'In the Havana Book Fair of 1998, Fidel Castro declared without compunction that there was no censorship in Cuba, and that the only reason for the absence of certain books of irreplaceable Cuban and worldwide cultural significance in the shops and libraries was that of funding.'
Berta del Carmen Mexidor, Cuban economist and inspiration for the project of independent libraries, explains the moment of the straw that broke the camel’s back which prompted a group of Cuban activists to take action and make the liberty invoked by their leader a reality.
Open libraries in closed hands
Under the direction of Berta and her husband Román Humberto Castillo, more than a hundred independent libraries have opened in Cuba’s major cities in the last nine years. Centres of anticensorship are flourishing from Havana to Cienfuegos on the southern coast. In fact, they're also whereever there are volunteers ready to open their doors to house books lent by individuals or private foundations, and who have sufficient knowledge to help orient future borrowers. With a minimum of 250 books, a centre can begin to function. The system is the same as any European library: a 15-day lending period, with the possibility of an extension on request.
Martí, Che, Hemingway - and little else
These libraries have been the only access many Cubans have to books that are otherwise virtually impossible to find under the Communist regime. 'It’s not only about censorship,' says Gerardo Infante, a bookseller in the Plaza de Armas in Havana. 'Books in Cuba are expensive, even for tourists paying in exchangeable pesos (the international currency or CUC: 1CUC = US$1.08), because there are so few editions, with very limited coverage,' he explains.
The majority of bookshops in the capital only accept international currency, which makes them luxury items for citizens who struggle each day to scrape together enough for the essentials, such as a little soap or shoes. A second-hand book in Cuba can cost as much as €6, as much as a new one costs in Europe. Even with money, readers are not guaranteed to get what they want: if you are not interested in the life and times of the island's liberator José Martí, the hero Ernesto 'Che' Guevara or the genius Hemingway, your choices are pretty much non-existent.
So these libraries are a way around the situation. An oasis in the midst of the desert of censorship, but one which has its price. Going to one of these libraries to enjoy a few minutes with a novel by the super-prohibited Cuban novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante, for example, is considered an antirevolutionary act and a socially dangerous offence.
The situation has not been improved even with the international recognition obtained by the organisation of independent libraries and democratisation with the Lars Leijonborg Democracy Prize of the Liberal Party of Sweden and The Voice, a reward from the US association People for the American Way. Often, according to members of the association, borrowers from the libraries are filmed and intimidated by the police with threats of imprisonment if they continue visiting the centre.
Where Cubans shouldn't be taken
Worse still is where the social ostracism attached to wanting to learn might take the nation. Cuban citizens from all strata of society have adopted the argument bandied about by the state. 'They don’t offer books, they offer propaganda. They’re just mouthpieces of the enemies of Cuba,' explains Fernando, a guide in Havana who prefers not to reveal his full name to a foreign journalist. This fear has become more acute in recent months as a result of the health of Castro. Uncertainty has caused an atmosphere of vigilance and prudence among people who are living through defining moments in their history with little in terms of verifiable information. While the major international newspapers debate the different possible futures of Cuba, el Granma, the official newspaper joyously headlines BUSH ISOLATED, and says nothing of a political transition that has become a national secret.
Prizes and punishment
Such a climate clearly affects the development of the independent libraries, which try to be a channel of reliable information regarding international politics. Recent months have seen acts of repudiation, not only in the form of demonstrations at the doors of the cultural centres, but also in the relentless social pressure aimed at those who support them. 'The mechanism of social rewards and retributions works well in the Communist regime,' explains a teacher who prefers to remain anonymous. 'Those who publicly protest against the independent libraries or the embargo live more peaceful lives and are left alone.'