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Library Juice 4:9 Supplement - March 14, 2001 
Cuba Contents

  1. Kent's "Friends of Cuban Libraries (FCL)" American Library Association Campaign Rebuked at Conference 

  2. Ann Sparenese's paper for the IRC Latin America & Caribbean Subcommittee

  3. Gay Cuba

1.Kent's ALA Campaign Rebuked at Conference Date: Sun, 21 Jan 2001 17:38:53 -0500 From: Mark Rosenzweig < To:,

Dear friends,

It seems only fair that I should tell you briefly, in a timely way, what happened with what came to be called the "Cuba issue" at the mid-winter conference of ALA. I will leave it to others more intimately involved to give you the blow-by-blow description.

Robert Kent and his Friends of Cuban Libraries (FCL) group made their big play for ALA support through the ALA International Relations Committee (IRC), more precisely, at a meeting of the IRC's Latin America Subcommittee (web address: He and several supporters, Cuban-Americans (non-librarians, I believe), made their case, as you have heard it repeatedly made on our listservs. The case against Kent was made by our friends, Ann Sparanese and Rhonda Neugebauer, whose reports to the committee will be made available shortly on these lists and on the PLG and SRRT/IRTF listservs.

They brilliantly, systematically and cooly laid out the case that Kent and FCL were not independent; that the "independent librarians" in question were not librarians and not independent,; that the FCL case was based on rumor, hearsay, deception, and partisan campaigning; that the FCL relied heavily --and led others to rely -- on the partisan CubaNet --a propaganda organ of the US National Endowment for Democracy for "news" from Cuba; that FCL had misled IFLA's FAIFE into basing its letter in support of the allegedly independent librarians on dubious testimony which was unverified; that the brief references to the "independents" in the Amnesty International report were never substantiated or confirmed; that the evidence about the nature of Cuban librarianship and the national library assocition (ASCUBI) was a misrepresentation; and that the evidence put forward to the IRC characterizing the independent librarians, their mission and their plight was highly suspect and contradicted everything which people like John Pateman, Rhonda Neugebauer, Larry Oberg, eyewitnesses who sought out these independent libraries, observed. I can't due justice here to the effcetiveness of their presentations.

The result was that the IRC LA Subcommittee, which had prepared itself by examining a truly impressive amount of documentation, issued a report which, citing the complexity of the issue and the conflicting evidence and testimony, recommended that the IRC and ALA Council take no action, i.e. that they reject Kent's appeal. They further condemned all attempts to block the flow of information between nations, including equally the US blockade and censorship in this country and whatever forms of censorship exist in Cuba, stating moreover that heightened official relations between ALA and ASCUBI would be a powerful force for mutual development and encouraging librarians in the US to avail themselves of whatever opportunities there were to meet and discuss with their Cuban colleagues.

The report of the IRC, brought to ALA Council, was accepted without dissent. Therefore, the campaign to win recognitiuon by ALA by Robert Kent & his FCL was soundly defeated. This doesn't meab he is necessarily going to relent. So one shouldn't be surprised to hear more from him -- possibly misrepresenting what occured at mid-winter. The report of the subcommitte of the IRC is, however, available for your examination.

Congratulations especially to Rhonda Neugebauer and Ann Sparanese for their leadership in this effort. Thanks are due to many others: Eliades Acosta, Marta Terry, Larry Oberg, Al Kagan, and all those who participated in the lengthy debate on the listservs as well as thopse who gave moral support to us at mid-winter and during the lead-up to the conference. Thnaks are due to the members of the IRC Latin America Subcommittee for all their hard work in oreparing to judge this matter fairly.

Good sense, professionalism, respect for the complexity of the issues, and an internationalist feeling for the necessity to heal the rift between the US and Cuba through the lifting of the blockade and the encouragement of collegiality. prevailed.

