Past Features

March 9, 2009 (Vol. 9, No. 4)

A Visit to the Havana Book Fair

Havana International Book Fair
Havana International Book Fair

The Havana International Book Fair in Cuba is a weeklong annual event that draws book lovers and authors from around the globe. This year, it attracted Chief Lehman Librarian Kenneth Schlesinger, who traveled to Cuba in February, via Canada, as an educator on a general research license.

Each year, the fair, whose motto is Leer es Crecer ("To Read is to Grow"), highlights a country—this year it was Chile—and features international booths, screenings, and author readings. As Professor Schlesinger explained, the fair is an overwhelming event and a popular destination in Havana, drawing throngs of people. "It is compelling to simply watch people of all ages browse and purchase books," said Professor Schlesinger. "We assured our hosts that this would never happen in the United States."

Cuba boasts the highest literacy rate in Latin America—93 percent. This was not always the case: after the Revolution in 1959, there was a major programmatic push for island-wide literacy. As recounted in Havana's Museum of Literacy, during 1960-1961 the illiteracy rate was reduced from 26 percent to 3 percent. This program is now used as an international model—over 27 nations have adopted this Si, Se Puede ("Yes, We Can") program.

Jose Marti National Library
Jose Marti National Library

During his visit, Professor Schlesinger and his colleagues visited several libraries and cultural institutions in the area, including the Jose Marti National Library in Revolution Square, Casa De Las Americas, and the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts). At the Jose Marti National Library, Professor Schlesinger and his colleagues participated in a bilingual-facilitated discussion about their international programs and commitment to disabled services. As he recounted, five copies of every book published in Cuba are deposited in the Library, which also contains significant archival and visual collections documenting the nineteenth-century Colonial era.

On his cultural visit to Casa de Las Americas, Professor Schlesinger entered into an agreement to contribute to the organization's book collection with the help of his Canadian colleagues, who agreed to accept his donations and forward them to Cuba. During his visit to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, he was greeted by librarians and spent an hour talking with members of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists. He also made a daytrip to the nineteenth-century city of Matanzas to visit Ediciones Vigias, a publisher of innovative and uniquely designed artists' books.

The trip was not all official business. Professor Schlesinger had a chance to appreciate some of Cuba's music and dance performers—he took in a show by the Buena Vista Social Club at the restored National Hotel, saw a flamenco version of Federico Garcia Lorca's House of Bernarda Alba at the main downtown theatre, and took mambo lessons on a rooftop in Old Havana.

Havana sunset
Havana sunset

Old Havana is the heart of the city and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its Colonial architecture—more than any city in the Western Hemisphere. Many of these buildings are being saved and restored, even as Old Havana remains a thriving residential community.

"Havana is a stunning city, but the economic embargo has had a devastating effect on the housing stock," Professor Schlesinger observes. "It is distressing and heartbreaking to see once-thriving shopping districts and palatial boulevards in decay and disarray. Our Cuban neighbors were wonderful hosts, and are very excited about President Obama and prospects for change and reform."

The trip ended one memorable evening when his group visited a neighborhood collective in South Havana for a block party. They brought medical supplies, which are scarce and expensive, and their guests served refreshments. "Then they put on music, and there was dancing in the streets. Two hours later, it was hard to say goodbye to our new Cuban friends."