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Independent Libraries Project for Cuba director Ramon Colás visits Uruguay

Uruguayan support group for the dissident's project formed

Posted: April 22, 2005

Ramon Colas, Founder and Director of the Independent Libraries Project for Cuba, with U.S. Ambassador Martin J. Silverstein. [U.S. Embassy photo by Vince Alongi]
Ramon Colas with U.S. Ambassador Martin J. Silverstein
(Click here to enlarge this photo)
Ramon Humberto Colás Castillo, Founder and Director of the Independent Libraries Project for Cuba, who was expelled with his wife in 2001 for establishing independent libraries in Cuba, visited Montevideo the week of April 10-14.

The visit of Cuban dissident Ramon Colás included a session with the Human Rights Committee of the Uruguayan Congress, which had full attendance from across the political spectrum.

Colás also met with University of Montevideo's dean Nicolas Etcheverry and attended a roundtable luncheon with a politically diverse group of academics, political leaders and news editors (photo gallery below), which resulted in the formation of a Uruguayan support group for the dissident's Independent Library Project to offer independent news, books and other reference materials to independent libraries in Cuba. On April 12, Colás met with members of African-Uruguayan groups under the auspices of the cultural section of the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo, and later visited the library of the Uruguayan Congress.

In 1998 Ramon Colás and his wife Berta Mexidor Vázquez founded the Independent Libraries of Cuba Project. The project is a cultural initiative that has succeeded in breaking the control over information that the Cuban government has had for four decades through the creation of independent libraries to offer books, magazines, documents and other publications that are not available in state-run organizations in Cuba. The reaction by Cuban authorities has been violence, ransacking, slander and imprisonment. For his peaceful efforts at promoting liberalization in his homeland, Colás suffered not only vicious beatings but was also jailed more than 20 times. Colás exiled to the the United States in December 2001, when Cuban authorities permitted his family to emigrate. He currently works at the University of Miami's Cuba Transition Project, whose advisory board includes former U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and former GOP senator Connie Mack. Researchers there are studying the lessons of democratic transition in Chile, Eastern Europe, and Nicaragua.

Ramon Colás with wife Berta Mexidor
A trained psychologist and a member of the Cuban opposition since 1990, his life was radically changed by Castro's well-publicized comments at the Havana International Book Fair in February 1998. Asked by a journalist about censorship in Cuba, the dictator impulsively responded, "In Cuba there are no prohibited books, only those we do not have the money to buy." When Colás and his wife, Berta, an economist, heard this statement, they immediately seized on the opportunity to establish independent libraries, free of regime scrutiny, where Cubans could have unrestricted access to books, journals, and pamphlets. If the government objected or intervened, they reasoned, then the hollowness of Castro's promises would be exposed. Colás notes that he'd always been an avid reader himself, and was keenly aware of the "thirst for information" - non-propaganda, that is - which exists in Cuba.

The inaugural private library opened a few weeks later on March 3, 1998, in their apartment in Las Tunas. It was named the Félix Varela Independent Library. Within the next nine months, over a dozen independent libraries had sprung up across Cuba. In many cases they were just single rooms in the homes or apartments of oppositionist intellectuals and artists. They carried the works of authors previously unknown to most Cubans: Friedrich Hayek, George Orwell, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name just a few, along with such banned Cuban writers as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas. Government officials soon became wary of the libraries' growing influence; particularly alarming was the influx of donated books from abroad. They subsequently began to bully and threaten the independent librarians. In addition, they began to monitor Colás's travel around the island.

Then came a series of arrests, persecutions, and expulsions. At all hours of the night, he received menacing telephone calls warning that the police would make him "disappear" if he didn't rein in the libraries. His wife Berta was even ordered to divorce him. Finally, on August 23, 1999, government agents raided and ransacked his home. The family was evicted, their possessions were taken in two trucks to a military farm, and Colás was arrested. Regime authorities told their neighbors that Colás and his wife were terrorists and CIA agents, and that they weren't to have any further contact with them or their children.

Colás's incarceration that time was brief: only a night. (He says that his other 20-odd detentions by Cuban police were usually for periods each lasting 7-8 days.) But his family was forced to move in with relatives, and his wife had lost her job. Also, his kids began to have problems at school, with teachers informing them that education was only for those loyal to the revolution. "The regime doesn't only attack you," Colás laments. "It attacks your entire family." While he continued to support the libraries and pass along news to Radio Martí, Mexidor and their children grew weary of constant harassment in school. Colás eventually requested political asylum. He and his family obtained American visas in October 2000, and were allowed to leave for Miami just over a year later.

Since departing Cuba, Colás has championed the independent libraries' cause in meetings with the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), United Nations representatives, various European heads of state, and, last May, with President Bush. In August, he attended IFLA's Berlin conference and spoke with members of the German foreign ministry. He also met with leaders of the city's Cuban exile community, who are forming their own support group for the independent libraries project. The trip was "a great success," he says, largely because he was able to invalidate the arguments presented by Castro's IFLA delegation. Moreover, after meeting with Colás the German foreign ministry decided to withdraw its sponsorship of the 2004 Havana International Book Fair, which was held last month. Colás recently returned from France, where he laid the groundwork for emergent partnerships between the private Cuban libraries and public libraries in Paris and Strasburg.

Today, there are roughly 200 independent libraries in Cuba, about half of which are affiliated with Colás's organization. Most of the directors of the libraries are dissidents. Fourteen were arrested during the regime's crackdown in March 2003, including world-famous poet Raúl Rivero. Yet according to Robert Kent, co-chairman of the Friends of Cuban Libraries, the independent libraries take great pride in stocking books reflective of all views. They tend to carry Solzhenitsyn and Adam Smith, sure, but they also have Granma, the Communist-party daily, and works by pro-regime writers. Colás believes that those Cubans who run the libraries today will lead the post-Castro transition tomorrow. He says the pro-democracy librarians draw their inspiration from Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Vaclav Havel (there are libraries named after each man).

Source consulted: Bibliotecas Independientes de Cuba

For more information about the Independent Libraries Project for Cuba, please visit their website at: www.bibliocuba.org/english/

Dean Nicolas Etcheverry of the University of Montevideo and Ramon Colas, Founder and Director of the Independent Libraries Project for Cuba. [U.S. Embassy photo by Vince Alongi] Ramon Colas, Founder and Director of the Independent Libraries Project for Cuba, with members of roundtable luncheon in Montevideo, April 12, 2005. [U.S. Embassy photo by Vince Alongi]
Ramon Colás with University of Montevideo's dean Nicolas Etcheverry (left), and at roundtable luncheon (right).
(Click here to enlarge this photo) (Click here to enlarge this photo)


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