The Cuba Debate – Why the “middle” is not the middle
It is still not dead. A resolution has just been sent to the ALA Council list for discussion, calling on ALA to recognize the dissident “independent librarians” as members of the library community who deserve our support as colleagues, calling for the return of “library materials” to the “independent libraries,” and calling for the release of prisoners.
As this debate has worn on and grown tiresome over the years, many people who understandably just want it to go away try to close the books on it by saying, “I’ve heard all the arguments, and I think both sides have a point. They just need to sit down and be rational about it for a change instead of haranguing us on our listservs. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.”
Well, what are both sides saying, and what would the middle be?
On the one side, you have Robert Kent and company, who are campaigning for the cause of Cuban dissidents who have set up “independent libraries” in their homes. He acknowledges that they are dissidents and that their activities contra the Cuban government are the reason for their libraries. But in Kent’s campaign, there is no angle on the issue other than intellectual freedom in a pure, undiluted form. No room for the complexity which we know characterizes the question. For Kent, there is only one side. It is a question of good and evil.
On the other side, you have members of the Progressive Librarians Guild, myself included, and others who have engaged Kent on the listservs where he has sent his campaign messages. We have never advanced the Cuba issue other than to counter Kent where he needs to be countered.
Because we have written and spoken counter to Kent, it would be easy to assume that our message is equally black and white, but this has never been the case.
What we have pointed out, to oversimplify, is that the “independent libraries” are propaganda distribution centers set up in people’s homes rather than libraries in the usual sense, and that they are set up using funds coming from the U.S. government and routed through “pro-democracy” NGO’s that are staffed by members of the Cuban exile community who want their land and property back. (Jorge Sanguinetty should be named, because he is the originator of the “independent library” movement.) The “independent librarians” who have been arrested were arrested for violating a Cuban law that bans citizens from accepting money or material support from a foreign state for the purpose of undermining the government. The United States has a parallel law, as well as a set of more specific laws directed at individuals aiding Cuba, which American citizens also go to prison for violating, a fact which Kent has understandably avoided dealing with, because it does not fit into his simplistic picture.
Some of us who have written against Kent’s campaign are lifelong socialists and friendly toward the Cuban revolution. But readers should not conclude from that that any of us deny support to real, homegrown dissidents in Cuba, or deny that more freedom of speech in Cuba would be a good thing, or that there are serious problems in Cuba that are partly the result of failures of Castro’s government. On this side, you will not find anybody avoiding the true complex nature of the question. This side, I argue, IS the middle.
That is why everybody in the Progressive Librarians Guild who has been working contra Kent over the years was happy with the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee’s 2003 Report on Cuba, despite its being a response that validated many of Kent’s concerns. We supported it as the final word of the Association. The report is based on ALA’s long history of support for intellectual freedom, and took the occasion to join IFLA in its prior statement on Cuba, which it arrived at because of the same issue. IFLA in 2001 and ALA in the 2003 IFC Report called on Cuba to “eliminate barriers to access to information imposed by its policies,” and expressed their deep concern over the arrest and long prison terms of the dissidents, as well as calling on the Cuban library community to monitor violations of the right to free access to information and work to promote civil liberties in Cuba.
Note that PLG liked the report and Kent found it totally inadequate.
PLG liked the report because it dealt with the complexity of the issue. The report recognized the relevance of the US blockade of Cuba in contributing to the conditions there that have led to such a defensive posture, and called on the US to end its economic embargo, because it is also an embargo of information exchange. The report also acknowledged that the “independent librarians” do not consider themselves librarians at all (this based on interviews by members of an IFLA delegation), and that the dissidents are in prison for violating the Cuban law against accepting material support from a foreign power to undermine the state. (The IFC didn’t point out that the U.S. also has such laws, as that would have been to advocate for the Cuban state’s action, which, whether comparable to what the U.S. does or not, is still essentially contrary to intellectual freedom in an absolute sense.)
Kent did not like the Report because it fell short of condemning Cuba for not releasing the imprisoned dissidents. Unlike Kent, the Intellectual Freedom Committee sees the complexity of an issue involving the policies of a sovereign state that has rule of law. I think the IFC used a mature, diplomatic approach in its choice of language regarding the imprisoned dissidents. (The Report says, “ALA joins IFLA in its deep concern over the arrest and long prison terms of political dissidents in Cuba in spring 2003 and urges the Cuban Government to respect, defend and promote the basic human rights defined in Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights” – hardly a defense of the Cuban government!)
Now three Councilors, inspired by Kent’s campaign (without which this would not be an issue at all, as he has worked with Sanguinetty from the beginning) are bringing forth a resolution that goes far beyond the IFC report and takes us into quite un-diplomatic territory.
I say the 2003 IFC Report is sufficient and nuanced, and expresses our commitment to intellectual freedom while at the same time respecting the real complexity of the issue. In a very general way, I think it is a much better example of what intellectual freedom means to us as librarians than are Kent’s absolutist missives. I hope you’ll contact a Councilor and express your opposition to the resolution.