ALA's Stand on Cuba's Independent Libraries: The Association Opposes Both Censorship and Embargo

By McDonald, Peter | American Libraries, June-July 2008 | Go to article overview

ALA's Stand on Cuba's Independent Libraries: The Association Opposes Both Censorship and Embargo


McDonald, Peter, American Libraries


For almost 10 years, Friends of Cuban Libraries has advocated tirelessly on behalf of what have become known as Cuba's "independent libraries." Led by a New York Public Library librarian named Robert Kent, the group has used blogs, e-mails, letters, and many public forums to castigate the American Library Association for failing to take a strong enough stand against censorship and in support of human rights in Cuba.

Persuaded to join in the crusade have been such luminaries as Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff (AL. May 2004, p. 49-52) and former cataloger Sandy Berman, a recipient of the ALA Equality Award, who have both petitioned the Association to speak out. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (AL, Aug. 2006, p. 50-51), author Andrei Codrescu (AL, Mar. 2006, p. 44), and journalism legend Anthony Lewis (AL, Mar., 2008, p. 63) have spoken during ALA conferences in support of these independent libraries and the Cuban dissidents--self-described librarians--who operate them.

International action

Since 1999, ALA, the Canadian Library Association, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA, of which ALA is a member), and other organizations have all passed resolutions or produced key documents opposing the U.S. posture of hostility and embargo of Cuba, while calling on Cuba to respect human rights and intellectual freedom. Although ALA Policy 58.4.1 on "Human Rights and Freedom of Expression" specifically supports these two inalienable rights, there nevertheless remains a vocal group that feels the ALA Council should go a step farther and specifically denounce the imprisonment of Cuban dissidents.

Several delegations of American librarians visited Cuba in the years following the 1994 IFLA conference in Havana (AL, Oct. 1994, p. 818-824). In spring 2001, a group led by then ALA President-elect John W. Berry went to Cuba to attend the plenary session of the Association of Ca ribbean University, Research, and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL) expressly to improve understanding about libraries and librarianship in. Cuba. They toured the national library and a number of public libraries that are part of an extensive system serving the highly literate population of Cuba. In addition, the group visited several independent libraries located in the homes of political dissidents, counterrevolutionaries, or members of the opposition movement. Immediately following Berry's trip to Cuba, Council at the 2001 ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco passed a resolution that called on the U.S. government "to put policies in place ... to improve access to information in Cuba ... [and] oppose all efforts, including those of the U.S. government, to limit access to informational materials by Cuban libraries and library users." In the ensuing years, the Cuba debate moved off the Council floor to round table discussions, e-mails, blogs, conference programs, and the pages of American Libraries. Key ALA committees and Council itself have consistently supported the stance that the Association's policy toward Cuba was already sufficiently nuanced--calling on both Cuba and the U.S. to break down official barriers and respect human rights. Friends of Cuban Libraries, however, began vigorously demanding that ALA denounce Cuban censorship specifically and go on record supporting the independent library movement there.

The year 2003 was the flashpoint for ALA in what has now become a perennial issue for the Association. That spring, the Cuban government rounded up, tried, and imprisoned some 75 Cuban journalists, activists, writers, and other citizens accused of breaking laws specifically passed to counteract the palpably negative effects of the Helms-Burton Act (AL, June/July 2003,p. 50). Among these dissidents were several individuals who operated private collections of materials in their homes. Much of this material originated from Miami-based anti-Castro groups as well as subsidiary agencies of the U. …

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