Mark Rosenzweig ALA Councilor at large __________________________________________________________________________


2. Ann Sparenese's paper for the IRC Latin America & Caribbean Subcommittee

January 8, 2001

To: Pat Wand Chairperson, ALA IRC Latin American & Caribbean Subcommittee

From: Ann C. Sparanese SRRT Action Councilor

Subject: Hearing on Charges by "Friends of Cuban Libraries"

Thank you for inviting me to speak before your Subcommittee. These notes have been prepared for your consideration. I am the head of Adult & Young Adult Services at the Englewood Public Library in New Jersey. I have been an active member of ALA for ten years. As well as serving on SRRT Action Council and its International Responsibilities Task Force, I have been a member of YALSA's Best Books for Young Adults Committee, the AFL-CIO/ALA Joint Committee on Library Service to Labor Groups, and I am the current Chairperson of RUSA's John Sessions Memorial Award Committee. I also have a long history of interest in, and travel to, Cuba. I attended the 1994 IFLA Conference in Havana and my most recent visit was this past November, when I visited Cuban libraries and met with Havana members of ASCUBI, the Cuban Library Association. I have followed with interest, and argued against, the allegations of Mr. Kent since he began his campaign in 1999. The Social Responsibilities Round Table passed the attached resolution regarding the FCL at midwinter conference one year ago. Mr. Kent would like to present his proposal as a no-brainer, a simple question, a single pure concept: intellectual freedom. But it is not. This paper is respectfully submitted with the hope that the subcommittee may approach Mr. Kent's requests with a fuller appreciation of history, the facts and the issues.

1. Who Are the "Friends of Cuban Libraries?"

This is how Robert Kent and Jorge Sanguinetty described themselves at the outset of their campaign for Cuban "independent libraries."(1)

"Before going to the debate, however, the Friends of Cuban Libraries would like to answer some inquiries from the public regarding the goals and origin of our organization. The Friends of Cuban Libraries, founded on June 1, 1999, is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization which supports Cuba's independent libraries. We oppose censorship and all other violations of intellectual freedom, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regardless of the ideology or leadership of whatever Cuban government is in office. The founders of the organization are Jorge Sanguinetty and Robert Kent. Jorge Sanguinetty resides in Miami. He was the head of Cuba's Department of National Investment Planning before he left the country in 1967. He was later associated with the Brookings Institution and the UN Development Programme. He is the founder and president of Devtech, Inc. He is also a newspaper columnist and a commentator on Radio Marti. Robert Kent is a librarian who lives in New York City. He has visited Cuba many times and has Cuban friends whose viewpoints cover the political spectrum. During his visits to Cuba Robert Kent has assisted Cuban, American, and internationally-based human rights organizations with deliveries of medicines, small sums of money, and other forms of humanitarian aid. On four occasions he has taken books and pamphlets to Cuba for Freedom House and the Center for a Free Cuba, human rights organizations which have received publication grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development; on three occasions his travel expenses were paid wholly or in part by Freedom House or the Center for a Free Cuba. On his last trip to Cuba in February, 1999, Robert Kent was arrested and deported from the country."

Many references to Mr. Sanguinetty appear on the WWW. He speaks widely on the subject of returning free market enterprise to Cuba. As a commentator on Radio Marti, Mr. Sanguinetty is or was an employee of the United States government. Cubans on the island have always listened to Miami radio and even some TV stations. But Radio Marti is a propaganda station directly controlled by the most right-wing elements of the Cuban-American exile community, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). It is not a neutral voice or a bastion of "free expression." It has never aired the voices of liberal elements of the Cuban-American community who favor the normalization of relations with Cuba. Mr. Sanguinetty is simply a professional propagandist. In October 1995, President Clinton presented a $500,000 government grant to Freedom House for publishing and distributing pamphlets and books in Cuba.(2) The funds were also devoted to paying for individuals to travel to Cuba as tourists in order to make contact with dissident groups, organize them and fund them.(3) Robert Kent is evidently one of these couriers -another propagandist on an illegal, paid-for mission on behalf of Freedom House. He is not the only American to be sent on such a mission(4) and be deported. Kent evidently believes that by acknowledging his sponsor, this somehow legitimizes his activities. But it only demonstrates the nature of his campaign as part and parcel of stated US foreign policy intended to destabilize Cuba.

