Until Sunday, February 20th, the San Carlos de La Cabaña fortress is the initial site of the International Book Fair, held annually in Havana. In the month following, it will travel to other Cuban provinces.
Since its inception in 1992, the public attendance has been spectacular. Every day, an average of 80,000 people visit the enclosure, an old military fortress, and one of the most severe prisons during the first years of the revolution.
Now everything is different. The old cellblocks have been transformed into meeting pavilions, where Latin American and European printers sell books like hot dogs.
When La Cabaña opened its gates on Friday the 10th, an impressive avalanche of people filled the Spanish and Mexican pavilions, among others.
José Ferrero, a representative of a Spanish printing house and attending the Fair for the third time, called attention to the great demand for books about anything, in particular, novels and children’s stories.
“In times of crisis, when book sales have fallen in Europe, it’s healthy to see a poor country, people with an incredible eagerness for reading”, said Ferrero, while observing an extensive queue which was waiting its turn to visit the Spanish stand.
Other publishers couldn’t say the same. The booksellers of Cuban political themes were chatting in a relaxed manner in the cool Havana afternoon breezes. The visitors didn’t seem interested in the volumes recompiled with the thoughts of Fidel Castro or his work about the guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra.
The pavilions of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Iran were also desolate and their representatives, with appropriate faces, were looking at the public hustle and bustle that popped in — and, on seeing the titles, fled to sites with more attractive offerings.
The books exhibited by the countries of the Boliviarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), to whom this fair was dedicated, are political bricks with the fragrance of a pamphlet and an unpresentable design. Despite being sold in Cuban pesos, their sales were extremely low.
People in Cuba are weary of books with political content. 52 years of a discourse with a marked ideological tint have forced Cubans to take refuge in more refreshing subjects.
And that’s what happened at the last Fair. Children were the big winners. Together with their parents, they left the compound loaded with issues in vivid colors and appealing illustrations.
The sales of these books are in cash. Expensive for a country where the average salary is 10 dollars a month. Even so, they sold in bulk. Robert, 34, an engineer, was accompanied by his wife and child. “We spent 28 dollars, but it was worth it. The rest of the year, you can’t get such beautiful and high quality children’s books in Havana”.
In Cuba, high book sales are customary. They aren’t expensive. But their quality, variety, and content don’t fulfill the expectations of demanding readers. The government censors authors whom they consider “counterrevolutionary”, such as the laureates Mario Vargas Llosa and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
Occasionally, some prohibited authors and liberal texts that don’t line up with the ideology of the regime manage to make fun of censorship. People hunt for these ‘mistakes’.
On the back patio of the fortress, where in days gone by Castro’s enemies were shot, children, adolescents and youths read recently bought books, seated on the soft lawn or on the walls alongside ancient cannons.
The biggest prize of the Fair is the extraordinary panorama of the city on the other side of the bay.
Translated by: JT
February 17 2011