Who's Afraid of Whom?
Nat Hentoff and the Cuban Revolution
by Ike Nahem
Introduction by Ann Sparanese:
Nat Hentoff is not only the latest, he is the also the most well-known champion of “dissidents” in Cuba, particularly those calling themselves “independent librarians” – who are neither “independent” nor “librarians.”
In January 2001, a “hearing” was called before a subcommittee of the International Relations Committee of the American Library Association (ALA) concerning the “independent librarians” of Cuba. A New York librarian named Robert Kent had brought his case before the ALA in the name of an organization called “Friends of Cuban Libraries.” Kent’s goal was to get the largest library association in the world to condemn Cuba for human rights abuses of “library colleagues” in Cuba. This was the beginning of a campaign that would pit Nat Hentoff against the American Library Association.
When Robert Kent and his Friends of Cuban Libraries first came on the scene in 1999 with email messages about the “valiant independent librarians,” I called the telephone number on the email and spoke directly to Kent. This was five years before the “dissidents” would be tried and imprisoned by the Cuban government. Kent thought I might be someone interested in participating in his work and I thought he might be a sincere librarian! We were both wrong. I asked, and he told me, that he had traveled several times to Cuba, and that his most recent trips were sponsored by Freedom House to bring “aid” to dissidents. He volunteered the information that on his last trip he was arrested for breaking Cuban laws and deported. Freedom House was the first recipient of the ever-increasing taxpayer dollars mandated by the Helms-Burton Law to finance the overthrow of the Cuban government.
After his work as a courier for Freedom House was cut short, Kent partnered with Jorge Sanguinetty, to form the “Friends of Cuban Libraries.” Sanguinetty is an expatriate Cuban American economist/consultant whose profession is “transition” planning for the return of a free market economy to Cuba. His major client, as reported in the New York Times, is the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an arm of the U.S. Department of state. USAID is the primary conduit for tens of millions of dollars openly devoted to the destabilization and overthrow of the current Cuban social and economic system. The Friends of Cuban Libraries is a “front organization” if there ever was one: while Mr. Kent proclaims that it is only supported by its members, Mr. Sanguinetty, the silent partner, collects large consulting fees directly from the USAID.
In this same way, the so-called “independent Cuban librarians” may be “independent” of the support of the Cuban government, but they are completely dependent on the monetary and material support of the U.S. government for their existence and operation.
A major aim of the Friends of Cuban Libraries is to wage an anti-Cuba campaign that will eventually bring the ALA into the fray by winning passage of a resolution that supports the “independent libraries” and condemns Cuba. The campaign continues to this moment, bolstered by the enlistment of Nat Hentoff following the arrest of 75 “dissidents” in March 2003. But among our membership, there are some librarians who have actually been to Cuba, studied libraries there and are knowledgeable of the history of U.S.-Cuba relations. We were present at that initial hearing in 2001 and presented our research and our analyses. Through shedding light on the identity of the “Friends of Cuban Libraries”, the development of their campaign as a tool of U.S. foreign policy, and the reality that the so called “independent librarians” were really political operatives calling themselves “librarians” for the purpose of creating an international campaign, we were able to prevail.
The old political adage of “follow the money” proved to very illuminating. The emergence of the “independent libraries” was simply one element of the many “transition” projects created and funded through U.S. government agencies, including USAID and National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Although the “independent librarians” – none of whom had ever been a librarian, worked in a library or have even been associated with libraries -- were not in jail at the time of the introduction of this issue into the library world, we were able to demonstrate that their existence depended on their willingness to accept cash and equipment from a hostile foreign government. This is something that is illegal in the U.S. as well as in Cuba, and carries severe prison terms here as well.