2. What Are the "Independent Libraries"?

The "independent libraries" are private book collections in peoples' homes. Mr. Kent and the right-wing Cuban-American propaganda outlets, call them "independent libraries" and even "public libraries." These "independent libraries" are one of a number of "projects" initiated and supported by a virtual entity calling itself "Cubanet" ( < ) and an expatriate anti-Castro political entity calling itself the Directorio Revolucionario Democratico Cubano. The Cubanet website describes what the "independent libraries" are, how they got started and who funds and solicits for them. The index page says that the organization exists to "assist [Cuba's] independent sector develop [sic] a civil society..." This is the wording used in both the Torricelli and the Helms Burton Acts, both of which require that the US government finance efforts to subvert the Cuban society in the name of strengthening "civil society." You will see on the "Who We Are" page that Cubanet, located in Hialeah, Florida, is financially supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and "private" "anonymous" donors. The "exterior" representative of the "independent libraries" is the Directorio Revoucionario Democratico Cubano, also located in Hialeah.(5)

3. Who are the Independent Librarians?

You will read on the pages of Cubanet about the individual "libraries" and their personnel. Not one of the people listed is actually a librarian. Not one has ever been a librarian. Most, however, are leaders or officers of various dissident political parties, such as the Partido Cubano de Renovacion Ortodoxa and the Partido Solidaridad Democratica. This is documented on Cubanet, although Mr. Kent never mentions these party affiliations in his FCL press releases. We know absolutely nothing about the principles, programs or activities of these parties, or why they have been allegedly targeted. We don't know whether their activities are lawful or unlawful under Cuban law. Kent maintains that their activities are solely related to their books - but in reality we have no idea whether this is true and in fact, one of these "librarians" told one of our ALA colleagues that this was not true! By using the terms "beleaguered," "librarians" and the buzzwords "freedom of expression" and "colleagues" Mr. Kent hopes to get the a priori support of librarians who might not look beneath this veneer. After all, isn't this the reason that the subcommittee will be considering their case in the first place? But I wonder if ALA is willing to establish the precedent that all politicians with private book collections who decide to call themselves "librarians," are therefore our "colleagues"?

4. Who funds Cubanet, the Directorio, and the "independent libraries" - and why is this important?

A recent book entitled Psy War Against Cuba by Jon Elliston (Ocean Press, 1999), reveals, using declassified US government documents, the history of a small piece of the 40-year-old propaganda war waged by our country against the government of Cuba. The US has spent hundreds of millions of taxpayers' dollars over these years to subvert and overthrow the current Cuban government - US activities have included complete economic embargo, assassinations and assassination attempts, sabotage, bombings, invasions, and "psyops." When even the fall of the Soviet Union and the devastation of the Cuban economy in the early 1990's did not produce the desired effect, the US embarked on additional, subtler, campaigns to overthrow the Cuban government from within. One element of this approach is the funneling of monetary support to dissident groups wherever they can be found, or created. This includes bringing cash into the country through couriers such as Mr. Kent, and increasing support to expatriate groups operating inside the US, such as the Directorio, Cubanet and especially, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) The website Afrocubaweb ( < ) has gathered information from the Miami Herald and other sources to document the recipients of this US funding. USAID, a US government Agency, supported the Directorio Revolucionario Democratico Cubano to the amount of $554,835 during 1999. This is the group that supports the "independent librarians" in Cuba and is listed as their "foreign representative." The money that they send to Cuba, as well as the "small amounts" of cash that Mr. Kent carried illegally to Cuba violates Cuban law, which does not allow foreign funding of their political process. Neither does the United States allow foreign funding of its own political process - the furor around alleged Chinese "contributions" to the Democratic Party is a case in point. The "independent libraries" may be independent of their own government, but they are not independent of the US government. The US government is not the only anti-Castro entity that has adjusted its policy to changing times-- the most right-wing forces in the Cuban expatriate community have also stepped up their support of dissident elements inside Cuba over the last few years. The Miami Herald reported in September 2000 that "the leading institution of this city's exile community plans to quadruple the amount of money it sends to dissident leaders on the island..." This leading institution is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), and the article reports that part of the group's $10,000,000 budget will begin "flowing to the island through sympathetic dissidents by the end of the year." More specifically, CANF will, among other declared activities, "increase funds to buy books for its [Cuba's] independent libraries."(6)

