Breaking The “Information Embargo”
Independent libraries and a democratic transition in Cuba.


Ramón Humberto Colás Castillo should be famous in America. A former victim of political persecution by the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running dictatorship, his repeated defiance of gunpoint censorship is worthy of front-page and primetime acclaim. For his peaceful efforts at promoting liberalization in his homeland, Colás has suffered not only vicious beatings but has also been jailed more than 20 times. It should also be noted that he is a black man who comes from a nation of economic- and tourism-apartheid: the media’s ideal story, one would think.

Yet because he is Cuban, and the regime he challenges is that of Fidel Castro, Colás remains unknown to the vast majority of Americans. He’s a celebrity in the South Florida exile community, of course, and among Cuban-Americans generally. And he’s highly regarded by those journalists, human-rights activists, and politicians who keep a vigilant eye on Cuba’s pro-democracy movement–but then, unfortunately, that crowd is a small one. Colás has lived in the United States since December 2001, when Cuban authorities permitted his family to emigrate. He currently works at the University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project (about which more later).

Given President Bush’s recent creation of the Commission for the Assistance to a Free Cuba, and his stated desire to “continue to break the information embargo,” the administration will no doubt be looking to Colás for recommendations and assistance. Indeed, Colás has done more than just about anyone over the past six years to subvert Havana’s “information embargo.” He’s worked unstintingly to build the foundations for a democratic Cuba–and many optimists believe he will someday play a leading role in the island’s eventual shift to pluralism and freedom.

A trained psychologist and a member of the Cuban opposition since 1990, his life was radically changed by Castro’s well-publicized comments at the Havana International Book Fair in February 1998. Asked by a journalist about censorship in Cuba, the dictator impulsively responded, “In Cuba there are no prohibited books, only those we do not have the money to buy.” When Colás and his wife, Berta Mexidor Vázquez, an economist, heard this statement, they immediately seized on it: Here was an opportunity to establish independent libraries, free of regime scrutiny, where Cubans could have unrestricted access to books, journals, and pamphlets. If the government objected or intervened, they reasoned, then the hollowness of Castro’s promises would be exposed. Colás notes that he’d always been an avid reader himself, and was keenly aware of the “thirst for information”–non-propaganda, that is–which exists in Cuba. He and Mexidor decided to found the Independent Libraries of Cuba Project.

The inaugural private library opened a few weeks later on March 3, 1998, in their apartment in Las Tunas. It was named the Félix Varela Independent Library. Within the next nine months, over a dozen independent libraries had sprung up across Cuba. In many cases they were just single rooms in the homes or apartments of oppositionist intellectuals and artists. They carried the works of authors previously unknown to most Cubans: Friedrich Hayek, George Orwell, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name just a few, along with such banned Cuban writers as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas. Government officials soon became wary of the libraries’ growing influence; particularly alarming was the influx of donated books from abroad. They subsequently began to bully and threaten the independent librarians. In addition, they began to monitor Colás’s travel around the island.

Then came the inevitable series of arrests, persecutions, and expulsions. At all hours of the night, he received menacing telephone calls warning that the police would make him “disappear” if he didn’t rein in the libraries. His wife Berta was even ordered to divorce him! Finally, on August 23, 1999, government agents raided and ransacked his home. The family was evicted, their possessions were taken in two trucks to a military farm, and Colás was arrested. Regime authorities told their neighbors that Colás and his wife were terrorists and CIA agents, and that they weren’t to have any further contact with them or their children.

Colás’s incarceration that time was brief: only a night. (He says that his other 20-odd detentions by Cuban police were usually for periods each lasting 7-8 days.) But his family was forced to move in with relatives, and his wife had lost her job. Also, his kids began to have problems at school, with teachers informing them that education was only for those loyal to the revolution. The other students, meanwhile, treated them as pariahs. “The regime doesn’t only attack you,” Colás laments. “It attacks your entire family.” While he continued to support the libraries and pass along news to Radio Martí, Mexidor and their children grew weary of the constant harassment. Colás eventually requested political asylum. He and his family obtained American visas in October 2000, and were allowed to leave for Miami just over a year later.

Since departing Cuba, Colás has championed the independent libraries’ cause in meetings with the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), United Nations representatives, various European heads of state, and, last May, with President Bush. In August, he attended IFLA’s Berlin conference and spoke with members of the German foreign ministry. He also met with leaders of the city’s Cuban exile community, who are forming their own support group for the independent libraries project. The trip was “a great success,” he says, largely because he was able to invalidate the arguments presented by Castro’s IFLA delegation. Moreover, after meeting with Colás the German foreign ministry decided to withdraw its sponsorship of the 2004 Havana International Book Fair, which was held last month. Colás recently returned from France, where he laid the groundwork for emergent partnerships between the private Cuban libraries and public libraries in Paris and Strasburg.

Today, there are roughly 200 independent libraries in Cuba, about half of which are affiliated with Colás’s organization. Most of the directors of the libraries are dissidents. Fourteen were arrested during the regime’s crackdown in March 2003, including world-famous poet Raúl Rivero. Yet as Robert Kent, co-chairman of the Friends of Cuban Libraries, tells me, the independent libraries take great pride in stocking books reflective of all views. They tend to carry Solzhenitsyn and Adam Smith, sure, but they also have Granma, the Communist-party daily, and works by pro-regime writers. Colás believes that those Cubans who run the libraries today will lead the post-Castro transition tomorrow. He says the pro-democracy librarians draw their inspiration from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel (there are libraries named after each man). While the U.S. Interests Section in Havana has provided materials to the librarians since 1998, these efforts have been stepped up under James Cason’s watch. As chief of Washington’s diplomatic mission, Cason has distributed thousands of short-wave radios and books to Cubans inside and outside the dissident movement.

