CubaNews / September 2003
By Larry Luxner
If it weren’t for Fidel Castro’s “big lie,” as he calls it, Ramón Humberto Colás might never have begun Cuba’s independent library movement — and he wouldn’t be exiled in Miami today with his wife and three kids.
Colás is a 41-year-old black journalist who fled Cuba last year after what he claimed was constant political and racial harrassment by the regime. He spoke Aug. 22 at the National Press Club in Washington.
“I’ll never forget when a foreign journalist asked Castro if there were there such a thing as banned books,” Colás told his audience of human-rights activists, reporters and U.S. State Department officials. “He answered that there were no banned books, only a lack of resources with which to buy them.”
That was when Colás and his wife, Berta Mexidor Vázquez, decided to act. On Mar. 3, they founded Cuba’s first independent library in their hometown of Las Tunas. Its purpose was “to promote reading not as a mere act of receiving information, but as a way of developing people’s free personal opinion, with no censure or obligation in a belief.”
Within two months, the couple’s little Biblioteca Félix Varela — named after the same 19th-century priest as Oswaldo Payá’s much more famous Varela Project — registered 1,500 members and received 1,000 books.
Since then, independent libraries have sprouted up across the island, under the banner of Bibliotecas Independientes de Cuba, also started by Colás and Mexidor.
At present, Cuba has 105 such independent libraries, and they can be found in every province except Holguín.
The biggest concentrations are in Pinar del Río (18), the municipality of Havana (17) and Santiago de Cuba (16), followed by Las Tunas (12); Villa Clara (11); La Habana (7); Matan-zas (7); Granma (5); Ciego de Avila (3); Guantánamo (3); Camagüey (2); Isla de la Juventud (2); Sancti Spíritus (1) and Cienfuegos (1).
A list of all of these libraries, with their names, addresses and phone numbers can be found at the organization’s bilingual and highly professional website: www.bibliocuba.org.
“In the five years since we created that pro-ject, the Cuban regime has incarcerated 17 of our fellow librarians,” said Colás, noting that one of his colleagues, José García Paneque, was recently sentenced to 24 years in prison.
“The national customs agency confiscates books regularly,” he said. “We have official government documents that demonstrate how even the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights was confiscated as subversive. In the wording of Cuban customs officials, these documents are a threat to the internal interests of the nation.” Because of the hostile political climate in which they’re forced to operate, independent libraries are generally small and keep a very low profile.
“People think that when we refer to independent libraries, we’re talking about 800,000 or a million books,” said Colás. “But really these are people who open the doors of their homes and private collections, which might be nothing more than two square meters.”
He added: “I was able to obtain over 2,000 books, but others had only 250 books — the minimum required for our project. Gisela Delgado [the current executive director of Bibliotecas Independientes de Cuba] was able to amass over 5,000 books in her library before the most recent crackdown. They confiscated all the books that had the words ‘democracy’ or ‘human rights’ or ‘civil society’ in them.”
In fact, a Martin Luther King Jr. biography personally given to Delgado by former President Jimmy Carter was among the many volumes taken from the human-rights activist.
“This is irrefutable evidence that in Cuba, cultural rights are also violated,” he said.
Colás, who was once a member of the Cuban Communist Party, now insists that “we are immersed in a battle of ideas against the Castro regime, which is desperately trying to suppress the independent libraries movement. Those of us who confront the regime have peaceful means as our only weapon.”
The activist recalled that as far back as 1988 — during the Gen. Ochoa Sánchez drug-trafficking trials — Castro had said that “we reserve the right to inform the Cuban people of whatever we believe to be convenient.” On another occasion, he pointed out, “Castro said there are books of which there should not be printed not a single copy, not a single chapter, not a single page, not a single letter.”
Colás, who was trained as a clinical psychologist, is now a researcher at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies — an unabashedly anti-Castro academic outfit. Likewise, he maintains very close ties with the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has given independent libraries nearly two million books, pamphlets, magazines, videos and other materials.
“What Ramón Colás and his wife have done in just a few short years is extraordinary," says Adolfo Franco, USAID’s Cuban-born assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean.
“These books by Martin Luther King, Vaclav Havel, José Martí and Mark Twain are the types of books Castro and his regime have labeled counterrevolutionary. Yet books by Marx and other communists are readily available in these independent libraries, and of course, the regime hates this.”
Franco added: “Our program aims to support American universities and institutions engaged in disseminating information in Cuba, so people can think for themselves and read what they want.”
Yet that’s remains a nearly impossible dream under Castro, argues Colás.
“Next time you visit Cuba, go to an [official] Cuban library and try to find the works of Sartre, Bertrand Russell or anyone who has ever criticized a totalitarian regime. You won’t find any of those books,” he said.
“Forty-four years after the revolution, the country is trapped by Castro’s lies and has not advanced at all in the issue of human rights. In four decades, Cuba has not had any parallel leadership to that of Fidel Castro. Those who try by peaceful means and work within civil society put themselves in danger of incarceration and even death.”
Colás added: “When we look to Cuba, we have to focus on the violation of human rights going on there. That’s the real issue in Cuba, not the the myths that have been promoted by the Castro regime, that the problem is the U.S. embargo or the threat of a U.S. invasion.”
Colás said his organization has started an international campaign called “Send a Book to Cuba” and has promoted this idea not only to the United States but in Western Europe, following a tour last month that took him to Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Sweden.
While in Spain, Colás met with intellectuals and labor unions, and urged the country’s business executives not to support Castro through joint ventures or other investments. “It’s not that we’re threatening investors,” he said. “We’re merely alerting them to the fact that when democratic transition finally comes to Cuba, individual investors will be held accountable for their actions today.”
Likewise, during his visit to Paris, Colás visited the famous Quay d’Orsay and asked for French classics as well as library training for independent librarians.
Because of the European Union’s new policy of distancing itself from the Castro regime and openly supporting Cuba’s dissident movement, French authorities have reconsidered their cooperation with the Cuban government and no longer train Cuban police.
In fact, on Jun. 14 — two days after Le Monde published an article about the independent libraries — the French Embassy in Havana invited Delgado to its Bastille Day festivities, sparking renewed protests from Cuba but giving hope to dissidents who had previously been excluded from such gatherings.
“We can really perceive a change in Europe today. The word now used there with regard to Cuba is dictatorship,” said Colás. “We are concentrating our efforts on several principal points, including the liberation of all political prisoners, raising the profile of democratic movements in Cuba, and helping civil-society leaders so they’ll support our campaign.
“We’re asking for financial assistance to be provided to the dissidents. Virtually none of them have any form of employment. We’re also requesting solidarity with those who are in prison so that their living conditions may be improved.”
Despite the crackdown, several new independent libraries have opened, including the 300-volume Liberty and Democracy Library — which was inaugurated Jul. 21 at a private home in Camagüey.
Meanwhile, says Colás, his fellow Cubans are desperate for fresh news and information about the world outside.
The activist recalled how, after a visit to the Spanish Embassy in Havana, he picked up a few copies of El País, El Mundo, ABC and other Madrid newspapers that were over two months old. When Colás returned to Las Tunas, his neighbors devoured the papers as if they were printed that same morning.
“In Cuba, it’s often said that there’s a great thirst for liberty, but there’s also a great thirst for information, and the libraries satisfy this,” he said. “We believe this is the appropriate moment for an invasion of information.”