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Charges by 'Friends of Cuban Libraries'

by Ann C. Sparanese

Testimony to the American Library Association's subcommittee on Latin American & the Caribbean; 8 January 2001

Thank you for inviting me to speak before your Subcommittee. These notes have been prepared for your consideration.

I am the head of Adult & Young Adult Services at the Englewood Public Library in New Jersey. I have been an active member of ALA for ten years. As well as serving on SRRT Action Council and its International Responsibilities Task Force, I have been a member of YALSA's Best Books for Young Adults Committee, the AFL-CIO/ALA Joint Committee on Library Service to Labor Groups, and I am the current Chairperson of RUSA's John Sessions Memorial Award Committee. I also have a long history of interest in, and travel to, Cuba. I attended the 1994 IFLA Conference in Havana and my most recent visit was this past November, when I visited Cuban libraries and met with Havana members of ASCUBI, the Cuban Library Association. I have followed with interest, and argued against, the allegations of Mr. Kent since he began his campaign in 1999. The Social Responsibilities Round Table passed the attached resolution regarding the FCL at midwinter conference one year ago.

Mr. Kent would like to present his proposal as a no-brainer, a simple question, a single pure concept: intellectual freedom. But it is not. This paper is respectfully submitted with the hope that the subcommittee may approach Mr. Kent's requests with a fuller appreciation of history, the facts and the issues.

1. Who Are the "Friends of Cuban Libraries?"

This is how Robert Kent and Jorge Sanguinetty described themselves at the outset of their campaign for Cuban "independent libraries."

"Before going to the debate, however, the Friends of Cuban Libraries would like to answer some inquiries from the public regarding the goals and origin of our organization. The Friends of Cuban Libraries, founded on June 1, 1999, is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization which supports Cuba's independent libraries. We oppose censorship and all other violations of intellectual freedom, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regardless of the ideology or leadership of whatever Cuban government is in office. The founders of the organization are Jorge Sanguinetty and Robert Kent. Jorge Sanguinetty resides in Miami. He was the head of Cuba's Department of National Investment Planning before he left the country in 1967. He was later associated with the Brookings Institution and the UN Development Programme. He is the founder and president of Devtech, Inc. He is also a newspaper columnist and a commentator on Radio Marti. Robert Kent is a librarian who lives in New York City. He has visited Cuba many times and has Cuban friends whose viewpoints cover the political spectrum. During his visits to Cuba Robert Kent has assisted Cuban, American, and internationally-based human rights organizations with deliveries of medicines, small sums of money, and other forms of humanitarian aid. On four occasions he has taken books and pamphlets to Cuba for Freedom House and the Center for a Free Cuba, human rights organizations which have received publication grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development; on three occasions his travel expenses were paid wholly or in part by Freedom House or the Center for a Free Cuba. On his last trip to Cuba in February, 1999, Robert Kent was arrested and deported from the country."

Many references to Mr. Sanguinetty appear on the WWW. He speaks widely on the subject of returning free market enterprise to Cuba. As a commentator on Radio Marti, Mr. Sanguinetty is or was an employee of the United States government. Cubans on the island have always listened to Miami radio and even some TV stations. But Radio Marti is a propaganda station directly controlled by the most right-wing elements of the Cuban-American exile community, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). It is not a neutral voice or a bastion of "free expression." It has never aired the voices of liberal elements of the Cuban-American community who favor the normalization of relations with Cuba. Mr. Sanguinetty is simply a professional propagandist.

In October 1995, President Clinton presented a $500,000 government grant to Freedom House for publishing and distributing pamphlets and books in Cuba. The funds were also devoted to paying for individuals to travel to Cuba as tourists in order to make contact with dissident groups, organize them and fund them. Robert Kent is evidently one of these couriers -another propagandist on an illegal, paid-for mission on behalf of Freedom House. He is not the only American to be sent on such a mission  and be deported. Kent evidently believes that by acknowledging his sponsor, this somehow legitimizes his activities.  But it only demonstrates the nature of his campaign as part and parcel of stated US foreign policy intended to destabilize Cuba.

2. What Are the "Independent Libraries"?

The "independent libraries" are private book collections in peoples' homes. Mr. Kent and the right-wing Cuban-American propaganda outlets, call them  "independent libraries" and even "public libraries." These "independent libraries" are one of a number of "projects" initiated and supported by a virtual entity calling itself "Cubanet"(www.cubanet.org)  and an expatriate anti-Castro political entity calling itself  the Directorio Revolucionario Democratico Cubano.    The Cubanet website describes what the "independent libraries" are, how they got started and who funds and solicits for them. The index page says that the organization exists to "assist [Cuba's] independent sector develop [sic] a civil society." This is the wording used in both the Torricelli and the Helms Burton Acts, both of which require that the US government finance efforts to subvert the Cuban society in the name of strengthening "civil society." You will see on the "Who We Are" page that Cubanet, located in Hialeah, Florida, is financially supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and "private" "anonymous" donors.  The "exterior" representative of the "independent libraries" is the Directorio Revolucionario Democratico Cubano, also located in Hialeah.

3. Who are the Independent Librarians?

You will read on the pages of Cubanet about the individual "libraries" and their personnel. Not one of the people listed is actually a librarian. Not one has ever been a librarian. Most, however, are leaders or officers of various dissident political parties, such as the Partido Cubano de Renovacion Ortodoxa and the Partido Solidaridad Democratica.  This is documented on Cubanet, although Mr. Kent never mentions these party affiliations in his FCL press releases. We know absolutely nothing about the principles, programs or activities of these parties, or why they have been allegedly targeted. We don't know whether their activities are lawful or unlawful under Cuban law. Kent maintains that their activities are solely related to their books - but in reality we have no idea whether this is true and in fact, one of these "librarians" told one of our ALA colleagues that this was not true!  By using the terms  "beleaguered," "librarians" and the buzzwords "freedom of expression" and "colleagues" Mr. Kent hopes to get the a priori support of  librarians who might not look beneath this veneer. After all, isn't  this  the reason that the subcommittee will be considering their case in the first place?  But I wonder if ALA is willing to establish the precedent that all politicians with private book collections who decide to call themselves "librarians," are therefore our "colleagues"?

4. Who funds Cubanet, the Directorio, and the "independent libraries" - and why is this important?

A recent book entitled Psy War Against Cuba by Jon Elliston (Ocean Press, 1999), reveals, using declassified US government documents, the history of a small piece of the 40-year-old propaganda war waged by our country against the government of Cuba.  The US has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars over these years to subvert and overthrow the current Cuban government - US activities have included complete economic embargo, assassinations and assassination attempts, sabotage, bombings, invasions, and "psyops."  When even the fall of the Soviet Union and the devastation of the Cuban economy in the early 1990's did not produce the desired effect, the US embarked on additional, subtler, campaigns to overthrow the Cuban government from within.  One element of this approach is the funneling of monetary support to dissident groups wherever they can be found, or created.  This includes bringing cash into the country through couriers such as Mr. Kent, and increasing support to expatriate groups operating inside the US, such as the Directorio, Cubanet and especially,  the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) The website Afrocubaweb (www.afrocubaweb.org) has gathered information from the Miami Herald and other sources to document the recipients of this US funding.

 USAID, a US government Agency, supported the Directorio Revolucionario Democratico Cubano to the amount of  $554,835 during 1999.  This is the group that supports the "independent librarians" in Cuba and is listed as their "foreign representative."  The money that they send to Cuba, as well as the "small amounts" of cash that Mr. Kent carried illegally to Cuba violates Cuban law, which does not allow foreign funding of their political process.  Neither does the United States allow foreign funding of its own political process - the furor around alleged Chinese "contributions" to the Democratic Party is a case in point.  The "independent libraries" may be independent of their own government, but they are not independent of the US government.

The US government is not the only anti-Castro entity that has adjusted its policy to changing times-- the most right-wing forces in the Cuban expatriate community have also stepped up their support of dissident elements inside Cuba over the last few years.  The Miami Herald reported in September  2000 that "the leading institution of this city's exile community plans to quadruple the amount of money it sends to dissident leaders on the island." This leading institution is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), and the article reports that part of the group's $10,000,000 budget will begin "flowing to the island through sympathetic dissidents by the end of the year."  More specifically, CANF will, among other declared activities, "increase funds to buy books for its [Cuba's] independent libraries."

5.  What is CANF? What is its record on free expression, intellectual freedom, and democratic rights here in the USA?

The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) was founded by Jorge Mas Canosa, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and CIA operative, at the behest of the Reagan administration in 1982.  It has become the most wealthy and powerful voice of the right-wing Cuban community in South Florida and has wielded extraordinary political power for the last twenty years.  It has been connected to violence and terrorism both in Cuba and in Miami. Its newest tactic, as described above, is to "support" dissidents in Cuba, including buying books for "independent" libraries, presumably to support "freedom of expression" in Cuba.

Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty claim to be proponents of human rights and frequently refer to the "landmark" IFLA "report." But they seem to have no problem with their libraries' CANF connection, even though CANF was the subject of a truly "landmark" report issued by Americas Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, in 1992.  The Americas Watch report on CANF is the first that organization ever issued against a human rights violator in a city of the United States.  It states that "a 'repressive climate for freedom of expression' had been created by anti-Castro Cuban-American leaders in which violence and intimidation had been used to quiet exiles who favor a softening of policies toward Cuba."  The executive director of Americas Watch at that time, said "We do not know of any other community in the United States with this level of intimidation and lack of freedom to dissent."   The report documents "how Miami Cubans who are opposed to the Cuban government harass political opponents with bombings, vandalism, beatings and death threats."  A campaign spearheaded by CANF against the Miami Herald in the early nineties resulted in bombings of Herald newspaper boxes and death threats to staff.    Pressure from CANF closed the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture because it showed work by artists who had not "broken" with Cuba.   Anyone who followed the Elian Gonzalez case this past year noted that tolerance for dissenting views by Cuban Americans was completely lacking in Florida and a hostile atmosphere was maintained by CANF during the duration of the affair.

Can you imagine what the life expectancy of a pro-Castro "independent library" in the middle of Little Havana would be, given this history?   CANF does not respect freedom of expression or democratic rights in the USA, yet it is a direct financial supporter of Mr. Kent's independent libraries. Neither Mr. Kent nor Mr. Sanguinetty have disowned this support - in fact they haven't even mentioned it!  They have not chosen to examine or criticize the lack of free expression among the very people that give them succor and publicity here at home, yet they claim to be its great champions in Cuba!

6. What about free expression and democratic rights in Cuba?

There is no doubt that political dissidence has its consequences in Cuba. Those who want to overthrow the current socialist government are considered political problems. Because of the declared and well-funded US policy of seeking to  destabilize Cuba by creating and/or instigating social unrest, the Cuban people consider these people to be agents of US policy and enemies of the nation.  This view is shared by the former head of the US Interests Section in Cuba, former Ambassador Wayne Smith who says: "Since 1985, we have stated publicly that we will encourage and openly finance dissident and human rights groups in Cuba; this too is in our interest.  The United States isn't financing all those groups - only the ones that are best know internationally. Those dissidents and human rights groups in Cuba - that are nothing but a few people - are only important to the extent that they serve us in a single cause: that of destabilizing Fidel Castro's regime."

This is the reality of a small country that has been in a virtual state of siege by the most powerful country in the world for more than 40 years. The US has engaged in invasion, sabotage, assassination attempts against its leader and even the maintenance of a military base against the will of the Cuban people, as well as well-documented psyop and propaganda campaigns. With the economic blockade, the US has sought to bring the Cuban people to their knees by depriving them of sources of foodstuffs and denying medicine to their children.   Ambassador Smith: "Through these two policies, economic pressure and human rights - we want to force the overthrow of Fidel Castro and then install a transitional government that we like - to reinstate the people we want and thus, control Cuba again."

It is a fact of life that democratic rights suffer in any nation under siege or engaged in war.  A view of our own history will illuminate this point: simply look at the what happened to the American people's freedom of expression, constitutional rights and human rights during the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Cold War McCarthy period and even during our most recent wars. Can we realistically expect and demand that Cuba be the model of democratic rights in the face of the unrelenting US economic and political aggression?  Cuba does not have a perfect human rights record.  But are we simply to condemn Cuba for this situation? Don't we, as US citizens, whose tax dollar has been used for so many years to create this situation, have a special responsibility to look at the full picture? Shouldn't our first concern be to change the policy that has directly contributed to the limitation of democratic rights in Cuba? Even the UN special rapporteur for human rights, while critical of Cuba, credited the US policy for making the situation worse than it might otherwise be.

Mssrs. Kent and Sanguinetty are asking this committee and the ALA for a sweeping condemnation of Cuba on the basis of human rights.  But are not food, education, medical care, income, freedom from violence, and literacy "human rights"?  The Cuban people enjoy free medical care - despite the US denial of Cuba's right to purchase basic medical products - and have one of the highest per capita rate of doctors in the world. All Cuban children attend school and enjoy free education through university. The Cuban people are an extraordinarily literate people with many more libraries and books than people in most of the undeveloped world, despite Mr. Kent's attempts to ridicule their library collections with absurd claims that have been refuted by Cuban librarians. Cuban workers have the right to an income even if they have been laid off from work; they have a society free from violence and no Cuban child has ever been killed by a gun in his/her school.  Racism, as we know it in the US, is not present there and vestiges of racism are actively combated at all levels of society. If these are taken as measures of human rights, Cuba comes out looking very good indeed. This is not to say that intellectual freedom and complete freedom of expression are not important. But Cuba's exceptional success in fulfilling these basic human needs explains why the majority of the Cuban people are not anxious to trade their current situation for the "free market",  "wealthy exiles get their property back" plans of Kent/Sanguinetty's sponsors in Miami and the US government.

