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Cubans love books — too bad they have almost nothing to read.

February 21, 2011

Books on sale at the International Book Fair in Havana.

Reading this Associated Press account of the International Book Fair in Havana, I don’t know whether to laugh at the farce of a literary festival held under Castro’s iron heel, or to weep at the spectacle of all those book-loving Cubans, ravenous for the freedom to read.

The story, by Andrea Rodriquez, reports six million people will turn out, either for the 10-day literary festival just concluded in Havana, or during a two-week tour of the provinces. This number, no doubt supplied by official sources, seems ridiculously high.

Nonetheless,  many thousands of people showed up for the Havana portion of the event, looking for something to read in a country that has the highest literacy rate in the world. It’s one of the (few) great successes of the Castro regime, bringing illiteracy close to zero — then restricting freedom of the press and the right to read to a similar number.

Talk about good news/bad news. Hey, you can all read! Here’s your Communist Manifesto, now shut up.

“This fair is oriented toward the reader … as a chance to acquire books and have a dialogue with the authors, both Cubans and foreigners,” organizer Edel Morales told The Associated Press. “It is a notable difference to others in the world where people rarely attend. Here it is the people who make the fair.”

This, of course, is typical socialist hyperbole. We used to get a steady diet of that kind of thing during the Cold War, when nearly a third of the world lived under one communist regime or another. Now that radical Islam has become the West’s great bogeyman, it almost makes me nostalgic when something like that comes out of Cuba, or North Korea, or Venezuela.

As anyone knows who has tried to make it from the Auditorium to the Chapman Conference Center during Miami Book Fair International, it’s the people who make the fair here, too — with one big difference.

In Miami (or Nashville or New York or Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. or — ) a fairgoer can find about any title he or should might want. In Havana, the only books on offer were from government publishers or houses affiliated with the goverment. The same was true, according to the AP, of foreign publishers.

Take, for example, Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Surely Cuban readers are interested in Latin America’s latest Nobel laureate, but not one of his novels was available at the International Book Fair. Llosa is a longtime critic of the Castro regime, by the way.

Sigh. The freedom to read and write that Americans and most Europeans take for granted will sadly have to wait until Fidel and Raul die, or until the Cuban people rise up, like the Egyptians, to shrug off the heavy hand of tyranny.

In the meantime, I cannot but be heartened by the throngs of book lovers crowding Havana’s streets last week. When the Cuban people are finally free, I predict an explosion of creativity on the island — one that may spread over the whole world.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    February 21, 2011 3:16 pm

    Music scares the Cuban gov’t less than books but maybe not by much. The Buena Vista Social Club was more of a challenge to America’s policies than Cuba’s. And it’s tough to picture a Cuban Eminem telling Raul to eat it. Is this what happens in a country with high literacy and universal health care – most people just kind of live with limits on expression?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 21, 2011 4:00 pm

      I don’t think they have much choice. It is a police state after all, where one of the leading industry is informing on your neighbors. Plus, Castro has carefully jailed or executed almost anyone who could conceivably challenge his power.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 22, 2011 3:08 pm

    How come they fare so well at literacy. How did they do that???? English teachers (past and present) want to know.

    • Sean Piccoli permalink
      February 23, 2011 8:18 am

      “Learn to read or we’ll send you to the Americans … at Guantanamo.”

  3. February 22, 2011 9:55 pm

    Will his little brother keep that depressing policy after big brother dies? What do you think? And you have to wonder if Castro would gun down his own people in mass the way Iran and Libya do.

    On another subject. Chauncey, have you ever read anything by William Boyd? If so, what do you think of his writing? I am watching ANY HEART on Masterpiece Theater and loving it, but the novel itself has somewhat mixed reviews.

    • Sean Piccoli permalink
      February 23, 2011 8:17 am

      Duff, I just saw Any Heart on Sunday and kept wondering if the shenanigans of the Windsors had any basis in fact. Not that that’s required (i.e. The Social Network), but if it turns out they really were as bad as that, then any movie about the heroics of stammering kid brother Bertie definitely gets my Oscar vote.

  4. February 23, 2011 5:31 pm

    I’m with you on that one, Sean. I haven’t seen that movie yet, but certainly will now. Have you read any William Boyd?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 24, 2011 9:39 am

      I’ve read some Boyd, though not Any Human Heart. I liked Brazzaville Beach, I really liked Restless, and, alas, I detested The Destiny of Natalie X and Other Stories so much I gave up after reading only three or four of the stories. At his best, he’s a fun writer working that narrow but fertile zone where literary ambition and an irresistible urge toward old-fashioned storytelling call a truce.

    • Sean Piccoli permalink
      February 24, 2011 1:21 pm

      No Boyd yet. I may swipe my mom’s copy of “Heart.”

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