"Invisible book burning" re-ignites ALA controversy

Posted: 7/12/2008 10:02:00 AM
Author: Friends of Cuban Libraries
Source: These articles article originally appeared on the Friends of Cuban Libraries' website.

"Invisible book burning" re-ignites ALA controversy

NEW YORK, June 22, 2008 (Friends of Cuban Libraries) - Cuba has once again been catapulted to the top of the American Library Association's agenda. On the eve of the ALA's annual conference in Anaheim, California, three members of the ALA's governing Council have introduced a resolution condemning Cuba's repression of the island's independent library movement and urging the release of Cubans serving 20-year prison terms for the "crime" of opening uncensored libraries. The resolution, introduced by Councilors Barbara Silverman, Shixing Wen and Cristina Ramirez, also takes note of the court-ordered burning of library collections in Cuba and urges the return to their lawful owners of confiscated library books which have not yet been destroyed.

According to critics, a "pro-Castro" faction within the association which denies the existence of repression or censorship in Cuba has controlled ALA policy on this issue over the past decade, resulting in a series of "seriously biased" ALA investigations and Council resolutions which failed to condemn, or even acknowledge the existence of, systematic library repression on the island, including government-led mob attacks against libraries, 20-year prison terms for library workers and the court-ordered burning of library collections confiscated by the secret police.

The introduction of the Cuba resolution by Councilors Silverman, Wen and Ramirez mobilized vigorous countermeasures from ALA members who oppose any change in the association's policy on Cuba. The first barrage in this effort (actually published before the new Council resolution was made public) is an article by Peter McDonald ("ALA's Stand on Cuba's Independent Libraries") in the June/July issue of "American Libraries," the association's primary magazine. As the showdown over the proposed Cuba resolution draws near at the Anaheim conference, members of the association's alleged pro-Castro faction, who have reportedly dominated the ALA's Cuba policy for the past decade, praised McDonald's article as a "nuanced" review of this "complex" issue.

When the editor of "American Libraries" declined to publish an article responding to McDonald, the Friends of Cuban Libraries posted an analysis of his article on listservs. Printed below is the text of our response to McDonald's article:

Response to Peter McDonald's Article in "American Libraries"
by the Friends of Cuban Libraries
June 12, 2008

Peter McDonald ("ALA's Stand on Cuba's Independent Libraries," June/July 2008) seems puzzled as to why this controversy continues. He asserts that the ALA's "nuanced" reports and resolutions on Cuba show an "abiding understanding" of this "complex" issue.

In reality, there is nothing "nuanced" about the decade-long effort within the ALA to ignore the appalling truth: Cuba is the only country in the world where library workers are being systematically persecuted.

There is nothing "complex" about the burning of library collections, mob attacks against librarians and 25-year prison terms for the alleged crime of operating a library, all of which the ALA and Mr. McDonald are trying to ignore. If Mr. McDonald doesn't believe reports by Amnesty International, People for the American Way and other human rights groups protesting these outrages, he can refer to the Cuban government's own court records on the one-day trials held in 2003. Mr. McDonald, like the ALA's Cuba researchers over the past decade, ignores these damning documents as if they do not exist, even after copies were obtained by Amnesty International and published on the Internet.

Sadly, until now the well-meaning but complacent majority on the ALA Council has been maneuvered into passing resolutions blaming other nations for Cuba's human rights violations while expressing vague regret over the arrest of unnamed Cubans for unnamed offenses, in the platitudinous style of beauty contestants who "want the whole world to be happy." In sharp contrast, 76% of respondents to the only ALA membership poll on Cuba called for a condemnation of the repression in Cuba. When will the Council begin to listen to the evidence-based concerns of the membership?

Celebrated speakers at ALA conferences have repeatedly urged the association to honor its principles with regard to Cuba. At the ALA's most recent conference, speaker Anthony Lewis told the audience: "I think there can't be anything worse than putting librarians in prison because of their being librarians and giving people books to read.... Cuban librarians who have been in prison are entitled to the utmost support from this organization." And Mr. McDonald is wrong in implying that Anthony Lewis has retracted his comments. After the event, he told Nat Hentoff that he was "proud and happy with what he had said."

Mr. McDonald claims that the Friends of Cuban Libraries engage in "politics." Like the anti-racism activists around the world who organized to oppose apartheid in South Africa, we in the Friends of Cuban Libraries believe the unprecedented repression of library workers in Cuba deserves international attention. Our members hold a range of views on many issues, but we are united in believing it cannot be a crime to oppose censorship or to open a library, in Cuba or any other country. Our efforts to defend intellectual freedom and to oppose book burning are a matter of principle, not partisan politics.

We continue to defend Cuba's brave and innovative independent library movement, a uniquely Cuban contribution to the worldwide struggle for human rights. As for the ALA's failure to oppose book burning and library repression by the Castro regime, we agree with the statement Nat Hentoff made before renouncing the ALA's Immroth Award for intellectual freedom: "It would be astonishing and shameful if the American Library Association does not support - and gather support for - the courageous independent librarians of Cuba, some of whom have been imprisoned by Castro for very long terms for advocating the very principles of the freedom to read and think that the American Library Association has so long fought for in this country."

Robert Kent
The Friends of Cuban Libraries