A Cuban Book Trip: Reading Flourishes at the Havana Book Fair

The captivating country of Cuba has welcomed readers, authors, publishers, and librarians to the Havana International Book Fair since 1982. Organized by the Ministry of Culture and the Cuban Book Institute, this standout cultural extravaganza, which originated as part of a government campaign to boost literacy on the island, celebrated its 26th anniversary this past February with a family-oriented festival dedicated to the pleasures of reading under the motto, “To read is to grow.”

In 2016, after the decades-old U.S. embargo of Cuba was partially lifted, the American Library Association (ALA) sponsored a tour of about 30 people whose goal was to attend the fair as well as to visit major Cuban libraries and other cultural and social institutions. Traveling from New York, Virginia, Illinois, New Jersey, California, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Texas, New Hampshire, Arizona, and the Virgin Islands, tour group members included professionals from an array of libraries, three library schools, two professional associations, and a consulting firm.

The main venue for the ten-day fair was the massive 18th-century Fortaleza de San Carlos de La Cabaña (Fort of St. Charles), with 12 additional locations around Havana for readings by authors and other fair events. Taking advantage of the Fortaleza’s stunning architecture and its generous outdoor spaces, many of the attending publishers (58 Cuban, 86 foreign) were housed in separate cubicles that ranged along cobblestone alleys while others were placed in shady tents and fresh-air stalls.

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A hit with the locals

Especially noticeable for this first-time visitor was the popularity of the fair with Cubans of all ages; some 600,000 Habaneros attended (in a city of two million people!). As there are only about a dozen state-owned bookstores in Havana with unreliable operating hours and limited inventories owing to severe paper shortages, the event offered locals the only reliable opportunity to buy new books from government presses and other publishers. Children’s materials of all kinds, including laminated posters, attracted plenty of attention, and many Latin American and Spanish publishers hosted large and colorful displays. [On a personal note, the ALA guide confessed to being an avid reader who gets his books from his half brother in Miami.]

Among the local authors promoting their wares was a turbaned culinary star of Cuban television, who had collected her own recipes for favorite Cuban specialties and packaged them into a colorful and attractive paperback. And not to be missed was the booth of Ediciones Vigía, which specializes in handcrafted books limited to print runs of 200 copies. Headquartered in Matanzas in central Cuba, this three-decades-old press, made up of a collective of volunteer artisans, demonstrates Cuban creativity and resourcefulness by making its own papers out of donated, repurposed materials, commissioning its own art, and creating exquisite 3–D works on paper that are a book collector’s delight. Ediciones Vigía takes its name from the hurricane oil lamp used by Cubans during power outages.

Unfortunately, the prices of these collectors’ items are prohibitive for most Cubans. The country’s unusual dual currency system also makes imported books unaffordable for natives. At the book fair, Havana residents could use their Cuban pesos (CUPs) to buy government and local publications at a central bookstore for a typical cover price of less than one U.S. dollar. But foreign publishers could only sell their books at their kiosks for Convertible Currency (CUCs) pesos. As this tourist currency is pegged to the U.S. dollar, the average price of an imported book jumped to about six dollars.

Not for sale were the 400 titles from 21 American publishers on display in the USA Pavilion as part of the U.S. Publishing Mission to Cuba, organized by Publishers Weekly and the Combined Book Exhibit. However, these books were donated to the Cuban Book Institute after the fair ended. Cuban and American publishers both urged the end of the U.S. economic blockade.

Other notable features of the fair included a tribute to Fidel Castro, Comandante en Jefe, who died in November 2016; this was marked by a special presentation of the 90th Anniversary Collection of Castro’s 30 books along with a two-day colloquium devoted to his political thought. With Canada as this year’s guest of honor, the Canadian embassy invited more than 30 Canadian authors to attend the book fair, chief among them Margaret Atwood, Madeleine Thien, Luc Chartrand, and Jocelyne Saucier. Eighteen Canadian publishers also filled out the guest list.

The ALA tour found Havana’s National Library José Martí to be a marble showpiece with handsome reading rooms, but the two municipal libraries and a province-level library visited by the group were housed in decaying mansions, and the materials they offered were mostly old and often in tatters. While Cuban library leaders who talked to the ALA group recognized that improving library technology is a major challenge, they insisted that the acquisition and use of physical books remain a higher priority for Cuba. Having achieved an almost 100 percent literacy rate, a point of national pride, the country has also made the hunger for books and reading as Cuban as the rhumba.

Barbara Conaty, a retired federal librarian, has reviewed for LJ since 1976

This article was published in Library Journal's May 1, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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Comments

  1. anonymous coward says:

    “the country has also made the hunger for books and reading as Cuban as the rhumba.”

    It’s amazing what happens when you restrict avenues for entertainment and education- you create a hunger for them. Can we please stop quoting state statistical reports from dictatorships? Does anyone believe 100%?

    Visitors were given a pasteurized view of Cuba and Cuban library needs. The only thing worse than the impact US sanctions have had on the island is the nepotism and despotic rule of the Castros.

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