When the 75 dissidents, ten or so who called themselves “librarians,” were arrested, tried, convicted, and imprisoned by the Cuban government in March 2003, the issue came to the forefront again, aided this time by Nat Hentoff, who uses the easy tools of red-baiting and anti-communist code words to brand the ALA, and myself in particular, “Castro’s favorite librarians.” He thunders and rails against us, calling us traitors to our profession and even threatens to return an award he once received! By taking a position that expressed “concern” for the dissidents, rather than condemnation of the Cuban government and a demand for their immediate release, ALA continues to be lambasted by Hentoff. (Those wishing to read more about this dialogue can go to the website of the International Relations Task Force of the ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table: http://www.pitt.edu/~ttwiss/irtf/cuba.html)
Some ALA members have come to appreciate – as anyone who seriously studies the issue of the “dissidents” in Cuba does– that there is more here than meets the eye. Just because Nat Hentoff insists that something is an “intellectual freedom” or “censorship” issue does not make it true; as Americans, especially as thinking American librarians, we see the complexities of a situation that has been created as part of the aggressive, destructive policies of our government. We don’t live in a world where we Americans can afford to preach and declaim to others, while our government continues to plot, plan, and carry out destabilization and disinformation campaign against other nations. Those of us in the ALA whom Hentoff continues to denounce, believe that the best way to end to the imprisonment of these dissidents in Cuba is for the U.S. to end its plans for the overthrow of the Cuban government, to stop instigating and funding political opposition in Cuba (no foreign government is allowed to do this in the U.S.), to normalize relations with the island, and to leave the political and economic destiny of Cuba to the Cubans. That is the proper role for honest Americans, librarians, and everyone else.
Ike Nahem's essay contributes to a fuller appreciation of these issues, setting them in their deeper and necessary context: a realistic view of human rights in Cuba and Latin America, and the problem of U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of the island.
Ann Sparanese is a librarian from Englewood, New Jersey, who first traveled to Cuba in 1972 with the Venceremos Brigade. She has been twice elected to the ALA Council, its governing body of over 150 members. The above opinions are her own. Ike Nahem's piece follows:
Once again ("A U.S. Library Vs. Fidel" Village Voice, 2-8-05 and “Freedom to Read”, Village Voice 2-15-05) Nat Hentoff is on Cuba’s back. It must gall Mr. Hentoff that despite his heroic efforts as a player in the orchestra of liberal and conservative enemies of the Castro government, revolutionary Cuba’s anti-imperialist ideas and practice of international solidarity and egalitarian social policies continue to resonate in the real world. The fact is that the Cuban Revolution, and its example for Latin-Caribbean America and the entire so-called Third World, is more popular and attractive than ever. It is not Cuba that is isolated and cast as a pariah, but rather Washington's unremitting 46-year old economic and political war, backed up by permanent military threats against the small but politically powerful island.
The political trend in Latin America today is opposite of the anti-Cuba crusade that Mr. Hentoff huffs and puffs for. Increasingly rebellious Latin America refuses to bow down and fall in behind Washington and the European Union sanctions and provocations against revolutionary Cuba.
Why is this? Let me state a few facts that counter Hentoff’s cynical campaign, conducted under the specious guise of defending democratic rights and civil liberties.
Today’s Latin America has some 225 million impoverished people, 90 million of whom are utterly destitute. There are 114 million children living in poverty, 60% of all children, with virtually no access to medical care or real education. Not one of them is Cuban. 50 million Latin American children are living on the streets, homeless. Not one of them is Cuban. (There are also one million homeless children in the United States.) Over 500,000 Latin American children die every year from preventable diseases. Not one of them is Cuban. There are 40 million totally illiterate people –and many tens of millions more who are functionally illiterate—in Latin America today. Not one of them is Cuban. According to the International Labor Organization, 10 million of the Latin American children who are driven out of school by the imperative of working, end up in the prostitution and pornography rackets of the so-called sex industry! Not one of them is Cuban.
It is extensively documented, and widely known in the Western Hemisphere that Cuba, under the Castro government, has the highest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality rates (equal or better than the advanced capitalist economy of the U.S.) in the Western Hemisphere and the entire Third World. The Pan-American Health Organization has recently cited Cuba's health care system as a model for the Hemisphere. The World Health Organization has praised Cuba’s comprehensive program to battle AIDS, which has resulted in one of the lowest rates of the disease in the world. United Nations surveys confirm that Cuban grade-school youth have the highest performance of children, including in the U.S., in the Western Hemisphere. And all education and medical care in Cuba is totally free of charge.
