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Inter Press Service

Written Word Joins Cuban Authors, On And Off The Island

By Patricia Grogg

February 11, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Global Information Network. All rights reserved.

HAVANA, Feb. 10 (IPS/GIN) -- The Colecci¢n Cultura Cubana book series was created by a Puerto Rico-based publishing house for Cuban writers, whether living in or outside this socialist-run country, and is one of the main attractions of the International Book Fair under way in Havana.

The editor of the collection, Patricia Guti‚rrez, says the fundamental aim of the Plaza Mayor publishers is to offer and encourage "respect for differences".

But this endeavour has had to overcome more than just a little lack of understanding and several difficulties on both sides of the Florida Straits that separate Cuba from the United States, where many Cuban dissidents and ‚migr‚s live.

"This collection provides a literary space, without censorship, so that the Cubans encounter each other on paper, given that they can't get together in person with the frequency that they would like," the editor told IPS.

Guti‚rrez is the daughter of Eloy Guti‚rrez Menoyo, a former anti-Batista guerrilla commander under Fidel Castro and later a political prisoner under Castro's government. He returned to Cuba in the middle of last year and has been trying -- unsuccessfully -- to persuade the authorities to grant him legal residence.

Patricia Guti‚rrez, who is also the president of Plaza Mayor publishing, has been participating in the Havana International Book Fair for the past four years, and this time around will be making a 33-town tour of the island that will last until March 7.

She says her purpose is nothing more than to "unite, with truth and meaning, the Cubans on the island and Cubans who live in other countries, to encourage dialogue, confluences, echoes" through the written word.

The shelves of Plaza Mayor's booth at the Havana fair hold books by Carmen Duarte, who lives in the U.S. city of Miami, Pedro P‚rez Sarduy, resident of London, and John Kirk, who lives in Canada.

Not without some grumblings by officials, the publisher brought to Cuba "Mi vida sexual" (My Sexual Life), by Paquito D'Rivera, a provocative autobiography of the Cuban child prodigy saxophone and clarinet player who emigrated to New York.

At the previous book fair, Plaza Mayor presented the novel "Un ciervo herido" (Injured Stag), by F‚lix Luis Viera, a Cuban now residing in Mexico. In the novel, the author recreates the gloomy atmosphere of what were known as the UMAP in the 1960s. Young people with social, cultural, sexual, ethical or religious attitudes considered inappropriate for a member of Cuba's new socialist society were obligated to serve in the UMAP.

The policy of Plaza Mayor "obeys excellence and not censorship so that in aspiring for the best we can be brothers and sisters, at least on paper, given that we are not so with sufficient bravery in the public sphere," writes Guti‚rrez in her letter to readers of the collection.

Among the new titles Plaza Mayor has brought to the Havana fair are "Cundo Macao", by Gregorio Ortega, an author and former diplomat who lives on the island. His story won the first-ever Plaza Mayor fiction prize last year.

On Monday, after the Havana Book Fair has shut down, a testimonial biography will make its debut: "Yo ser‚ la tentaci¢n: Mar¡a de los Angeles Santana" (I Will Be Temptation), by Ram¢n Fajardo Estrada, a journalist and researcher who in 1997 won the testimonial prize awarded by the prestigious Cuban cultural center, Casa de las Am‚ricas.

The book is being launched to honor the 90th birthday of the popular actress Santana, and is to take place at the San Francisco de As¡s Basilica in Old Havana.

Some 60 foreign publishers are participating in this year's book fair, with 37 from Germany, a major presence alongside the likes of perennial strongholds like Mexico and Spain.

Initially, the fair organizers had chosen Germany to be this year's guest of honor, but the German government renounced that privilege in accordance with the measures adopted by the European Union in reaction to the round-up and imprisonment of dozens of dissidents in March 2003. Havana said the dissidents had been meeting with and accepting money and printing materials from an American diplomat.

The EU decision introduced a political touch to this literary forum, which in recent years has become a major socio-cultural event because of the huge crowds that attend.

"That stance by the German government is a crime of lack of culture. Such a thing is like committing suicide. But Germany's culture did respond and many of its artists are here," Jorge Timossi, vice-president of the fair's organizing committee, said in comments to IPS.

Theatre and musical groups are also taking part in the event, and there is a large delegation of prominent German intellectuals, including 35 authors who have donated their copyrights for the publication of their works in Cuba.

There are some 1,300 titles and five million copies of books available for purchase in Cuban pesos, a bonanza that specialists say does not mean that all of the problems related to editing, production and distribution have been resolved.

The concentration of new titles released during the fair, the deficient distribution to book stores and the high prices of books are pending problems, say local book industry experts.

Books published in other countries are prohibitively expensive for the average Cuban reader, who would have to spend almost $15 -- more than the official monthly wage -- for a copy of "Cundo Macao".

"I can't even consider paying in dollars. At least I can get an idea of what is being published in the world, touch the books and read what the dust jackets say," says Mar¡a Luisa Ruiz, a schoolteacher.

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