World Libraries

Payment for Services Rendered: US-funded Dissent and the "Independent Libraries Project" in Cuba


Historical circumstances, political upheaval and professional resourcefulness have shaped the development of Cuban libraries. Since 1959, the objectives and policies of the Cuban government and its revolutionary mandate also have been of paramount importance in aiming to place libraries in all schools and in all provinces, and in promoting literacy and free education throughout the country. It is in this post-revolutionary period that the national library system was developed to complement cultural and educational priorities. Since then, the number of public libraries in the nation has increased to 392. In addition, during this period, there has been continuous professionalization of library personnel with well-established levels of training ranging from post-high school and technical programs to the doctoral degree.

Despite these advances, Cuba is a poor country and there are daily shortages of needed resources affecting the availability of supplies and technology, which in turn affects libraries, book production and the dissemination of materials. Along with economic conditions, the legacy of geopolitical and ideological conflict and especially the U.S.-imposed trade and travel blockade also contribute to the limited material conditions. The blockade is a constant threat to the economic gains of the last few decades and has been a pivotal factor in limiting the full development of libraries, publishing and dissemination of the printed word in Cuba. An analysis of Cuban libraries must critically examine the impact and severity of the blockade imposed on Cuba by the United States since 1962, since it is within this historical context that the challenges as well as the successes in Cuban librarianship have been developed. Further complicating the discussion of libraries in Cuba was the emergence, in 1998, of so-called "independent libraries" offering collections of books and materials they claimed to be unavailable in Cuban libraries. The "independent libraries" proclaimed their collections as alternatives to government-sponsored libraries and stated, via U.S. spokespersons, that they offered uncensored reading materials and materials that had been declared off-limits to readers and to libraries in Cuba.

During 1999-2000, information about these "independent libraries" was disseminated by the "Friends of Cuban Libraries," a New York-based group that provided e-mail alerts and press releases to the media and to library discussion groups. Through a barrage of messages to librarians, library organizations and the press, the group announced that these "librarians" were being harassed, intimidated and physically harmed because they circulated books banned in Cuba. The context and rationale for the emergence of these "independent librarians" became the basis of the research project carried out by Larry Oberg (University Librarian, Willamette University) and myself. We began in 2000 by collecting information on visits to the "independent libraries" in Cuba. In the next two years, we visited over a dozen of these libraries, including most of the ones in the Havana area. By interviewing the "owners," we discovered that these "libraries" were in fact carefully chosen drop-off and contact points for U.S. Interests Section personnel, who visited them on a regular basis to deliver materials and money. By accepting anti-government materials and by developing "libraries" with these materials, the "librarians," we discovered, qualified to be paid a monthly stipend -- "for services rendered," as one of them put it.

"The 'independent libraries' proclaimed their collections as alternatives to government sponsored libraries and stated, via U.S. spokespersons, that they offered uncensored reading materials and materials that had been declared off-limits to readers and to libraries in Cuba."

Our interviews with these "librarians" contradicted a good deal of the publicity campaign that their U.S. spokespersons had undertaken, and established the fact that the communiqués circulated in the U.S. about these "libraries" were intentionally misleading and politically motivated. Having gathered first-hand testimony about their methods, activities and North American connections, Larry and I were able to interject new information about these "libraries" into the debate already raging in library circles internationally and which, until we disseminated our findings, had been completely dominated by the public face of their U.S. handlers, the "Friends of Cuban Libraries." Our research proved that what the Friends of Cuban Libraries campaign identified as a "force for intellectual freedom" was simply part and parcel of a U.S. foreign policy strategy that disingenuously advocated "opening civil society" in Cuba through the funding of a variety of dissident groups. Over the last several years Washington has given millions of dollars to U.S. and Cuban groups to create a "civil society," which is hoped will lead to destabilization of the Cuban government and ultimately to a "regime change" in that island nation.

>As a result of researching these libraries, Larry Oberg and I were immediately pulled into the ideological and political debate to declare these "independent librarians" bastions of intellectual freedom on the island. While the proponents of "independent libraries" cast Cuban librarians as no less than agents in a government conspiracy to deny Cuban citizens vital information and analysis about their government, their society, and the world, there is another side to this story. In this essay I will begin by briefly describing the professional work and ethics of actual Cuban librarians—working under conditions of underdevelopment and destabilization—to create substantive library collections of intellectual and cultural heritage reflecting all Cubans and to be used by all Cubans.

Cuban Libraries

The social and cultural priorities of the revolution in Cuba have guided the development of the country since 1959, and have resulted in clear emphases on literacy, education, culture and the arts. This focus has produced a society rich in educational, intellectual and cultural opportunities and a population that is literate, highly educated and well read. It has also produced libraries with dynamic educational programming and outreach to the public and a library profession with a commitment to continuous assessment of community needs based on active engagement with diverse user populations. Moreover, these emphases have ensured libraries a prominent role in the conservation of historical records, the promotion of reading and adult lifelong learning, and the preservation of cultural patrimony, making libraries respected and valued institutions in Cuba.

