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, 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 …