World Libraries


The American Library Association and Cuba's Libraries: An Overview 2001 to 2004

 Introduction

For most of its one hundred twenty–seven year history, the American Library Association has held intellectual freedom and the freedom to read among its most constant and revered values. Not just for Americans, but for all people.

On occasion, sometimes on its own initiative and sometimes by request, the association, through its International Relations Committee (IRC) and Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC), considers freedom of access issues in a particular nation or region of the world, usually working closely with the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) or other non–governmental bodies (NGOs).

In the past few years, few issues involving freedom of access and free expression has garnered as much attention by the ALA outside U. S. borders than the situation involving Cuba and its libraries.

In the spring of 2001, while serving as ALA's President–elect, I led a small delegation of ALA members to Cuba. The idea for a visit grew out of the midwinter meetings of the International Relations Committee earlier that year, and the emerging action plan of the IRC, which includes ambitious goals for forming partnerships, especially with neighboring professional associations in the Americas. In addition, a discussion during that same midwinter meeting of "independent libraries" in Cuba made Cuba a logical starting point, since cooperation with the Cuban Library Association (ASCUBI) was mentioned several times in those discussions as a goal the IRC should embrace.

The opportunity to visit Cuba and start negotiations with ASCUBI arose out of an invitation for me to present a paper during the opening plenary session of ACURIL XXXI (the Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries) held in Havana in May 2001. Aware of the IRC's interests, I decided to invite a group of ALA colleagues to join me. In consultation with the IRC chair, I invited two Spanish–speaking IRC colleagues, the incoming IRC chair and the IRC's ALA Executive Board liaison, to join me in an ad hoc ALA–IRC delegation to Cuba.

The purposes of the visit were:

  • To attend annual conference of the Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL) held in Havana, in May 2001
  • To establish a working relationship with ASCUBI, the Cuban counterpart to ALA
  • To learn about libraries and librarianship in Cuba, including visits to libraries and Bibliotecas independientes
  • To improve our understanding of library selection policies regarding the writings of Cuban exiles and other writers said to be censored in Cuba

The report of this visit, called Report of visit to ACURIL XXXI and its host country, Cuba, May 23 – May 30, 2001, is divided into five sections with recommendations to the IRC forming a sixth section. [1]

 Recommendations from the Delegation

The ALA visiting team developed the following recommendations for the ALA International Relations Committee to consider:

  • That the ALA International Relations Committee prepare a memorandum of agreement for ALA and ASCUBI to cooperate, in order to
    • share professional publications and expertise;
    • report information about the other's association;
    • identify ways to share Cuban and U.S. publications to strengthen collections in both countries.
  • That the ALA encourages ASCUBI and offers assistance in preparing a variety of professional policies that reflect the professional values of the Cuban library community, e.g. a code of ethics, a reader's rights statement, an open selection policy.
  • That the ALA Library Information and Technology Association (LITA) International Relations Committee prepares a memorandum of agreement for LITA and SOCICT to cooperate and to identify specific goals of cooperation.
  • That ALA and ASCUBI jointly prepare a resolution for the IFLA 2001 Council meeting opposing all government policies that restrict access to information, including the U.S. economic embargo/blockade and laws in either country that contribute to censorship.
  • That the ALA International Relations Office (IRO) provides information for ALA members on legal ways to travel to Cuba on ALA's Web site and collect information about existing U.S.–Cuba information exchange activities.
  • That ALA encourages its members to send books and journals to the libraries of Cuba, especially those in the Spanish language.

 IFLA Report on May 2001 Visit to Cuba

In addition to the five member ALA delegation, the IFLA Secretary General, Ross Shimmon and Susanne Seidelin, Director of IFLA's Office of Freedom of Access to Information and Free Expression (FAIFE) accompanied the ALA delegation in May 2001 on visits to both the official libraries and several independent libraries. In June 2001, IFLA issued its own report on the Cuba visit. [2]

 ALA Council Resolution, June 2001

Immediately following the May 2001 visit to Cuba, ALA Council passed the following resolution at the ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco.