5. What is CANF? What is its record on free expression, intellectual freedom, and democratic rights here in the USA?

The Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) was founded by Jorge Mas Canosa, a veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion and CIA operative, at the behest of the Reagan administration in 1982. It has become the most wealthy and powerful voice of the right-wing Cuban community in South Florida and has wielded extraordinary political power for the last twenty years. It has been connected to violence and terrorism both in Cuba and in Miami. Its newest tactic, as described above, is to "support" dissidents in Cuba, including buying books for "independent" libraries, presumably to support "freedom of expression" in Cuba. Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty claim to be proponents of human rights and frequently refer to the "landmark" IFLA "report." But they seem to have no problem with their libraries' CANF connection, even though CANF was the subject of a truly "landmark" report issued by Americas Watch, a division of Human Rights Watch, in 1992. The Americas Watch report on CANF is the first that organization ever issued against a human rights violator in a city of the United States. It states that "a 'repressive climate for freedom of expression' had been created by anti-Castro Cuban-American leaders in which violence and intimidation had been used to quiet exiles who favor a softening of policies toward Cuba."(7) The executive director of Americas Watch at that time, said "We do not know of any other community in the United States with this level of intimidation and lack of freedom to dissent."(8) The report documents "how Miami Cubans who are opposed to the Cuban government harass political opponents with bombings, vandalism, beatings and death threats."(9) A campaign spearheaded by CANF against the Miami Herald in the early nineties resulted in bombings of Herald newpaper boxes and death threats to staff.(10) Pressure from CANF closed the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture because it showed work by artists who had not "broken" with Cuba.(11) Anyone who followed the Elian Gonzalez case this past year noted that tolerance for dissenting views by Cuban Americans was completely lacking in Florida and a hostile atmosphere was maintained by CANF during the duration of the affair. Can you imagine what the life expectancy of a pro-Castro "independent library" in the middle of Little Havana would be, given this history? CANF does not respect freedom of expression or democratic rights in the USA, yet it is a direct financial supporter of Mr. Kent's independent libraries. Neither Mr.Kent nor Mr. Sanguinetty have disowned this support - in fact they haven't even mentioned it! They have not chosen to examine or criticize the lack of free expression among the very people that give them succor and publicity here at home, yet they claim to be its great champions in Cuba!

6. What about free expression and democratic rights in Cuba?

There is no doubt that political dissidence has its consequences in Cuba. Those who want to overthrow the current socialist government are considered political problems. Because of the declared and well-funded US policy of seeking to destabilize Cuba by creating and/or instigating social unrest, the Cuban people consider these people to be agents of US policy and enemies of the nation. This view is shared by the former head of the US Interests Section in Cuba, former Ambassador Wayne Smith who says: "Since 1985, we have stated publicly that we will encourage and openly finance dissident and human rights groups in Cuba; this too is in our interest. The United States isn't financing all those groups - only the ones that are best know internationally. Those dissidents and human rights groups in Cuba - that are nothing but a few people - are only important to the extent that they serve us in a single cause: that of destabilizing Fidel Castro's regime."(12) This is the reality of a small country that has been in a virtual state of siege by the most powerful country in the world for more than 40 years. The US has engaged in invasion, sabotage, assassination attempts against its leader and even the maintenance of a military base against the will of the Cuban people, as well as well-documented psyop and propaganda campaigns. With the economic blockade, the US has sought to bring the Cuban people to their knees by depriving them of sources of foodstuffs and denying medicine to their children.(13) Ambassador Smith: "Through these two policies, economic pressure and human rights - we want to force the overthrow of Fidel Castro and then install a transitional government that we like - to reinstate the people we want and thus, control Cuba again."(14) It is a fact of life that democratic rights suffer in any nation under siege or engaged in war. A view of our own history will illuminate this point: simply look at the what happened to the American people's freedom of expression, constitutional rights and human rights during the Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Cold War McCarthy period and even during our most recent wars. Can we realistically expect and demand that Cuba be the model of democratic rights in the face of the unrelenting US economic and political aggression? Cuba does not have a perfect human rights record. But are we simply to condemn Cuba for this situation? Don't we, as US citizens, whose tax dollar has been used for so many years to create this situation, have a special responsibility to look at the full picture? Shouldn't our first concern be to change the policy that has directly contributed to the limitation of democratic rights in Cuba? Even the UN special rapporteur for human rights, while critical of Cuba, credited the US policy for making the situation worse than it might otherwise be.(15) Mssrs. Kent and Sanguinetty are asking this committee and the ALA for a sweeping condemnation of Cuba on the basis of human rights. But are not food, education, medical care, income, freedom from violence, and literacy "human rights"? The Cuban people enjoy free medical care - despite the US denial of Cuba's right to purchase basic medical products - and have one of the highest per capita rate of doctors in the world. All Cuban children attend school and enjoy free education through university. The Cuban people are an extraordinarily literate people with many more libraries and books than people in most of the undeveloped world, despite Mr. Kent's attempts to ridicule their library collections with absurd claims that have been refuted by Cuban librarians. Cuban workers have the right to an income even if they have been laid off from work; they have a society free from violence and no Cuban child has ever been killed by a gun in his/her school. Racism, as we know it in the US, is not present there and vestiges of racism are actively combated at all levels of society. If these are taken as measures of human rights, Cuba comes out looking very good indeed. This is not to say that intellectual freedom and complete freedom of expression are not important. But Cuba's exceptional success in fulfilling these basic human needs explains why the majority of the Cuban people are not anxious to trade their current situation for the "free market", "wealthy exiles get their property back" plans of Kent/Sanguinetty's sponsors in Miami and the US government. Before the ALA passes judgment on Cuba, even in the area of free expression, we need to look at the whole picture and we need to have some first-hand experience. We cannot simply act on what one ill-informed librarian and a professional expatriate propagandist -- both with US government backing -- tell us.

