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Castro's Library Pass (Part III) By: Walter Skold
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 14, 2005

[This is Part III of a four-part series regarding the American Library Association's pandering to Fidel Castro's totalitarian regime. Click here to read Part I and Part II. - The Editors.]

After he was released from jail under Batista, the young Fidel Castro wrote that "In prison, there were no rifles for training, no stone fortresses from which to shoot. Behind those walls, our rifles were books. And through study, stone by stone we built our fortress, the only one that is invincible: the fortress of ideas."

Castro later told author David Caute that he read voraciously from St. Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Knox, Milton, Rousseau, Tom Paine— anything he could get his hands on.

By 1971, eleven years after “liberation,” he was pointing that ridiculous but dangerous finger of his at a convention of “culture” workers and declaring "Sometimes certain books have been published, the number does not matter. But as a matter of principle not a single book of such kind should be printed, not a single chapter, not a single page, not a single letter!"

In a speech that could have been given last week, he railed against Cuba’s critics by saying “And they think that this nation's problems can be the problems of two or three stray sheep which may have some problems with the revolution because they are not given the right to continue to sow poison, insidiousness, and intrigue in the revolution.”

The Great Bearded Orator then praised “the fruit of this profound transformation of our economic structures and our social structures--part of which is our unanimity, this monolithic strength, this profound ideological training, this mass which has been politicized.”

Well, it doesn’t sound that bad yet at an American Library Association (ALA) convention, but in 2004 the director of the José Martí National Library of Cuba gave a speech to the lead policymakers of the ALA in Toronto after which he exclaimed, in response to a pesky question about censorship, that “Fidel loves books!”

After Mr. Eliades Acosta’s long masterful propaganda schpiel about the greatness of Cuba’s library and education system, and the criminality of the nefarious so-called “independent librarians,” one of the most well-know progressive librarians stood up and asked Senor Acosta a simple question about the conclusions from Amnesty International’s (AI) damning report, “Essential Measures.” Acosta, an intimidating and intelligent man who looks like a miniature Fidel, and who has a degree in Marxist-Leninist philosophy from Don Rostov State University, was temporarily knocked off his public relations balance, but then he skillfully shrugged his big Cuban shoulders and said sheepishly “We don’t always think that Amnesty International is so accurate about Cuba.”

During the time for questions a soft-spoken and uninvited Cuban man stood up, and held up a copy of a Cuban Custom’s form which showed that the UN Declaration of Human Rights, a document which the ALA has adopted as core policy, was not allowed into the country. He said this happens routinely and mentioned other books that are not permitted past the sugar-cane curtain. Just a few months later, when sentencing documents were smuggled from Cuba (See Part II), it was revealed that this UN Declaration was one of the most heretical documents that had been ordered incinerated. 

To my utter amazement, I then watched as the intellectual freedom and foreign policy intelligentsia of my newfound profession said nothing to challenge Acosta about his dismissive Amnesty International remarks, nor did they inquire further about the censorship of books. Instead, the Americans and Canadians were besides themselves with frustration and trepidation for such an imposition at their little afternoon cup of tea with a Cuban apparatchik; but Acosta knew the face of Humberto Colas, and he smiled and greeted him like an old brother. Over some pizza Colas told me later that he had spent some time in an underground cell that wasn’t too far from Acosta’s very nice house, the kind awarded to those who faithfully serve the “Revolution”

So began my illuminating baptism into the Stalinist politics that have had an inordinate influence on the recent policies of the ALA.

Sadly, Acosta’s smile and greeting, as well as acceptance of the challenge for a public debate, is better treatment than Colas has gotten from the ALA, of which he is now a member. These guardians of our liberty don’t actually favor an open debate on some issues it seems. After reneging on a commitment to allow an open debate with Acosta at Toronto, various leaders have treated him and those who lend uncensored books in Cuba as irritants, and in some cases, branded them criminals. A minor incident which speaks volumes is that when former ALA President, Carla Hayden, did agree to a private meeting with him, she would not allow a photograph to be taken. 