There is a high demand for reading materials, because Cuba is a nation of readers. This is not surprising, in a country with a literacy rate of 97% (according to the UN Development Program and World Bank) and with free education through the doctoral level. Library users are accustomed to having a variety of reading materials available—from the Classics to contemporary literature, from Latin American fiction to current and historical works from around the world. Cubans invest a lot of time and energy in their education and view libraries as essential to their academic and personal success. They expect libraries to provide supplemental materials for degree programs, homework and school assignments, reference works, foreign language materials, as well as recreational works, music, special services (for the blind and for individuals with developmental disabilities), and, increasingly, for online services and access to the Internet. To meet these demands, Cuban librarians have built collections in a variety of disciplines and genres, and they have developed programming and outreach to share library resources with the public and within the network of school, public and university libraries, which is coordinated by the José Martí National Library. And, the infrastructure that will provide access to online and Internet resources is being installed gradually in the nation's libraries.

Cuban Librarianship

Cuban librarians carry out many of the same activities as their North American counterparts. They strive to build broad and in-depth collections that reflect their cultural and national identity. They provide information and reference services to researchers, professionals and the public. They organize and preserve materials in diverse formats, create tools that assist patrons in the use of their collections and increasingly employ new technologies to format and deliver resources.

However, there are striking differences between the U.S. library environment and the Cuban library environment. Cuba is a country "en via de desarrollo" (on the path to development). The impact of underdevelopment guarantees that Cuban libraries face chronic shortages of basic resources, such as pens and paper; and in many cases, they have deteriorating facilities, inadequate telephone systems and telecommunications networks, and inadequate funding for materials. As in most underdeveloped countries, it is difficult and costly to add a telephone line to the library, to acquire computer equipment, to set up networks and hubs that allow access to the Internet, and to purchase sufficient numbers of books and journals needed by users. Complicating the situation, during the "special period" in the early 1990s, the publishing industry was practically paralyzed due to lack of paper. The Cuban book industry has continued its reduced publishing output and limited print runs due to shortages of paper and supplies, although today has largely recovered production and dissemination capacities.

In addition to the macroeconomic issues, another fundamental difference between U.S. and Cuban libraries is that Cuban libraries operate within the context of a punitive trade blockade/embargo imposed by a hostile foreign government, the United States. The embargo has profoundly affected the country and the consequences for libraries are notable and conspicuous. The embargo, in effect since 1962, limits the country's ability to acquire books and journals and office supplies, paper, computers and technology, library equipment (such as photocopiers, toner, microfilm readers, even the film itself) and literally all materials that must be purchased with foreign currency. Everyday library operations are effected by the higher costs associated with purchases that must be made or transported through a third country. Sharing of professional knowledge and expertise within the international library community also has been negatively effected by trade and travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. government. For example, in 2001 at the Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL) Conference, the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a bibliographic utility and cataloging service, was not allowed to set up a booth [1]. Nor did the U.S. government allow U.S. publishers to attend the Cuban annual book fair, a nationwide event that travels from Havana to all fifteen provinces.

In addition to effecting vendor displays and marketing, the restrictions on travel by U.S. librarians to Cuba have inhibited contact between U.S. and Cuban librarians. For U.S. librarians, travel is only permitted after being granted a license from the Treasury Department. The U.S. government has frequently withheld or delayed the issuance of visas for Cuban librarians for travel to U.S. conferences and seminars and to conduct research. Simply put, the trade embargo and travel restrictions imposed by the U.S are in conflict with the core values of librarianship—open inquiry, intellectual freedom and unfettered access to information from diverse perspectives, and the restrictions have affected library collections in the U.S. as well as in Cuba. Given the draconian restrictions and limitations imposed by the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions for U.S. citizens, the mere act of building Cuban collections in a U.S. library is difficult and laborious. For Cuban librarians, building collections with foreign publications and works by Cuban writers outside the country is nearly impossible.

"Simply put, the trade embargo and travel restrictions imposed by the U.S are in conflict with the core values of librarianship—open inquiry, intellectual freedom and unfettered access to information from diverse perspectives..."

In spite of the economic problems and trade restrictions, Cuba has invested heavily in libraries since 1959. There are now 392 public libraries and several thousand school libraries in Cuba. Before the revolution, there were 32 public libraries in the entire country and very few school libraries, especially in small towns and the countryside. Furthermore, there are legal supports to libraries as well. There is a flourishing Depósito Legal program in Cuba whereby publishers are required by law to give 15 copies of each book published in Cuba to the National Library, which in turn distributes them to each provincial library. However, that sum is small, considering that the needs are great. Stretching resources to build collections and offer services in all those libraries is an enormous and difficult undertaking.