Of course, the remarkable social achievements of the Cuban Revolution are even more stunning having taken place in the teeth of Washington’s economic war and permanent subversion, including terrorism. Mr. Hentoff would have us believe that a “brutal dictatorship” ruling by fear, censorship, intimidation, and repression could result in such policies of solidarity, enlightenment, and social justice.
Washington’s—and Mr. Hentoff’s—hatred of the Cuban Revolution has nothing to do with civil liberties or human rights. Washington and Wall Street hate Cuba and its revolutionary government precisely because it is a living example to the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the entire so-called Third World, that it is possible to build a more just and egalitarian society.
Today there is the new specter of Venezuela where a profound social transformation is taking place under the government of Hugo Chavez. Naturally, as a result, Chavez is starting to receive the same demonization operation as Fidel Castro has over the decades. Over 20,000 Cuban doctors, nurses, and teachers are providing millions of workers and peasants in Venezuela access to excellent medical care for the first time in their lives and are conquering mass illiteracy as it has long been conquered in Cuba. The new example of Venezuela is exciting and inspiring a new generation of Latin American youth and working people who are no longer burdened and restrained by the generation of vicious U.S.-backed and sustained military dictatorships. At the time such bloody regimes were the reaction by Washington and the Latin American oligarchies to the specter and potential extension of the Cuban Revolution.
The “dissidents” who Hentoff campaigns so assiduously and sheds such tears for are paid collaborators with U.S. government agencies. This is thoroughly documented. Washington openly dispenses many tens of millions of dollars to Cuban counter-revolutionaries and “dissidents,” leaving aside permanent covert operations. Mr. Hentoff would have us embrace and glorify a handful of political mercenaries who have no political base within Cuban society, which is very vibrant and full of debate and contention within the revolution. Their base is in Washington. The “dissidents” are in cahoots with counter-revolutionary exile groups in Florida and elsewhere with a violent terrorist history.
Over 3,500 Cuban citizens have been killed in terrorist attacks organized from U.S. territory since the 1959 triumph of the Revolution. Over the years partial documentation (from among others the 1970s Senate report of the Church Commission) have come out about hundreds of assassination plots against Cuban leaders and even biological and chemical attacks against Cuban agriculture which have also killed people. This is not ancient history. Such attacks and murderous plots continue to this day and are encouraged by an official U.S. government policy that openly calls for and promotes the overthrow of the Cuban government by any means necessary.
It is laughable for the Hentoffs of the world to ignore this reality as they condemn Cuban “repression,” which is necessary self-defense against imperialist subversion and an unremitting economic and political war. Why should the Cuban government tolerate a circle of mercenaries, collaborating with and dependent on the agencies of a hostile, foreign government at the very time that government, under President Bush, is stepping up its attacks and tightening its economic and travel sanctions? The “dissidents” are in fact allied to forces dedicated to smashing Cuba’s revolutionary and social achievements and return it too the massive homelessness, massive unemployment, drug-infested, crime-ridden shantytown slums, massive illiteracy, malnutrition, miserable schools for working people, and obscene and growing inequality of income and wealth that is the mark of capitalist “democracy” in the rest of Latin-Caribbean America, and all of which have been conquered in Cuba, despite its many problems and challenges. That, not “brutal repression,” is why they are so isolated in Cuban society. As Malcolm X said, “With skillful manipulation of the press, Washington turns the victim into the criminal and the criminal into the victim.” That sums up Nat Hentoff and the Cuban Revolution.
The “dissidents” Mr. Hentoff glorifies look to Washington, that is, the military and economic power which enforces the economic devastation of the Latin-Caribbean region through debt-slavery, unequal trade and exchange, and investment patterns that reinforce and reproduce vast inequality in wealth, income, land ownership, access to medical care and education, sex, and nationality—enforced by the International Monetary Fund. They want to return Cuba to that world, the brutal norm throughout Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Hentoff hypes inaccurately the conditions of incarceration for the “dissidents” who were convicted of collaborating with Washington’s economic war on the island. In any case, prison conditions in Cuba are light years ahead of the normal conditions in U.S. penitentiaries from the Tombs to Abu Ghraib where rape, treated as a joke, humiliation, and brutality is the norm.