RESOLVED That

The American Library Association urge the U.S. government to share information materials widely in Cuba, especially with Cuba's libraries, and not just with individuals and independent nongovernmental organizations; and be it further resolved that

The American Library Association urge the U.S. government to put policies in place, including more equitable postal fees for service to Cuba, that will make sending books and other materials on all subjects to Cuba's libraries easier for U.S. libraries and citizens who wish to improve access to information in Cuba through strengthening library collections; and be it further resolved that

The American Library Association oppose all efforts, including those of the U.S. government, to limit access to informational materials by Cuba's libraries and Cuba's library users; and be it further resolved that

The American Library Association urge the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) to take action to improve the Cuban people's access to books and other information materials on all topics through Cuba's libraries.

Sponsored by: International Relations Committee

Passed by ALA Council June 20, 2001

 IFLA Resolution, August 2001

Two months later, in August 2001, the United States hosted the IFLA General Conference and Council Meeting in Boston. A separate IFLA resolution on Cuba submitted by the Committee on Freedom of Access and Free Expression (FAIFE) was presented to IFLA Council along with ALA's June 20th resolution.

After IFLA Council debate, the two resolutions were merged into a single resolution which was passed overwhelmingly by the full IFLA Council.

The IFLA resolution read:

Be it resolved that IFLA:

  1. State its strongly felt concerns about the effects of the US embargo that include obstacles to the export of information materials to Cuba despite their formal exclusion from the embargo; A severe reduction in the capacity of Cuban libraries and citizens to purchase information materials and related technologies due to the economic effects of the embargo; Indirect disruption of access to information by Cubans and Cuban libraries caused by the effects on power supply, telecommunications and other aspects of life in Cuba; Inhibitions to professional interaction and exchange caused by the restrictions on travel to the US by Cuban nationals and to Cuba by US nationals.
  2. Urge the US Government to eliminate obstacles to access to information and professional interaction imposed by its embargo and any other US Government policies.
  3. Urge the Cuban Government to eliminate obstacles to access to information imposed by its policies.
  4. Support and continue to monitor initiatives by the Cuban library community to safeguard free access to print and electronic information, including via the Internet, and in particular:
  5. Support and assist the ASCUBI [Associación Cubana de Bibliotecarios] initiative to develop a code of ethics for the standards and principles of library services in Cuba.
  6. Urge the Cuban library community to adopt fully the IFLA Public Library Guidelines [3]
  7. Encourage IFLA colleagues to attend the international conference on information in Havana 22–26 April 2002 hosted by IDICT [Instituto de Información Cientifica y Tecnológica] to help further professional relations with Cuba.
  8. Urge the US Government to put policies in place to make sharing of books and other materials on all subjects as well as information technology with Cuba's libraries easier for all who wish to improve access to information in Cuba through strengthening library collections.
  9. Urge the US Government to share information materials widely in Cuba, especially with Cuba's libraries, and not just with "individuals and independent non–governmental organizations" that represent US political interests.

 Post- September 11, 2001

Three weeks after the record–setting IFLA Annual Conference, the United States experienced the attacks of September 11th, and much of the attention of the library and world community quickly shifted to Afghanistan and later to Iraq in the aftermath of the attacks.

In addition, the rapid passage of the USA PATRIOT Act in October 2001 focused considerable attention on privacy and civil liberties issues in the United States and elsewhere around the world, issues which are still very much in play today.

Issues surrounding intellectual freedom in Cuba diminished until March 2003, when the Cuban government arrested, tried and sentenced over seventy–five individuals described as dissidents to long prison sentences, including some persons with ties to the "independent libraries" movement.

In consultation with several national associations around the world, IFLA issued a press release in May 2003.

 IFLA Press Release, May 8, 2003: Intellectual Freedom in Cuba

"Once again, IFLA urges the Cuban government to eliminate obstacles to access to information imposed by its policies", says the Chair of the IFLA/FAIFE Committee Mr. Alex Byrne.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and its Committee of Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (IFLA/FAIFE) expressed their deepest concerns today about the arrest, trial and long prison sentences given to Cuban political dissidents in recent weeks.

According to Human Rights Watch reports, approximately 80 people have been arrested and detained "including prominent dissidents, human rights activists, independent journalists, independent unionists and directors of independent libraries." In a press release issued on 14 April, Amnesty International states: "…Cuba has reversed significant human rights progress made over a period of years."

Supporting the recent resolution of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, calling for an investigative visit to Cuba by a special rapporteur to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, IFLA and its worldwide membership urge 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. To this end IFLA urges the Cuban government to eliminate obstacles to access to information imposed by its policies.

