For years, Ray Bradbury’s novel, “Fahrenheit 451… the temperature at which books burn,” has been an inspiration to me and other millions around the world who believe in the freedom to read — very particularly in those countries whose dictators forbid dissenting books.
We were talking about Fidel Mr. Castro’s recurring crackdowns on those remarkably courageous Cubans who keep working to bring democracy to that grim island where dissenters, including independent librarians, are locked in cages, often for 20 or more years. Mr. Bradbury knew about the crackdowns, but until I told him, was not aware of Mr. Castro’s kangaroo courts (while sentencing the “subversives”) often ordering the burning of the independent libraries they raid, just like in “451.” For example, on April 5, 2003, after Julio Valdes Guevara was sent away, the judge ruled: “As to the disposition of the photographic negatives, the audio cassette, medicines, books, magazines, pamphlets and the rest of the documents, they are to be destroyed by means of incineration because they lack usefulness.” Hearing about this, Mr. Bradbury authorized me to convey this message from him to Fidel Castro:”Istand against any library or any librarian anywhere in the world being imprisoned or punished in any way for the books they circulate.
“I plead with Castro and his government to immediately take their hands off the independent librarians and release all those librarians in prison, and to send them back into Cuban culture to inform the people.” Among the books destroyed through the years by Fidel’s arsonists have been volumes on Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. Constitution, and even a book by the late Jose Marti, who organized, and was killed in, the Cuban people’s struggle for independence.
Whether or not the Cuban dictator ever heard of Mr. Bradbury’s message to him, Mr. Castro is resolute in his repression of his people. As Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) reports: “In a renewed government crackdown on dissidents in Cuba, authorities arrested at least 57 peaceful democracy and human rights advocates,” between July 13 and July 22. Three of those still imprisoned will be prosecuted under Mr. Castro’s notorious Law 88, which mandates up to 20 years in prison and possible confiscation of property.
Meanwhile, Nebraska Gov. David Heineman conducted a trade mission to Havana in August that was, as the Aug. 10 New York Sun reported, “to negotiate the purchase of Nebraska-grown dry beans one of the state’s largest exports by the Cuban government.” Republican members of Congress Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote to Mr. Heineman, telling him his mission would be “sending the appalling signal that the cash of tyrants is more important than the lives of pro-democracy leaders.” These members of Congress asked the governor to at least meet with leaders of the pro-democracy movement, as well as some of the political prisoners.
Mr. Heineman’s spokesman AaronSanderfordtold Meghan Clyne of The New York Sun, one of the few American newspapers keeping tabs on the story of this heroic resistance to Mr. Castro, that the governor would not meet with any dissidents, and would “certainly not engage in the politics of the day.” Replied Lincoln Diaz-Balart: “It’s like saying politics is not part of a trip to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. It’s not a question of politics; it’s a question of elemental human decency.”
Now that China has become a strong supporter of Robert Mugabe, the tyrant of Zimbabwe, and is bolstering the economy that Mr. Mugabe shattered, maybe Mr. Heineman can lead a trade mission to that brutalized nation and sell more Nebraska-brown dry beans. How about a side trip to the Sudan government in Khartoum? The governor could take a world tour, boosting sales to Iran, North Korea and other totalitarian countries whose politics are of no concern to him.
Not all Nebraskans share their governor’s views. There is one librarian who is very concerned with Castro’s crackdowns of conscience, free speech and the freedom to read. Robert Boyce at the reference department in Lincoln City Libraries in Lincoln, Neb., tells me that he hopes to adopt a suggestion I made in previous writings on Castro: Every fall, libraries across America display during Banned Books Week actual volumes that have been banned. Why not include books banned by Castro? Boyce writes: “We are going to be putting together a very small display of banned books for the fall of 2005 Nebraska Library Association Conference in late September,” and he wants to include some titles forbidden in official Cuba libraries.
This will be a significant reaching out to Cuba’s imprisoned librarians by an individual American library state association — the first time it’s happened. Yet, the national Governing Council of the American Library Association continues to refuse to ask Mr. Castro to release the independent librarians in his prisons. Admirers of Mr. Castro on that governing body have blocked that clear support of the freedom to read, the very credo of the ALA.
Perhaps, in tribute to free trade if not free ideas, Mr. Heineman will send a supply of Nebraska-grown dry beans to the governing council of the ALA.
Nat Hentoff’s column for The Washington Times appears on Mondays.