Saturday, March 12, 2005

Library Offends Cubans With 'Affair in Havana' Benefit

New York Sun
March 11, 2005 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

Library Offends Cubans With 'Affair in Havana' Benefit
BY MEGHAN CLYNE - Staff Reporter of the Sun
March 11, 2005

Less than three months after provoking outrage among Cuban-Americans for selling a watch bearing the image of Che Guevara, the New York Public Library has offended some members of that community again by making "An Affair in Havana" the theme of this year's Young Lions Benefit gala.

The library's press release says the event will celebrate "literary Havana" and Ernest Hemingway. "Live samba music, expertly mixed mojitos and authentic Cuban cuisine will bring a dose of la vida Cubana to Fifth Avenue at The New York Public Library Young Lions Benefit," it promises. The Young Lions is a group of under-40 donors to the library. Proceeds from the benefit - to be held April 21 - will go to the International Fiction Fund, dedicated to the maintenance and preservation of the library's collections.

Those collections include various Hemingway originals, and these, according to the coordinator of the Young Lions program, Katie Sanderson, were part of the inspiration for the benefit's theme. There was also the appeal of Havana itself: "Cuba is a place that does conjure up really sexy, exotic images, as a place to really get away," Ms. Sanderson said. "... For us to capture something so beautiful and exotic is very appealing."

The theme of last year's dinner and dance, Ms. Sanderson added, was Truman Capote's "Black and White Ball," an event she called "a formal, serious thing." This year, she said, "It is important to do something a little freer, more lighthearted in some ways."

Cuba is anything but "free" and "lighthearted," in the view of the president of the Free Society Project, Maria Werlau, whose group is a nonprofit human-rights organization documenting the victims of Cuba's communist revolution. Literary Havana is especially unsuitable as a party theme, she said, because there is currently no literary Havana to speak of, owing to heavy state censorship and the lack of a free library system on the island. Those who have attempted to run independent libraries out of their homes have often met with imprisonment and torture.

"It's insensitive to present Cuba like that when the reality of Cuba is so different - it's like taking an aspect of Iraq or the Nazi government and glamorizing it," Ms. Werlau, who was born in Cuba and moved to America as an infant, said.

The library's attitude toward its selected theme is probably bred of ignorance, she said. But "since it's the library" - an intellectual and academic institution - "they shouldn't be ignorant of the state of culture in Cuba, of what's going on," she said.

A columnist for the Village Voice who has been an outspoken critic of American librarians' indifference to the plight of their Cuban counterparts, Nat Hentoff, expressed similar outrage.

"If you take something out of history in what is now and has been for so long a dictatorship, and thereby give the illusion that this was a moment in time that had no disastrous consequences - consequences totally against the spirit of what they're trying to portray - then that's being stupid," Mr. Hentoff, who has urged the New York Public Library to support independent libraries in Cuba, said.

The author of "Fidel: Hollywood's Favorite Tyrant," Humberto Fontova, said the library is taking part in an effort by Hollywood and other cultural institutions to tap into the "coolness cachet" of Cuba and the regime there. But presenting a whitewashed image of Cuba to an American public "completely ignorant" of the true conditions on the island harms efforts to secure freedom there, Mr. Fontova said.

A more political motive may also be behind the library's choice of a theme, said the author, who was born in Cuba and fled the island for American shores in 1961.

Fidel Castro's top priority now, Mr. Fontova said, is "the really big push to end the so-called U.S. embargo." So the whole point of the library's selecting Cuba as a theme, he added, "is to make people feel good about Cuba and feel like 'Gosh, I'd sure love to visit that place - isn't it terrible that we can visit Red China and Vietnam and we can't visit Cuba?' "

"That's what they're trying to do here, I can almost guarantee you," Mr. Fontova said.

The library's Ms. Sanderson, however, said the "Affair in Havana" was intended only to provide fun and excitement. In making Cuba the benefit's theme, the library and the gala's co-chairs were "savvy enough to know that it can be quite controversial," she said. But in organizing a party, Ms. Sanderson said, "Inherently, you do only focus on the beautiful aspects of something, or the fantasy aspects of something."

Ms. Werlau said she hopes the library will find a new theme for the gala. If it doesn't, however, she said she expects the institution to portray more than the "beautiful" or "fantasy aspects" of Cuba.

Ms. Sanderson said, however, that the library does not currently plan to recognize Cuban dissidents and authors at the benefit.

When asked whether the library would consider allocating some of the benefit's proceeds to supporting independent libraries in Cuba, the deputy manager of public relations for the institution, Herb Scher, said he didn't think the New York Public Library was allowed to raise funds for other organizations.

"This party is for a very specific purpose. ... It's to get people involved with the library," he said.

Ms. Werlau said that if the library fails to acknowledge that it is presenting a falsely positive image of an oppressed nation, there might be repercussions from the Cuban-American community.

"We might be forced to hold a demonstration to show the people attending the gala what the reality of Cuba really is, or what Cuba in the '50s has become," she said.

According to Ms. Sanderson, around 200 people usually participate in the dinner portion of the benefit, and about 900 attend the dance.

March 11, 2005 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

Click here: Library Offends Cubans With 'Affair in Havana' Benefit

No comments: