On the eve of the world’s largest library conference, a group of prominent dissidents from the former Soviet bloc have issued a stinging rebuke to Fidel Castro for jailing independent librarians and have called on the International Federation of Library Associations, or IFLA, to challenge Cuba over its human rights violations.
“We know what it is like to live in a society where freedom is repressed in the name of democracy and national sovereignty, and where the voicing of dissent is banned in the name of safeguarding freedom of expression,” says a letter released yesterday by the Czech-based People In Need Foundation.
The letter, signed by such human rights luminaries as Vaclav Havel, Elena Bonner, Yuri Orlov, and the former prime ministers of Bulgaria and Estonia, is being sent to Paul Sturges, the head of the IFLA’s Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression, or FAIFE. The world library group meets in Buenos Aires later this month for its annual conference.
The appeal of former dissidents from Eastern Europe, some of whom rose to be post-Soviet leaders, charges that “the Cuban government has made a systematic effort to crush the independent library movement through a campaign of harassment, threats, police raids, physical assaults, arrests, and the confiscation of library materials and library records.”
The writers cite “shocking details” in newly revealed documents smuggled from Cuba that report how the “collections seized from Cuba’s independent librarians were analyzed by court-appointed ‘literary experts’ and officially condemned as ‘subversive’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ before, in many cases, being ordered to be destroyed by incineration.”
This latest rebuke is a political setback for the Cuban regime and comes after a year of souring relations with European nations as numerous human rights groups, prominent writers and Western European governments have condemned Cuba over a spring 2003 crackdown in which 75 leading independent journalists, librarians and activists were given show trials and jailed.
The appeal from such respected European human rights activists on the eve of International Federation of Library Associations’ annual convention is likely to cause a small political war in the library community. Not only will the founder of the Independent Libraries of Cuba, Humberto Colas, be attending, but the new president of the American Library Association, Carol Brey-Casiano, as well as leaders from official Cuban libraries, also are set to give important speeches.
Small but vocal groups of pro-Castro officials within the ALA and other national library groups have provided the Cuban dictator with some of his best public-relations cover in recent years, even while many former Castro supporters and professional groups have condemned him for his human rights record.
“As the worldwide voice of librarians and a leading defender of the right to freedom of expression, especially in relation to libraries, FAIFE/IFLA has a duty to speak out clearly on Cuba,” says the appeal to Sturges.
In January, the Cuban government was furious that IFLA challenged Castro’s crackdown of unofficial Internet use by urging Cuba “to eliminate all obstacles to access to the Internet imposed by its policies.”
“While the World Summit of the Information Society was debating how best to improve access to information using information technology, the Cuban government was preparing a law that will further restrict Internet access for its citizens,” wrote Sturges at the time.
Top officials of Cuba’s state library system have staunchly denied that the independent librarians were victims of human rights violations, or that they are “real librarians,” and have repeated vigorously in international library conferences the government claim that the activists were “paid agents of the United States” jailed for subversive activities.
“As for the Cuban government’s efforts to portray the independent librarians as traitors and foreign agents because they receive support from abroad,” the letter says, in response to such arguments, “We speak from our own experience in rejecting such claims. It can never be a crime to oppose censorship or to open a library.”
“We are familiar with the arguments and strategies used by repressive regimes to deny, evade responsibility for, and cover up the existence of pervasive censorship and repression, including the censorship of government-run libraries,” added the signers, all of whom struggled against communist information and political monopolies in their respective nations.
“Like the people of Cuba, we have lived under governments where newspapers and the mass media are allowed to express only one point of view, and where books and magazines are harshly censored,” they wrote, adding, “We are also familiar with government-run library systems, based on the model developed in the former Soviet Union, designed to prevent the general public from reading materials considered objectionable by the regime in power.”
This latest denunciation is the second public relations disaster in one week for Cuban efforts to rehabilitate their image among usually supportive library groups, as the American Library Association also released letters last Thursday in which they called on Cuban authorities to respect intellectual freedom and “ensure the health and welfare of these detained individuals.”
The ALA’s International Relation’s Committee was responding to an emergency appeal sent in June from Gisela Sablon Delgado, the director of the Independent Libraries of Cuba, in Havana. Her husband is an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who was sentenced to a lengthy term in April 2003 after government agents destroyed their library collection, which was open to the public.
In a letter to Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs Felipe Roque, IRC-chairman John W. Berry expressed “deep concern” over the treatment of prisoners. The letter, which also speaks of ALA’s position against U.S. policies towards Cuba, marks only the second time since the independent library movement began in 1989 that the ALA has come officially to the aid of the dissident librarians.
A previous appeal from Delgado-Sablon in June 2003 was ignored after detractors within the ALA squashed attempts to give legitimacy to people they argued were not even librarians, but merely political opportunists receiving money and books from the U.S. government and exile groups hostile to Castro.
At that time, ALA President Mitch Freedman had welcomed the head of the Communist party-controlled national library to address the ALA in Toronto, while refusing to give Colas a platform to respond to charges made against the independent libraries, which now number over 200.
Sablon’s recent letter to the ALA said, “Thanks to international attention, three librarians have been liberated, including Leonardo Bruzon Avila, Julio valdez Guevara, and Juan Carlos Gonzalez Leiva, all of them in serious health condition,” but she added that “more international attention is required to bring about the release of those remaining.”
The Eastern European signers and those librarians who are supportive of Cuba’s unique independent library movement are hoping that a potential IFLA statement on human rights
would persuade Castro to release more prisoners of conscience and allow the libraries to operate freely.
“Despite the Cuban government’s lengthy and skillful campaign to deny, cover up and mislead the international community with regard to systematic censorship and repression on the island,” the statement said, “The regime must be held accountable for its own actions.”
The appeal is being made, in part, under provisions of a 1983 IFLA resolution which says, “intervene when appropriate with competent authorities on behalf of these colleagues.”
It is likely that in the lead-up to the IFLA’s upcoming convention in Buenos Aires the Cuban government will respond with hostility to this latest statement. The signers of the statement have enormous stature within the international community; however, some observers say the stage is set for a showdown in Argentina.
Loud shouting matches and even fights have broken out on previous occasions in Mexico and Geneva when Cuban officials have been publicly challenged over human rights abuses. Also, Brey-Casiano, unlike her predecessors, speaks Spanish and has a sympathetic attitude towards the independent library movement in Cuba.
The appeal also will likely get a welcome response from Cuba’s beleaguered and divided opposition groups, who generally look to former dissidents like Havel and Bonner as examples of citizens who fought, and won, against communist repression.
Havel is a poet and writer who is credited with leading his country’s “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, which separated it from the Soviet Union. In his last American speech as Czech president, given in Florida, he singled out Cubans trying to build a “civic society” for praise.
“I think that one of the most diabolical instruments for subjugating some people and fooling other is the special communist language,” said Havel, in the 2002 speech. “To all those who have not lost the will to resist arbitrary force and lies, may your dreams be fulfilled.”
Walter Skold is an independent journalist and librarian living in Freeport, Maine. He was a reporter for the New York City Tribune and taught journalism in China.