By Marijke van der Meer
One of the showpieces of Cuba’s socialist revolution is the nearly 100 percent literacy rate of its people.
Fidel Castro proclaimed at the 1998 Havana International Book Fair, “There are no banned books in Cuba, only the lack of funds to purchase them.” This prompted two young political activists to open their home library to the public.
Ten years later, there are now over a hundred of these informal libraries—bibliotecas independientes—in Cuba. The books are supplied by visiting foreign tourists.
The Dutch peace organization Pax Christi, for example, has set up a project called ‘Open the Door for Cuba’. Marianne Moor, head of the organization’s Latin America department explains:
“What we do is send volunteers to see what is needed and then we ask Dutch tourists who go to Cuba to take the books with them in their backpack and personally deliver them to one of the independent libraries. One tourist we spoke with dropped off books in a library they found in a very small house in a poor neighborhood in Santa Clara, and she said the experience was both “very special” and also “a little bit freaky”:
“A man opened the door. He looked very nervous but he was happy to see us and to hear that we were bringing books. He then very proudly showed us his library, a small room with two bookshelves and a small table. He also showed us very proudly a box with cards in it, with the names of the people who come to borrow books, and he told us it was not safe to have this box in his house. So every night he brought it somewhere else so that when the police came it was not clear who was borrowing books.”
Pro-Cuban critics of American foreign policy say the bibliotecas independientes are a front for political dissidents and are CIA-funded. Moor does not believe this is true. “Some librarians are politically active, which is their right, and people who fight for democracy also tend to be more active in culture.”
Moor explains that Cuban readers are very interested in what is being written about Cuba, and in books and magazines that describe Europe, such as the transition of the former communist countries to EU membership.
Books for everyone
There is also a strong need for children’s books. “Some libraries have a more political focus, but when I say political I refer to history, civil rights, also academic work not available in Cuba’s official communist libraries. So in our view they aren’t even political books.” At the same time, there is no official black list of forbidden books in Cuba.
“What happens is that in fact no one knows which books are forbidden and which aren’t. Sometimes people are harrassed only for having academic work in their house…You never know how far you can go.”