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Librarians as Spooks?

The Scheme to Infiltrate Cuba’s Libraries

by DIANA BARAHONA

The U.S. has been pretty successful at mobilizing world opinion against Cuba since the late 1980s. Emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union it has gone to considerable trouble and expense to bring down the revolution that refuses to be defeated a scant 90 miles off the empire’s shore. Part of this effort has involved creating an artificial opposition movement on the island and enlisting liberal organizations and intellectuals to support it. But U.S. librarians, targeted by name in the State Department’s 400-page destabilization blueprint, the Report to the President of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, not only refuse to play the game but are trying to assist their Cuban colleagues to improve their libraries.

The rent-an-opposition has several components: independent trade union groups, independent journalists, independent political parties and independent libraries ­ all paid and directed by the U.S. Interests Section. They are also composed of the same people; one person may be an independent press agency, a political party, and run a library out of his house. The depth of U.S.-style "civil society" was evident May 20-21 at the Congress of the Cuban Dissident Movement in Havana. Financed with a special congressional grant of $6 million and featuring a videotaped greeting from Bush himself, this gathering was supposed to bring together 360 dissident organizations; it barely drew 100 people.

Cuba not only has libraries, it has a lot of them ­ 400 to be precise, plus 6,000 school libraries. So why has the State Department created a network of independent libraries there? What exactly is an independent library? Rhonda L. Neugebauer and Larry Oberg, both university librarians, went to Cuba to meet with colleagues and study the library system in 2000. But they also visited the so-called independent libraries run out of people’s houses. What they found were carefully-chosen drop-off and contact points for personnel from the U.S. Interests Section and others, who visited them on a regular basis to deliver materials and money. They also discovered that by keeping bookshelves with these materials in their homes, the "librarians" qualified for a monthly stipend ­ "for services rendered," as one of them put it. They found no evidence that anyone ever checked out a book, and when they enquired of neighbors, nobody even seemed to know the libraries were there.

But the story doesn’t end there. For years Neugebauer has been trying to set up a program of exchange and assistance to Cuba’s real libraries, which not only lack funding for books and journals, but also for copying and computer equipment, and phone lines and technical support for internet access. But she and others are confronting a heated campaign to get the American Librarian Association and related organizations to condemn the Cuban government and support the independent libraries, waged by a New York librarian named Robert Kent.

Kent founded an organization called Friends of Cuban Libraries in 1999. When he traveled to Cuba in May of that same year, Kent made contact with Aleida Godínez, an intelligence agent posing as a dissident. According to Godínez, Kent introduced himself as Robert Emmet and even held a passport with that name. He said he had come as an emissary of Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.


"Robert Emmet" and Aleida Godinez.

"Emmet" didn’t bring books or spend any time studying libraries; "He put a lot of emphasis on the role of the independent press," says Godínez. "He said absolutely nothing about the so-called independent libraries. He barely mentioned to me that he was a librarian."

Instead, Kent arrived with surveillance equipment ("a camera, a shortwave radio, a 10-band transmitter and receiver, and a watch, a Cassio brand") and lots of cash, which he passed out to various dissidents. But the most disturbing aspect of the librarian’s visit was that he allegedly asked Godinez to help him ­ with drawings and photographs ­ map out the security measures at the home of Vice President of the Council of State, Carlos Lage Davila. Godínez says he gave her $100 for film for that purpose. Understandably, "Emmet" was detained and expelled for espionage.

As if this weren’t weird enough, 1999 is the same year the founder of Reporters Without Borders, Robert Menard, went to Cuba, and the behavior of the two men was identical. Both came as friends of Calzón and both arrived with cash and electronic equipment and sought out dissidents. Both asked questions unrelated to the ostensible purpose of their trips: Menard asked his contact, also an undercover agent, if he knew of any "disgruntled" people in the Cuban armed forces. Kent says his numerous trips to Cuba were financed by Freedom House, a Miami-based outfit funded by the State Department.

For an idea of the pressure Kent is putting on U.S. librarians, here is an open letter from his web site sent on June 5 to the president of the ALA, titled "Time to Take a Stand":

"[W]e in The Friends of Cuban Libraries are inviting you to make a decision which will establish, for all time, your stand on one of the most important intellectual freedom issues confronting librarians today: the persecution of Cuba’s independent library movement. We are asking you to use your authority as ALA president to invite Ramon Colas and Berta Mexidor, the co-founders of Cuba’s independent library movement, to be speakers at the upcoming ALA conference in Chicago.

"For six years, a small but powerful extremist group within the ALA has used falsehoods, evasions and coverups to prevent the ALA from fulfilling its duty to condemn the systematic persecution of people who, in an historic challenge to tyranny, are opening uncensored public libraries for their fellow citizens in Cuba. Exploiting the inattention of the majority of ALA members on this issue, over the past six years the extremist faction in the ALA has tried to ignore the numerous reports by respected human rights organizations and journalists which have documented the systematic persecution of library workers in Cuba. Sadly, for the past six years reports and resolutions engineered by the ALA’s extremist group to deny and coverup Cuba’s grim reality have been naively and unthinkingly approved by the well-meaning but negligent majority on the ALA’s governing Council."

This "extremist faction" Kent routinely lambasts includes Neugebauer, who says Kent has traveled to Europe and enlisted support from individuals in former communist bloc countries, including some library associations. Kent also finds the time to write press releases full of wild disinformation and has gained favorable coverage for his cause, putting the ALA on the defensive; Nat Hentoff of The Village Voice has become one of his attack dogs against the organization.

For those who appreciate the art of propaganda, the reason Kent gives for refusing to meet with Cuban librarians and virulently opposing professional exchanges is that they are working for the "state." It seems to have escaped him that at his job for the New York Public Library he also works for the state, as do most of his colleagues. And given his possession of a fake passport and shady activities and associations, "Agent Emmet" is undoubtedly a lot closer to the "state" than any Havana bibliotecario.

DIANA BARAHONA is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at dlbarahona@cs.com

Robert Kent refused to be interviewed for this article. Instead, he sent the following email message:

Dear Ms. Barahona:

Thank you for your message. The Friends of Cuban Libraries welcome fair and accurate journalism related to the Cuban government’s persecution of the brave people in Cuba who, in an unprecedented challenge to government control of information, are opening uncensored libraries for the benefit of their fellow citizens. Sadly, after reviewing a number of your articles on Google (access to which is a crime in Cuba, except for a privileged few), it is evident that your brand of journalism is neither fair nor accurate.

The Friends of Cuban Libraries defend the victims of human rights violations, and you are evidently in the business of attacking them. For this reason, we decline to comment on your questions dredged up from the dubious files of the Cuban secret police.

For additional information on the Friends of Cuban Libraries and the persecution of Cuba’s independent librarians, please refer to our website, the reports of reputable human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, and the numerous articles on Cuba’s independent libraries written by principled journalists for the New York Times, the BBC, Le Monde and other news sources.

Sincerely,

Robert Kent
Co-chair
The Friends of Cuban Libraries
(www.friendsofcubanlibraries.org)