Libraries at the heart of the community

Spring 2008

By Dana Lubow and Rhonda L. Neugebauer

Americans highly value their freedoms, among them - and of great importance - their freedom to read what they choose. In turn, most are very critical of what they believe to be Cubans’ lack of such freedoms. They assume Cubans are unable to read what they wish due to government censorship of their reading materials. Fueled by the mainstream American media, such misconceptions reflect not only the enormous pressures exerted by the United States government but also its hostility to the Fidel Castro regime and its successor. Those pressures have grown ever-stronger since 1962, when the U.S. imposed its trade embargo on that small but staunchly independent nation. Even now, in the wake of Fidel’s resignation, Washington is trying to instigate regime change in Cuba by rigidly enforcing its all-encompassing, but widely condemned, blockade.

In economic terms, Cuba is a very poor country, mainly due to the blockade. Most analysts consider it part of the developing world. Despite that reality, it spends an impressive amount its limited resources equitably for the benefit of its more than 11 million people. Everyone has free access to health care. Everyone can read. Everyone has at least a 9th grade education, and many people have graduate degrees.

U.S. and other foreign librarians who visit Cuba’s libraries note how well worn and obviously used their materials are. They also discover that their Cuban counterparts’ are committed to preservation and to assuring free access to the collections. These concerns reflect priorities of the Revolution that have guided the country since 1959 and have resulted in an emphasis on literacy, education, culture, and the arts. Because of that focus, Cuba is a society rich in educational, intellectual, and cultural opportunities, which its people take full advantage of and value. That focus has also led Cuba to develop libraries with dynamic educational programming and public outreach, and to library professionals committed to an ongoing assessment of community needs based on active engagement with diverse user populations. These emphases have ensured libraries a prominent role in the conservation of historical records, the promotion of reading, adult lifelong learning, and the preservation of cultural patrimony, making libraries respected and valued institutions in Cuba.

There are over 400 public libraries in Cuba today. Prior to the 1959 revolution there were only 39. Each of the 169 municipalities now has a public library. Many highly populated regions have more than one branch. All are heavily used.

There is a high demand for reading materials in Cuba. This is hardly surprising in a country with free education through the doctoral level and, according to the UN Development Program, a literacy rate of nearly 100%. Library users are accustomed to having a wide variety of reading materials from around the world available to them. They access materials ranging from the classics to contemporary literature, from Latin American fiction to current and historical works, and including scientific and medical literature. This is also not surprising since Cubans view libraries as essential to their academic and personal success. They expect libraries to provide supplemental materials for degree programs, homework and school assignments, as well as reference works, foreign language materials, recreational works, and music. They also expect them to provide special services for the developmentally disabled and for infants, and, increasingly, online services and access to the Internet. To meet these demands, Cuban librarians have built collections in a variety of disciplines and genres. They have also developed innovative programming and community outreach to share library resources with the public and within a network of school libraries coordinated by the José Martí National Library. The networked infrastructure that will increase access to online and Internet resources is being installed gradually in the nation’s libraries.

Cubans are proud of the achievements of their libraries. However, the libraries, like the rest of the country, are greatly disadvantaged by the continuing U.S. blockade. Over the decades, it has cost Cuba more than $89 billion dollars and has deprived U.S. citizens of the freedom to visit and learn about Cuba first hand. U.S. travel restrictions, expanded annually in response to pressure from Cuban-American leaders, prevent Americans from traveling to Cuba and associating with Cubans, their librarians, and library staff. Additionally, since the late 1990s, the U.S. government has invested millions of dollars in a different kind of Cuban “library,” one that promotes its goal of regaining control of Cuba. These so-called “independent libraries” are supported by monies received on a monthly basis from couriers from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

