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Is Cuba Really Changing?


Just before I left New York for Havana, at the end of February, I went to see the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate. Shown to record crowds in Havana last year, the film is a moving and sympathetic portrait of the restricted lives of Cuban homosexuals, who have long been persecuted by the Castro regime and were interned in “rehabilitation” camps during the 1960s. Through its central character, a sensitive and cultivated homosexual leading an anxious life in Havana, the movie is critical of the government’s intolerance not just of homosexuals but of artistic freedom and of free expression in general. The fact that it had been made and shown in Havana and distributed abroad made me wonder whether Cuba was, at last, easing its strict control over free speech. Might news of glasnost, which had been kept from the Cuban public by censorship when it appeared in the Soviet Union, have reached Cuba after all?

I was part of a delegation of some seventy US book publishers, editors, and writers who went to Havana to open an exhibit of American books. Organized by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), it was the first such exhibit to be held in Cuba since the 1959 revolution and the subsequent US embargo, which prevents any commerce with Cuba.

It was my second visit to Havana; the first was with a small group from the AAP in 1991, after the revolutions in Eastern Europe, and while Soviet communism was falling apart. Soviet economic support, which for decades had helped Cuba to survive the US embargo, was coming to an end, leaving Cuba in a desperate economic situation. Castro’s response was to blame the US embargo as one way of mobilizing the Cuban people for a “special period” of deprivation and to crack down more firmly than ever on any form of dissent.

Book publishing, which is strictly state-controlled in Cuba, was one of the casualties of the economic crisis. During our 1991 visit we discovered that owing to a paper shortage hardly any books were being published. Our proposal to send an exhibit of US books to Cuba that would later be donated to the National Library was enthusiastically accepted by officials and dissidents alike.

The exhibit took four years to arrange. First, we needed approval from the US Treasury Department. Under the Trading With the Enemy Act, only diplomats and regularly employed journalists are allowed to spend money in Cuba; all others need specific licenses from the Treasury Department. Most Americans who travel to Cuba do so illegally, entering from a third country, or else they go as guests of the Cuban government and thus have no need to spend money. The Cuban government seemed hesitant about the exhibit. Finally, in December 1994, a small group from the AAP,1 after being assured that the organization would receive a US license under a provision allowing the export of “informational materials,” went to Cuba and made arrangements with the Ministry of Culture’s Instituto Cubano del Libro.

They sounded too good to be true. We would exhibit as many as ten thousand books of our own choosing in late February and early March. The exhibit would be open to the public; there would be no censorship, and among the various seminars and readings by US authors, there would be an open panel discussion on free expression, in which American and Cuban writers would take part. Cuban officials also agreed to our request that members of the US Interests Section in Havana, which serves as a surrogate US embassy in the absence of diplomatic relations, would be invited as guests to the opening ceremony; in the past, diplomats from the Interests Section were excluded from meetings between US visitors and Cuban officials. Although these conditions were not confirmed in writing, our advance party seemed confident that they were accepted in good faith. When we got there, however, we found the situation to be otherwise.

Cuba is one of the few countries in the world that refuses entry to independent human rights groups. It came as no surprise when JosĂŠ Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas, who applied to join our group, was excluded by the Cuban government. Learning of this, a few of us in the delegation decided to look into the human rights situation in Cuba while we were there.2

Publishers and editors from some seventy-five companies selected books and sent them to Havana, and the seventy people who decided to attend the exhibit were in an enthusiastic mood when they gathered in Nassau for the short flight to Havana. Some hoped to open new markets for books in Cuba; others looked forward to Cuba’s beaches. As we waited for takeoff in the muggy compartment of a Soviet TU-154, fanning ourselves with the plastic emergency instruction cards, we felt we might be taking part, in a small way, in a new phase of Cuban history.

More than four thousand books were exhibited in downtown Havana in the handsome Capitolio building, modeled after the US Capitol, and there was also a separate children’s book exhibit at the National Library. The selection of the books had been left to the individual publishers and the exhibit was diverse, but it was fairly tame when it came to anything that might challenge the political system in Cuba. It included, however, a few books by the exiled Cuban writers Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Heberto Padilla, and the late Reinaldo Arenas. When we arrived, the books were already on display, arranged in categories such as science and technology, fiction, and history by the Cubans who had unpacked them. Some of us brought additional books with us, a few on controversial themes, and we were pleased when the staff unquestioningly listed them and added them to the shelves.

