The Struggle for Freedom in Cuba’s Libraries:
An Interview with Robert Kent

In June 2011, SLA President Cindy Romaine announced that SLA would be partnering with the travel company Professionals Abroad to bring librarians to Cuba for a five-day trip in October 2011. The announcement caused some surprise in the library community, because of well-known free speech issues in Cuba, including attacks on librarians and special libraries.

I personally became aware of the situation in 2006, when it made the news that four librarians had been sentenced to 20 years hard labor for carrying banned books in their libraries, including a copy of the UN Declaration on Human Rights. As a law librarian specifically, I found the lack of access to legal documents especially troubling. In light of the SLA trip, in order to educate myself and other concerned librarians, I contacted Bob Kent, Director of the nonprofit, Friends of Cuban Libraries. Mr. Kent has advocated on behalf of Cuba’s librarians for two decades and was kind enough to answer my questions about the situation there, the SLA trip, and other issues from a librarian’s perspective.

Tell me about your background. What led you to become interested in the situation in Cuba's libraries?

As a member of Amnesty International since 1983, I have experience defending human rights in nations all over the world. My interest in Cuba was inherited from my grandfather, who enlisted in New York City's 69th Regiment during the Spanish American War. In 1992 I visited Cuba for the first time on a tour sponsored by New York's Center for Cuban Studies. Before going to the island, I studied up on the situation there and later had the privilege of meeting several human rights activists.

I became interested in Cuba and returned to the island about 10 times, often bringing letters, books, medicine and small amounts of money for the families of prisoners of conscience and civil society activists.

In 1999 I met several members of Cuba's recently founded independent library movement. Since I am a librarian myself, employed by the New York Public Library, I was fascinated by their innovative challenge to censorship.

I was arrested during my 1999 visit to Cuba and deported. I hope to return someday. Cubans are wonderful people, and their beautiful homeland is "addictive" to many visitors, myself included.

You were arrested in Cuba? Can you tell us more about that? How long were you held and how did you obtain release?

I was arrested in February 1999 primarily for contacting and bringing aid to civil society activists who supported Cuban prisoners of conscience such as Martha Beatriz Roque and Vladimiro Roca, dissident leaders who want democratic freedoms in their homeland. There was a "knock on the door" of my room in a guesthouse. Three men in olive green came into the apartment, and they took me to an office for questioning and a search of my belongings, as well as a frisking. The main interrogator demanded that I tell him everything about the people I had met in Cuba, and what they had told me in our conversations. The secret police were irritated by my meetings with independent librarians, but this subject was not a major concern to the interrogators, since at that time the independent library movement had just begun and was little known outside of Cuba. After being held overnight in a locked van at the Havana airport, they put me on a plane for Mexico City and informed me that I was being deported for "counterrevolutionary activities."

It was only after my release, when the Friends of Cuban Libraries began to win international recognition and support for the independent librarians, that the Cuban government started to regard the librarians as a "threat" and intensified its persecution of them, denouncing them as traitors, criminals, foreign agents and "information terrorists."

I read that Cuba has two library systems, the "official" government libraries and a network of independent, special libraries. It seems like the independent librarians are the group that is subject to governmental harassment. What can you tell us about Cuba's dual library systems and what it is like to be an information professional there?

Cuba's official library system is modeled on its counterpart in the old Soviet Union. In free societies, librarians are expected to make information available, while in library systems using the Soviet model, librarians are instructed to deny information on sensitive topics to the general public, reserving access to people considered "trustworthy," such as official journalists and researchers considered "reliable."

After the Castro government seized power, it began to "weed" from library collections materials which it did not want people to see. Many of these materials were burned, buried or pulped.

In reaction to this, hundreds of volunteers began forming libraries in their homes. These independent, or “indie” librarians, as a matter of principle, seek to provide unlimited public access to their small library collections, offering diverse points of view and varied collections. Hundreds of these libraries now exist.

Indie librarians have been subjected to threats, harassment, mob attacks, physical assaults, infiltration by the secret police, confiscations, police raids, prison sentences and the court-ordered BURNING of thousands of library books. In 2003 a major crackdown occurred, and about a dozen librarians were sentenced to 20-year prison terms following one-day trials. All of them were named as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

Sadly, the ALA International Relations Committee, with a mandate to defend intellectual freedom around the world, is controlled by a faction which flatly denies the existence of censorship, book burning and library repression in Cuba, implicitly defending the Cuban government's claim that the independent librarians are actually "information terrorists." The ALA has ignored appeals on this subject by celebrities such as "Fahrenheit 451" author Ray Bradbury, Nat Hentoff, Madeleine Albright, Andrei Codrescu and Anthony Lewis.

Thanks to international pressure (except from the ALA), all of the jailed Cuban librarians have now been released, but the repression continues.

Tell us about Friends of Cuban Libraries. What motivated you to form the organization and what is its background and goals?

