The Havana Book Fair: A Fair of Absences

Located in the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, which is accessed through the tunnel that crosses Havana Bay, the Book Fair is a true sauna. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Havana, 4 May 2022 — The door to the shop was kept locked, and every so often someone checked to see if everything was still in order for the children’s book exhibition that would start the next morning. Despite vigilance, within a few hours hundreds of volumes disappeared. At that Havana Book Fair, 20 years ago, stealing the most coveted titles was the irrepressible desire of workers and visitors.

This anxiety has barely diminished over time. A few brilliant pages, a novel from this century or a voluminous dictionary can bring out the inner kleptomaniac of all of us on this Island. In part this is because publishing production has been plummeting in Cuba every year, due to the lack of resources for the printing presses, the ideological filters that privilege the most infamous titles and the new possibilities of publishing abroad that the digital format has opened up for writers.

But if the tendency to loot the shelves remains intact, the object of such dark covetousness becomes scarcer every day. At the beginning of this century it seemed that the most important literary event on the Island managed to break through and attract prestigious publishing houses, renowned authors and thousands of readers eager for news. But it was an illusion that did not last long. Two decades later, the Havana Book Fair is a space to buy bread with croquettes, to try to catch a piece of fried chicken, buy a poster with a Marvel hero or get hold of pencils and erasers.

And the books? They have receded into the background. The political conveniences and the international isolation of the Cuban regime led to terrible decisions when it came to choosing the countries invited to this reading festival; as well as in the selection of authors who could present their works and share space with the public. That, together with the lack of interest among publishers to pay the costs of attending an event where they obtained very little profit, definitively dried up its course.

In parallel, the national books became increasingly gray and not only because of the content. In the publishing houses, designers have long had the norm of making covers with a limited color variety, to avoid the high costs that a wider palette entails. The paper used was also becoming more fragile and yellowish to reduce print runs; while the careless printing of the children’s volumes hardly attracts a public eager for colorful illustrations anymore.

The pandemic also did its part. In 2021 the Fair was suspended, and it still had another postponement this year to move it from its traditional date of February to April. The postponement may not seem like much, just a few weeks, but in this tropical city it represents a difference of almost ten degrees in temperature. Located in the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, which is accessed through the tunnel that crosses Havana Bay, the Book Fair is a veritable sauna with its narrow galleries with thick walls and hardly any windows.

A military barracks can serve as a prison and stage for a firing squad, as it was after Fidel Castro came to power, but it will rarely function as a bookstore. But it’s not the heat or the rigors of transportation, in the midst of a fuel crisis that has pushed the country back to the paralysis of the 1990s, the elements that most affect this cultural event. If is the disinterests in its offerings, on the one hand, and the daily anxieties of Cuban readers, on the other, the true causes of their agony. A death rattle from which not even the fact that this year Mexico is the guest country, with its impressive literary baggage, has been able to overcome.

Between the last closing of the event and this reopening, a century also seems to have passed in Cuba. The package of economic adjustments that began in January 2021 unleashed inflation, the convertible peso was buried, the peak of contagion of the Delta variant of the coronavirus took thousands of Cubans in the summer months and on a Sunday in July across the Island, the largest popular protests in its entire history broke out. To top it off, the mass exodus has turned the country into a constant packing of suitcases and saying goodbye at airports.

The “festival of books,” as the official media call it, is back; but the country is on the run. The lines will continue in front of the food kiosks, nimble hands will try to steal the odd book from a shelf and parents will avoid going with their children through the areas of colorful volumes that cost a week’s salary. However, the Fair is dead.


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the cultural magazine La Lectura, of the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.


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