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December 08, 2003

ALA and Cuba: More Bad Press

Nat Hentoff brought ALA sharply to task on this issue, and I can't say as I blame him, even though I don't know who told him that the Washington Times is a credible publication.

Appearing to agree with that shrill pest, Robert Kent, makes me squeamish. Nevertheless, allow me to fully distance myself from the faction in ALA that appears almost Stalinist in its refusal to recognize the very real human rights violations in Cuba, particularly those related to the right to read. This faction hypocritically splits hairs over the definition of "librarian" in order to turn its back on the imprisonment of the people who regardless of their formal education are resisting, as Hentoff put it, the "censorship of ideas," and have been arrested, tried, and found guilty of--get ready--providing small personal "libraries" of books that are hard or impossible to procure in Cuba. (And in library school, we told you providing access to information was a good thing to do.)

It is rarely a good idea for ALA to get involved in international relations, but when it does, the stand of ALA should always be on the side of free speech in open societies. It is even more shameful to hide behind what one librarian aptly called the "red herring" of the credentialing of the librarians.

I also condemn the widespread references to "dissidents" in ALA documents, used in these instances to dismiss the work of the Cuban activists, as if dissidence anywhere, but particularly in Cuba, was a bad thing. This double standard is as obvious and glaring as Rudolph's red nose.

Unfortunately, few in ALA seem willing to risk the wrath of the Cuban hardliners. Nevertheless, based on the feedback I get, I am not alone in shaking my head at ALA over this issue.

Posted by kgs at December 8, 2003 10:24 PM

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Should ALA condemn all attempts to supress free speech anywhere, and vigorously condemn the jailing of anyone for speech-related actions (even if carried out through apparent funding from an enemy of the particular regime)? Maybe so. (That would presumably include all those in that US-held bit of Cuba, Guantanamo Bay.)

Should people get special ALA treatment because they call themselves "independent librarians"? Yes: Just as soon as the AMA gives special (favorable) treatment to anyone who calls themselves "independent doctors" and the ABA protests mistreatment of anyone who calls themselves an "independent lawyer"--for, in one case, offering medical advice or, in the other case, offering legal advice (in both cases, with no special training or qualifications).

Otherwise, shouldn't there be at least a tiny bit of a showing that these Cubans are doing anything other than lending "their" books--and maybe a tiny bit of a showing that they're not US-funded agents working to bring down the Cuban government? Not that that justifies jailing them (although, of course, in the U.S. even suggesting that someone might be affiliated with certain foreign operations is enough to put them away indefinitely without the formality of charges or a trial), but it does justify ALA not giving them special treatment. (Or is the definition of "librarian" now simply "anyone who calls themselves a librarian"? That does simplify matters!)

Anonymous for the usual reasons: Cowardice.

Posted by: at December 9, 2003 10:24 AM

This is an issue that generates far more heat than light. I believe Karen is right to question the credibility of the Washington Times and of Mr. Kent and Friends of Cuban Libraries. They aren't credible, even on the basic issue of the charges against the jailed Cubans.

As for identifying those detainees, I suspect the term "activists" is more apt than "archivists," but I think Karen is also right to object to resorting to defining away a problem by saying they aren't real librarians. On the other hand, FoCL's agenda has been to promote its cause by defining a problem into existence, claiming they *are* real librarians being persecuted for lending books rather than activists jailed for violating currency laws. Kent et al base their position that ALA (as opposed to any other organization) should condemn the Cuban government on the claim that the jailed Cubans *are* librarians. You really can't accuse one side of playing the red herring here without acknowledging the other side is doing the same.

US/Cuba relations have a long and murky history and this issue cannot be understood outside that historical context. What's more, both the United States and Cuba have strict prohibitions against their citizens engaging in many kinds of economic exchanges with the other country.

How far do these prohibitions go? Well, on the US side they include information exchange. The American government recently issued an opinion saying that the international engineering organization IEEE would be in violation of its prohibitions against doing business with Cuba should it edit any work of Cuban engineers for inclusion in its journals. Penalties for such a terrible act include fines and jail time.

Should ALA take a position on this issue? I don't know, but I think there is a good case to be made that the US ban is more relevant to ALA than Cuba's internal politics. Why? Because the US government action denies American libraries and their patrons access to information without just cause. But I will not belabor this.

The most important point in Karen's post, I believe, comes when she says, "It is rarely a good idea for ALA to get involved in international relations, but when it does, the stand of ALA should always be on the side of free speech in open societies." I agree, ALA should avoid entry into international relations. When it does so, that action should be taken evenhandedly and according to criteria applied internationally, and not just to particular nations. If ALA is to take a stand with respect to the domestic activities of other governments (and I agree with Karen that it should not), it must do so for all other nations after considered reflection and due process.

Mr. Kent and Mr. Hentoff are trying to goad ALA into taking their position on an issue of international relations while they do nothing the help people understand the issues at stake, and indeed count on their badgering and obfuscation to prevent people from coming to such understanding. ALA and its members should resist falling victim to their narrow ideological agenda.

Posted by: Frederick Emrich at December 10, 2003 10:24 AM

How long has this debate been going on?

I like Karen's points. I like Frederick's points. I have no interest in defending either Castro, Cuba's judicial system or the U.S. embargo against Cuba. Surely there is some tenable middle ground that ALA could claim without being dragged into a morass.

Besides which, American librarians have been called dupes of Communism before, more than once. Political bad press can and will go away, wavering from our principles is a bigger concern.

Posted by: Eli at December 10, 2003 11:20 AM

Here is a way to approach a "middle ground": 1.) ALA does, and should, support freedom to read and access to literature and information. 2.) The librarians persecuted by the Cuban government are paraprofessionals. 3.) ALA supports the work that paraprofessionals perform for the benefit of their communities and the library profession. 4.) ALA suppports the career development of library paraprofessionals.

This view protects ALA's leadership as both an organization that works for freedom of access while establishing and maintaining the credentials of professional librarianship.

Posted by: Ray Harrison at December 14, 2003 06:45 AM

What about all the states in the U.S. where libraries are run by "librarians" without MLS degrees? We carefully ignore that issue.

We need to get out of the business of the random application of standards.

Posted by: K. G. Schneider at December 14, 2003 11:18 AM

My director and I just spent several days trying to hash out this issue, because our State library association has also been asked to make a statement. We're both tired of seeing messages about this and having the issue distract our professional organizations.
My arguments were similar to Karen's:
--If doesn't matter what organizations, governments, or monies supported these people who were thrown in jail; or what their "profession" is; if they were thrown in jail without due process for non-violent acts of conscience, that's an abuse of human rights AND an Intellectual Freedom issue.
--ALA shouldn't de in the business of deciding who is a prisoner of conscience and who is not. We need to leave that determination to organizations better suited to making that determination, e.g. Amnesty International and other rights groups.
My Director researched this with respect to ALA's mission and countered that:
--ALA has a policy of not making statements on human rights issues in other countries. It's IFLA and other international Library organizations that need to make that statement.

I can reluctantly accept that ALA has kept it's hands off the entire Cuba issue. But it hasn't. It welcomed a delegation of official Cuban librarians and heard their complaints about the negative effects of the US Embargo. It sent representatives to Cuba to see those effects first hand.

It seems disingenuous to me that ALA feels that making statements about US foreign policy is within it's mission, but that foreign human rights is not to be commented on. That invites criticism of ALA as being selectively motivated by a particular political slant. In this case I believe that's true, and is weakening the Association.

Posted by: Jerry Kuntz at December 22, 2003 08:50 AM


Posted by: politics at February 18, 2004 11:52 PM

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