Funding for most Cuban libraries is limited, with the National Library receiving funding of around 200,000 Cuban pesos ($20,000) per year, and provincial libraries receiving as little as 50,000 Cuban pesos per year ($500) to spend on books [2].Such low funding virtually guarantees that a library cannot build broad or in-depth collections, even of Cuban publications. If it is difficult to acquire Cuban materials that sell for about 5 Cuban pesos (or $.25), foreign publications that can be purchased only with foreign exchange (dollars) are obviously out of the range of most Cuban libraries. Libraries also have great difficulties obtaining the dollars needed to purchase foreign journal subscriptions, non-Cuban books, electronic products and technology. In response to these difficulties, Cuban librarians provide as many books as they can, establish and maintain active exchange programs with foreign libraries and publishers, request donations from patrons and publishers, establish reading clubs with volunteer involvement, and initiate new services with frugality sustained by undeniable enthusiasm and dedication.

In an effort to confront chronic underfunding, Cuban librarians are creative in their mission to provide reading material for a well-educated public that has an appreciation of the rich literary and intellectual history of the country and of the world. One innovative program has been the establishment of subscriber groups wherein patrons contribute books or pay a small sum (10 pesos per year) to borrow new books. These groups, Minerva Clubs, operate in 26 libraries by soliciting patron support and donations to public library popular fiction collections. The Minerva Clubs, started with donations of materials from Spain, serve large numbers of people and help libraries purchase multiple copies of high demand titles. There are plans to expand these very successful clubs to other libraries when resources allow. Cuban librarians are very proud of their library services for the blind, which are available in several large and some small libraries. They have received donations of Braille materials from abroad and have employed sight-impaired librarians to administer some of the collections and services. Moreover, as part of their mission to bring books to the historically neglected countryside, a library has been established in every school, and rotating book collections for distant rural libraries are delivered periodically by traveling librarians on day long excursions by bus, foot and horseback from provincial or public libraries.

This mission to establish library services throughout the country and to make sure reading materials are available equitably to everyone is testimony to the commitment and dedication of Cuban librarians. They are genuinely service oriented, reflective, and critically aware of the needs of their colleagues and their users, as well as their institutional needs and shortcomings. They continuously think of new ideas and prepare for improved services, increased public outreach, and promotion of lifelong learning and literacy more broadly among their users.

Equally important, they are prepared to turn their ideas into action. Library personnel, typically, are well trained in the theory, values and practices of contemporary librarianship and most library staff have completed specialized training programs or programs of study in library science. To be a library technician in Cuba, one must complete a post-high school technical degree; to be a librarian, one must possess a university level degree in communications and/or library and information science from the University of Havana at the B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. level. By all accounts, they put their training to good use in solving the myriad of problems and in overcoming the limitations that they encounter on their jobs.

Intellectual Freedom and Access to Information

Building collections of varying perspectives and viewpoints is a venerated value of librarianship based on respect for intellectual freedom and critical discourse. Naturally, one of our research goals was to find out if Cuban library professionals shared this value. Whenever the issue was raised, it became a focal point of our visits and the discussions were exciting and passionate. One of the most frank and open discussions was with librarians at the José Martí National Library with the Library department heads, the administration and the Director. The National Librarian of Cuba is Dr. Eliades Acosta Matos, a historian. When we asked about the inclusion of varying perspectives in Cuban library collections, he talked at length to explain the Cuban librarian's commitment to intellectual freedom. He noted that "the materials we have in our libraries offer a variety of perspectives on the revolution. In our collections we want diversity. We want to collect materials of all types and perspectives. We have books by U.S. authors and Cuban authors who live abroad. We want more, but we just don't have the money to buy all of them. That is why exchange programs with libraries around the world are so important to us. Through exchange, we add materials that we could not possibly purchase abroad because of the cost. We are attempting to preserve the national heritage, and our collection development policies reflect the needs and the desires of our people to be exposed to all kinds of ideas and perspectives [3]."

This diversity and inclusion is easily verifiable—by looking in the library catalogs and perusing the shelves, which we did in all the libraries we visited. We located books on human rights (including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), intellectual freedom, democracy and capitalism. And, some librarians were shown circulation records for books written by dissenters, defectors, and Miami-"exiles", including Reinaldo Arenas and Guillermo Cabrera Infante, although some volumes are not allowed to circulate outside the library due to fear of being stolen or damaged. In a later interview with a U.S. newspaper reporter, Acosta reiterated the main problems for libraries in Cuba; "There are no banned books, only those we don't have the money to buy. …The biggest problem we have is lack of resources. With such scarcity, hard choices have to be made as to which books to buy. Similar choices are made in every country. We don't buy racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic literature although important books such as Hitler's Mein Kampf are held in the National Library [4]."