Several hours before the afternoon’s opening ceremonies, two of the books we had brought that had been in the exhibit just before lunch were missing. One was Georgie Ann Geyer’s critical biography of Fidel Castro, Guerrilla Prince, published in 1991; the other was a prison memoir entitled Twenty Years and Forty Days: Life in a Cuban Prison, by Jorge Valls, one of the dissidents who were given long prison sentences for their early opposition to the increasingly authoritarian direction of Castro’s revolution. We also learned that another prison memoir, published by a small Wyoming press and called Leave Me My Spirit: An American’s Story of Fourteen Years in Castro’s Prisons, had never reached the shelves at all, although the publisher told us he had packed the book himself and that his other selections had been included in the exhibit. We protested to the Cuban publishing officials who were our hosts; they made vague promises that they would “look into it.”

The opening ceremonies included speeches by the minister of culture, Armando Hart, and several Cuban book publishing officials associated with the Instituto Cubano del Libro. Representing the American publishers was Nicholas Veliotes, a former US ambassador to Egypt and the current president of the AAP. He reacted swiftly when he was informed that Joseph Sullivan, the principal officer of the US Interests Section in Havana, had been stopped by security guards at the entrance to the exhibit and refused entry. Veliotes announced that he would immediately leave the ceremonies and withdraw AAP support from the exhibit if Mr. Sullivan was not admitted. A Cuban publishing official, JosĂŠ Robert Gasset, explained that it was a “matter of reciprocity” and that the US government was similarly inhospitable to Cuban diplomats in Washington. He would not budge, and the stalemate was broken only when Robert Gasset’s superior, Pablo Pacheco, was informed of what was happening and invited Mr. Sullivan in. It was a victory, perhaps, but it started the exhibition off on an unpleasant note.

On the following morning, when the exhibit was officially open to the public, we stood on the steps of the Capitolio and observed people being turned away by security guards because they did not have printed invitations. When we protested to our hosts that the exhibit was supposed to be open to the public, we were told that during the first few days only invited “experts” could see the exhibit, and that it would be open to others on Saturday, after most of us had left. We managed to have admitted the few people who tried to enter without invitations. In our subsequent discussions with Cubans we learned that no announcement had been made that the exhibition was open to the public. Ordinary Cubans know all too well that they are not welcome at such events. Passes to attend them are issued at workplaces to the trusted few.

More trouble was to come, this time over the panel discussion on free expression that we had planned. We were told that the open panel we had expected had been transformed into a “conversation with writers” at a closed meeting to take place at the government-controlled National Union of Writers and Artists in Cuba (UNEAC). We had attended a session at UNEAC during our first visit, and had heard some of the union officials criticize the US government for obstructing fraternal friendship between Cuban and American writers. We had no chance then to say that Cuban writers such as Cabrera Infante, Carlos Franqui, and Heberto Padilla were in exile because they opposed Cuban government policies and that other Cuban writers were serving long sentences in prison. We had hoped, in the open discussion that we had been promised, to raise the issue of government repression of independent-minded writers.

The AAP is on record as opposing the US travel embargo, and most of the members of our delegation I spoke to shared the view that the embargo is counterproductive, punitive, and demeaning to both sides. Many of us, however, did not want our objections to the embargo to be exploited for anti-American propaganda or to be used to divert attention from Cuban human rights abuses. We were wary of a closed meeting at UNEAC.

Thus when Abel Prieto, the head of UNEAC, would not agree to move the seminar to an open forum, we replied that we wanted to invite Cuban writers of our own choosing to the UNEAC meeting. He insisted on seeing, and vetting, our list. We submitted the names of some fifteen writers, many of them in fact members of UNEAC but, as one of them explained to me, “There are members, and there are members.” We told Mr. Prieto that we had already invited the people on our list and that they were coming. We later discovered that UNEAC officials had called each of them and told them not to come.

When we entered the courtyard of the UNEAC building that evening, none of the writers we had invited was to be seen. After some negotiation a US television crew working for the CBS program Sunday Morning was permitted to enter and film the event. Then the gates were shut behind us and secured with a chain and padlock. We learned the next day that five writers who had been disinvited but who attempted to come anyway were stopped by security police five blocks from the UNEAC building. One of the writers later told me that he had wanted to read aloud at the meeting the names of fourteen writers who were in prison or otherwise in trouble with the system. “I didn’t care if they arrested me after that. I just wanted to read that list.”

  1. 1

    The group was led by Roland Algrant of Hearst Books International, who was the main organizer of the subsequent exhibit.

  2. 2

    Gara LaMarche and Joanne Mariner conducted human rights interviews with me in Havana from February 27 to March 3, 1995.

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