After giving a keynote speech this week at the American Library Association’s annual convention, science fiction author Ray Bradbury joined a growing list of international writers and human rights activists in condemning the persecution of Cuba’s Independent Library Project.
The American Library Association, or ALA, has ignored a request by imprisoned Cuban counterparts to demand leader Fidel Castro release them, but the author of “Fahrenheit 451” responded after viewing evidence of court-ordered book burning.
“I stand against any library or any librarian anywhere in the world being imprisoned or punished in any way for the books they circulate,” Bradbury said. “I plead with Castro and his government to immediately take their hands off the independent librarians and release all those librarians in prison, and to send them back into Cuban culture to inform the people.”
Seeking to stay out of internal politics, Bradbury did not make his comments during his ALA appearance. But he hopes the ALA will support him in his call for Castro to stop intimidating the independent library movement, which receives funding through congressionally-approved USAID and other agency grants.
The author made his remarks after American librarians showed him recently translated court documents from 2003 show-trials that discussed how “subversive” books and magazines held by the librarians should be destroyed, and, in several cases, “incinerated.”
In the case of Julio Antoniao Guevara, for example, the trial judge ordered: “As to the disposition of the photographic negatives, the audio cassette, medicines, books, magazines, pamphlets and the rest of the documents, they are to be destroyed by means of incineration because they lack usefulness.”
Among some of the many thousands of materials burned or destroyed by the Cuban Department of Interior were books on the U.S. Constitution, Martin Luther King, journalism manuals, a book called “Fidel’s Secret Wars,” and in one case, even a book by Jose Marti, the Cuban hero of independence beloved by most Cubans and often quoted by Castro.
When contacted by WND and asked if they would consider supporting Bradbury’s request to join him in calling for the release of the prisoners, top officials responded through a press office statement that reiterated a 2004 policy report crafted as a “result of almost a year of discussion and investigation.”
Among the statements made in that report were, “This political climate brought on primarily by U.S. Government and Cuban Government legislation and policies in recent years should not be countered by censorship and imprisonment,” and, “Neither the Cuban Government nor any other government has the right to stifle or obstruct the free expression of opinions and ideas.”
The statement, which was seen as a consensus compromise by many ALA councilors at the time, also expressed association’s “deep concern,” and urged the Cuban Government “to respect, defend and promote the basic human rights defined in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
In the startling court documents Bradbury considered before issuing his statement, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights was one of the pamphlets ordered burned. Ramon Colas, the exiled founder of the Independent Library Project, also has presented ALA leaders in the past with evidence that Cuban customs officials on occasion have not allowed the U.N. Declaration into the country.
The 2004 ALA policy statement did not, however, call for the release of the independent librarians, who are all considered prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, or call for the return of confiscated collections.
A small minority of councilors, out of nearly 200, wanted those issues to be added to last year’s policy statement, but they were overruled by the majority.
That led to charges by a few Council and regular ALA members that a hard-core, pro-Marxist faction had hijacked ALA’s foreign policy to Cuba on this issue.
Reacting to Ray Bradbury’s plea, councilor Ellen Zyroff told WND, “All who cherish freedom must redouble their efforts to let Fidel Castro know that he will no longer get away with scoffing at the many cries from around the world to free all of the jailed independent librarians and return their book collections.”
Zyroff, principal librarian for the San Diego County Library, emphasized she was speaking for herself.
She said she agreed with the charges leveled by columnist Nat Hentoff and others, who say that ALA reactions to human rights abuses in Cuba have been hypocritical “for an association which claims to champion free access to books and information.”
WND also asked the ALA’s chief spokeswoman on intellectual freedom and book banning issues, Judith Krug, why the documented cases of book burning in Cuba were not on the ALA’s official book burning website. The site has numerous examples of book burning by governments or groups, from 2005 to all the way back before Christ.
By late yesterday the ALA press office still had not been able to reach Krug for comment.
When Michael Gorman, the incoming president of the ALA, was asked by WND Monday to comment on the current Cuban situation, the press office responded with a statement reiterating the 2004 policy and saying that the ALA is a “large and complex organization whose members have diverse perspectives and opinions.”
The statement also said, “The full ALA and IFLA reports on these complex and politically charged issues can be found online.
In his campaign for the ALA presidency last December, however, Gorman did respond to a member’s question as to what he thought of the repression of Cuba’s unique independent libraries.
“I am utterly and unalterably opposed to restrictions on freedom of speech and expression by any government or government agency in any country,” he said then, adding, “I believe in intellectual freedom and the right of free expression and wish those were available to all people in all countries.”
Bradbury’s explosive comments also come just weeks after Human Rights First issued an regarding the health of Hector Palacios, whose wife, Gisela Delgado, is the director of Cuba’s Independent Library Project. The entire book collection of the 68-year old human- rights activist and his wife, which was available for public use, was confiscated in 2003 when he was arrested and has not been returned.
The HRF alert says Palacios is near death due to harsh prison conditions and the group has called for his immediate release and the release of other dissidents arrested in Castro’s controversial 2003 crackdown on independent writers, dissident-librarians, and political activists.
Last June, after Delgado made an emergency appeal to the ALA for support, the organization did respond by sending a letter to the Cuban Foreign Minister, in which John Berry, chairman of the ALA’s International Relations Committee, wrote “We thank you very much for your attention and assistance to ensure the health and welfare of these detained individuals.”
Since then several of the 75 dissidents imprisoned in 2003, a few of whom were librarians, have in fact been released, but the current condition of Palacios was not placed on the ALA agenda this year.
In the past several years, critics of the ALA’s position on Cuba have charged the well-regarded association with double standards with regards to Cuba and other communist nations. They point out that the government of Israel, for instance, was criticized by the ALA for the destruction of Palestinian libraries, which were alleged to have been destroyed intentionally by Israeli troops.
These critics have pointed out that official ALA policy “deplores the destruction of libraries … whether it be done by individuals or groups of individuals and whether it be in the name of honest dissent, the desire to control or limit thought or ideas,” but feel that such policies are not being applied evenly.
Other Council members are reported to be weary of political controversies that take focus off other vital library issues and are said to favor the ALA making fewer pronouncements about all international matters in general.
But Bradbury’s public call for the ALA to support him in his stand against Castro is expected to spark more debate within the 65,000-member strong organization, and he is not the first prominent writer to voice his concerns.
Nat Hentoff, the Village Voice columnist and defender of the Bill of Rights, told WND he is now a “persona-non grata” among ALA leaders for his strong criticisms of the organization’s Cuba policies.
Also, in December 2003, Yale professor and Cuban author Carlos N. M. Eire wrote a public letter in which he urged the ALA “to openly and unconditionally censure the repression of human rights in Cuba and to do so immediately and in the strongest possible terms.”
The Cuban-born scholar, whose “Waiting for Snow in Havana” won the coveted National Book Award, said the ALA should call for the immediate release of the independent librarians.
He asked “how can the ALA mount a successful campaign in the United States to protest the Patriot Act when it refuses to condemn one of the most flagrant violations of its own principles a mere ninety miles from American shores?”
The exiled founders of the Independent Library Project now living in Florida could not be reached for comment, but in past statements they have said that clear support from the world’s largest library organization would be a great boost for those in Cuba who struggle to maintain uncensored libraries.
Walter Skold is an independent journalist and librarian living in Freeport, Maine.