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Jewish World Review Jan. 27, 2004 / 4 Shevat, 5764

Nat Hentoff

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Librarians in Castro's gulag | A bitter, months-long dispute within the American Library Association (ALA) — the largest nation-based organization of librarians in the world — continues, as to whether to demand that Fidel Castro release 10 imprisoned independent librarians, found guilty of making available to Cubans copies of George Orwell's "1984" and the United Nations' Declaration of Human Rights. Along with 65 other Cuban dissenters, the "subversive" librarians were sentenced to 20 or more years in Castro's gulag. Some urgently need medical attention, which they're not receiving.

At the ALA's annual midwinter meeting earlier this month in San Diego, Karen Schneider, a member of the ALA's governing council, wanted to amend a final report on the meeting to call for their immediate release. Schneider, in proposing her amendment, told her colleagues that Castro's police had confiscated and burned books and other materials at the independent libraries.

The amendment was overwhelmingly defeated by the 182-member council. The report was swept through by a raising of hands.

From Sept. 25 to Oct. 2, libraries across this country will invite their communities to the annual Banned Books Week, decrying censorship. I've spoken, by invitation, during those weeks at libraries around the country. Will any library invite me this year to talk about the burning of library books in Cuba?

In the final report, also passed overwhelmingly by raised hands, there was some pious language expressing the ALA's "deep concern over the arrest and long prison terms of political dissidents in Cuba" — but this deep concern does not extend to asking the Cuban dictator to liberate all of the 75 imprisoned in his crackdown last spring, including the 10 librarians.

Steve Marquardt, an ALA member who believes in everyone's right to read everywhere, wrote to Eliades Acosta Matos, the director of Cuba's National Library (Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti), and they discussed Schneider's amendment, which Marquardt supports.

In his answer, Castro's appointee said that "I send to you the text of the report on Cuba, approved in San Diego. Ask yourself why the resolution proposed by Ms. Schneider was defeated." The response also — like some members of the American Library Council — blamed the "aggressions" of the American government against Cuba, "including 'lies and subversion, such as the independent libraries'" But these books were sent to the independent libraries by people from many countries, including individual Americans. In this respect, Castro's spokesman obviously approved that particular part of the ALA's final report, which carefully avoids calling for the release of the independent librarians.

After that final report was approved by the ALA's governing council, the association's president, Carla Hayden, said that the vote "shows that people are able to work out differences of opinion and come together on a joint statement."

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As an indication of the ALA leadership's hypocrisy, the final report of its governing council at the January meeting urges "the Cuban government to eliminate obstacles to access to information imposed by its policies." But there's not a word about eliminating the obstacles to the release of the 10 independent librarians.

Then the governing council's report supports "an investigative visit (to Cuba) by a special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with special attention given to freedom of access to information and freedom of information, especially in the cases of those recently imprisoned." What freedom of information are the Cuban gulag guards "conveying" to those prisoners? And remember, this report is going to the same U.N. Human Rights Commission that includes Cuba, as well as such champions of freedom of expression as China, Zimbabwe, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

What is the ALA leadership thinking?

Moreover, after Castro sent the 10 librarians and 65 other dissidents into his prison, the notorious U.N. Human Rights Commission refused to pass a condemnation of Castro, and also turned down a resolution by Costa Rica calling for the immediate release of the prisoners.

Meanwhile, on Jan. 16, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions in The Hague joined Amnesty International in condemning Castro's new Internet bill that places even more severe punitive restriction on Cuban citizens' use of the Internet. Amnesty International "fears that the new measures are intended to prevent human rights monitoring by restricting the flow of information out of Cuba" — as well as information from freedom-to-read advocates to Cubans, both in and out of prison.

It's a shame that librarians around this country have a leadership that mocks the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which requires its members to "challenge censorship" — but refuses to call for the release of 10 librarians among Castro's prisoners of conscience who, indeed, challenged censorship.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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