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Jewish World Review Jan 27.2005/ 17 Shevat, 5765

Nat Hentoff

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An American public library versus Castro | In the small town of Vermillion, S.D., the century-old Vermillion Public Library has become the first, and only, American public library to stand up to Fidel Castro who, in 2003, imprisoned for at least 20-year terms a dozen independent librarians in Cuba — part of his crackdown on 75 dissenters to his ruthless dictatorship.

On Nov. 18, the Vermillion Public Library Board of Trustees voted to sponsor the Dulce Maria Loynaz Library in Havana, Cuba, which, like other imperiled independent libraries in that country, offers public access to books not obtainable in Cuba's censored "public" library system.

As a sponsor, the South Dakota library will be sending books to its sister library in Cuba, paid solely by private contributions. The first two in Spanish-language editions, sent to library director Gisela Delgado, are the first two volumes in the "Harry Potter" series, as well as a collection of works by that powerful paladin of free thought, Mark Twain (who would have made Fidel Castro shake in his combat boots).

The Dulce Maria Loynaz Library was among those raided by Castro's enforcers, who confiscated "offending" books, burning many of them. But Gisela Delgado was not imprisoned.

Mark Wetmore, Vermillion Public Library Board of Trustees vice president, who was instrumental in forging the relationship between the two libraries, says: "It diminishes all our libraries a little if we know that there are people being persecuted for trying to operate free, uncensored ones and we don't at least try to do something about it."

Vermillion Public Library Board President Jon Flanagin adds that, "We felt a moral obligation to offer our support." And trustee member Jack Powell noted, "Cuba is sensitive to what other countries say about them. If other libraries would follow what's been done, it would make it more likely that these people who have been imprisoned will be released."

What makes this moral stand of support by the Vermillion library especially notable is that it is the only American public library to show active fellowship for the independent librarians in Castro's gulag. In January 2003, the governing council of the American Library Association, the largest such organization in the world, expressed rhetorical concern for the 75 imprisoned Cuban dissidents, but shamefully rejected a motion calling for the immediate release of the librarians who are among the 75, all of whom Amnesty International has rightly called "prisoners of conscience."

This decision by the American Library Association's governing council to not overly displease the Cuban dictator was due to Castro admirers on the council who laud him, for instance, for providing health care for his subjects, but who also ignore his contempt for Cubans who think for themselves.

And in Castro's prisons — as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Christine Chanet has reported — at least 20 of the prisoners of conscience have been suffering from hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and other ailments with little or no medical attentions (since 1989, Castro has barred the International Red Cross from his prisons).

I don't understand why not one other American library has joined Vermillion in sponsoring a sister independent library in Cuba. This country's librarians have been among the most publicized dissenters to the Patriot Act provision that allows the FBI — on the authorization of the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, without probable cause — to find out which library patrons are reading which books.

Yet, librarians here will be in no danger of being imprisoned by showing solidarity with beleaguered courageous Cuban librarians. And it's not as if the Vermillion library's action is little-known. Steve Marquardt, dean of libraries at South Dakota State University, has informed every U.S. state library association newsletter about it.

In France, the cities of Paris and Strasbourg have reached out to the independent libraries in Cuba, and this is what the Librarians Association in Poland, finally freed from Communism, says: "The actions of the Cuban authorities relate to the worst traditions of repressing the freedom of thought, expression and information exchange, exercised by all regimes throughout the history." (The library association in Latvia heartily agrees.)

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In moving the Vermillion Public Library board to bond with the Dulce Maria Loynaz Library in Havana, Mark Wetmore, as trustee Jack Powell told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, shows "the kind of influence one person can have. He kept us on task during all our discussions, kept coming back to the fact that the issue of freedom of access to information was the core concern."

Is there no other Mark Wetmore in any other U.S. library? The fainthearted governing Council of the American Library Association should not be allowed to be the overwhelming voice of America's librarians in refusing to call for the immediate release of their brothers and sisters in Cuba. Let's hear from more independent American librarians! They have nothing to fear but their consciences.

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Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights and author of several books, including his current work, "The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance". Comment by clicking here.

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