Among his many professional endeavors, Colás now works at the University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project, whose advisory board includes former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and former GOP senator Connie Mack. Researchers there are studying the lessons of democratic transition in Chile, Eastern Europe, and Nicaragua. “We believe that in Cuba, the transition has already begun,” Colás explains. He stresses that the independent libraries have a crucial role to play owing to the tremendous bibliographic losses in Cuba since the 1959 revolution. Much that was written before the overthrow of Fulgencio Batista has been abolished, destroyed, or burned. “It would seem that [Cuba] was discovered 45 years ago,” Colás jokes. “It’s a society trapped in the present, with no respect for the past. Fidel Castro presents himself as the history of Cuba.” If not for those Cubans living abroad, he adds, much of the nation’s cultural history would have been lost forever. The independent libraries are thus invaluable tools of change. They are vehicles through which to inform the island’s people of their own history, to inculcate an appreciation for the value of history, and to teach Cubans how to live in a democracy. In short, the libraries help establish civil society.

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), points out that the most advanced post-Communist nations–Poland and the Czech Republic–are places where the victims of Communism were able to build a nascent degree of civic culture before their liberation. When moving from totalitarianism to democratic rule, he emphasizes, the presence of a civil society, however embryonic, is vital: “What happens in a country where you have no civil society is often the Russian model” of corruption and authoritarianism. As Colás puts it, “The libraries will have an enormous role in ensuring that the errors of the past aren’t repeated.”

Of course, we should be careful not to overstate their influence. Dallas Morning News writer Tracey Eaton, the paper’s Cuba correspondent, doubts that many Cubans feel comfortable interacting with the librarians. “Most ordinary Cubans want to stay as far away as possible from dissidents and pro-democracy activists,” he writes in an e-mail from Havana. “Associating with them can mean missing out on that promotion, losing your job or not getting a spot at the university.” For that matter, the widespread arrests last March, along with the executions of three Cubans who attempted to hijack a boat to Florida, had a sobering effect on the island’s people.

There is, moreover, a broader pessimism in certain quarters about the realistic prospects for a democratic transition following Castro’s death. In his recently published book, Cuba: The Morning After, American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Falcoff argues that the devastation wrought by Communism these past 45 years will make a smooth transition to liberal democracy nearly impossible. Colás, while he shares this anxiety, is somewhat more optimistic. He trusts that many Cubans empathize with the independent libraries movement–and the dissident movement in general–but have yet to overcome “the culture of fear.” The oppositionists’ plight reinforces this fear. None of them, Colás observes, have real employment; once it’s learned that they’re pro-democracy, pro-human rights, and anti-regime, they (and often relatives as well) are immediately stripped of their jobs. The only way they can do their inestimable work is with outside help.

“They have crumbs right now,” Garcia says. “What we need to do is get them the materials, the way we did, for example, the Poles and the Czechs.” Vaclav Havel, Arpad Göncz, and Lech Walesa–former presidents of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, respectively–offered this same Cold War analogy in a September 2003 letter to London’s Daily Telegraph and other leading Western newspapers. “Today, it is the responsibility of the democratic world,” they wrote, “to support representatives of the Cuban opposition, irrespective of how long the Cuban Stalinists manage to cling to power. The Cuban opposition must enjoy the same international support as political dissidents did in divided Europe.”

Some have questioned the wisdom of such a Reaganite approach to Cuba. For one thing, as Eaton notes, “The dissident movement is deeply infiltrated. The Cuban government has it totally wired.” Naturally, this could undermine the efficacy of aiding the oppositionists. But then, anti-Communist dissident movements have always been infiltrated by secret policemen: that in itself is not a reason to deny them assistance. Another argument is that America’s overt support for pro-democracy Cubans gives the regime an excuse to label them as salaried U.S. “agents.” Some claim that James Cason’s aggressive backing of the dissidents indirectly brought on Havana’s massive roundup last year. Garcia has a ready, and simple, answer to this critique: “When you act upon what [Castro] might say, you let him control what you will do. There’s no way to get ahead of the curve.” U.S. appropriations for the Cuban dissidents do not contain money for salaries. (Although foreign-aid packages often allot small amounts of relief money for the victims of human-rights violations.) But the larger point, Garcia implies, is that American officials should not make Cuba policy contingent on a dictator’s propaganda or threats. Besides, it is quixotic to think that deliberate U.S. inattention would somehow improve the dissidents’ lot or mitigate Castro’s treatment of them. Better that America should sustain those who peacefully resist the jackboot of tyranny.

Expectations of a “Velvet Revolution” in Cuba may be overly sanguine, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage a democratic transition however possible. Colás firmly believes that George W. Bush “has the will” to affect how the island changes. One way for Bush to demonstrate that will, and America’s, would be to increase aid–not in the form of “salaries,” per se, but moral, material, and rhetorical aid–for all Cuban dissidents, including the independent librarians. A vigilant pro-dissident agenda in Washington would also circumvent the U.S.-European stalemate over the American embargo, and provide common ground for a unified, coherent multilateral policy. (For that matter, European countries–notably Sweden and Spain–have generally been at the forefront in assisting Cuba’s private librarians.) As Havel, Göncz, and Walesa stressed in their letter, “It is time to put aside transatlantic disputes about the embargo of Cuba and to concentrate on direct support for Cuban dissidents, prisoners of conscience and their families.” It can’t happen soon enough.

Duncan Currie is a student at Harvard University. He was an NR intern during the summer of 2003.


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