After being deported from Cuba in 1999, I contacted Jorge Sanguinetty, an exiled Cuban economist, when a newspaper reported that he had mailed books to one of the independent libraries. We formed the Friends of Cuban Libraries as an ad hoc support group for the island's free library movement. Our goal is to publicize Cuba's independent librarians and to supply them with books. We work mainly through tourists, providing advice on how to take books to the island. We also have a stock of books and supply them to travelers.

What possible issues, if any, can you see with an SLA trip to Cuba? What advice or information would you want the SLA delegation to consider, if planning a trip to Cuba?

The Friends of Cuban Libraries are concerned exclusively with freedom of information, and we do not take a stand on travel issues. But the planned SLA trip to Cuba could offer an opportunity to learn more about Cuba and to bring moral and material support to all Cuban libraries, including the persecuted independent library movement. However, the government wants to discourage people from visiting the indie librarians and hearing an alternative version of Cuban reality, and from bringing them book donations.

Unfortunately, many people go to Cuba without doing much homework, and the reality experienced by the Cuban people is not always apparent. To some visitors, the situation on the island appears pleasant: the sun is shining, the music is wonderful, the beaches and architecture are lovely, and Cubans welcome foreigners with an open heart. But the reality of Cuba, beyond the tourist sites and the rehearsed patter of "official" librarians and other greeters provided by the government, is very grim.

The current agenda for the SLA trip includes only visits to Cuba's parliamentary libraries, which are of course, official libraries. How would SLA go about contacting and visiting independent librarians there? Based on your experience, do you think the Cuban government would allow the SLA trip to go forward, if having contact with independent special librarians was made a part of the agenda?

Any members of the SLA delegation who would like to visit independent libraries are encouraged to contact the Friends of Cuban Libraries in advance of their trip, and we can provide updated and accurate information on the locations of independent librarians, and how to contact them.

The Cuban government just might cancel the visit by the SLA delegation if they know in advance that visits to the independent librarians are on the agenda, but there is nothing to prevent individual SLA members from visiting the indie libraries on their own initiative once they arrive in Cuba. Cuba's official librarians may try to discourage SLA members from visiting the indie librarians, and in the past some of them have even given erroneous addresses and telephone numbers to foreign visitors asking for directions.

Actually, it is not a crime to visit the independent libraries in Cuba, and there is nothing on the Cuban law books stating it is a crime for Cubans to read banned books. And it is not considered a crime for foreigners to visit any Cuban library, "official" or independent, and many visitors, including librarians, make a point of visiting the independent libraries to obtain information on Cuban reality. The Cuban government is embarrassed by international publicity regarding the persecution of the indie librarians. As a result, very few foreigners who visit the indie librarians and bring them donations are bothered by the police.

Foreign visitors are sure to receive a warm welcome from the independent librarians, who can tell visitors of their efforts to defend intellectual freedom under difficult circumstances. In summation, the risk to foreigners visiting the indie librarians is very low.

What do Cuban indie librarians need and how could the library community here assist them?

All kinds of materials are needed by Cuban libraries, "official" and unofficial. The collections of the independent libraries are similar to public libraries in the U.S., and the indie librarians welcome donations of books and periodicals on all subjects. Spanish language materials are preferred, of course, but donations in any language are appreciated. Also needed are other items in short supply, such as pens, pencils, used computers and writing paper. USB drives are very welcome, too. Even though it is a crime for most Cubans to access the World Wide Web, the ownership of computers has been decriminalized, so gifts of USB drives offer a way to copy and exchange large amounts of information censored by Cuba's print media.

On a related note, is there anything we can do to affect change in Cuba?

As to the question of change in Cuba, this is matter which primarily belongs to the Cuban people. But visitors to the island can offer Cubans their own perspective and news of the worldwide movement to defend human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' glorious guarantee of everyone's right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

 

After talking with Bob, I gained a deeper perspective on the situation in Cuba, which is somewhere in between the paradise of socialism that the Cuban government wishes to project, and the scary headlines listing atrocities against librarians. The reality seems to be that the situation there is every bit as terrible as we have heard, but that Cuba also has a very active opposition movement, embodied by brave independent librarians, who need and deserve our support.

A visit to Cuba by SLA raises a host of ethical and moral dilemmas. In order for this trip to succeed the issue of Cuban censorship and mistreatment of librarians should be fully addressed beforehand, and the trip must include visits to indie libraries. The Friends of Cuban Libraries is an excellent resource for SLA leadership and they should be actively encouraged to avail themselves of it as they prepare for this trip.

The Bay Area SLA Chapter has so far been the leader in raising intelligent and thoughtful questions regarding this SLA trip. I hope that the dialogue we started not just continues, but intensifies, over the coming months. At the end, everyone – SLA leadership, delegation members, and SLA members – will emerge smarter and better-informed.

I welcome your feedback on this issue. Please feel free to contact me at sfd@sarafdudley.com or post your thoughts and suggestions to the Chapter’s email list.

Sara Fox Dudley Law Student & Librarian
©2012