Proclaiming the fundamental right of all human beings to access information without restriction, IFLA urges the Cuban library community to monitor violations of freedom of access to information and freedom of expression and to take a leading role in actively promoting these basic rights for all the peoples of Cuba.

As a commitment to intellectual freedom is a core value of the library and information profession worldwide, IFLA supports and assists the Cuban library community in safeguarding free access to print and electronic information, including the Internet, by implementing a code of ethics for the library profession developed earlier this year by the ASCUBI (Asociación Cubana de Bibliotecarios).

To overcome the effects of the US blockade on the free flow of information in Cuba, IFLA urges the government of the United States to share information materials widely in Cuba, especially with Cuba's libraries, and not 'just with individuals and non–governmental organizations that represent US political interests."

IFLA and its worldwide membership support, defend and promote intellectual freedom as expressed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This intellectual freedom encompasses the wealth of human knowledge, opinion, creative thought and intellectual activity.

 ALA–CLA Joint Conference in Toronto, Canada, June 2003

At the summer 2003 joint conference with the Canadian Library Association in Toronto, the American Library Association's International Relations Committee secured funding from the Social Science Research Council to fund travel and expenses for a delegation of Cubans to come to the Toronto conference and present a status report on Cuba's libraries as part of the ongoing program of exchanges between the two associations.

Several members of the press attended the public presentation and the IRC spent several hours drafting a resolution on Cuba's libraries for presentation to the ALA Council near the end of the conference.

On June 25, 2003 at ALA's third Council meeting, the body discussed a new resolution sponsored by the International Relations Committee with input from the Intellectual Freedom Committee and other ALA bodies. After a 30–minute informal discussion, the entire matter was referred back to the IRC and the IFC for further consideration in the coming months. Among the complexities here is the issue of whether the "independent librarians," some of whom were indeed tried, convicted and jailed in March 2003, are "prisoners of conscience," as some would have it, or paid political activists seeking to "destabilize" the Cuban government, as the Cuban government claims.

 ALA Council Document 18.5, June 2003

The resolved clauses of the ALA resolution read:

Resolved, that the American Library Association urge the Cuban government to respect the rights of all individuals to freedom of expression and access to information, and to eliminate any policies that infringe on those rights.

Second, that ALA also urge the US government to eliminate existing policies, including the economic embargo, that limit the ability of the people of Cuba to access information and that inhibit the continuation of professional exchanges between the two countries, including Cuban librarians trying to obtain visas to participate in conferences and exchanges in the US or US territories, and Americans seeking to travel to Cuba for similar purposes.

Third, that the ALA reaffirm its relationship with the Cuban Library Association in order to support the ongoing development of Cuban libraries and librarians. That ALA call on the IFLA to convene an international commission of eminent librarians to hold public hearings to investigate further the role of "independent libraries" in Cuba, and charges that they are funded through foreign agencies whose political program is regime change. And then, that ALA encourage such a commission to publish and disseminate widely the results of its findings.

The resolution ALA Council referred back to the IRC and IFC adopted language from a Canadian Library Association resolution passed on June 23, 2003, calling on IFLA to "convene an International Commission of eminent librarians to hold public hearings to investigate further the role of 'independent libraries' in Cuba."

 IFLA Conference in Berlin, 2003

The Canadian resolution was discussed by IFLA FAIFE and the IFLA Governing Board at the World Library and Information Congress: 69th IFLA General Conference the IFLA Annual Conference in Berlin August 1–9, 2003.

The IFLA Governing Board considered the resolution during its last meeting in Berlin. The minutes read as follows:

M 03–93 Canadian Library Association resolution on Cuba

Alex Byrne, referring to document GB 03–154, said that a mission of the kind envisaged in the CLA resolution would cost of the order of EUR 15,000. After discussion it was agreed that IFLA was not in a position to carry out the proposed investigation without contributions from external funding agencies. It was agreed not to pursue the issue at this stage and to respond to CLA accordingly.

 IRC/IFC Joint Task Force, Fall 2003

In October 2003, ALA's International Relations and Intellectual Freedom Committees established a six–member joint task force to assess the present situation regarding Cuba's libraries and the jailing of dissidents in the spring of 2003, including reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

In addition, The Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, an interdisciplinary, non–partisan human rights center located at Florida State University (FSU) has mounted a website that includes some translations of the official transcripts from the March trials. The Center was established in 2000, the Center has the mandate of (1) creating human rights courses throughout FSU's many colleges and departments; (2) of sponsoring FSU students at home and abroad for human rights internships; and (3) of supporting human rights advocates and non–governmental organizations throughout the world. [4]

The task force also examined the transcripts and other materials as part of its work and reported back to both standing committees ahead of the January 2004 ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego.

 ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego, January 2004

At the January 2004 Midwinter Meeting in San Diego, the IRC/IFC Task Force discussed its review of ALA and IFLA documents and several reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on the matter of the arrest, trial, and detention of the 75 Cubans in March and April 2003 with both full committees. The task force reported that all information available indicated that none of the prisoners were charged with violent actions; rather, they were accused of collaborating with U.S. diplomats to undermine the state, and/or receiving American government funds.

In a final report approved nearly unanimously by the ALA Council, several conclusions were reached by the IFC and IRC. [5]

This political climate brought on primarily by U.S. Government and Cuban Government legislation and policies in recent years should not be countered by censorship and imprisonment.

Neither the Cuban government nor any other government has the right to stifle or obstruct the free expression of opinions and ideas.

Since the commitment to intellectual freedom is a core value of the library and information profession worldwide, ALA joins IFLA in support and assistance to the Cuban library community in safeguarding free access to print and electronic information, including the Internet. IFLA has also called on Cuba's librarians to implement a code of ethics for its library profession developed by ASCUBI.

ALA supports IFLA in its call for the elimination of the U.S. embargo that restricts access to information in Cuba and for lifting travel restrictions that limit professional exchanges. ALA also supports IFLA's call for the U.S. government to share information widely in Cuba.

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.

ALA supports IFLA in urging the Cuban government to eliminate obstacles to access to information imposed by its policies, and IFLA's support for an investigative visit by a special rapporteur of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights with special attention given to freedom of access to information and freedom of expression, especially in the cases of those individuals recently imprisoned and that the reasons for and conditions of their detention be fully investigated.

Proclaiming the fundamental right of all human beings to access information without restriction, ALA joins with IFLA in urging the Cuban library community to monitor violations of freedom of access to information and freedom of expression and to take a leading role in actively promoting these basic rights for all Cubans.

 ALA and Nat Hentoff

The ALA Report on Cuba generated a fair amount of press, most of it critical, after its release on January 13, 2004.

Of particular note were the syndicated columns by journalist Nat Hentoff who took ALA Council to task for rejecting a six–word amendment to the Cuba Report calling for the "immediate release" of the political dissidents. Mr. Hentoff published a series of opinion pieces through March 2004 and "debated" me, in my role IRC chair for the May 2004 issue of American Libraries.

I expressed the opinion that, in my view, ALA had responded appropriately to the Cuba situation and that it was unlikely that further ALA Council action on this issue would be taken.

 Conclusion

In May 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell who chaired the "Commission for Assistance for a Free Cuba" presented its report to President George W. Bush. Page 158 of the 458 page report mentions the USAID's efforts, which include:

Help develop independent Cuban libraries and other non–governmental organizations (NGO's) by providing them books, training materials, and (non–financial) material assistance. [6]

The evolution of ALA's involvement with Cuba and its libraries reveals a complexity framed by U.S. and Cuban politics at every turn.

In the end though, the American Library Association continues to work with other associations and institutions through IFLA to develop positions and programmatic plans of action in support of fundamental human rights and freedom of expression. ALA adopted and fully supports Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Further, the ALA urges all governments to respect the rights of all individuals to freedom of expression and access to information and to eliminate any policies that infringe those rights.

 References

[1] The document is available on the IRC section of the ALA website at: http://www.ala.org/content/navigationmenu/our_association/
offices/international_relations2/activities_and_projects/ala_and_cuban_libraries.htm
.

[2] See http://www.ifla.org/faife/faife/cubareport2001.htm.

[3] The Public Library Service: IFLA/UNESCO Guidelines for Development. Munich: K.G. Saur: 2001.

[4] See http://www.ruleoflawandcuba.fsu.edu/index.cfm.

[5] See http://www.ala.org/ala/pr2004/prjan2004/alacounciladopts.htm.

[6] See http://www.state.gov/p/wha/rt/cuba/commission/2004/c12237.htm.

About the Author

John W. Berry is Executive Director of the Network of Illinois Learning Resources in Community Colleges.
Email: jberry [at] nilrc [dot] org

© 2005 John Berry

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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