Maria Elena Salinas | MySanAntonio.com
There are certain things about democracy in the United States that we sometimes take for granted — things as simple as going to the library and checking out a book about any subject we are interested in.
So in the wake of National Library Week, I thought we could all learn a little about the importance of books, freedom of thought and free expression by hearing the story of Ramon Colas, founder of the independent library movement in Cuba.
Colas, a psychologist from the province of Las Tunas, challenged Cuban President Fidel Castro’s authority with books, not guns. He took on the world’s longest-ruling dictator with such classics as “Catcher in the Rye,” “Catch-22” and “1984.”
Castro responded by running Colas out of Cuba and jailing 10 of his fellow independent librarians. They are now serving prison terms of up to 28 years in Castro’s gulags.
Actions like this led the United Nations to again condemn Cuba recently for human rights violations.
The story of Cuba’s independent libraries dates to 1998. Colas was at home watching television when Castro appeared on the screen, answering a journalist’s question about censorship: “There are no banned books in Cuba,” Castro declared. “Only those which we have no money to buy.”
Colas decided to put Castro’s words to the test. He and his wife, Berta Mexidor, opened the doors of their home and designated their collection of 800 books as an independent library, with no affiliation to Cuba’s state-run library system. They invited friends and neighbors to sit in their home and read or borrow any books of their choosing for free.
Soon independent libraries began popping up all over Cuba.
By 2001, there were 100 of them in private homes throughout the island. They stocked titles as diverse as “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Communist Manifesto,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “The Little Engine That Could.”
Most of the books came from private collections or were donated by foreign diplomats and visitors. The libraries also stocked Bibles and other religious books, which could not be found in Cuba’s state-run libraries. There were also copies of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and back issues of Time, Newsweek and National Geographic.
It was hardly material anyone, anywhere, would consider controversial or subversive ó anywhere, that is, outside of Cuba.
In 2003, Castro said “enough” and threw several of the independent librarians in jail. In 45 years of dictatorship, Castro has shown zero tolerance for the free exchange of ideas.
In Cuba, Castro rules with absolute authority. It is he who decides which books are appropriate for Cubans to read and which should be banned.
Access to the Internet also is tightly controlled, with only select Cubans having access to the Web. Internet access from home is generally off-limits to Cubans. Again, the aging dictator wants to control what people read.
I met Colas in Miami, where he is now living in exile and working to get international support for Cuba’s independent libraries and for his compatriots who are in prison.
Among the jailed librarians is Ricardo Gonzalez, a former Cuban journalist who operated a small independent library in Havana. His collection included autobiographies of Martin Luther King Jr., Woody Allen and Paul Newman. For this, Gonzalez is serving 20 years in prison.
Gonzalez belongs in jail as much as the friendly librarian behind the counter at your neighborhood public library does. His only crime was to offer information-starved people the freedom to choose what type of material to read.
How ironic that in a country that boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world, reading material must first meet the approval of one of the world’s most ruthless dictators. The world should know that these heroic librarians are either in exile or behind bars for trying to bring democracy to Cuba, one book at a time.
Footnote: The Cuban government temporarily released one of the jailed independent librarians. Julio Antonio Valdez Guevara, 52, was allowed to leave jail to be treated for hypertension and kidney dysfunction. Authorities say he will remain free until his recovery.