It's strange that for a country that believes so strongly in free speech that national policy would ever ban books, but that's exactly the situation we find ourselves in when it comes to Cuba. Hoping to change that, however, is a petition asking the White House to end the Cuban book embargo, thus allowing Cuban and American books to be sold in both countries. And when you think about it, it's kind of staggering to realize that neither country has been able to read anything written by people in the other for more than 50 years.
The Cuban Embargo, which was signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1960, and although the Bernam Amendment of 1988 allows for a very limited and controlled export of books to Cuba, in practice very few books are ever exported, and no Cuban books can be sold in the U.S. Though the embargo can only be truly ended through an act of Congress, it is possible for the White House to lift the ban on books and educational materials. Which is exactly what a new petition, one supported by publishers, authors, agents, and other major players in the publishing industry, is asking the White House to do.
"As a basic human right, readers everywhere deserve greater access to books and literature," the petition reads. "Books promote cross-cultural understanding, economic development, free expression and positive social change. The book embargo runs counter to American ideals of free expression."
Publisher's Weekly, a leading force in the petition drive, write on their website, "The Cuban people’s desire, and need, for American books was evident during the February U.S. publishing mission to Cuba, organized by PW and Combined Book Exhibit, in close cooperation with Cuban government officials."
They go on to say, "Ending the embargo on books and educational materials would be an important first step in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba, by allowing for an exchange of information and ideas between them. While we are aware of the need for Cuba to improve its record on human rights, one way forward is for Cubans to be exposed to what is possible in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed."
Though the Cuban Embargo has long since become the accepted norm, when you think about it, it is incredibly strange that there is an embargo on books. After all, Cuba is geographically one of the closest nations to the US, a mere ninety miles away from the Florida coast. Plus, as the petition notes, Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, and a rich literary tradition. And yet, we don't have access to any of that here.
You can, of course, find books by Cuban American, such as the Pulitzer Prize winner The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, but when it comes to works by authors who live in Cuba itself? Nothing.
It's really very strange to think of an embargo not only shutting out goods, but also ideas, of the government keeping literature walled off in the same way they do cigars. In a country where a free exchange of ideas is so central, it's bizarre to think we are forbidden from encountering ideas from an island so close to home.
The petition, which was launched on March 9, hopes to get a response from the administration before President Obama's historic trip to Cuba, scheduled for March 21-22. As with all White House petitions, if it reaches 100,000 signatures, the White House will be required to respond directly. As of press time, over 7,000 people have signed. You can check out the petition here.