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Cuba: Home to one of the world's biggest book parties

Cuba’s annual literary event celebrates reading, and censors it too.

Visitors look at books at Cuba's stand in Argentina's International Book Fair in Buenos Aires, Apr. 24, 2008. The annual book exposition is a traditional cultural event which comprises book sales, lectures, discussions, workshops and educational activities. (Enrique Marcarian/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba— Each February, Cuba’s International Book Fair transforms the old Spanish fortifications that overlook the Havana harbor into one of the biggest book parties in the world.

This year’s 10-day festival drew more than 450,000 people in Havana (pop 2.1 million) and will continue for several more weeks with smaller events in Cuba’s provinces. It’s an occasion with broad appeal: Cuban academics and intellectuals attend lectures and book presentations, while families and teenagers are drawn to the live music, food and party atmosphere. Most go home with a book or two.

“This is an event for the general public,” said the book fair’s director Betsy Rojo. “And people don’t only come to buy books.”

Indeed, the fair is Cuba’s largest cultural event, and as such, it brings out the best and worst elements of a one-party socialist system that celebrates reading but practices careful censorship. Just as Cuba’s achievements in public education and literacy are evident in the festival’s popularity, the titles available for sale are a reminder that this is an island where divergent narratives don’t reach the bookshelves.

As a commercial event, the book fair is also one of those rare instances in which Cuba’s state-run economy allows foreign entrepreneurs to sell merchandise directly to the Cuban people. For many ordinary Cubans, that creates a once-a-year opportunity to buy foreign magazines or titles that are otherwise unavailable in the country’s state-owned book stores.

“It’s a great place to find new books,” said retired economist Alfredo Portela.

The main venue for the book fair is the Morro Cabana Park, a sprawling 18th-century complex that was once the largest Spanish colonial fortification in the Americas. It was used as a prison by Spanish and later Cuban authorities, and it was the site of grim firing-squad executions after the Cuban Revolution. Today it’s a historical park, and its ghosts have long been exorcised by the huge crowds of Cuban families and schoolchildren streaming through its dungeon-like chambers in search of coloring books and cartoons.

The Cuban government’s state-run publishing houses stock the fair with hundreds of thousands of copies of books at accessible prices, though complaints are frequent about the lack of variety.

This year’s offerings included hagiographic political texts on Cuba’s revolutionary heroes with titles like "That’s Fidel," and "Evoking Che," as well as classics of world literature like "War and Peace" and "1001 Nights." Translations of American titles were also on the racks, such as Junot Diaz’s "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," and Gore Vidal’s "The Golden Age." But the best-selling and least expensive are children’s books, offering everything from "The Little Prince" to G.I. Joe-style comic books depicting Fidel Castro and other revolutionary guerrillas as action heroes.