Exchange programs (or canje) are ways Cuban librarians can circumvent the embargo and add diverse opinion to their collections. Active exchange programs between Cuban and U.S. libraries have existed for over 40 years. Hence, there are countless U.S. librarians who have contributed to diverse Cuban library collections, and who confirm that Cuban libraries seek partners from around the world and regularly request works written by Cubans or about Cuba—regardless of political persuasion. This fact is recorded in the business conducted between U.S. and Cuban library institutions for decades—with reciprocal benefits. Many U.S. collections on Cuba are enriched by exchanges, and the Cuban institutions rely heavily on this method of building their own collections. In fact, the José Martí National Library routinely asks its partners from around the world to help them identify and collect Cuban literature (items written by or about Cubans) to place in their libraries, and individual visiting scholars and librarians are often asked to help in this endeavor. The most recent example of this ongoing effort is illustrated by the attendance of Dr. Acosta at the 2002 SALALM meeting of the "Subcommittee on Cuba Bibliography." At the meeting, Cubans and Cuban-Americans struck an agreement to collaborate on building a database of Cuban authors, with Cuban librarians contributing records for authors published within Cuba and Cuban American librarians contributing records for authors outside of Cuba.

The "Independent Libraries" Project

Our research in Cuba was conducted by visiting over a dozen "independent libraries" in several cities, including Havana and Santiago, and by examining the directories, news and archives of the website, the virtual sponsor of what has been designated as the "Independent Library Project" by the U.S. Department of State [5]. In most cases, the "librarians" invited us into their homes and showed us their bookshelves. In some cases, the "libraries" had ceased to exist because the "librarian" had moved to the U.S., or had given away the "library," anticipating an impending departure to the U.S. In one case, we confirmed that a "librarian" listed on the "Independent Library Project" web page had moved to the U.S. six years earlier, prior to the founding of the Project. Nevertheless, he was featured in Friends of Cuban Libraries' press releases and his name still appeared as a director of a library in Santiago, Cuba. In spite of the fact that he was not physically in Cuba, the story of his supposed repression and intimidation was announced widely in news alerts about his "library" work in Cuba.

Our inspections of the collections documented that most of the "libraries" consisted of a few shelves of books in private residences and that the titles were somewhat typical of what is owned by many Cubans and by Cuban libraries. In fact, the majority of their books were published in Cuba, by Cuban publishing houses. However, there were some titles that most Cubans did not own. The "independent libraries" also had a small number and apparently growing collection of materials from the U.S., including publications from Cubanet, the Cuban American National Foundation, the Center for a Free Cuba, Ediciones Universal, Cartas de Cuba, a book by Vaclav Havel, and numerous website print-offs from anti-Castro groups. The most widely held materials were Cubanet publications. Those publications were crisp and clean, printed on heavy, glossy paper with multi-color graphics. They looked conspicuously new and unused alongside the tattered and well-worn, brittle and yellowed Cuban books.

When asked about their international connections and funding, the "independent librarians" showed packing materials from the Swedish Embassy and some with postmarks from Miami and Mexico. They also displayed website "news" print-offs from and other anti-Castro websites with computer-generated labels addressed to the individual "library" and signed "From the U.S. Interests Section." We confirmed that personnel from the U.S. Interests Section delivered many of the items that were published outside of Cuba, and that the "librarians" received regular visits from U.S. Interests Section personnel who dropped off packages on a monthly basis along with money.

Since it was the first time any mention of money had been made in reference to their work, I asked, "What is the money for?" "For services rendered," the "librarian" responded. "These libraries help the opposition in Cuba and our leadership in Miami. They tell us what to do. They receive our reports and news. They give us money so we can do what we do here, be dissidents and build opposition to the Cuban government [6]." One librarian mentioned that Vicki Huddleston, who was until recently the Chief Officer of the U.S. Interests Section (the highest level of U.S. diplomatic representation) in Cuba, had visited his "library" and donated about 20 titles.

That this "library" project had support at the highest levels of the U.S. diplomatic mission was confirmed by reviewing the U.S. Interests Section website. The site acknowledges a "Book Program," and describes the plans to donate materials to a "wide range of Cuban institutions, contacts and people of influence, throughout Havana and other provinces according to individual interests [7]." The site states that this "Book Program," organized by the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Interests Section, distributes books and periodicals on topics such as journalism, political science, American literature, and English language teaching materials [8]. Curiously, no materials fitting this description were found in the "independent libraries" nor were nonpartisan, scholarly, or teaching materials displayed or observed at any of the "independent libraries."

"In some cases, the 'libraries' had ceased to exist because the 'librarian' had moved to the U.S., or had given away the 'library,' anticipating an impending departure to the U.S."

