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How Cuban bookworms are benefiting from political openness

Holger Heimann / rb
February 24, 2016

Cuba is opening up, and the country's avid readers are noticing a change for the better. While paper for books is still scarce, politically controversial volumes are coming back.

Havanna harbor, Copyright: picture-alliance/ZB/J. Büttner
Image: picture-alliance/ZB/J. Büttner

The US is gradually relaxing its embargo against Cuba, and in March President Barack Obama will travel to Havana.

In the meantime, workers in the Cuban capital are busy repairing the streets. A taxi driver says, "They're afraid Obama might fall into a hole, so they're trying to fix everything now."

Maybe the announcement of the American president's visit has truly led to the work being done now. Nobody knows for sure. What is clear, however, is that the Cubans have high expectations of the meeting between Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro.

Although the economic embargo is still in effect, the two countries are trying to normalize their relations. However, the Cuban side is also concerned that its strong northern neighbor might change the country too much.

Book fair in Havana, Copyirght: DW/H. Heimann
A gigantic fortress was home to the book fair in HavanaImage: DW/H. Heimann

Zuleica Romay, director of Havana's International Book Fair, says, "People are afraid that the US will simply overwhelm them."

The fair, which came to an end this week, is unique worldwide, and that also has to do with its venue. The bookstalls of publishers are located in the old white-painted vaults of a gigantic fortress, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana.

Avid readers in Cuba

Every year in February hundreds of thousands of Cubans make their way to the fortress. "Leer es crecer" (Reading is growing), the motto of the festival, can be seen everywhere in the castle. Cuba's economy might not be doing so well, but Cubans are still proud of their education system - and rightly so.

Nowhere else in Latin America and the Caribbean do people read as many books as they do here - despite the fact that they are not widely available.

Michi Strausfeld from Germany is fascinated by the intellectual curiosity of the Cubans and has been bringing Latin American literature to Germany for the past 40 years. She is at the Book Fair to look for one particular kind of novel which tells of the turning point in Cuba.

"The bookstores are empty as usual. The little that is published will appear at the book fair. That's why all Cubans are going there to try to buy the books they want," she tells DW. After that, it will be more difficult to get books. "One never knows if there will be a reprint of the book that has been published."

Paper is scarce and must be imported

It is a tedious and difficult search for Michi Strausfeld. Many Cuban authors prefer shorter formats and write more stories and poems than novels. In addition, financial support has been diminishing for the state-owned and state-subsidized publishing industry.

Often it is the most elementary thing that is lacking: There simply is not enough paper.

The poet David Curbelo, who is responsible for the programming at the fair, explains, "The problem is that we have to import paper. Two years ago, we tried to produce paper ourselves in cooperation with France, but that did not work. The quality was poor and so we had to give up that project. All materials necessary for the production of books have to be imported: ink, paper and even computers."

Book fair in Havana, Copyirght: DW/H. Heimann
The demand for books is huge in Cuba - even if the supply is notImage: DW/H. Heimann

Most of the time there is not enough money for expensive imports. The result of this is also visible at the book fair in Havana. Even the shelves of the most prestigious Cuban publishers were sparsely filled. But Curbelo hopes that this will change soon.

"The problem is that we experienced production bottlenecks this year and so many of the titles that should be on the stands have not arrived yet," Curbelo explains. "Unfortunately, we cannot delay the fair, so we can only display those books that arrive."

Inside the German pavilion

At the German pavilion, which is organized by the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Goethe-Institut, this is not an issue. The display is an overview of the current German-language production: The finalists of the German Book Prize, dictionaries and teaching aids, children's books, modern classics, some of the titles that have been given awards for being the most beautiful books.

Spanish translations of contemporary German authors are also available - and all for free. The German exhibitors will leave the books as a gift to readers in Cuba after the fair ends.

Classic car in Havana Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Ernesto
Tourists in Havana - Cuba is opening upImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Ernesto

Over the course of the fair, at the Cuban bookstalls more and more shipments of books start arriving, as predicted. Arte y Literatura, one of the major foreign-language publishers, presented George Orwell's "1984." At the beginning of the 1960s there was a Cuban edition of the classic. It was the time period immediately after the revolution, so it was permitted.

Then politics shifted drastically and the book, which tells of the destruction of humanity at the hands of a totalitarian state, disappeared from Cuban book shelves. The fact that it is available now can be seen as a sign of increasing openness.

What you're allowed to write in Cuba

Even local Cuban writers are profiting from the growing political openness. The best-known and most internationally successful among them, Leonardo Padura, has written his books like a chronicle of Cuban life since the revolution in the 1950s - not sparing the negative details.

Regarding censorship he says, "The Cuban writer has to constantly be aware of what he wants to say and what he can say. But the scope of what should not be said is being opened up more and more by writers. I myself believe that I have said everything I wanted to say by now, but in an artistic form."

The boundaries of what may and may not be said have blurred in and around Havana. But Cubans also know where the limit is: You may criticize the situation of the country, but you cannot call for a change in government. The Communist Party remains unshakeable.

More on the topic: Here is an inside look at Germans and their books.

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