Albright urges librarians to fight for freedoms
Cuba a sore subject among ALA members
Sunday, June 25, 2006
By James Varney
Addressing the opening general session of the biggest convention to come
to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, former Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright mildly chided the American Library Association on
Saturday for what critics consider its feeble condemnation of Cuban
dictator Fidel Castro's assaults on intellectual freedom in his nation.
But she won her loudest applause for oblique slaps at President Bush.
The thrust of Albright's speech, like that of her new book, "The Mighty
& the Almighty," was that religion has long been, and will remain, a
flashpoint in international affairs that can quickly turn bloody. But
before warming to that theme, she reminded her listeners that freedom
should not be taken for granted at home or abroad.
"Cuba is a country where basic freedoms have been denied," Albright
said, including the Caribbean island on a list of notorious human rights
violators such as North Korea and Syria.
Attempts to condemn Castro's imprisonment of independent librarians and
burning of books have been defeated at past ALA conventions, so for
Albright -- who became the nation's first female secretary of state
during the Clinton administration -- to criticize the Cuban regime
before the group was potentially explosive. But she did not dwell on the
history of the organization's attitude toward the Castro regime.
If her approach seemed low-key, it may have been because of other themes
swirling around this year's ALA annual conference, which was expected to
draw 17,000 delegates to New Orleans.
The gathering marks the first commitment by a large national
organization to use the city as a host site despite the damage inflicted
by Katrina. Thus, tourism officials and leaders of other major
organizations are scrutinizing the event to see whether New Orleans,
long recognized as one of the nation's top convention sites, is again
ready to handle thousands of visitors.
As if to underscore its importance, both Mayor Ray Nagin and his recent
electoral opponent, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, spoke before Albright and
thanked the audience for coming to New Orleans.
Nagin joked about seeing some librarians with go-cups in the French
Quarter, and Landrieu said it was "incredibly fabulous" to see so many
people in town for a convention.
There was speculation before her speech that Albright would take the ALA
to task for failing to denounce Castro's arrest and imprisonment in 2003
of 75 human rights activists, including at least 10 independent
librarians. His regime also shut down a handful of makeshift libraries
and burned some books.
Despite those actions, the ALA's 2003 convention in Toronto postponed
any decision on whether it should take sides on the issue. The group's
leaders ultimately rejected an explicit anti-Castro statement at its
midwinter meeting later that year.
The ALA's unwillingness to criticize publicly a governmental act against
what in the United States would be considered core rights infuriated
some intellectuals across the political spectrum. Among them was Andrei
Codrescu, a New Orleans writer and commentator who excoriated the ALA's
position at a later convention.
Similarly, journalist Nat Hentoff wrote several columns in The Village
Voice, a New York weekly paper, that were sharply critical of the ALA
directors' stance. Eventually, in 2004, Hentoff renounced the Immroth
Memorial Award for Intellectual Freedom that the ALA had bestowed on him
in 1983 "for courageous and articulate advocacy of the First Amendment."
He said the ALA's attitude toward Castro made a mockery of the award.
Saturday night, however, Albright said the organization should be proud
of whatever anti-Castro stance it took, and then quickly turned to a
call for lifting the United States' economic embargo against Cuba.
"After 45 years of the embargo, it's time we thought of something new,"
she said. "We need to look beyond the embargo to a new era of travel and
Her audience at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, numbering in the
thousands but impossible to count in the dark hall, applauded.
The crowd also cheered her attack on the controversial provision of the
Patriot Act that allows the government to review citizens' library
activity, as well as her criticism of those she said question the
patriotism of people who speak out against the Iraq war.
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James Varney can be reached at email@example.com or (504) 826-3386.