During our visits with the "librarians," we asked about the accounts of repression, intimidation and confiscation of the materials, news releases about which had been disseminated frequently and widely in the U.S. on library listservs by a group called the "Friends of Cuban Libraries." The "Friends" press releases depicted stories wherein the "librarians" were repressed, their book collections confiscated and the "librarians" were routinely intimidated and harassed by Cuban security forces, if not jailed. We found no such evidence and no librarian corroborated the charges written about in the Friends of Cuban Libraries' press releases. In fact, several "librarians" provided evidence to the contrary, telling us they had been arrested or jailed briefly, but clarified that that was because of breaking the law and for attempting to leave the country without an exit visa [9]. Although one "librarian" told us she had been visited by the Cuban "security forces" on one occasion, she said she had asked them to wait in the living room (in full view of the book shelves) during their visit, which they did.

We found that the "librarians" have the following in common:

1. They self-identify as dissidents with a history of opposition to the government.

2. Many of the "librarians'" names are listed on the Miami-based website, Cubanet, as leaders and/or affiliates of opposition parties, principally the Partido Solidaridad Democrático or the Partido Cubano de Renovación Ortódoxo. In fact, 13 of the 18 "librarians" listed in the participants list are affiliated with these two parties and their "Representatives in the Exterior" are listed as the Directorio Revolucionario Democrático Cubano in Hialeah, Florida.

3. They have connections to political groups outside the country, primarily to anti-Castro groups and individuals, most of which are now receiving funds through various U.S.-based organizations dedicated to overthrowing the Cuban government.

4. They claim that they use the collections to foster dissent among the Cuban population—as they have been asked to do. In early press releases, which remain unsubstantiated, it was reported that the "librarians" were also involved in cultural improvement, promotion of reading, and teaching the "new generation" about older Cuban authors and scientific research.

5. No "librarians" had served jail time for library activities; rather any jail time had resulted from activities that are illegal under Cuban law, and from their work to organize political operations directed from abroad. Such acts are illegal in Cuba.

6. They are aware of the U.S. government's political, financial and diplomatic connection to their work and asked us to tell people about them when we returned to the U.S. Several "librarians" asked us to give them money, telephone, faxes and copy machines.

7. When we asked the "librarians" if they circulated books to their neighbors, they told us that they circulate books to many people who want to read about new ideas, ideas that support "capitalism" and "liberty." However, when we asked their neighbors if they knew about the libraries, they said no. The neighbors we talked to did not know about or use the libraries. Since most of these libraries do not keep circulation records, there was little proof of borrowing activity.

8. Most of the "independent librarians" told us they were also "independent journalists." As such, most of the "independent librarians and journalists" had more telecommunications and electronic equipment than the average Cuban. For example, several "librarians-journalists" had more than one telephone and showed us fax machines, electronic typewriters and abundant supplies. And, they told us they expected cameras, videos and VCRs to be supplied soon. "Who gave you these devices?" we asked. "Anonymous friends," they said, had dropped them off.

By coincidence, we arrived at one "library" when a meeting was being held of "independent librarians," "independent teachers," "independent trade unionists," and some type of "independent religious" organization. There were about 8-10 people in the room. Most of them were members of more than one of these organizations, and they described to us the inter-connected nature of their work against the Cuban government, using a variety of front groups they call "independent." However, their meetings did not appear to be about library services or collections. The American Library Association delegation confirmed these findings in 2001 as written in their report, "when asked if they meet with other 'independientes' to discuss the collections, most said that they meet with other dissidents to discuss political activities primarily and only occasionally do they discuss the collections or how to manage them [10]."

Who are the proponents of the "Independent Libraries Project" and how do they deliver their support?

In addition to and the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the most visible proponent and the most active public relations contact of the "Independent Libraries Project" is a group called the "Friends of Cuban Libraries." The primary activities of the Friends of Cuban Libraries has been to deliver supplies and cash to Cuba, and to build support for them in the U.S. Since 1999, they have written "news alerts," announcements and e-mails to dozens of listservs asking individuals and organizations to publicly condemn the Cuban government for the supposed suppression of the intellectual freedom of the "independent librarians" and to carry pre-selected titles to these "libraries." Cubanet and related press outlets and websites, then, disseminate more "news alerts" on their website and in their other publications about the "librarians'" alleged struggle against censorship and repression. One organization often quotes the other. And, this circular progression of citing, quoting and posting recycled "news" by their own spokespersons has had an effect. By issuing frequent alarmist and misleading news releases and letters to innumerable listservs, press outlets and human rights organizations, the Friends of Cuban Libraries has persuaded several news organizations to condemn the Cuban government's supposed repression of these "librarians" and to issue "findings" or "reports" based entirely on the statements, information and press releases provided by the Friends of Cuban Libraries or the contacts listed on After issuing a fault-finding and accusatory letter or report, the Friends group subsequently claims these organizations and individuals as their members/supporters, widely distributes their "corroborating" reports, and writes even more press releases with "news" of the new members, who are anointed as true defenders of intellectual freedom and "independent libraries" in Cuba. These methods of misinformation have prompted some fairly successful public relations, if not biased and inaccurate reporting and misguided condemnations. The BBC, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions' Committee on Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression (FAIFE), the Canadian Library Association, ABC News, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the LA Times, the Washington Post, and Reporters Without Borders—all have covered as news or provided space for editorial columns that have denounced some aspect of the "repression" of the "independent librarians"--based on "evidence" provided in a simple press release distributed by the Friends of Cuban Libraries, and possibly an interview or visit with an well-chosen "independent librarian" recommended by the group.