The Torricelli Act (1992) and the Helms-Burton Act (1996) authorized and provided financial and logistical support and training to individuals and organizations in Cuba that work for regime change. This includes dissidents like the “independent journalists” and the “independent librarians”. Those individuals report back to American minders, who issue carefully crafted articles, “news alerts”, and memos to reporters and media outlets.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.AID) provide a political and monetary lifeline to U.S.-based anti-Castro organizations. They train and coordinate the dissidents and select themes that match U.S policy goals for them to focus on (e.g., human rights, censorship, democracy). The dissidents then create “news agencies” and file stories that reflect those pre-selected themes. The only stories solicited, accepted, and disseminated are those critical of the Cuban government. They are subsequently published and broadcast in the U.S. using anti-Castro websites and spokespersons. Foremost among them are CubaNet (, Freedom House, Center for a Free Cuba, and, the most notorious among U.S. librarians, Friends of Cuban Libraries. Next, the stories are broadcast back into Cuba via Radio Marti, Radio Mambi, and others. The U.S. then claims that these stories provide evidence of human rights violations, censorship, and the persecution of groups who are merely “promoting democracy.” In fact, the lists of Cuba’s supposed human rights violations posted on U.S. government websites can be tracked back to these well-paid dissidents reporting from Cuba. The American legislation that provided money for the destabilization of the country, thus violating Cuban sovereignty, was matched by Cuban legislation which made it illegal to cooperate with or accept payment from these sorts of U.S.-endowed agencies and groups.

Cuba’s critics falsely claim that the people who work at the “independent libraries” are librarians. FACT: Not one of the “independents” has ever been a librarian, library worker, or been associated with libraries in any capacity. FACT: Not one genuine Cuban librarian or library worker has joined the “independent librarians”. FACT: These so-called libraries, stocked with books from the U.S. State Department, sit on a few shelves in an individual’s home. FACT: Supplies, materials, and cash are delivered by organizations such as Freedom House, The Center for a Free Cuba, and The Dissident Task Group. Several “independent librarians”, along with “independent journalists”, “independent” trade’s people, and other “independent” professionals have been imprisoned, but only after conviction for taking monies and support from the U.S. in violation of Cuban law.

Strong documentary evidence links the U.S. government, the National Endowment for Democracy, U.S. AID, a host of U.S.-based and well-funded anti-Castro groups, and a somewhat volatile but committed group of well-paid dissidents in Cuba. Given that entanglement, a discussion of the “independent libraries” cannot be separated from the milieu in which they were created and developed. That milieu includes the foreign policy strategy of the U.S., the powerful voting and lobbying bloc of Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans and their well-connected political operatives and organizations, the powerful influence the anti-Castro Cubans have on U.S. foreign and domestic policy, and the generous congressionally-mandated supply line of cash, material, media outlets, and couriers.

Cuban libraries serve their population extremely well, notwithstanding these efforts to undermine their infrastructure. As librarians, our concern regarding the role and purpose of the “independent libraries” has prompted us to pass this information on to our colleagues. As librarians committed to a value system that rejects government manipulation of libraries, we have a responsibility to our colleagues in Cuba, and to librarians in general, to expose the role of the U.S. government in violating those values regarding the integrity of libraries. We urge all library professionals to remain committed to the demands of a free librarian system throughout the world.

Community Library Outreach to Rural Cubans [possible sidebar]

Two librarians, Dana Lubow and Rhonda Neugebauer, have spearheaded an effort to take a fully-stocked mobile library to the provincial library of Granma in Cuba, where it will add significantly to the library’s basic collections and extend its outreach services in underserved, isolated rural areas ( They will leave Los Angeles in June as part of the Pastors for Peace 19th US-Cuba Friendshipment Caravan. The Caravan will stop in communities along the way to collect medical and other supplies for delivery to Cuba and to educate the American people about the realities of life in Cuba and about the U.S.’s interventionist foreign policy. The exterior of the bookmobile features design elements contributed by Gerardo Hernández, one of the Miami Five. His artwork will provide an opening to tell the Five’s story and call for a just resolution of their case.

Many people in Britain have already donated books and money in support of the bookmobile. Email to learn how you, too, can help. To ensure the lowest transfer fees and best possible exchange rate, the Oxford CSC is pooling donations for transfer to the US. If you want to contribute to the fund, please make your cheque payable to Cuba Solidarity Oxford care of Carol Stavris, 120 Loyd Road, Didcot, Oxon, OX11 8JR.

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