Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Cuba's Independent Library Movement Reconsidered

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Cuba's Independent Library Movement Reconsidered

Article excerpt

The Meaning of Intellectual Freedom

Librarians have traditionally defended "intellectual freedom," the idea that truth is best assessed by an ongoing, open process weighing all ideas and information, and that libraries exist to foster this process, not to bias its outcome by censorship. Since intellectual freedom is inherently welcoming to new ideas and corrosive of prescriptive tradition, it has come to be associated with the "Left," so librarians also tend to identify with that label. But using labels can come to replace thinking, and ideas can turn into mere slogans whose meaning is forgotten.

Many librarians naturally want to support both "intellectual freedom" and any regime that calls itself "leftist" or "progressive," but if that regime censors inconvenient information and dissenting viewpoints, the potential conflict between the two loyalties is obvious. In practice, for many, the solution is simply to change our definition of "intellectual freedom." In its revised version, we subconsciously qualify it so that it protects only "progressive" viewpoints and information, but not "regressive" ideas and "dangerous" information. We seldom think about the new definition, let alone formulate it in writing; it is a defensive reflex, ready to kick in whenever a leftist government is challenged for censorship.

This dichotomy is easy to apply only if all controversial writings group themselves neatly at opposite ends of a Left/Right polarity. Cuban censorship of the non-Marxist Left and of "deviationist" Marxists along with centrists and the Right, and the condemnation of the Cuban repression by the Socialist International (Socialist International, 2003) suggest that reality is more complicated. But more importantly, such a dichotomy betrays the essential meaning of intellectual freedom. Even the leadership of the Inquisition agreed that there should be complete freedom to propagate "truth." If the first defenders of intellectual freedom had proposed it only as a defense for their tribal version of "truth," it would have been nothing new. What made it radically new is its granting of freedom also to ideas with which its defenders do not agree. In the words of the ALA Freedom to Read Statement: "It is in the public interest ... to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority" (ALA, 2004).

"Freedom" only for approved viewpoints is not "freedom" at all. Redefining it as such repudiates, rather than defends, our traditional professional ideals. We can choose ultimate loyalty to anything labeled "left," even when that requires defending censorship, ultimate loyalty to intellectual freedom; and your choice need not be the same as mine. But we cannot simultaneously choose both; and the sooner we recognize this, the sooner we bring clarity to this discussion.

Cuba's Economic/Political Situation

Cuban dissent exists in a context which is far from a "worker's paradise": Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has been going through what it calls the "Special Period" ... energy consumption is drastically reduced, oxen are put to work in the fields, people get around on bicycles, and food rations are slashed to a minimum survival level. Once recognized as one of the best in the Third World, the health care system in Cuba today is such that patients must bring their own bedsheets to the hospital, and surgeons are given one bar of soap per month with which to wash their hands.... In ironic contrast to the living conditions of the locals, tourists in Cuba enjoy the best of accommodations, food, and drink. For the tourist, nothing is lacking.... The ration under the Special Period consists of a piece of bread per person per day, three eggs per week, and a portion of fish or chicken per month. A family of four gets one small bottle of cooking oil four times a year, and milk is available only for children under the age of eight. …

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