Who are the Friends of Cuba's "Independent Libraries?"

The Friends of Cuban Libraries was founded in June 1999 by Robert Kent, librarian at New York Public Library, and Jorge Sanguinetty, an economist, a former Cuban government official, a contributor to Radio Martí, and a Miami businessman who does lucrative consulting work for the U.S. government. In a press release published in American Libraries in June 1999, the group announced that a brave, pioneering movement of "independent librarians" in Cuba had been set up in the "homes of individuals involved in human rights activities." It was reported that the "librarians" had been systematically threatened and "subjected to harassment, threats and short-term arrests" by the Cuban authorities because of their library work. It was also stated that the "libraries" collections were donated by Cubans, that the "libraries" were set up in opposition to "official censorship" of the government-funded libraries, and that "official" library professionals were often sympathetic to developing a civil society in Cuba, but that they were fearful and therefore didn't openly support this movement [11]. The group asked U.S. librarians to support the "independent library project" and signed their communiqués with a "background" statement professing their "independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit support" for the "independent librarians" claiming to be "funded entirely by … members" without seeking or accepting "funds from other sources [12]."

"These methods of misinformation have prompted some fairly successful public relations, if not biased and inaccurate reporting and misguided condemnations."

These statements simply do not match the evidence. Furthermore, the initial press release stands in stark contrast to subsequent press releases and to information obtained by interviews with the "independent librarians" in Cuba. The Friends of Cuban Libraries' characterization of the "librarians" as human rights advocates is not accurate and has been removed from their communiqués. The reasons for opening the "libraries" as stated in the initial emails and press campaigns have changed. The political affiliation of the "librarians" and their years of political opposition to the government, while published on, is not stated or included in the "alerts" produced by the Friends of Cuban Libraries. The dependence of the "independent libraries" on leadership, publicity and money from abroad is denied. The Friends of Cuban Libraries' press releases state that they are self-sufficient and independent and claim to offer their "nonpartisan," neutral support of these "libraries." Several years after initiating this press release and media campaign, however, Robert Kent admitted to traveling to Cuba at least nine times as a courier to these "libraries" with financing by Freedom House, Center for a Free Cuba, U.S. AID, and the National Endowment for Democracy [13]. Given the funding by the U.S. Congress, their partnership with the Directorio Revolucionario Democrático Cubano, and their expressed aim of promoting "regime change" in Cuba, these organizations cannot be considered nonpartisan or independent. Moreover, in spite of the clear political dimension of the U.S. government cash and connections and Kent's personal and self-professed involvement with manifestly partisan funding agencies, he and his group, the Friends of Cuban Libraries, continue to downplay their funding sources and claim that the activities of sending cash and pre-selected books to Cuban "independent libraries" are nonpartisan and are not part of U.S. government geopolitical objectives [14].

On visits to these "libraries," we were told that the books were not all donated by Cubans themselves as claimed in the initial press release, but some were given to them by foreign governments, diplomats, anonymous supporters and partisan political operatives from Miami. During the interviews, the "librarians" also provided proof of the disconnect between the public press releases issued in the U.S. and the actual "librarians" in Cuba. Whereas the Friends of Cuban Libraries characterized the "librarians" as human rights activists and selfless defenders of intellectual freedom, the "independent librarians" in Cuba told us that they purposefully had aligned themselves with foreign operatives because they felt that intervention was a legitimate course of action to destabilize the country and change the government. They openly and confidently characterized their work as political opposition, reporting that many of them had been dissidents for years, and that their "independent library" and "independent press" work was intended to heighten their profile internationally and to provoke the Cuban government. Finally, they told us that they knew that most of their books, aside from those donated by the U.S. and foreign couriers, were available in Cuban libraries, and that they had little or no contact with real Cuban librarians about their "library" work.

With Friends Like These

Documenting the story behind the headlines brought to light an intriguing array of linkages between the U.S. government, U.S. AID, a host of U.S.-based and well-funded anti-Castro groups eager to assist in the transition to a new government, and a somewhat volatile but committed group of well-paid dissidents in Cuba, knowingly engaged in a battle directed from abroad. Given that entanglement, a discussion of the "independent libraries" cannot be separated from the milieu in which they have been created and developed. That milieu includes the foreign policy strategy of the U.S. with its goal of "regime change" in Havana, the powerful voting and lobbying bloc of Miami-based anti-Castro Cubans along with their well-connected political operatives and organizations and their powerful influence on U.S. foreign and domestic policy vis-à-vis Cuba, and the generous Congressionally-mandated supply line of cash, material, media outlets and couriers that stretches from the halls of Congress to the houses of Cuban dissidents.