7. How does US policy towards Cuba affect free expression and intellectual freedom for US citizens?

For close to forty years, in various permutations, the US has maintained a travel ban, which specifically denies the right of US citizens to visit Cuba outside a small set of "legal" and "licensed" exceptions. This means that if any US citizen (any US librarian, for instance) wants to travel to Cuba, simply to see for her/himself what is going on there (not for any specifically academic or professional purpose), this is against US law and punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. If members of this subcommittee want to visit Cuban libraries, simply to chat with your counterparts and even seek out the "independent librarians" - it is not the Cuban government that is preventing you, it is the US government! This is clearly an issue of intellectual freedom(16) - but not to Mssrs. Kent and Sanguinetty. They are purists. They are only concerned about freedom of expression and intellectual freedom in Cuba - not in the US- and only for Cubans in Cuba, not in Miami! This is utter hypocrisy. Because of this forty-year war against Cuba by the United States, it is not just Cuban citizens who have seen their democratic rights limited, it is US citizens as well. To deliberately ignore this reality reveals the claims and motives of Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty as deeply suspect.

8. What About the IFLA Report?

Why has the FCL been able to go forward with their accusations? The answer is a report by the recently formed IFLA -FAIFE (Free Access to Information and Freedom of Expression) Committee. The sole basis for this action - the first such action taken by committee - was the Friends of Cuban Libraries allegations, and several phone conversations with the alleged librarians involved. No member of FAIFE ever visited these "libraries" or attempted to. No "investigation" whatsoever was undertaken beyond these phone contacts. Parts of the report were taken verbatim from the papers of Mr. Kent and Mr. Sanguinetty. Even the FAIFE report acknowledges the role of financing by "foreign interests," but it does not seem to find this point very important. It does not address the issue of who these "librarians" really are, but accepts FCL's allegations that they are librarians. The IFLA investigation meets no standards. Nevertheless, it has bestowed on Mr. Kent's cause a certain legitimacy and has allowed Kent to go the Canadian Library Association, and other groups, which also reacted to the IFLA report and did no independent investigation. In an especially crass but clever move, Kent even managed to get a recently imprisoned Chinese American librarian to make statements about a situation about which he has no knowledge. Perhaps IFLA can be forgiven for not understanding the nature of US hostility toward Cuba, and the lengths to which the US and the right-wing Cuban expatriate elements will go to further their aims of overthrowing the Cuban government. But the American Library Association will have no such excuse. Our own members and colleagues have visited Cuban libraries and the "independents" (without prior notification) and have testified as to their inauthenticity. They must be listened to. This is already more than IFLA cared to do. The IFLA report, and all that followed because of it, cannot be allowed to grant any further imprimatur to the Kent/Sanguinetty campaign.