Mr. Colas, who now works in Mississippi, is the co-founder, with his wife, of the struggling Bibliotecas Independientes de Cuba, several of whose members are now guests of Fidel the Bibliophile for their unapproved reading habits. The exiled couple started the movement in 1998 after Castro had declared at the Havana International Book Fair that "there are no banned books in Cuba, just no money to buy them!"

When Nat Hentoff heard of this cowardly performance by the leaders of an organization that he had loved and supported for years, he began what has become a long series of exposes, which has earned him the status of persona non grata at the ALA headquarters. Six months after the Toronto meeting, when the ALA finally released a “compromise” report that managed to boldly express “deep concern” over the fate of those in jail (careful not to call for their release from jail nor to use the word librarian without “quotes” mind you), Hentoff was not impressed.

Referring to Castro’s quote about reading in jail, Hentoff scoffed “In their filthy cells now, Castro's own prisoners might take some comfort clutching that quotation in the small hours of the night. Surely their guards would not confiscate as contraband a quotation from the Maximum Leader himself! Or would they?”

Since then a long list of commentators, many of them confessed liberals (in the old and new sense of the word) and staunch ALA supporters on free speech issues, have said much the same thing, yet the good ship ALA goes blithely on its merry, Marxist way.

“Castro's history of torturing and killing his foes was established long before his recent abuses. His bureaucrats deserve no reward from the ALA,” said Steve Barrett, in a 2003 Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial after the Toronto debacle. “A library group concerned about the free flow of information would rebuke Castro and invite his heroic opponents to its gathering.”

While the overall attitude towards Fidel’s island plantation among ALA policymakers, with few exceptions, is abysmal, those librarians who were once former slaves in the Soviet Union’s evil empire have little patience for doublespeak or delusions.

In the summer of 2004 the People In Need Foundation released an incredibly powerful smack down to the notion that Cuba was justified in jailing and branding as heretics the independent librarians in Cuba. Interestingly enough, among the notable former dissidents from Eastern Europe who signed the appeal to the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), was Vaclav Havel, whose books had been burnt by Cuban thought police in 2003.

"We know what it is like to live in a society where freedom is repressed in the name of democracy and national sovereignty, and where the voicing of dissent is banned in the name of safeguarding freedom of expression," said the appeal to IFLA, which was then debating Cuba within its Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE) committee.

"As for the Cuban government's efforts to portray the independent librarians as traitors and foreign agents because they receive support from abroad," the letter argued, "We speak from our own experience in rejecting such claims. It can never be a crime to oppose censorship or to open a library."

In the Kingdom of Socialism’s heyday, before 1989, Fidel Castro was a frequent visitor in many of the formerly-captive nations that the signers are from, so American librarians might have taken note when they said "We are familiar with the arguments and strategies used by repressive regimes to deny, evade responsibility for, and cover up the existence of pervasive censorship and repression, including the censorship of government-run libraries."

Pointing out what should be obvious, they reminded the international librarians that "We are also familiar with government-run library systems, based on the model developed in the former Soviet Union, designed to prevent the general public from reading materials considered objectionable by the regime in power."

You will look far and wide for these quotes in the official library press in America. They may be tucked in there somewhere that I haven’t found, but the point is that they should have been shouted from the housetop to the membership, or at least clearly presented as an alternate view. Unfortunately, the FAIFE committee suffers the same Kafkaesque fate as does the UN Human Rights Commission, in that Cuban representatives have managed to finagle a seat there. As such, even though the committee has indeed spoken out clearly and forcefully in the past, the recent trend is perhaps a politically-savvy mix of non-confrontation with a tepid display of principle.

As one might guess, librarians from Poland, Latvia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and other free nations have watched in amazement as a few vocal US and British librarians defend Castro on the FAIFE e-mail list and elsewhere. (Thankfully, the archives of this continuing debate can be accessed online by anyone.) In stark contrast to these apologists for Castro, who squawk about CIA agents and US secret funding of the non-violent opposition movement that wants to topple the government through books, Eastern European librarians found their voice in 2005 and will have none of it.

