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Castro's bookish foe

Ramon Colas opened an independent library in Cuba. He's seeking backing from the U.S.

September 05, 2003|George Gedda | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ramon Colas has a clear memory of the day when a few words from Fidel Castro changed his life.

Colas, long an opponent of Cuba's revolution, recalled that Castro was asked by a reporter in early 1998 whether there were any prohibited books on the island.

"In Cuba," Castro replied, "there are no prohibited books. What is lacking is the money to buy them."

As Colas saw it, the response was "a spark from God. We found in his words a fissure, an opening, a huge pore that we could penetrate."

He knew that the typical library in Cuba featured the writings of Marx, Engels, Castro and Che Guevara. The works of those with different views -- Camus, Solzhenitsyn and Adam Smith -- were not present.

Colas decided to start his own public library -- albeit a modest one -- at his home in the eastern province of Las Tunas. It would be unlike any other library on the island.

During a brief visit to Washington recently, Colas, now 41, described to a reporter his experience as Cuba's first independent librarian, his subsequent clashes with Cuban authorities, the suffering he and his family endured -- and how his challenge to the regime eventually forced him into exile.

It was on March 3, 1998, that Colas, a psychologist, placed a sign in large black letters in front of his house. On it was the Castro quote asserting his no-censorship policy. Farther down was another sign: "Independent Library."

As Colas described it: "I used Fidel's words to protect myself."

He started with more than a thousand books, many of them brought into the country by a friend authorized to travel abroad. Other materials had been provided by the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana.

Colas, an intense man who is the son of peasants, said word of his audacious initiative spread quickly. Within 12 days, a counterpart library opened in Cuba's second-largest city, Santiago. Before long, each of the 14 provinces had one.

Books started coming in from Sweden, the United States, Colombia, Costa Rica, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

In time, the authorities started cracking down. Colas, who had become a traveling salesman on behalf of his idea, was told to stay home.

His wife was fired from her job as an accounting professor. His children, then 14 and 8, were shunned by their friends and were warned by school authorities that education in Cuba was exclusively for supporters of the revolution.

Colas applied for political asylum. The family received their U.S. visas in October 2000. The Cuban government granted them permission to leave in December 2001.

But his campaign for independent libraries persists, and he wants the Bush administration to embrace it.

Cuban authorities, not surprisingly, saw Colas' efforts on the island as a counterrevolutionary ploy that enjoyed covert U.S. backing.

Roughly 15 independent libraries were shut down and their inventories confiscated during a broad-based crackdown on dissidents last March. The directors of each library were given long prison terms, including Colas' successor in Las Tunas.

"The independent libraries have ... demonstrated they are receiving money to subvert the institutional order of Cuba," said Eliades Acosta, Cuba's director of national libraries. The Bush administration denies Cuba's allegations of U.S. involvement.

Colas brightens when he talks about his post-Cuba life. He has traveled to Europe ("I never thought I would ever see Paris"), and says his fellow Cuban Americans in South Florida have treated him royally.

"Even today there are people who worry that I might need something. Everything that I have in my house with the exception of a television was a gift from the people of Miami," he says.

He works as a researcher at the University of Miami. He met with President Bush at the White House in May as part of Cuban Independence Day activities.

But were it not for his family, he would have stayed behind to fight for his cause.

"I never wanted to leave Cuba," he says.

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