9. What about our real colleagues - the librarians of Cuba?

The charges that have been spread by Kent and his FCL have deeply offended our real colleagues, the librarians of Cuba, and our sister library association, ASCUBI. Our real colleagues are beleaguered by shortages of things as simple as paper, professional literature, computers and printers - and much of this has to do with their inability, because of the US blockade, to purchase any items from US companies (or foreign companies doing business with the US). Computers cannot be brought to Cuba from the US legally, even as a donation by licensed travelers. True "friends of Cuban libraries" would be concerned about these matters. It is time that we begin to know our real counterparts/colleagues in Cuba. It is time that we begin to have the kinds of conversations and exchanges on all subjects -- including intellectual freedom and censorship. It is US policy, not Cuban policy, which prevents us from doing so. As the representative of US librarians, the ALA has an obligation first to address our own country's limitation of freedom of expression and the freedom to travel, then to criticize others. The American Library Association cannot allow itself to be the willing instrument of a US government/CANF-sponsored disinformation campaign. If the ALA takes any action at all on Cuba, it should be to call for an end to the embargo and the hostile US policy towards Cuba which harms the democratic rights, including freedom of expression, of both the Cuban and US people. ALA should begin in the spirit of the resolution passed by the US librarians who attended the IFLA conference in Havana in August 1994 (see attached). Copyright 2001 Ann C. Sparanese,MLS Head of Adult & Young Adult Services Englewood Public Library Englewood, NJ 07631 201-568-2215 ext. 229

1 See Most of the activities carried out by the FCL take place on the listserves, of which this site has an "anthology."

2 Franklin, Jane. Cuba and The United States: A Chronological History. Melbourne, Ocean Press, 1997. p375.

3 Calvo, Hernando and Katlijn Declertcq. The Cuban Exile Movement: Dissidents or Mercenaries? New York, Ocean Press, 2000. p.130.

4 Ibid.

5 Another of its stated purposes is "informs the world about Cuba's reality", but their news pages simply report only anti-government events or incidents.

6 "In Miami, Cuban Exile Group Shifts Focus" by Scott Wilson. The Washington Post Foreign Service. Thursday, September 14, 2000; Page A03. As quoted at

7 "Miami Leaders are Condemned by Rights Unit" by Larry Rohter. New York times, August 19, 1992 Section A, Page 8, retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

8 Ibid.

9 Franklin, p.300.

10 Op.cit.

11 Franklin, p 241, 242, 252,277.

12 Calvo & Declercq, pp 156, (interview with Ambassador Smith.)

13 "Denial of Food and Medicine: The Impact of the U.S. Embargo on Health and Nutrition in Cuba," A Report from the American Association for World Health, March 1997.

14 Calvo & Declercq, p160.

15 Franklin, p 330.

16 In "The Right to Travel: The Effect of Travel Restrictions on Scientific Collaboration Between American and Cuban Scientists," the American Association for the Advancement of Science is every bit as critical of the United States in limiting travel as it is of Cuba! The report notes that the US government does not recognize the right to travel as an internationally recognized fundamental right. .



3. Gay Cuba

Date: Thu, 1 Mar 2001 18:55:00 -0800 (PST) From: Larry Oberg < To:



It is not without surprise that Kent & Company would announce the film Before Night Falls. Based on a memoir by the late self-exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (Old Rosa, Farewell to the Sea, El Central: a Cuban Sugar Mill), it chronicles Arenas' repression as a homosexual artist by Cuban authorities in the 1960s and 1970s. I would imagine that Mr. Kent expects to get quite a bit of propaganda mileage out of promoting the film version. Recycling old news is, of course, stock in trade for what the island Cubans call "the Miami mafia." To Kent & Company, Cuba stopped changing 30 years ago and nothing has or, indeed, ever will change again.