Contrary to ALA timidity, Anna Maulina, the President of the Library Association of Latvia, responded this way last January to Cuban harangues because her organization had dared to voice support for a December 2004 Polish Library appeal regarding Cuban repression:

“To us, Eastern Europeans, who have experienced communism, your letter is a typical example of forced compliance with the state ideology,” she said. “It is not easy to stand against the ruling ideology, as it may jeopardize not only one's freedom but also one's life.”

She pointed out that it was “impossible” for Eastern Europeans to believe that official propaganda statements really reflected what Cuban librarians inwardly thought, and she ended hoping “..that the time will come for Cuba to become a real isle of freedom where free song will flow over free valleys, where no librarian or any other person will be arrested for disseminating information.”

With chilling details similar to those which could be repeated for every single nation the Soviet’s ever tried to consume, she sent another message outlining the great cultural advances the Soviet’s brought to Latvian libraries:

“Over the next half a century Latvians were persecuted and their cultural heritage of books and libraries destroyed. With great speed "special collections" of undesirable material were formed in libraries. According to one decree, 500,000 books were withdrawn from the State Library to be destroyed. Latvia was flooded with the Russian communist literature. References to the special collections were purged from library catalogues and bibliographic indexes. In fact, one publication in four was not available to readers. At the end of 1980s 203,000 items were registered in the special collection of the Academic Library of Latvia, and 88,684 items in the special collection of the National Library of Latvia.” 

This unpleasant reminder of communist history generated yet more strident attacks by Fidel’s loyal librarians, in Cuba and the West, so one fed-up Polish librarian finally shot back “None of your arguments can be convincing for people who have a 45-years' long experience in living under the communist rule. The old tricks and manipulative arguments of communist propaganda that you recycle are immediately recognizable in Poland, we have known them by heart for years.”

These remarks provide more evidence that American library officials have no excuse for their buddy-buddy approach to Cuba. For almost 16 years now there has been substantial documentation in the library literature showing that when the Berlin Wall fell, liberty arrived for East European libraries. Before that librarians had been forced, like their Cuban counterparts still are, to spout the government line at international gatherings, but once they were freed from Party control they elected their own leaders and looked to Americans for guidance and support in developing open library policies.

That support and assistance is something every American can be proud of, which is another reason why the recent betrayal of human rights in Cuba by the ALA is so disturbing. For example, when several more Eastern European library associations earlier this year openly condemned Cuban propaganda and lies, the ALA’s official liaison with FAIFE remained decidedly neutral in the debate. What’s worse is that 2 of this mans fanatically Pro-Cuban fellow Councilors (See Part IV) were actually livid, and signed on to an “Open Letter in Response to the Vile Disinformation Campaign (12-20-04),” which accompanied a Cuban declaration that read:

“In the Cuban response are appended documents proving the lies of a tiny group of enemies of the Cuban revolution [i.e., the independent librarians], who, in the service of the North American intelligence [agencies], are trying to falsify our reality, which is victory, resistance and faithfulness to the government and to the Party.”

Whoopdee Do! Howzabout that for the principles of one-Party intellectual freedom! Here were respected American librarians siding with a regime whose officials agree with this quote from St. Vladimir, found, ironically, at IFLA’s own website: "Free speech is a bourgeois prejudice."  

It is astounding to read the way in which a few prominent past and present members of the ALA Council and committees have responded with such venomous attacks on people exercising their right to read freely (See Part IV). If sanity ruled among ALA leaders, instead of purring like a cat in the presence of the lion Castro, they would establish a Mitrokhin award, given to librarians and archivists who challenge tyranny (they once praised Romanians for this and called for freedom in Afghanistan), and Anna Maulina should be the first recipient.  

