The Miami Herald
July 6, 1998

Fighting Cuba's book barrier

Couple opens collection to friends, scholars on island

Herald Staff Report

LAS TUNAS, Cuba -- It was an indiscreet question that brought a rather startling response from President Fidel Castro.

At the International Book Fair in Havana in February, a journalist asked Castro why some books are prohibited. Castro retorted that Cuba doesn't ban books. It just doesn't have the cash to buy all it wants.

Ramon Humberto Colas could hardly believe his ears. A clinical psychologist with a simmering anger at the limited access to books in Cuba, Colas figured that Castro had just given him the opening he needed.

Colas decided to open what he calls the first truly independent library on the island. So three months ago, he and his wife opened the doors to their second-floor apartment for acquaintances to browse among 800 volumes in their collection.

Colas and his wife, Bertha Meisidor Vazquez, knew they were taking a risk.

``Censorship exists despite what Mr. Castro says,'' Colas told The Herald. ``State control in Cuba is absolute.''

Although the government hasn't moved to shut the library, it has blocked delivery of book donations from abroad. And Colas and his wife know they are under the constant eye of state security snoops in this farming town in eastern Cuba.

``The state is not repressing the library, but it is not letting the boxes [of donations] get through,'' Meisidor said.

``I know every jail cell in this city,'' Colas said, reeling off the times he has been arrested and interrogated by state security agents.

The couple firmly believes that free access to ideas and written material will help pave the way to democracy.

``This is the seed of civil society in Cuba, something that will help citizens live independently of what the government teaches,'' Meisidor said.

The library project is modest. The books take up barely a quarter of the wall of the couple's bedroom. Many volumes are moth-eaten or decrepit. Some are on topics of little general interest. But the idea behind the project is powerful.

``This library will provide a space, under the flexibility granted by Mr. Castro, for the reading, debate, research and analysis of diverse subjects that broaden the cultural and research horizons of those interested,'' says a Spanish-language essay that Meisidor posted on the Internet: 1/8cuba net/ref/dis/04029801.htm. Readers restricted Libraries are common in Cuba. Medium and large cities have them, as do universities, but books considered counterrevolutionary, critical of Marxism or morally decadent are available only to academics approved by authorities. To the general public, works are limited mainly to those that exalt the communist ``New Man,'' are ideologically benign or written by socialist writers.

A few Roman Catholic dioceses maintain libraries, but the works are usually related to religion or ethics, and their existence is not widely known among Cubans.

State-run bookstores offer copious essays by Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Ho Chi Minh. But readers won't encounter any novels by Cuban writers in exile, works critical of authoritarian rule or those in favor of individual freedoms.

``You'll never find Animal Farm,'' Colas said, referring to the satirical novel by George Orwell about life on an egalitarian farm, where some animals are ``more equal'' than others.

``Some people have a copy, but they keep it hidden. It's against the law. You can go to jail for 18 months to four years.''

Another banned novelist is Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian who once sympathized with Castro but turned against him in the 1960s. The works of Octavio Paz, the conservative Mexican writer who recently died, are also rarely available.

Assorted materials

Besides books, Colas and Meisidor lend out magazines, newsletters and essays. Two copies of the papal homilies that Pope John Paul II offered during his Cuba visit are constantly on loan, as is a magazine titled Dissident.

Colas proudly holds up a printed copy of the April 19 speech that President Clinton offered at the Summit of the Americas in Santiago, Chile. ``This is fresh stuff. No one else in Las Tunas has this,'' he said.

``What most interests people is Power of the Powerless, the book by Vaclav Havel,'' the Czech writer and political leader who chronicled life under communism, Colas said. ``It is a portrait of what Cuban people are living through today.''

The library also lends out texts on nonviolent resistance, market economics, and even an early version of History Will Absolve Me, Castro's defense of his rebellion against the Fulgencio Batista regime in the 1950s. Some now say his own arguments could be used against him.

The couple's defiance of the Cuban government is not new.

Official persecution

When he openly joined the opposition in 1994, Colas was removed from his job with disabled children and told to work at a psychiatric hospital. He eventually lost that job, too. State agents then began harassing his wife, a teacher at a local university.

Nodding toward her bespectacled 36-year-old husband, she said: ``He is considered a dangerous person, a dissident, and they pressured me to divorce him.''

She wouldn't do it, so she lost her job in early 1997. Since then, they have lived off the goodwill of friends and relatives, refusing to bend to the state.

``I am one of the Cubans who is not afraid,'' Colas said.

They are not the only ones.

The library project is one of dozens of low-key, independent activities trying to bloom in the wake of Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in January. The nongovernment activities include church-run soup kitchens, pharmacies and culture groups, and associations of independent farmers, teachers, lawyers and economists.

Meisidor said they had received inquiries from residents in at least two other parts of Cuba about how to start a library.

Colas laughs off a suggestion that some Castro supporters might label him a counterrevolutionary agent.

``The real counterrevolution in Cuba is the system. It doesn't move. What we're doing is creating some tools for movement,'' he said.