Over the past year, I have spent nearly three months in Cuba on two different occasions, much of that time in Havana, but also in a variety of other cities, including Santiago de Cuba. As a gay man, it was personally important to me to find out as much as possible about the status of gays and lesbians in Cuba. What I found contrasts sharply with the portrait of gay life in Cuba drawn by Arenas. His take may have been accurate for its time (I cannot claim to know), but I suspect it was considerably exaggerated. (I say exaggerated because Arenas' fantastic claim to have bedded 5000 guys in something like two years is not credible. And, if we are to believe him, every young stud on the island between the ages of 15 and 22 was constantly on the alert to jump his bones. Well, maybe not.)

To prepare for my visit, I read the book, "Machos, maricones, and gays: Cuba and homosexuality," by the Canadian, Ian Lumsden. Lumsden is a luke-warm supporter of the revolution and gives a fairly critical take on Cuban gay history during the early years of the revolution and the current status of gays on the island. It is a useful introduction. I also watched the film "Gay Cuba," made around 1995. It consists mainly of a series of interviews with gay guys and lesbians who speak frankly about their lives. (One of the producers of the film, an interviewee himself, now works as a tour guide and gave me useful background information on the film.) Gay Cuba was shown at the Havana International Festival of Latin American Cinema to public and critical acclaim. However, a few of the Cuban gays who had seen it had reservations and told me that they felt it gives an accurate, but incomplete, picture of gay life on the island.

Gay Cuba is not the only documentary on Cuban gay life. A perhaps more interesting take is "Mariposas en el Andamio," (Butterflies on the Scaffold). Mariposa is a Cuban term for drag queen and the film documents the daily life and the performances of Cuban drag queens in a neighborhood called La Guinera. At my request, I was invited there for a special show. La Guinera was very poor before the revolution and remains what we might call working class. Many of these drag shows are sponsored by the local CDRs (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution) and play to large and wildly enthusiastic audiences. (If you're wondering, the performers were great!)

What I found in Cuba was a gay community with many parallels to the gay community in North America and a few differences as well. For one thing, there are no laws on the Cuban books that discriminate against gays. (This is to be contrasted with the United States where all too many states retain outdated sodomy laws and where, increasingly, repressive legislation is enacted at the state level.) I have talked with literally hundreds of gays (mostly men) in Cuba and I found none who believe they are being persecuted by their government. Discrimination by individuals is reported, however, and there is also a lot of resentment of the residual macho attitudes that remain stubbornly embedded in some levels of Cuban society, attitudes tht perpetuate highly dichotomized sex roles and prejudice against homosexuals amongst the population at large. But none reported active or systematic repression by the state.

One question that I always asked gay guys was "would you feel comfortable holding hands with your boyfriend on the street?" About 80% responded with a qualified yes. Many stated that they do just that. (Two guys or women holding hands is not an uncommon sight in Havana.) But some also said that they would stop holding hands in front of a police officer. Not unlike societies to the north, Cuba recruits a high percentage of young macho hot dogs to their police force, some with a chip on their shoulder against gays. But, I want to make it clear: No gays that I talked to reported governmental repression, although many older Cuban gays did talk about "the bad old days."

It seems to me that it is important to put Cuba's past record of mistreatment of gays in its proper perspective. For example, thirty-five or so years ago, in Boise, Idaho, hundreds of gay men were persecuted, driven from their homes and families and imprisoned in one of the more infamous anti-gay actions in our history. Florida itself has a dreadful record in terms of gay rights and only about 10 years ago in Adrian, Michigan, the police staked out a public park for months and then arrested over 30 men at their homes, in front of their wives and children and, in a couple of cases, grand-children. (With one exception, all of these guys were married self-identified heterosexuals.) Cuba's past record on gay rights may be no better than our own, certainly nothing to be proud of, but in my experience gays in today's Cuba are better off than they are in any other Latin American society (check the murder rate in Rio) and better off than they are in many states in our Union (think Matthew Shepherd).

Cuban society, like most North American and European societies, is undergoing a profound review and reconceptualization of its attitudes towards gays and lesbians. Most of you probably know about the film Strawberry and Chocolate, the first Cuban film to deal openly and directly with homosexuality. (If you haven't seen it, I recommend it.) What you may not know is that the film was wildly popular in Cuba (indicating, no doubt, a repressed need to talk about this issue). Apparently it played simultaneously at 10 or 12 theatres in Havana for months to lines several blocks long.

