination to know what kind of caption he planned for those pictures.

Although I haven’t asked her, I believe it was the dissident industry’s disrespect towards Cuba’s professional librarians that motivated U.S. librarian Dana Lubow to buy a bookmobile, fill it with books, and drive it to Mexico with the Pastors for Peace caravan. It hasn’t arrived in Havana yet, but readers can check out her blog to see the beautiful artwork on the outside of the bus, designed by one of Cuba’s five antiterrorists imprisoned in the United States for the past ten years.

Diana Barahona recently earned a BA in journalism from California State University – Long Beach, where she was disruptive, disrespectful and had an agenda, according the chair of the journalism school. She is now studying sociology at California State University – Fullerton.

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