Sunday, February 25, 2007

Among Fidel Castro’s brutal legacies are the imprisoned independent librarians among the authors, labor organizers, journalists and other “prisoners of conscience” (designated as such by Amnesty International) who will remain in cages as long as the dictatorship continues, even without Castro. The librarians are being punished for making available to Cubans books not permitted in the heavily censored state-run library system.

From kangaroo-court records I have seen, when independent librarians are sent to the gulags, certain confiscated books and sometimes all books in their libraries are ordered incinerated by the presiding judge. A biography of Martin Luther King was sent to the flames because, said the judge, it “is based on ideas that could be used to promote social disorder and civil disobedience.” And the nonviolent King’s own books have been burned.

Even works by Jose Marti, the 19th-century organizer of Cuban independence, have been incinerated. Maybe because of the pamphlet he wrote during his exile in Spain, planning the liberation of his homeland. Marti’s pamphlet was about the horrors of political imprisonment in Cuba under a pre-Castro dictator.

Among thousands of other incinerated “subversive” books and pamphlets are those books by George Orwell, Pope John Paul II, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (particularly dangerous) and reports by Human Rights Watch.

When I found these court records by Castro’s judges, I called Ray Bradbury, whose classic novel “Fahrenheit 451” still reverberating among readers around the world tells of a tyrannical government destroying “disloyal” books by fire and the resistance by courageous citizens memorizing those forbidden books to preserve them for future generations. Ray Bradbury authorized me to circulate his response to these real-life bonfires of free thought in Castro’s Cuba: “I plead with Castro and his government to immediately take their hands off the independent librarians and release all those librarians in prison and send them back into Cuban culture to inform the people.” The dictator was not persuaded. Many of these librarians are still in cages, some in dangerously failing health, and other independent Cuban librarians have joined them.

Now, like the resisters in Mr. Bradbury’s novel, who were determined to preserve the freedom to read, a group of American and international librarians, authors and human-rights activists have started a liberating Read A Burned Book campaign including a curriculum aimed at high school and college students. The campaign is also encouraging people in the United States and around the world to read the books that dictators, not only Castro, burned.

The independent American librarian members of FREADOM — the generators of this project — have created, among other classroom and research activities, a discussion inquiry on the history of book burning in ancient and modern times. There will also be a classroom inquiry on what made the books burned by Castro so “dangerous” to the dictator and officials who will remain in power after Castro dies. He has famously said that “history will absolve me!” But as long as these condemned books keep rising from the ashes, they will bear witness to his reign of fear and destruction, not only of books but of so many Cubans who believe in their right to be free.

The growing number of the Read a Burned Book campaign’s endorsers includes a former prisoner of conscience in Cuba, Armando Valladares, author of the classic “Against All Hope,” about the Castro dungeons.

Also: Yale professor Carlos Eire (“Waiting for Snow in Havana”), winner of the National Book Award; Gisela Delgado Sablon, executive director of the Independent Library Project of Cuba; poet, novelist and National Public Radio columnist Andrei Codrescu; and Anna Maulina, president of the Library Association of Latvia. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have also signed on.) The main contact for this campaign is There are links to sign on as a supporter, and links for students and teachers on the activities pages.

When Mr. Valladares was in a Castro gulag, locked in a so-called tiger cage, guards would puncture the steel-mesh ceiling with clubs to prevent him from sleeping and pour in buckets of urine and excrement collected from other prisoners. (See Arnold Beichman’s “Viva Valladares,” The Washington Times, July 9, 2006.) Mr. Valladares survived, as has his book “Against All Hope.” This “Read a Burned Book” campaign is a message to all those prisoners of conscience of the rising support they have from all over the world. My congratulations to America’s independent librarians at FREADOM for shaming the leadership of the American Library Association, which persistently refuses to demand the immediate release of the caged Cuban librarians.

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