Sunday, January 29, 2006

ALA convention shocker: Keynote speaker Codrescu slams Cuba policy scandal

ALA convention shocker: Keynote speaker Codrescu slams Cuba policy scandal
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS, January 22, 2006 (Andrei Codrescu) - Here are excerpts
from Andrei Codrescu's electrifying keynote speech, "The Make It or Break It
Century," presented at the ALA's Midwinter 2006 conference:

Thank you for - once again - giving me the opportunity and pleasure to
address some of my favorite people. I feel that you and I, writers and
librarians, along with publishers and booksellers, are keeping the flame of
literacy flickering in these pixilated times.....

I was born in a place [Romania] where people were forbidden to read most of
what we consider the fundamental books of Western civilization. Not only
were we forbidden to read authors like James Joyce, but being found in
possession of a book such as George Orwell's "1984" could lend one in prison
for years. My good luck was to meet Dr. Martin in my adolescence. Dr. Martin
was a retired professor who had collected and kept in his modest three room
apartment the best of inter-war Romanian literature..... Also among his
treasures were translations of Sigmund Freud, Robert Musil, Klebnikov,
George Orwell, and Paul Claudel..... Dr. Martin's library could have earned
him years of hard labor. In addition to owning them, he lent them to us,
young high-school writers, who absorbed them thirstily and read them deeply
because we knew what risks our older friend - and ourselves - were taking.
Those books influenced me profoundly because they were essential to my
intellectual development. I became a writer because I read forbidden books.
Books forbidden by an authoritarian government are the only reason I am now
standing before you.

I knew about the American Library Association for a long time.... The ALA
fight for the freedom to read, against censorship and the Patriot Act has
been one of its magnificent accomplishments. Another has been the promotion
of human rights and intellectual freedom worldwide. To quote from the ALA
policy manual, "freedom of expression is an inalienable human right,
necessary to self-government, vital to the resistance to oppression, crucial
to the cause of justice, and further, that the principles of freedom of
expression should be applied to libraries and librarians throughout the

Given these crystal-clear positions, it was with a great deal of dismay that
I learned that the American Library Association has taken no action to
condemn the imprisonment of librarians, the banning of books, the repression
of expression and the torture of dissidents only 90 miles away from our
shores, in Cuba. In March 1998, two residents of Las Tunas, Ramón Colás and
Berta Mexidor, opened a private library in their home, dedicated to offering
Cubans books not officially available. The Félix Varela Library was the
first of a network of private libraries that were established by volunteers
in Cuba to bring light to the oppressive darkness of Castro's police state.
103 libraries and 182,000 registered patrons were affiliated with the
expanding Independent Libraries Project by the end of 2002. From the very
beginning of their existence, the private librarians were subjected to
threats, harassment, evictions, arrests, police raids, and the seizure of
book collections, books that disappeared so quickly they could have only
been burned..... Since then, those "individuals" have been subject to brutal
imprisonment and their books have been disappeared. The ALA councilors have
remained silent on the issue to this day. Am I
hallucinating? Is this the same American Library Association that stands
against censorship and for freedom of expression everywhere? There are some
people like the civil liberties columnist Nat Hentoff, and Robert Kent,
founder of Friends of Cuban Libraries, who have accused the ALA leadership
of a cover-up. I hope not. This organization cannot logically... act against
215 of the Patriot Act and approve of Fidel Castro's order 88, which denies
all the rights we cherish.

I went to Cuba in 1997, just before a papal visit later that year, and I was
appalled by the lack of books. I was reminded of my poor, sad Romania in the
1950's, a dismal prison where food for body and mind were nearly inexistent.
Cubans were literally starving physically and intellectually. Looking
through the desultory pages of the Communist Party's official paper, Granma,
reminded me also of the pathetic simulacra of phony writing that stained the
pages of Romania's official papers during the years of the dictatorship....
Cuba today is the Romania of my growing up and I only hope for the sake of
the Cubans that a hundred thousand Dr. Martins are ready to rise to take the
place of those who had been arrested and tortured by the Cuban regime. I
also hope that, in keeping with its tradition and charter of defending the
freedom to read and freedom of expression, the American Library Association
will immediately pass a resolution condemning the Castro regime for flagrant
violations of basic human rights. To not do so is self-defeating and wipes
out any credibility the ALA might have in fighting the much milder
provisions of the Patriot Act. Not to speak of the fact that it's much
easier to fight for freedom to read in a country where every book is
available, while it is much more difficult to make meaningful a statement in
a place where books are an enemy of the state.....

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