Supplies, materials and cash for the "independent libraries" are delivered by "supplier organizations" like Freedom House, the Center for a Free Cuba, the Institute for Democracy in Cuba, and the Cuban Dissidence Task Group. These groups play the point guard position in support of U.S. policy, channeling money and material, and serving as front groups for payments to opposition organizations and individuals inside Cuba. Not surprisingly, the funding for much of these destabilization efforts has been written into U.S. law. One example is the Cuba Democracy Act, also known as the Torricelli Bill. Enacted by Congress in 1992, it provides financial and logical support and training to non-governmental organizations in Cuba, including to "dissidents," such as the "independent journalists" and "independent librarians [15]." This Track II money assists these organizations in several ways: by writing and distributing "news" about their newly-created "libraries," by developing and offering training programs to various dissidents groups; by testifying to Congress about the dissident movements, the problems they have in their work and the environment for U.S.-inspired opposition to the government in Cuba; by providing an enormous volume of carefully crafted articles, "news alerts" and memos to reporters and press outlets; and lastly, by paying for assessments of the effectiveness of the "supplier organizations" and of U.S. AID money, using auditing firms such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Inc.—so that their efforts and results can be examined and improved over time, and so that the money funneled to these groups is used as effectively as possible. U.S. legislation providing money for the destabilization of the country was met by Cuban legislation making it illegal to accept cash and other payments to promote the U.S. agenda of regime overthrow in Cuba. Thus, it is illegal under Cuban law to cooperate with the U.S.-endowed agencies and groups forming the cash supply line to Cuba and making payments to the "dissidents" that were created by U.S. legislative and executive sponsorship.

Washington has made no secret of the support given to these groups and the financing of the various components of the "dissident movements" in Cuba, while using the creation of "civil society" as a rationale. In fact, the groups and their allotted financial supports are listed as a program called "Civil Society Developed Through Information Dissemination" on the Dept. of State website and their funding levels are in the millions of dollars [16]. The goals of the funding of this US Dept. of State "brainchild" project are listed along with the amounts of the monetary support and program objectives. Funding for 2002, listed on this site, was almost $16 million; in previous years, 1996-2001, funding was at least $12 million [17].

So What Are We to Make of the "Independent Libraries Project" in Cuba?

The "independent libraries," with their leadership, support and publicity/promotional apparatus outside of Cuba, are acknowledged by their members, supporters and by the U.S. Dept. of State to be part and parcel of a strategy designed in Washington to open up "civil society" in Cuba. Yet, the proponents of "independent libraries" omit mention of the context of their work or the overtly hostile agenda of the supporters of "independent libraries" to the Cuban revolution. Rather, they have focused on framing and shaping a discussion of intellectual freedom in Cuba by criticizing the work of Cuban librarians, by claiming that Cuban libraries have failed to provide alternative, nongovernmental perspectives and analysis in their collections, and by labeling Cuban library professionals as dupes or agents of the Cuban state with no concern for the values of librarianship, unfettered access to information or balanced collections.

The existence of the "independent libraries," their holdings of radical rightwing anti-Castro material, their association with operatives from the U.S. Interests Section and the Miami community who are intent on overthrowing the Cuban government disproves their main argument and rallying cry—that of censorship and severe restrictions on intellectual freedom. With their fax machines, multiple telephones, constant communication with Miami organizations and media, their reporting on events that champion their own narrow experiences in Cuba and their status as "reporters," their work of issuing alarmist and false press releases and being interviewed by foreign library associations and foreign press continues. They have access to phone lines, sometimes multiple phone lines, whereas some of the public libraries in Cuba are still awaiting their phone lines so they can offer increased Internet access. They have access to foreign press and foreign diplomats, some of whom have worked in tandem with these "dissenters" to misinform U.S. policymakers, the news media and the public at large outside of Cuba.

The fact that these so-called "independent libraries" exist proves that there is some measure of intellectual freedom in Cuba. They apparently have the freedom to dissent, freedom to assemble, freedom to read, and the freedom to collect and distribute materials that criticize the government and that seek to overthrow the government. They are free to accept money from sources outside the country and free to tell their neighbors as well as foreign visitors and the foreign media about their collections, their services, their purpose, their desires to topple the Cuban government, and their connections to and payments by a hostile foreign government. Our visits to these libraries provide evidence to the contrary of what they claim in their communiqués and statements to the press.

They do continue to operate; they continue to contribute reports to Radio Marti, Cubanet and other media; they continue to speak to foreign press and to foreign visiting librarians and diplomats. They continue to provide the services they are paid to render.


An earlier version of this report was presented at the conference of the Pacific Coast Council on Latin American Studies, 08/11/02, at East Los Angeles College. The author wished to thank Larry Oberg for his contributions to this research and his insightful commentary on the essay.