Another seminal incident along the road to acceptance for Cuban gays occurred in 1996. Pablo Milanes, a Cuban nova trova singer who has achieved quasi-sainthood amongst the island's population, wrote a song about gay men entitled Original Sin (available on his CD entitled Origines), a song he dedicated to all Cuban homosexuals. Introduced at his annual holiday concert held in the vast Karl Marx Theater in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana, El Pecado original took the audience and the country by storm and did much to advance the cause of gay acceptance.

For me, one of the most striking things I learned about Cuba during my recent visits was the vitality of the cultural and intellectual life, particularly, of course, in Havana. Gay themes are prevalent in the theatre, in lectures and in concerts. For example, I recently saw a play entitled Muerte en el bosque (A Death in the Woods), about the investigation of the murder of an Havana drag queen produced by El Teatro Sotano in its Vedado theatre. Through the investigation of the crime, Cuban attitudes toward and prejudices against gays are examined at every level of society. (It also included a terrific drag show during the intermission!)

On a lighter note, a group called La Danza Voluminosa (voluminosa as in volume; come on, you get it!) produced a marvellously funny and dramatic ballet version of Racine's Phedre, with gender-blind casting. (Yes, Phedre was danced by a man.) And a one-man (yes, one man) stage version of Strawberry and Chocolate played to considerable success this season. It is also worth noting that in last December's film festival in Havana, easily half of the Latin American films shown had gay themes or subtexts.

It may be of some interest to note that theatre tickets cost Cubans 5 pesos (25 cents). Movies cost 2 pesos. To me, a striking contridiction in Cuban society today is the contrast between the rich cultural and intellectual life that is available and affordable and salaries that makes the purchase of a bar of soap an event that has to be planned for. In Havana, gay-run and gay-clientele restaurants are not hard to find, try the elegant French cuisine at Le Chansonnier, for example, or La Guarida, located in the apartment in which Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed. The famous (and rather infamous) Fiat Bar on the Malecon continues to attract hundreds of gay twenty-somethings who, on weekend nights, spill across this emblamatic Havana thoroughfare and line the sidewalk facing the sea.

In sum, I believe that what I have given you in this posting is context. Context that allows the discussion of Cuban libraries and other issues that Kent & Company generate on this and many other lists to be cast in a light that is not shed by Mr. Kent's narrowly focussed torch. Context is, of course, precisely what Mr. Kent wishes to avoid. By insisting upon a discussion of "intellectual freedom" unfettered by the realities of the world, he can set a very high bar for Cuba and easily find her wanting. (So, pick a country, guys, we can all do that.)

I, for one, do not believe it helpful to hold Cuba to an abstract standard that no other country in the world (certainly including my own) can claim to have reached. More useful, it seems to me, is to view this small island nation within the rich context of current reality. How well is Cuba doing compared to the rest of Latin America? How well is Cuba doing relative to our own country? How much progress has Cuba made on a variety of fronts, including intellectual freedom and access to information over the past forty years. A vision of Cuba very different from that of Mr. Kent's then emerges.

Gay culture in Cuba indeed may have been repressed 30 years ago. Where wasn't it in that pre-Stonewall age? But, this is not the reality of what I found in today's Cuba. Indeed, it seems unlikely that Out magazine (a slick and trendy guppy publication) would feature Havana as "The New gay hot spot ... hot boys, drag-heavy bars, and a whole lot more" in its current February 2001 issue if Cuba were as repressive as Kent's colleagues state. By insisting upon a sterile discussion devoid of context Mr. Kent constructs a reality in which any discussion the very real and quantifiable progress Cuba has made since the beginning of its revolution is ruled out of bounds; it also has the advantage of protecting him from discussion of his own highly questionable sponsors and their thinly veiled motives.

My suggestion is not to engage Mr. Kent and his agents directly. The most effective way of dealing with provocateurs is to discuss the issues, but ignore the provocations.

Larry R. Oberg __________________________________________________________________________

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