Wouldn’t the average American wonder where the voices of American library officials are who would dare speak like the Latvians (as if it should take that much courage)? Unfortunately, those voice are mostly silent, or few and far between, while the chorus of praise for Cuban libraries goes beyond the idiocy of moral equivalency and sinks to the absurdity of the moral superiority of Cuban socialism.

Frankly, all a sane person really needs to know is that they burn books in Cuba; no other reason or story or speech or argument should be necessary in order to conclude that Castro is, as a Library Journal review about his biography stated  “…a persuasive picture of a paranoid, erratic megalomaniac…” 

Yet, as Part II made abundantly clear, the elite at the ALA apparently did not even take the time to truly investigate whether the “alleged” book burning was true or not. Instead of clarity and conviction, as well as resistance to government oppression, there has been a long pattern of appeasement and silence, or is it just plain stupidity? How can it be that the ALA refuses to champion the rights of individuals whose small library collections have been destroyed or burned, and whose spouses have been warrantlessly dragged away to show trials, especially when the organization’s own official policy (53.4) states unequivocally:

“The American Library Association opposes any use of government prerogatives which leads to the intimidation of the individual or the citizenry from the exercise of free expression. ALA encourages resistance to such abuse of government power, and supports those against whom such governmental power has been employed.”

As it is, for just one of many dismal examples, a June 2003 New York Times article reported that then ALA president “Mitch” Freedman insisted that the association is "concerned with intellectual freedom everywhere," but claimed, “the facts on Cuba are still murky."  Michael Dowling, the director of the ALA's International Relations Office, said "there has been no definitive evidence that books are banned and librarians harassed," and the chair then of the ALA Latin American subcommittee, one Edward Erazo, expressed puzzlement as to whether any censorship at all exists on the island: "Are there books that are not circulated?"

After so many years and mountains of evidence, much of it reviewed in major library journals (See Part I), this is the intellectual equivalent of saying “The facts on Hitler are still murky,” or “there has been no definitive evidence that books are banned by the Nazi Party. After all, don’t they have libraries in Berlin?”

It would bore even a scholar to read of all the fantastic voyages American librarians have taken to Cuba in the last decade, and then to read their flatulent praise for full book shelves, bustling book fairs, cheering crowds, literacy rates, and the general freedom of expression that exists in Cuba. That they are the willing victims of the well-honed techniques of hospitality that Cuban intelligence agents apply to visitors is a reality they have somehow missed.

“What people don’t understand is that Castro is very, very, very concerned to stop heresy on the left in America regarding Cuba,” said Holly Ackerman, the head US researcher on Cuba for Amnesty International. “On these tours which librarians take the Cuban intelligence agents follow them around wherever they go” and guide them to see what it is planned for them to see.

She pointed out that the payback for Castro has been vital for his image because the ALA is the only professional group, unlike writer’s groups, literary groups, and all major human rights groups, which has not called for the immediate and unconditional release of all those jailed in 2003. The most they could muster was deep concern and proper reminders to both governments about the principles of open access to information.

It is like what Humberto Colas and his wife told me: “He who travels to Cuba and does not see the palms, it is because he is blind and can't see!”

“In an announced visit no one can see for sure the real Cuba, and the authorities have all the control over the situation, in order to obfuscate any contrary evidence,” he explained, in reference to trips that ALA leaders have taken to Cuba.

The testimony of people on these trips has had a profound influence on the thinking of uninformed ALA members whose academic expertise is not totalitarian deception and who are therefore easily impressed with reports of open stacks and children sitting and reading Harry Potter in Havana’s libraries (Better not to ask what spirit of free inquiry the obligatory red scarves represent?).

While some American librarians might assume that Cuban library principles are the same as their own, the library literature once again belies this naïve notion. For instance, in the 1980’s the previous director of the Jose Marti National Library said in a speech on “Lenin’s Principles of Librarianship and the Libraries of Socialist Cuba,” that Cubans “Try to copy Lenin’s ideas of using libraries to further the revolution by widening reading.”

