Has the American Library Association (ALA) become Fidel Castro’s latest “useful idiot”? On the surface, it seems implausible: Any organization dedicated to the uncensored dissemination of books, journals, and ideas would naturally be critical of a dictator who suppresses liberty with an iron fist. After all, a champion of open expression can’t be indifferent to Castro’s persecution of free thinkers, right?
Well, according to several top members of the ALA, maybe not. A dispute at the association’s annual conference in Toronto last month revealed a troubling obtuseness about the status of human rights in Cuba.
The “controversial” issue at hand was whether the ALA should formally respond to Havana’s jailing of 14 independent librarians earlier this year. Two competing resolutions were debated. The first, introduced by a group called Friends of Cuban Libraries, condemned the arrests and demanded the prisoners’ release. The second, a somewhat toothless proposal drafted by the association itself, merely noted that the librarians had been imprisoned and asked that the Castro government protect freedom of expression and access to information. Ultimately, the ALA chose to postpone any resolution on Cuba until January, claiming that it didn’t yet have sufficient evidence to make a judgment.
Winston Tabb, the outgoing chairman of the ALA’s international-relations committee, gave perhaps the flimsiest rationale for the association’s decision. “One of the questions was whether there was too much focus on Cuba,” he said in the New York Times, “and whether we should focus on freedom of access to information and freedom of expression generally. Those questions arise in Cuba but they arise in other places, too.” Tabb listed Turkey and Zimbabwe as two of these other places.
This evasive logic posits that unless all violators of free speech are being censured, no one government or dictator should be criticized. But even if there are more than a few tyrannies that stifle intellectual and journalistic liberties, how does that excuse the most egregious offenders, such as Castro?
But at least Tabb stopped short of questioning the jailed librarians’ credentials as librarians. Other ALA representatives, as it happens, did, including Mark Rosenzweig, an at-large member of the association’s Social Responsibility Round Table and the director of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies (the official repository of the Communist Party USA’s archives). “There was hardly even the pretense that these people were librarians,” Rosenzweig told author Charlotte Allen, writing in the Los Angeles Times. “I have got books in my apartment but that doesn’t make me a librarian. These are people who have been dissidents for many years. They’re pro-U.S. [The nerve!] They have connections with the Miami dissident groups.”
Similarly, outgoing Latin American subcommittee chairman Edward Erazo contended in the New York Times, “If you have 100 books in your home and you make them available to friends, are you a librarian?” “It’s political,” he said of Havana’s crackdown. “It has nothing to do with the fact that they operate independent libraries.”
This is pure sophistry. Why would it matter if the imprisoned librarians were only political dissidents who wanted to share books and opinions with their fellow Cubans? Just because they weren’t professional librarians, does that somehow make their arrests any less deplorable? To be sure, the only official librarians in Cuba are those who work in state-sanctioned libraries — venues that are closely monitored by the regime.
Yet the most shocking, perhaps, of the ALA’s many wrongheaded statements about Cuba came from outgoing president Maurice J. Freedman. He maintained, in the New York Times and elsewhere, that the independent librarians could likely have been “paid agents of the U.S. government.” Freedman implied that this view was shared by others in the association leadership. It is a view, of course, one might expect to read in the pages of Granma, Havana’s Communist-party daily. That the ALA president repeated it as possible truth is most discouraging.
Association members repeatedly argued that the facts concerning intellectual freedom on the island are still unclear. This has been the ALA’s unofficial position, it would seem, for the better part of five years. Before reviewing the association’s dodgy record on Cuba during that time, some quick background might be useful.
The Independent Libraries in Cuba Project was begun in February 1998. Its goal was to provide outlets for books or pamphlets that people might not be able to find in the official government-run libraries. The “independent libraries” that soon emerged were not libraries in the traditional sense; rather, they operated out of the homes of journalists, authors, and activists. Not surprisingly, Havana was quick to crack down on their activity and threaten the independent librarians.
