By Duncan Currie
Published: Monday, June 20, 2005 in the Washington Examiner
A more accurate report on Cuban Independent Librarians and the ALA than Diana Barahona’s propaganda piece
Librarians attending the American Library Association’s conference in Chicago this week will hear a speech from that great man of letters Henry Winkler (a.k.a. “The Fonz”). But a bigger story involves who won’t be appearing at the podium: Ramon Coles and Berta Mexidor, the co-founders of Cuba’s independent library movement.
The ALA claims they did not apply to be speakers through the proper channels. But critics say the group’s refusal to accommodate this brave husband-and-wife team is part of a broader hypocrisy on Cuba.
Two years ago, Cuban strongman Fidel Castro jailed 75 dissidents in a brutal clampdown. Fourteen of them were librarians, members of a movement that collects books, newspapers and periodicals and loans them to interested readers. In Castro’s island paradise, this is a crime.
The ALA took notice ó sort of. At its Toronto summit in June 2003, members briefly mulled a resolution on Cuba before postponing the decision until the following January. By that time, the ALA faced mounting pressure to condemn the arrests and demand the release of those imprisoned.
Would the ALA call on Castro to free the jailed librarians? No. The best it could muster was an expression of “deep concern over the arrest and long prison terms of political dissidents.” It noted that some were private librarians, but stopped short of insisting on their release. It urged the Cuban regime to respect “basic human rights” and “eliminate obstacles” to the free flow of information.
Curiously, the ALA report also took a dig at the U.S. embargo because it “restricts access to information in Cuba.” It likewise zinged the U.S. travel ban for hampering “professional exchanges” between the two countries. In its fit of moral equivalence, the ALA blamed both governments ó the one in Washington and the one in Havana ó for the “political climate” that led to the arrests.
This prompted journalist Nat Hentoff, a staunch civil libertarian, to renounce his Immroth Award for Intellectual Freedom, which the ALA bestowed upon him in 1983. “To me, it is no longer an honor,” Hentoff wrote in his Village Voice column.
But John Berry, who was then head of the ALA, was not impressed. In a debate with Hentoff, he defended the ALA’s position and questioned the credentials of the jailed librarians. “Cuba is a bit of a special case for us,” he added, because of the embargo and “the aggressiveness of the American attitude toward [Cuba].”
The ALA’s current leadership seems to consider the matter settled, and prefers to spend its political capital these days bashing the Patriot Act.
But don’t tell Robert Kent, a public librarian in New York, that Cuba is a dead issue. He co-chairs “The Friends of Cuban Libraries.” He also recently penned a letter asking outgoing ALA President Carol Brey-Casiano to invite Col?s and Mexidor to speak in Chicago. “Your response to this request,” he wrote, “will establish, once and for all, your stand on this momentous issue.”
The ALA balked at Kent’s challenge. “It’s way too late to schedule something,” explains Berry, now chair of the ALA’s international relations committee.
“Nonsense,” Kent replies. He says the ALA president has the authority to invite the Cubans.
Kent may have lost this latest battle, but his group is preparing to release a scathing analysis of the ALA’s position on Cuba. He believes that the vast majority of the ALA’s 64,000 members have no idea about the ongoing Cuba flap. Because of low turnout in ALA elections, he says, “a small group of extremists can dominate the organization.”
In the meantime, the world’s largest and oldest library association works in silent complicity with the Western hemisphere’s most brutal dictator.