Hmm…widening reading? That sound pretty good, unless one understands just what Lenin’s ideas were on reading. To help clear that distinction up the director went on to explain how his centralized library network was fulfilling the charge of the first session of the Cuban Communist Party “to strive to be more important in Marxist-Leninist formation.”

In Stephen Karetzky’s 2002 groundbreaking expose, “Not Seeing Red,” he proves in excruciating detail how most American librarians used rose-colored glasses to incorrectly analyze the situation of libraries and librarians under communist rule. In it he copiously documents what Leninist library principles fully entailed, how the majority of American librarians never did understand the draconian nature of communism, and how, through praise and support of Soviet libraries and the system which molded them, they “betrayed the fundamental values, goals, and interests of their profession and their country.”

It is no wonder that his 500-page exhaustive study, with a few exceptions, received nasty reviews from “Progressives,” or was, in a way, banned by some library journals by being ignored—the standard answer to an unanswerable charge. That is too bad, for his documentation has tremendous relevance to the “Cuba debate” within the ALA.

I wonder if while in prison Castro read the works of Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, because Karetzky quotes her proclaiming “The book…is like a rifle in battle. This of course, is true not of every book, but only of a good book, one which is needed for the raising of political consciousness, and for the practical reshaping of life…”

With regards Cuba’s endlessly-praised literacy miracles, it is interesting to read that Lenin thought “The purpose of “liquidate illiteracy’ is only that every peasant should be able to read by himself, without help, our decrees, orders, and proclamations. The aim is completely practical. Nothing more.”

The main two tenets of Leninist librarianship were the use of books for political ends, and the promotion of approved books through centralization, and some of the side benefits of the many “chaotic library purges resulted in the devastation of many library collections, the pulping of millions of volumes, the disappearance of tens of thousands of book titles from library shelves, and the growth of special collections of banned works accessible to only a few.”

Just as most ALA policymakers and historians during the Soviet era overlooked or excused repression, or disregarded the clear teachings of Leninist doctrine regarding the use of libraries, they also seem to have a clear misunderstanding of artistic freedom in Cuba. For those who could be considered America’s “culture” workers, it is perplexing that they seem oblivious as to how regimes like Cuba have been skilled at using culture as a political weapon.

Ever since Castro’s long-famous speech in 1961, “Word to Intellectuals,“ (which, oddly enough, was given at the National Library) the totalitarian nature of Cuban cultural policy has been found in the framework of Fidel’s famous dictum “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” Exactly what that meant for artists has been interpreted different ways, and there was in fact a period up to 1968-9 when a certain amount of latitude and freedom of expression was tolerated by Castro, who did not agree with traditional Marxist-Leninist views of literature.

The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and subsequent persecution of anti-Soviet writers and artists there changed all this, as Soviet pressure was brought to bear on Castro to fall in line with orthodox views and policies related to art. In a paragraph from a 1968 essay by exiled writer, Cabrera Infante, comes a short footnote that is telling for how other librarians may have fared under this pressure. He mentions one woman, Olga Andreu, who put his novel on a “list of books recommended” and a few days later she was fired, which meant a “terrible future” for her, as her only choice for survival was to work as a “volunteer” agricultural laborer.

Shortly thereafter came the “Padilla Affair,” in which the popular poet Heberto Padilla was tortured and forced to publicly retract his counter-revolutionary poems, as well as accuse other writers, including his own wife, of culture deviancy. The 1971 Congress on Education and Culture ended all doubt as to what intellectual freedom under Cuban socialism was going to be like. Besides the words quoted already about certain books which never should have been printed, Castro also launched an attack on writers or intellectuals who criticized Cuba from the outside, calling them “agents of cultural colonialism,” “shameless pseudo-leftists,” “intellectual rats,” and “CIA agents.”

Summing up four decades of evidence, writer Jesus Hernandez Cuellar noted that “In Hitler's Germany as well as in the Soviet Union, writers and artists were imprisoned, confined to psychiatric institutions, hanged or executed by firing squads, for refusing to comply with the cultural policies of their governments.”

