By Karen DeYoung
Thursday, August 3, 2000; Page A26
The Jorge Manach Independent Library, named for a once-famous journalist in a different, long-ago Cuba, is open to lend, but there are few borrowers.
"Sometimes [Communist] Party youth come here," said Gonzalez, a former government journalist with a booming voice and a ready laugh. "Not many, because they're scared. We're really just a service to the community, but some in the community are scared. Of course, some people just come for the prohibited books, and ask for them by name. Whoever comes, no matter what they think, if we have the book, they can have it. I don't care what they take. People have the right to read."
Actually, getting your hands on a book that the government has decided you do not need to read can be difficult here. Although Cuba has an extensive network of state and school libraries and what Gonzalez says is one of the Third World's best technical collections, admission is often restricted, and access to certain volumes is determined by a need-to-know color code.
Having and reading books on your own is not a crime in Cuba. But it can draw always-risky attention. The government seems to decide on an ad hoc basis what is not permitted--the recent seizure of 11 books from another of Havana's independent lenders included a volume on Cuba's agricultural system and "Short Stories From Here and There," along with some Catholic magazines.
The first independent libraries began when a few intellectuals decided to take Castro at his word when the Cuban president said in a 1998 speech that "there are no banned books in Cuba--there just isn't any money to buy them." Gathering old, moldering volumes forgotten or hidden in pre-revolutionary collections, they set them on shelves and opened their doors.
Books are donated by Cubans leaving the country, and occasionally a sympathizer abroad will send a few new volumes by air freight--although that heightens the risk of arbitrary seizure by customs agents.
Gonzalez estimates that about 50 independent libraries are scattered around the country--some general interest, some devoted to specialized topics such as women's issues, the history of the North American Revolution, agrarian literature or music. Although each library is aware of others, they remain autonomous, lest they be perceived as forming a prohibited "movement." Other than occasional seizures or a rare shutdown, however, the government largely leaves them alone.
"This isn't a political undertaking, it's a cultural one," Gonzalez said. "But of course, in these conditions, it's hard to separate the coffee from the milk in your cafe con leche." In Cuba, all things are political.
"For instance, look at this book--'Mea Cuba,' a play on the words 'mea culpa.' It was written by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, a winner of the Cervantes Prize. . . . The book was published in the early 1960s, but it is prohibited. He was the Cuban cultural attache in Belgium and broke with the government and started to criticize it. This book is his thoughts and remembrances" about pre- and post-revolutionary life here. The author, Gonzalez said, "is more controversial than the book."
"Here's 'The Works of Che Guevara,' and 'Nation and State in Liberal Spain'--that one's not allowed. If somebody comes in and asks about human rights, here's the official version, 'Cuba and Human Rights.' Here's another version, published by UNESCO. It's prohibited. I show them both, and I don't care which one they take."
"We have only two rules for books," he said. "No racism and no violence."
There are also books by Jorge Manach, including his biography of Marti, the father of Cuban liberation. Manach "was an author and a politician in the pre-revolution times," Gonzalez said. "In the 1920s, he was one of the greatest Cuban journalists--he was always intransigent against any dictatorship." When Castro was imprisoned by Fulgencio Batista in the 1950s, Gonzalez said, he wrote letters to Manach.
"But he died in exile in 1961," he said of the library's namesake. "For
the Cuban government, it's like he never existed."
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