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Jewish World Review March 3, 2004 / 10 Adar, 5764

Nat Hentoff

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A silent shadow on National Library Week | Every year, the American Library Association promotes National Library Week to remind us how vital libraries are in our lives. From childhood on, I've depended on libraries for both research and the pleasure of quickening my imagination. But I hope that during this year's weeklong celebration (April 18-24), librarians will pause, and maybe pray for, the independent librarians in Cuban prisons for the "crime" of circulating such publications as George Orwell's "1984" and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which Castro's police later confiscated and burned.

During Fidel Castro's crackdown on dissenters last April, 10 independent librarians were among the 75 pro-democracy Cubans sentenced to terms of 20 years or more. On Feb. 14, The New York Times quoted French magistrate Christine Chanet, whom the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights appointed to probe alleged Cuban abuses of these prisoners.

She described the "alarming conditions" imprisoned librarians exist in, citing reports of the political prisoners being held in isolation cells or crammed together with "common criminals" in prisons often far from their families. As the representative of the U.N. Commission for Human Rights, her appeals to the Cuban dictator to pardon these dissenters have gone unanswered.

Also on Feb. 14, Kevin Sullivan for the Washington Post Foreign Service reported in the Post's Web site that at least 20 of the 75 dissidents "are seriously ill in Cuban prison cells where they are being held under inhumane conditions."

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Although Castro has barred human rights groups, foreign journalists and the International Committee of the Red Cross from accessing the prisons (the Red Cross, in fact, since 1989), letters have been smuggled out. Other information comes from family members though rarely permitted visits and from human rights activists in Cuba who, at their peril, try to monitor details of the hell of Castro's gulag, Sullivan writes that "a picture emerged of inhumane prison conditions and continued harassment of the dissidents' families by Cuban security agents."

Sullivan quoted Miriam Leiva, "whose imprisoned husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, 63, is suffering from advanced cirrhosis of the liver" and is being held in a cell "with no windows or running water, and the lights were kept on 24 hours a day." While Chepe is not one of the 10 librarians, his plight mirrors the horrific conditions that all the dissidents, including the librarians, are being subjected to.

In his Washington Post report, Sullivan quotes Elizardo Sanchez, head of the decidedly non-government Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, about the "punishment cells" in which the 75 dissidents are held. He told Sullivan the cells are about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long.

"These jails are like concentration camps," Sanchez says. "There is no doubt that this is a deliberate policy of extreme cruelty on the part of the state."

Also quoted is Oswaldo Paya, organizer of the Varela Project that gathered signatures of more than 10,000 Cubans calling for democratic reforms — a petition drive rejected by Castro. Speaking of what he calls the "medieval cages" in which the librarians and the other are being kept, Paya says that he "would like to make an appeal to the world's conscience. It seems like there is a lot of indifference about the reality of human rights in Cuba."

Why should American librarians have a particular moral responsibility for calling attention to their brothers and sisters being tormented for their belief in the right of the Cuban people's freedom to read (the very principle that our librarians will be celebrating this April)?

In January, the Council of the American Library Association overwhelmingly rejected a plea to Fidel Castro for the immediate release of the imprisoned librarians.

Without mentioning the 10 librarians, the ALA's governing council expressed "deep concern" for the 75 dissidents, but left them in prison — in some cases, for what may be the rest of their lives. This reminded me of Alice's adventures in "Through the Looking Glass" when Tweedledum told her about the Walrus and the Carpenter. They, having invited young oysters to walk with them on the beach, suddenly began to eat them. Showing deep concern, the Walrus, "with sobs and tears he sorted out those of the largest size," and said "I weep for you," as he ate every one.

In comparison, the ALA, reacting to John Ashcroft's calling American librarians "hysterics" for opposing the Patriot Act, is selling buttons that read "another hysterical librarian for freedom." What about the freedom of the Cuban librarians?

During National Library Week, will at least some librarians here respond to the imprisoned Cuban librarians' appeals to the consciences of their U.S. counterparts, who are free to oppose vigorously the Patriot Act (as many do) without fear of being put into cages? How are this nation's librarians able to allow their governing council to speak for them by deferring to Castro defenders on that council — and voting against the release of the librarians in Cuba?

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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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