By way of comparison, he argued that Cuba is “…ruled by a political system that has used literature and the arts for the last 39 years, as a vehicle of ideological propaganda-- identical to that of the former Soviet bloc.”

Here again, as librarians capable of searching for facts, the ALA leadership should be aware of the above information, which is found (among many other sources) in a 1985 Freedom House publication, “The Heresy of Words in Cuba: Freedom of Expression and Information.” Instead, the record shows (See Part IV) that Freedom House and the people associated with it have been slandered and attacked by sloganeering ALA Council members who have made unsubstantiated charges of CIA collusion and imperialist schemes to destroy Cuba.

In a certain sense, they may be right about one thing. If the books about civil rights, free market economies, and the rule of law which Freedom House-funded groups have taken into Cuba reach into the thoughts of too many citizens, this likely could destroy socialism in Cuba. It is probable that Castro understands this, and so orders them burned.

It is no coincidence that the majority of those 75 dissidents sent off to prison in 2003 were either writers or artists who once used their pens and poems to praise their great leader. Once their wills were freed from the addiction to self-serving lies and pressure-cooked expressions however, their State-owned means of intellectual production, including their dangerous books, needed to be taken away to “protect” the public from…how did Fidel put it “poison, insidiousness, and intrigue…”

It should be evident from even a cursory inquiry that this same straight-jacket policy regarding artistic [lack of] freedom also confines the official librarians of Cuba today, who are caught in the web of having to please both Fidel the book lover and Fidel the book burner. The librarians there no doubt realize what it would mean for their career if they were to become an Olga Andreu, and put the wrong book on a reading list! This slave mentality that under girds library work, which could also be argued is a rational technique for survival, was just recently exemplified by this telling “interview” in a Cuban library journal.

One senora Bella was asked—no, asked is the wrong word. This very loaded question was thrust into her face (with the full weight of the regime’s repressive machinery no doubt pressing down on her mind):

“All librarians in our country support ‘’The Battle of Ideas’’ that our people and government are carrying out. Will they continue with this important objective of our Revolution?”

I do not know if senora Bella is a woman of true wisdom, but in this case she wisely replied: “I think libraries have an important role within this battle…I think we always work for everything our country requires, facing all the counter-revolutionary demonstrations. Anyway the Revolution can count with all librarians!”

In the first place, can you even imagine a member of the ALA Council, a good portion of whom are vehement Bush bashers, ever making such a statement like “The President can count on all librarians to face all counter-revolutionary demonstrations?” O the holy Dewey decibels that would ring out if such a “fascist” statement were made! As it is, the ALA Council, with it’s recent illogical resolution that “calls for the withdrawal from Iraq of all U.S. military forces, and the return of full sovereignty to the people of Iraq;…” is on record as being part of the opposition in the US.

Secondly, senora Bellas is more to be pitied than pilloried, because she gives the only answer that a wise slave can give when living in the “free” section of a prison. What can be disparaged, is that leading officials of the ALA goosestep right along with such ideological absurdities. Is it that they are that clueless about the nature of communist regimes, in the year 2005, or else are they perhaps true believers? Haven’t they read the near unanimous testimony of librarians who labored under other Soviet-backed tyrants like Castro, and were forced to smile about it too? My friends at FREADOM and I would be happy to send the citations.

For such a large, nationwide association, which positions itself as watchdogs for our liberties and bulldogs against government secrecy, it is particularly disgraceful that only a handful of ALA Councilors have had the chutzpah and integrity to resist the Castro boot-lickers among them. Everyone expects the State library officials in Cuba to be loyal to Fidel, but how come he has loyal Leninists within the ALA too?

If librarians think this language is too harsh or biased, I would challenge them to read the record presented in Part IV.

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Walter Skold is a librarian, poet, and journalist living in Freeport, Maine with his five children and trusty computer, Rover. He is co-chair of the advocacy group FREADOM.

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