HAVANA -- Cuba’s first English-language bookstore offers a selection that would just about stock the lobby of an average Vermont bed and breakfast. Next to what’s available in English elsewhere in Havana, it might as well be the Library of Congress.
The brainchild of a longtime U.S. expat, Cuba Libro launched Friday as a bookshop, cafe and literary salon that offers islanders and tourists alike a unique space to buy or borrow tomes in the language of Shakespeare. Cuba Libro also gives customers an occasional glimpse of opinions hard to find elsewhere on the island.
“I know how hard it is to get English-language sources here,” said New York City native Conner Gorry, 43, a journalist living in Cuba since 2002. “So I started cooking this idea.”
Cuba Libro is a play on “libro,” the Spanish word for “book,” and “Cuba libre,” the rum-cola cocktail that, legend has it, was invented in 1900 to celebrate the island’s independence from Spain.
The concept was hatched two years ago when a friend told Gorry that she had a sack of about 35 books she didn’t know what do with. More donations swelled the collection to the 300 or so volumes on sale at opening day.
Locally produced English-language fare in government stores includes the occasional translated Cuban novel, two weekly newspapers full of the bland official-speak of state media and a smattering of tourist magazines. Beyond that, it’s mostly works like the translated writings of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and pro-government literature denouncing the United States.
One state bookshop offered a few dog-eared texts pushing the definition of random: Diving Physiology in Plain English, a volume published by the Undersea Hyperbaric Medical Society, and Woe Unto You, Lawyers! a first-edition critique of the legal profession from 1939 that, judging by a sticker inside, once belonged to the Columbia University Law Library.
Gorry said Cuba Libro is not in the business of offering anything that could be considered “counterrevolutionary.” But the collection does include views not commonly found on an island where the government controls nearly all media.
For starters, there’s Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto’s Dancing With Cuba, a nuanced memoir of her experiences in Cuba, warts and all, as a ballet instructor in the 1970s.
Along with back issues of the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, there’s a summer 2010 edition of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America, dedicated to Cuban ally Venezuela. It’s generally sympathetic to the late President Hugo Chávez but also includes an essay by critic Teodoro Petkoff calling Chávez’s government “an authoritarian, autocratic and militaristic regime.”
You’ll never hear that on Cuba’s nightly state TV news broadcast.
“I hope [the store] flourishes,” said Carlos Menendez, a 77-year-old retired economist who dropped in for a coffee and was delighted to find Freefall by Joseph E. Stiglitz, 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics.
Freefall argues for more government regulation of the U.S. economy, but even a left-leaning prescription for capitalism is a novelty in this Communist-run country where the concept of the free market is anathema.