It's Always 1984 in Cuba
By Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen is the author of "The Human Christ: The Search
for the Historical Jesus."
June 29, 2003
WASHINGTON — When the Supreme Court last week upheld a federal
law that requires public libraries receiving federal aid for Internet
technology to install pornography-filtering software on their
computers, the American Library Assn. protested vociferously.
The 64,000-member ALA, the leading professional organization for
the nation's public, college and other librarians, had opposed
the Children's Internet Protection Act since its passage in 1998,
arguing that the filtering software for children might interfere
with the 1st Amendment rights of adult patrons of libraries to
view works of art and legitimate health information on the web.
"It's a fundamentally flawed and terrible decision," said the
ALA's outgoing president, Maurice J. Freedman, who believes that
the federal law unduly burdens librarians by forcing them to monitor
the filters if they want to keep their taxpayer-funded Internet
The "right to read" is dear to the heart of the ALA, which has
a history of hyperalertness to the smallest hints of censorship
at U.S. libraries, even the largely hypothetical censorship at
issue in the filtering case. (Adult patrons can request to have
the filters turned off under the Supreme Court's ruling, and one
study cited by the government shows that even when they are turned
on, they incorrectly block only 1.4% of Web sites containing legitimate
medical data when set at their least restrictive level.) It is
thus ironic — although perhaps telling — that the very same ALA,
meeting in Toronto for its annual convention the very week the
Supreme Court handed down its decision, refused to issue even
the mildest condemnation of Cuba's harsh treatment of some of
its own librarians who were targets of Fidel Castro's sweeping
crackdown on dozens of dissidents in March.
Seventy-five economists, poets and democracy advocates are serving
sentences of up to 26 years apiece after hasty trials for violating
Cuba's harsh and vaguely worded national security laws. Among
those being held are 10 directors of independent, nongovernment-affiliated
lending libraries specializing in books that were either hard
to find in Cuba or offensive to the Castro regime. The independent
librarians, whose tiny libraries typically consisted of a single
room in their homes, were trying to do exactly what the ALA librarians
said they were trying to do in the Internet-filtering case: make
material available to the public free of government censorship
and control. Their crimes consisted of disliking Castro and lending
out books such as George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and tracts on
free-market economics. The prosecutions were the culmination of
a long period of Cuban government harassment of the 5-year-old
independent library movement, which encompasses about 200 libraries
around the island.
Human Rights Watch has condemned as a travesty of justice the
proceedings against these nonviolent dissidents, whose books,
computers and papers were confiscated upon their arrests. Amnesty
International called the 75 "prisoners of conscience." The International
Federation of Library Assns. and Institutions issued a statement
May 8 expressing its "deepest concerns" over the long sentences
for dissidents and extending support to "the Cuban library community
in safeguarding free access to print and electronic information."
The ALA, by contrast, did zilch on behalf of its members' imprisoned
Cuban colleagues. At the Toronto meeting last week, the organization's
175-member governing council failed to vote on a resolution similar
in wording to that of the international librarians' federation,
instead opting to send it back to committee for revision. The
U.S. government's Interests Section in Havana, which takes the
place of an embassy there, supplies many small Cuban libraries
with office materials and books — biographies of the Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr. and the like — which apparently makes the librarians
paid U.S. agents in the eyes of many.
Adding insult to injury, the ALA held a panel discussion at the
convention on libraries in Cuba. All five Cuban delegates to the
panel were representatives of Cuba's state-owned public library
system, including Eliades Acosta Matos, head of the Jose Marti
National Library, a government-controlled enterprise. Acosta Matos
is on record as calling the independents "traitors," "criminals"
and "mercenaries." A pro-independents activist, Robert Kent, a
librarian with the New York City Public Library, tried to persuade
the ALA to add to the panel Ramon Colas, a co-founder of the Cuban
independent library movement who recently fled Cuba after repeated
detentions and confiscations of his books. The ALA turned down
the request, contending that because Colas lacked a degree in
library science, he was not a professional librarian. (On
that argument, neither is Acosta Matos, nor for that matter, is
James Billington, the librarian of Congress). Freedman
finally agreed to allow a separate debate on Cuban libraries but
changed his mind just before the convention. "We say that's censorship,"
said Kent, co-founder of Friends of Independent Libraries, a support
group for the Cuban dissidents.
What seems to be at issue in the ALA is politics. Mark Rosenzweig,
chief librarian of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies (the
repository of the archives of the Communist Party USA), is a leading
figure of the ALA's Social Responsibility Round Table, viewed
by many observers as aggressively pro-Castro. Listening to Rosenzweig
talk is like listening to a reading from "Animal Farm" — or maybe
"There was hardly even the pretense that these people were librarians,"
Rosenzweig said in a telephone interview last week. "I have got
books in my apartment too but that doesn't make me a librarian.
These are people who have been dissidents for many years. They're
pro-U.S. They have connections with the Miami dissident groups."
Translation: In Cuba, it's a crime to be a dissident, especially
if you have relatives in Florida.
Larry Oberg, university librarian at Willamette University, participated
in an ALA fact-finding trip to Cuba in 2001. This is what he told
me last week: "They're opening libraries as a front." In an earlier
e-mail, Oberg expressed shock that the independent librarians
lacked degrees in library science and did not properly catalog
That may be, but at around the same time that Oberg was in Cuba
making his observations, Marion Lloyd, reporting for the Houston
Chronicle, sent a Cuban friend to request two books for her at
a state library: Orwell's "1984" and exiled Cuban writer Guillermo
Cabrera Infante's novel "Three Trapped Tigers." The librarian
refused to provide the student with Infante's novel, telling him
that it was "counterrevolutionary." "1984" was not even in the
"I'm genuinely committed to freedom of access to information,"
said Freedman, who noted that he knew many ALA members who wished
that the organization had voted with other worldwide organizations
to condemn Castro's crackdown. There is a final irony, too: While
the ALA frets about Americans' lack of access to some Web pages,
99% of Cuba's 11 million people lack any access to the Web — by
deliberate design of the Castro regime. "They're afraid of what
would happen if they allowed access," Oberg said. Now, doesn't
that sound familiar?