1. Acosta Matos, Eliades. "Cuban Libraries Under the Embargo." Moveable Type: The Newsletter of the Mark O. Hatfield Library 9, 1 (Fall 2001): 1-2, 4. (Both the Spanish-language text and the English version are available at:

2. Correspondence with Dr. Eliades Acosta, Director, José Martí National Library of Cuba, November 8, 2002; interview at Biblioteca Provincial Elvira Cape, Santiago, March 31, 2002.

3. Interview with Dr. Eliades Acosta, March 2000.

4. Kalman, Bill and Sara Lobman. "Fact-finding trip by U.S. librarians exposes anti-Cuba campaign." The Militant, 65, 28 (July 23, 2001), 10. Available online:

5. The Internet address of Cubanet is: Its business address is: CubaNet News, Inc. 145 Madeira Ave., Suite 207, Coral Gables, FL 33134; (305) 774-1887. The latest directory "independent libraries" can be found at: Cubanet is an anti-Castro website that functions as an informational and promotional sponsor of the "Independent Library Project." Its reporting is intended to help the "Independent Libraries Project" establish credibility among the media and provide an appearance of a growing "movement." To this end, their website provides a directory of the libraries and a virtual archive/record of the press releases issued about the "independent libraries." On its front page, the website claims to "provide comprehensive online coverage of Cuba's independent journalists and other national and international press reports on Cuba" and introduces itself as "a non partisan and non-profit organization that fosters free press in Cuba, assists its independent sector develop a civil society and informs the world about Cuba's reality." Cubanet does not mention, however, that it is a major recipient of U.S. funding and that its participation in the U.S.-inspired project to "create civil society" in Cuba, has netted the organization over $833,000 this year alone from the U.S. government, according to US AID sources.

6. Interview with "independent librarian" on visits to Havana "independent libraries." March 2001.

7. U.S. Interests Section website, Public Affairs Section page:

8. Ibid.

9. Many Latin American countries require exit visas of their citizens.

10. American Library Association. "Report of Visit to ACURIL XXXI and its Host Country, Cuba, May 23-May 30, 2001." Chicago: ALA. 2001. Available online:

11. American Libraries, June 1999. Available online:

12. From Friends of Cuban Libraries emails and press releases: "BACKGROUND: The Friends of Cuban Libraries, founded in June, 1999, is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit support group for the independent librarians. We are concerned exclusively with intellectual freedom issues, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regardless of whatever government may be in office in Cuba. We are funded entirely by our members and we do not seek or accept funds from other sources. For more information, send e-mail to: or telephone (USA); 718-340-8494. Mailing address: Robert Kent, 4-74 48th Avenue, #3-C, Long Island City, NY 11109 USA."

13. Freedom House is a major recipient of U.S. AID funding that promotes planning for a "future transition government in Cuba; and transmission of such plans to the Cuban people." "From 1996-FY2001, USAID provided $12 million to 22 NGOs to promote a peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba." "Under the Transitions project, Freedom House provided 40,000 Spanish-language books, pamphlets and other materials to the Cuban people on issues such as human rights, transition to democracy and free market economics." Funding for Freedom House was listed at $550,000 in 2000; $275,000 in 1999; $500,000 in 1998; as listed in the "Civil Society Developed, Program Data Sheet, 516-001" and in the "Descriptions of Cuba Program Grantee Activities: Appendix A".

14. In a 4/14/04 letter to Library Journal, Robert Kent writes: "In 'The Cuba Compromise' (News, Library Journal 2/15/04, p. 18), LJ stated that the Friends of Cuban Libraries receives U.S. government funding. This statement is incorrect. The organization is funded entirely by our members. As announced by the Friends in 1999, some of my travel expenses on several trips to Cuba, made before the Friends was founded, were paid by human rights groups that receive grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy. Since the time of the Friends' founding in June 1999, neither I personally nor the Friends of Cuban Libraries as an organization has received funding from any source other than the members of the Friends of Cuban Libraries. As an organization, the Friends defends the right of all libraries to receive donations from any source. At the present time, Cuba's official libraries, as well as the uncensored independent libraries, receive donations from a variety of public and private sources, including foreign governments, as is their right." Available online:

15. Silberman, Jonathan. "'Visit Cuba and See for Yourselves,' Say Librarians Responding to U.S. Lies." The Militant, 64, 10 (March 13, 2000).Available online:

16. A May 2002 update on the "USAID/Cuba Program" is available at:

17. "The US AID Program on Cuba, Strategic Objective: Civil Society Developed through Information Dissemination, 516-001" is available online:

About the Author

Rhonda L. Neugebauer is Bibliographer for Latin American Studies and Interim Head of the Collection Development Division at the University of California, Riverside Libraries.
Email: rhonda [dot] neugebauer [at] ucr [dot] edu

© 2005 Rhonda L. Neugebauer


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