Before the ALA passes judgment on Cuba, even in the area of free expression, we need to look at the whole picture and we need to have some first-hand experience. We cannot simply act on what one ill-informed librarian and a professional expatriate propagandist  -- both with US government backing -- tell us.

7. How does US policy towards Cuba affect free expression and intellectual freedom for US citizens?

For close to forty years, in various permutations, the US has maintained a travel ban, which specifically denies the right of US citizens to visit Cuba outside a small set of  "legal" and "licensed" exceptions. This means that if any US citizen  (any US librarian, for instance) wants to travel to Cuba, simply to see for her/himself what is going on there (not for any specifically academic or professional purpose), this is against US law and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. If members of this subcommittee want to visit Cuban libraries, simply to chat with your counterparts and even seek out the "independent librarians" - it is not the Cuban government that is preventing you, it is the US  government!  This is clearly an issue of intellectual freedom  - but not to Mssrs. Kent and Sanguinetty.  They are purists.  They are only concerned about freedom of expression and intellectual freedom in Cuba - not in the US- and only for Cubans in Cuba, not in Miami! This is utter hypocrisy. Because of this forty-year war against Cuba by the United States, it is not just Cuban citizens who have seen their democratic rights limited, it is US citizens as well.  To deliberately ignore this reality reveals the claims and motives of Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty as deeply suspect.

8. What About the IFLA Report?

Why has the FCL been able to go forward with their accusations? The answer is a report by the recently formed IFLA -FAIFE  (Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression) Committee.  The sole basis for this action - the first such action taken by committee - was the Friends of Cuban Libraries allegations, and several phone conversations with the alleged librarians involved.  No member of FAIFE ever visited these "libraries" or attempted to. No "investigation" whatsoever was undertaken beyond these phone contacts.  Parts of the report were taken verbatim from the papers of Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty.  Even the FAIFE report acknowledges the role of financing by "foreign interests," but it does not seem to find this point very important. It does not address the issue of who these "librarians" really are, but accepts FCL's allegations that they are librarians. The IFLA investigation meets no standards. Nevertheless, it has bestowed on Mr. Kent's cause a certain legitimacy and has allowed Kent to go the Canadian Library Association, and other groups, which also reacted to the IFLA report and did no independent investigation. In an especially crass but clever move, Kent even managed to get a recently imprisoned Chinese American librarian to make statements about a situation about which he has no knowledge.

Perhaps IFLA can be forgiven for not understanding the nature of US hostility toward Cuba, and the lengths to which the US and the right-wing Cuban expatriate elements will go to further their aims of overthrowing the Cuban government. But the American Library Association will have no such excuse.  Our own members and colleagues have visited Cuban libraries and the "independents" (without prior notification) and have testified as to their inauthenticity. They must be listened to. This is already more than IFLA cared to do. The IFLA report, and all that followed because of it, cannot be allowed to grant any further imprimatur to the Kent/Sanguinetty campaign.

9. What about our real colleagues - the librarians of Cuba?

The charges that have been spread by Kent and his FCL have deeply offended our real colleagues, the librarians of Cuba, and our sister library association, ASCUBI.  Our real colleagues are beleaguered by shortages of things as simple as paper, professional literature, computers and printers - and much of this has to do with their inability, because of the US blockade, to purchase any items from US companies (or foreign companies doing business with the US).  Computers cannot be brought to Cuba from the US legally, even as a donation by licensed travelers. True "friends of Cuban libraries" would be concerned about these matters.

It is time that we begin to know our real counterparts/colleagues in Cuba.  It is time that we begin to have the kinds of conversations and exchanges on all subjects -- including intellectual freedom and censorship.  It is US policy, not Cuban policy, which prevents us from doing so. As the representative of US librarians, the ALA has an obligation first to address our own country's limitation of freedom of expression and the freedom to travel, then to criticize others.

The American Library Association cannot allow itself to be the willing instrument of a US government/CANF-sponsored disinformation campaign. If the ALA takes any action at all on Cuba, it should be to call for an end to the embargo and the hostile US policy towards Cuba which harms the democratic rights, including freedom of expression, of both the Cuban and US people.  ALA should begin in the spirit of the resolution passed by the US librarians who attended the IFLA conference in Havana in August 1994.

Ann C. Sparanese, MLS
Head of Adult & Young Adult Services
Englewood Public Library Englewood, NJ 07631
201-568-2215 ext. 229
sparanes[at]englewoodlibrary.org

 

 

 

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