FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Spurred by events in South Florida, a national group is urging students to read books that have been burned in Cuba.
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The organization, FREADOM, launched the project last month to bring attention to documents and books, such as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights and George Orwell's Animal Farm, that the Cuban government has banned and set afire. The project is a takeoff on campaigns encouraging people to read banned books.
"Banning a book is the intent to kill," said Walter Skold, co-chairman of FREADOM, a group of librarians, authors and human rights activists. "Burning it is the crime of murder."
The project came about in part from a controversy in Miami-Dade public schools over the children's book Vamos a Cuba. The Miami-Dade School Board pulled the book last year after Cuban exiles complained it was an inaccurate portrayal of life on the communist island. Among critics of the book's removal were Cuban librarians.
Skold, a middle school teacher from Maine, said many media outlets reported the criticism without disclosing that some books are prohibited in Cuba.
"This is all propaganda. They don't mention once that they're burning books in their country," he said, referring to the Cuban librarians.
As proof, Skold points to official Cuban sentencing documents from the government's March 2003 crackdown on dissidents in which 75 people were arrested.
The documents, obtained by Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights in Tallahassee, were posted on the Web site, www.ruleoflawandcuba.fsu.edu. In them, the Cuban government mentions confiscated pamphlets, magazines and books they deemed counterrevolutionary. They ordered the works destroyed, some by "incineration."
A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C., could not be reached for comment.
Some of the dissidents rounded up in 2003 were independent librarians who established lending libraries in their homes, offering banned books to neighbors. Today, there are 135 such libraries, said Gisela Delgado, head of the independent library movement in Cuba.
The movement started in 1998 when Fidel Castro declared there were no censored books in Cuba, only a lack of funds for public libraries. Dissident Berta Mexidor and her husband Ramon Colas took that opportunity to establish the country's first independent library.
Delgado said government officials routinely confiscate books mailed to her. They have also seized books from her 2,500-book library, most recently in 2003, she said.
Delgado said she hopes the burned-book campaign will give people in the United States an appreciation of the freedom their counterparts in Cuba do not have.
"These (independent libraries) are the only chance children, young people, and even older people have to have all of this literature in their hands," Delgado said from her home in Havana.
Independent librarians say their work is cultural, not political.
"It's only political because we're talking about changing people's mindsets," said Grace Rosser, a coordinator with the independent libraries in Miami.
In the United States, FREADOM has gotten the support of various authors and librarians from around the country, Skold said. It also posts on its Web site, www.4freadom.org, possible classroom activities involving banned books.
Organizers said they want to get the word out about the book burning before the ailing Castro dies and articles are written about his legacy.
"We would like it to be part of the record that whatever else Castro was, he was a book burner," Skold said.