Commentary

The Spineless American Library Association

In April 2003, the security police of Fidel Castro arrested and imprisoned 75 journalists, members of opposition parties and owners of independent libraries. The charge: “crimes against national sovereignty.” The librarians had been making available to Cubans books that were banned in the state’s libraries for containing “terrorist” material. Among them were a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (a document for all human beings).

During the one-day trial, Castro’s judges ordered that all printed volumes confiscated during the raids of the libraries be burned. I obtained copies of those incendiary court rulings that then, and now, characterize the Cuban “revolution.” Immediately, Amnesty International designated all the 75 inmates “prisoners of conscience.” There continues to be more of them — some, as always, in dire need of medical attention they have yet to receive.

At first, I had expected immediate protests about the caged independent librarians from the American Library Association. The core credo of this largest national library association in the world has been “the freedom to read” — for everyone everywhere.

Why should you care? Because banning books and imprisoning librarians mean banning literature, ideas — thought — and critically wounding freedoms that should be as essential as oxygen to citizens and a society.

In the many columns I’ve written since about the abandoned Cuban librarians, I’ve cited the ALA’s refusal to demand the release of these librarians. In June 2003, for one of many examples, Michael Dowling, then director of the ALA’s International Relations Office, said: “There has been no definitive evidence that books are banned and librarians harassed.” There had been international press on the raids.

As my documented stories on these and future imprisonments went on, I was targeted by the director of Cuba’s National Library, Eliades Acosta: “What does Mr. Hentoff know of the real Cuba?”

My public reply: “I know that if I were a Cuban, I’d be in prison.”

Polish and Latvian library associations did call for the release of the prisoners of conscience. But in 2005, the state library association of Cuba stingingly replied to the Latvian protest resolution: “it is too late … to attempt to trick the world in this manner.”

The ALA, annoyed by the continued criticism, occasionally expressed “deep concern” about the allegations but declined to mention the silenced freedom-to-read librarians in Castroland.

Also, in 1995, as a longtime admirer of Ray Bradbury, including his classic novel of censorship by fire, Fahrenheit 451, I sent him some of my columns and the burning Castro court rulings that Bradbury’s novel had prophesied. Publicly, Bradbury then said:

I plead with Castro and his government to take their hands off the independent librarians and release all those librarians in prison, and to send them back into Cuban culture to inform the people.

No comment from Fidel or the ALA. Last year, on May 19, the Mario Chanes de Armas Independent Library was raided by Cuban State Security police, who confiscated 360 books I do not know the whereabouts of the director of that purified library, who had telephoned this news under the regime of Raul Castro.

But, in yet another appeal to the ALA on March 11 last year, the American-based Friends of Cuban Libraries sent a letter to then-president of the ALA Camila Alire, “asking for your urgent and compassionate aid in saving the life of a fellow library worker, Guillermo Farinas (director of the Dr. Roberto Avalos library).

“Mr. Farinas has refused to consume food or fluids since he began a hunger strike” at his home in Santa Clara for the release of 26 Cuban prisoners in poor health, including “Ricardo Gonzalez, the director of the Jorge Manach Library, and Ariel Sigler Amaya, who was condemned to a long prison term for, among other alleged crimes, gathering books for a library collection.” Both have been named prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

As for this hunger striker, Guillermo Farinas, he “is growing weaker, and Cuba’s official newspaper Granma has indicated that the government will make no effort to save his life after his health declines to the point of unconsciousness.”

Therefore, “on an urgent basis, we ask you to please contact the Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations, Mr. Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, to request that efforts be made to save the life of Guillermo Farinas. The e-mail address of the Foreign Ministry is: cubaminrex [at] minrex [dot] gov [dot] cu.”

The Parliament of the European Union recently passed a resolution expressing concern for Mr. Farinas: “We hope the American Library Association will rapidly join the worldwide effort to help in saving his life.”

This plea for the life of Guillermo Farinas was ignored by the American Library Association.

Next week: What happened to the acute discomfort of the Castro government and the American Library Association after — on Oct. 1, 2010, the BBC reported: “The European Parliament has awarded the Sakharov human rights prize to Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas. In July, Mr. Farinas, 48, ended a hunger strike after Cuba’s communist government announced it was freeing 52 political prisoners.” (But the EU and Farinas are aware that more remain in the Castros’ prisons and that the raids on independent libraries continue.)

The prize is named after the late, brave Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. Those who nominated Farinas called him “a beacon of hope for dozens of journalists and activists who are currently in prison.”

And the prizewinner dedicated the human-rights award to the people of Cuba. He said they struggle for “an end to the dictatorship.”

The people of Cuba should be reminded that on April 26, 2005, Canek Sanchez Guevara — the grandson of the murderous Che Guevara, still a hero to Fidelists around the world and in the United States — spoke in Stockholm of “the obsession (in Cuba) with surveillance, control, repression, etc. And freedom is something entirely different.”

The American Library Association should invite Che Guevara’s grandson to address one of its conferences to enlighten its governing council on how to end its obsession with ignoring the persistently persecuted Cuban independent librarians.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.