This harassment did not go unnoticed. Library associations in other countries quickly became active in supporting the independent Cuban librarians. In the fall of 1999, about 20 months after the movement began, Holland’s National Union of Librarians wrote a letter urging the Dutch government to speak out against Castro’s ongoing repression. (Organizations in Canada, Spain, and Denmark have also officially denounced the librarians’ treatment.)
Meanwhile, in a September 1999 report titled “Independent Libraries in Cuba,” the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) stated that the Cuban regime “has responded to the independent libraries with a campaign of threats, intimidation, harassment, eviction, short-term arrests, and the confiscation of their incoming book donations or book collections.” One private librarian whose story the IFLA cited was Mirna Riveron. Starting in May 1999, her home in Santiago was frequently surrounded by thuggish mobs. “Included among these groups, organized by the government,” the report noted, “are young men in uniform who fire volleys of gunfire in the air outside her house.”
In August of that year, Ramon Humberto Colas Castillo and his wife, Berta Mexidor Vazquez, the founders of the island’s first independent library, were evicted from their home in Las Tunas province. They were temporarily detained by the regime, before fleeing to the United States with their children. Amnesty International reported that they “had lived in their home for 13 years before being told they were illegal occupants.”
Unfortunately, despite such documented persecution, the ALA has been largely mute on the issue, conveniently shrugging off the testimony of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others. Actually, its behavior has been even more disheartening than that. In January and May 2001, the association’s Latin American subcommittee conducted investigations into possible abuses in Cuba. (During the May probe, ALA members visited the island.) On both occasions, the ALA teams claimed to find either scant or “inconclusive” evidence of government censorship, and they chose not to criticize the regime’s oppression of independent librarians. The May report went a step further, gushing over Cuba’s literacy rate and the apparent vibrancy of its state-run public libraries.
Moreover, in the September 2001 issue of American Libraries, the association’s monthly publication, then-ALA president John W. Berry wrote that if access to information was imperiled in Cuba, it was largely due to “U.S. foreign policy and the economy.” He also added, with regard to an ALA draft resolution on Cuba, this nifty bit of moral equivocating: “The ALA resolution opposes all efforts, including those of the U.S. government, to limit access to informational materials to Cuba’s libraries and library users . . . It also recommends that the U.S. government put policies in place, including more equitable postal fees, that will make sending books and other materials on all subjects to Cuba’s libraries easier for U.S. libraries and residents who wish to improve access to information in Cuba by strengthening library collections.” In other words, American policy — and not barriers thrown up by Havana — was preventing the Cuban people from reading what they wanted.
Interestingly enough, the association’s stance on Cuba has been almost the complete opposite of its stance on South Africa during the late 1980s. Back then, it supported a book boycott as part of its anti-apartheid efforts. At its 1987 convention, for example, the ALA voted down a resolution that would have opposed library restrictions that were making it nearly impossible for American publishers to sell books to South Africa.
Why the double standard when it comes to information access in Cuba? As Robert Kent, co-founder of Friends of Cuban Libraries, explains, “There have been constant attacks on the facts by the extremist faction within the ALA.” Most of these “extremists” are on the Latin American subcommittee, where they “exert undue influence” on Cuba policy.
But the larger problem, as Kent sees it, is complacency. “A small group of extremists can often seize control of an organization when the ruling council of the organization is not paying attention to its duties,” he says. Indeed, the unchallenged extremists have become the ALA’s mouthpiece on Cuba issues. This should be deeply upsetting to all those who support the island’s independent librarians. As Mary Anastasia O’Grady has written in the Wall Street Journal, “The ALA’s 64,000 dues-paying members might like to know who’s setting policies in their name.”
Amidst this controversy, it’s easy to forget the jailed librarians themselves, the 14 remarkable individuals who now languish somewhere in Cuba’s dungeons. Their only crime was to challenge the regime’s intellectual Berlin Wall. The ALA, meanwhile, won’t even admit that such a wall exists.
— Duncan Currie is a National Review intern.