Los Angeles Times
November 8, 2000

Cuban Private Libraries Have Novels

              By VIVIAN SEQUERA, Associated Press Writer

                   HAVANA--Granma, the Communist Party daily, is freely available in Gisela Delgado's library; no surprise there. But so are
              popular detective novels from America.
                   Delgado's Havana apartment houses one of more than 60 independent libraries that have sprung up around the island in recent
              years to offer the country's many bookworms something besides revolutionary texts and official media.
                   Delgado, a thin, small 35 -year-old, says the free service is offered simply to give Cuba's highly literate population a variety of
              reading materials. The government considers them to be dissidents. But Delgado says they're merely promoting culture.
                   She complains that many donated books sent from Mexico, Spain and the United States are seized by customs officials without
              explanation. Still, the fact that the government hasn't shut down these libraries outright seems indicative of a slight opening, however
              circumscribed, on the communist island.
                   Delgado opened her library last year. It's a small room lined with about 500 books and magazines, most in Spanish with a few in
              English, dealing with such subjects as politics, culture, religion, law and philosophy. Visitors can read at the libraries or take books
                   Officially, Fidel Castro's government says there are no banned or censored books in Cuba.
                   Technically that's true, says Ricardo Gonzalez, 50, a former TV scriptwriter who runs an independent library on the second floor
              of his house in western Havana. Gonzalez acknowledged that there is no known official list of banned books and authors.
                   "But we all know that 'Animal Farm' by George Orwell, is not among the favorites" of the government, he says, referring to the
              1945 anti-Stalinist fable of an uprising by oppressed farm animals.
                   The government doesn't prohibit books, but makes certain books unavailable, Gonzalez says. "It's like going to the ice cream
              store and having them tell you that they only have chocolate," he says.
                   His library offers more than 1,000 titles, ranging from "Animal Farm" to Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables." Also on his shelves are
              "Manhattan Transfer," by John Dos Passos, United Nations magazines and reports from Amnesty International, as well as a
              biography of Karl Marx.
                   Delgado says her readers go for the themes the government seems to dislike the most -capitalism, human rights, criticisms of the
              Cuban Revolution.
                   Eliades Acosta, director of the National Library of Cuba, calls the independent libraries "a political project opposed to the Cuban
                   "This has nothing to do with freedom of expression, nor does it have anything to do with literature or culture," Acosta says in an
              interview in his office in Havana's national library, a majestic three-story building.
                   If an independent library is a private collection of texts, "then there are as many libraries as there are people who have books in
              their homes," he says.
                   He noted that the 3 million volumes in the government's library include "The Wealth of Nations," the seminal study of laissez-faire
              economics by Scottish economist Adam Smith, as well as international newspapers and magazines such as the Spanish-language
              issue of Newsweek. Acosta says these texts can be read by anyone who walks in and asks for them.
                   "What is it that people cannot read?" He asks. "Go to the catalog and look it up."
                   Still, people go to independent libraries after hearing of them from friends or neighbors. Usually, they do not even know what to
              ask for.
                   People are afraid to go to independent libraries, because, "People are scared that they will be seen as a government opponent,"
              says Leon Martinez, a regular visitor to Delgado's library.
                   Although the government lets the independents operate, it keeps tabs on them, too.
                   Martinez said security agents have repeatedly stopped him on the street to ask what books the library stocks and which of them
              he has read there.
                   It has happened so many times, he says, that he doesn't let it bother him. "I tell them I read what I want," he says.
                   Martinez, a 41 -year-old construction worker, says Cuban politics is his favorite subject, but his real weakness is novels. He has
              read Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" 17 times.
                   The independent librarians can't buy many books themselves in these economic hard times, and depend on donations from
              Cubans and foreigners. Even if they had the money, the availability of both classics and new titles depends on the government, which
              controls book distribution.
                   Still, Cubans somehow have always managed to beat the system, regularly passing from hand to hand the hottest titles brought in
              by friends or relatives, even duplicating them if they can find a photocopier.
                   "We don't tell people to read Guillermo Cabrera Infante or Carlos Alberto Montaner," says fellow independent librarian Ramon
              Colas, referring to two Cuban writers living abroad who oppose Castro. "People can read what they want."
                   Colas said he stocks some works by those two authors in his own library in the eastern city of Las Tunas.
                   The idea is to "offer another cultural option ... in a country accustomed to reading what its leaders want," Colas says.
                   He and Delgado belong to the Independent Libraries of Cuba Project, which Colas formed in March 1998. He now counts 62
              separate libraries across the island, all in private homes.
                   "The Cuban state promotes cultural development on our archipelago, a lofty objective," Colas says. But he complained about the
              government's "repressive acts," specifically confiscation of books and magazines mailed to independent librarians from abroad.
                   "Our attraction is that we offer all types of books. Culture should not be subject to ideological prejudices."