Real Cuban libraries, as opposed to the Washington-backed Potemkin operations Mr. Hentoff champions, carry plenty of George Orwell and Mark Twain, two authors Hentoff falsely insinuates are banned in Cuba. In fact Mark Twain, among many U.S. authors, is venerated in Cuba and taught in Cuban schools. In a previous slander piece on the “independent” Cuban “libraries,” Mr. Hentoff implied that the Cuban government seized and banned books by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, Dr. King—along with Malcolm X, a strong supporter of the Cuban Revolution, whose name Mr. Hentoff likes to drop periodically—is widely published in Cuba and there is a Martin Luther King Center in Havana, which I have visited, run by a Cuban Protestant Minister.
While the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a serious short-term blow to the Cuban economy, it has been very liberating for the Cuban Revolution in many other ways. Today Stalinist influences, once strong but never dominant, have been routed. Cuban art, music, dance, film, and theater are free-wheeling cauldrons of creativity and freedom (without of course crass commercialism and pornographication) that are about as far-removed from the straightjacket of Stalinist “socialist realism” as can be imagined, and are in great demand worldwide. Cuba hosts every year the most prestigious film festival in Latin America. It’s a shame that the Bush Administration has made it virtually impossible for Cuban artists to visit and perform in the United States unless they are prepared to “defect.” Cuba has no such restrictions in place for U.S. artists, professionals, academics, or plain old tourists. Who exactly is afraid of whom?
It is ludicrous for Mr. Hentoff to insinuate that the Cuban government is afraid of different ideas represented by the paid clients of Washington. The opposite is the case. No government in the world is so keen to initiate discussion and debate on the unjust and unsustainable world order as the Cuban government.
Until Washington ends its sanctions and fully normalizes relations, it is absurd to expect or demand that Cuba let up its guard. If the U.S. economic and political war against Cuba -shadowed by permanent threats of military aggression- were to definitively end and normalized Washington-Havana relations established, the prop of the "dissidents" would collapse. They or people with similar pro-capitalist or pro-imperialist ideas would be free to organize and display their political irrelevance under Cuba's Constitution. Only the determined resistance of the Cuban workers, peasants, and youth in alliance with the fighting peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean and the redoubled solidarity of activists in the U.S. can bring that day closer.
Why this unremitting imperialist hatred against revolutionary Cuba? The idea that it is for "lack of democracy" or "human rights" or “civil liberties” is a monstrous joke and a stupid lie meant for demagogues and gullible fools. Washington has organized, promoted, and sustained every blood-soaked tyranny in Latin America in the 20th Century, from Chile to Nicaragua to Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Bolivia and Uruguay, including the Batista dictatorship overthrown by the Cuban Revolution. In April 2002, Washington welcomed and was the barely covert ringleader of the brief military coup in Venezuela that was beaten back by the aroused and mobilized working class and peasantry of that country. As popular resistance in Latin America grows to the vicious and brutal inequality of Washington- imposed "neoliberal" policies, Washington will again attempt to revert to direct military rule to protect the flow of profits to U.S. capital.
Mr. Hentoff trots out Vaclav Havel, who absurdly equates the Cuban Revolution with Eastern European Stalinism. Better to listen to Nelson Mandela, who always praises and defends the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro from liberals and conservatives like Mr. Hentoff. What's more, Mandela regularly underscores the decisive role of the Cuban army in Angola where they defeated in heavy combat the apartheid South African army, previously military master of southern Africa, leading directly, according to Mandela, to his eventual release from prison and the unraveling of the apartheid state.
I salute the American Librarians Association for refusing so far to buckle under to the pressure from people like Hentoff and other anti-Castro demagogues.
Ike Nahem is a coordinator of Cuba Solidarity New York (firstname.lastname@example.org), a member of the National Network on Cuba. Nahem is an Amtrak Locomotive Engineer and member of the Teamsters Union in New York City. These are his personal opinions.