The Cuban government is known internationally for what many consider to be strict censorship of Cubans and restriction of their access to information. Reporters Without Borders puts Cuba at #169 out of 173 countries on its World Press Freedom Index (pdf). Likewise, the Committee to Protect Journalists places Cuba at number 7 on its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries. As far as internet access goes, the CIA World Factbook puts the number of Cubans with internet access at 1.6 million (of a population of about 11 million) and notes:
private citizens are prohibited from buying computers or accessing the Internet without special authorization; foreigners may access the Internet in large hotels but are subject to firewalls; some Cubans buy illegal passwords on the black market or take advantage of public outlets to access limited email and the government-controlled “intranet” (2009).
Indeed, censorship has a long history in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. So when, at the International Book Fair in Cuba in 1998, Castro stated, “In Cuba, there are no prohibited books, only those we do not have the money to buy” (En Cuba no hay libros prohibidos, sino que no hay dinero para comprarlos), some Cubans reacted with surprise. Berta del Carmen Mexidor Vazquez, co-author (with Ramon Umberto Colas Castillo) of this 1999 FAIFE report on Cuba, took it as a cue to prove him right. Mexidor supervised the founding of Cuba’s first independent library in Las Tunas in 1998. As of 1999 there were 18 independent libraries operating in Cuba; current numbers are not clear. This 2001 article claims 80 such libraries. This undated website (Spanish only) lists 48 libraries, as well as the names and contact information of the movement’s supporters. And Friends of Cuban Libraries, which seems to be regularly updated, lists 76. It seems likely that the number of independent libraries fluctuates, due to opposition within Cuba and without. For reports of threats made against independent librarians in Cuba, see Friends of Cuban Libraries.
Is there any justification for the opposition to independent libraries? The Cuba Solidarity Campaign denies their necessity, pointing out that there are now over 400 (government-operated) public libraries in Cuba, whereas before the Cuban Revolution there were 39. Eliades Acosta, director of the National Library from 1997-2007, dismissed the need for independent libraries, stating, “I challenge you to find a book on [the independent libraries’] shelves that I don’t stock.” Among opponents of the movement, there is the sense that independent libraries, partly funded by American donors, are part of a CIA-funded plot against Cuba. (Democracy-building action in Cuba certainly is supported by American legislation; for reference, see this ALA Resolution.) Acosta, meanwhile, denies that censorship occurs in Cuban libraries, an assertion in which he is supported by American librarians Rhonda Neugebauer and Dana Lubow. The Havana Journal claim that “there is no official black list of forbidden books in Cuba,” but suggest this only serves to muddy the waters, making it unclear which books could anger officials.
Of interest to information professionals is another allegation by the Cuba Solidarity Campaign: that the “librarians” running independent libraries are anything but.
Cuba’s critics falsely claim that the people who work at the “independent libraries” are librarians. FACT: Not one of the “independents” has ever been a librarian, library worker, or been associated with libraries in any capacity.
Friends of Cuban Libraries issues an eloquent response:
This argument is an effort to distract attention from the real issue: intellectual freedom as a universal human right. A library is a library, regardless of its size or whether it is sponsored by a government agency or a private organization. All libraries have a right to exist, no matter what any government may claim to the contrary. It cannot be a crime to open a library, any more than it can be a crime for “unofficial” authors to write books or for “unofficial” journalists to publish a newspaper. Directors of libraries are commonly referred to as librarians, whether or not they have a university degree in the field. For example, neither the director of Cuba’s National Library nor the U.S. Librarian of Congress has a degree in librarianship. We believe volunteer librarians without a degree who endure persecution for opposing censorship are more “professional” than librarians with a degree who fail to support intellectual freedom, the cherished core principle of librarians throughout the world.
Whatever the truth of the matter, one thing is certain: no online public access catalogue of Cuban independent libraries exists. The national collection, on the other hand, is searchable here.