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

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.

The fair’s most crowded booths belong to foreign vendors, mostly from Latin America, who rent out exhibition spaces and sell directly to Cubans. In a country with virtually no advertising, the enticements on their shelves (“The best deals on books!," "Special prices!") were an odd sight.

Foreign vendors’ wares are carefully screened by Cuban customs agents before entering into the country. One publisher said he had two books on Che Guevara — one positive, one negative  — and had to leave the latter back home. Sexually explicit books are also taboo, along with nonfiction texts that don’t meet Cuban standards of political correctness.

Still, some titles manage to slip through that one wouldn’t find any other time of year in Cuba. At one booth, a get-rich-quick manual called “How to Make Money Fast!” was selling briskly, while other titles like “How to Win the Lottery” looked strangely out of place.

Publisher Arturo Martinez, who travels year-round to book fairs in Ecuador, Spain, Colombia and elsewhere, said Havana is his favorite. “There’s no other book fair in the world like this one,” said Martinez, owner of Mexico’s Editoriales Margo, who was attending the fair for the sixth straight year.

Martinez said he’d sold 90,000 of the 100,000 books he brought with him in the first eight days. “I sell far more books here than anywhere else,” he said. “I wish they’d have this fair twice a year.”

Another publisher from Mexico, Sergio Hernandez, said that while his country’s Guadalajara Book Fair is more famous in Latin America, it’s an event oriented more to publishers, writers and other professionals. In Havana, meanwhile, he was selling books the old-fashioned way, in cash, one copy at a time. “This is a real authentic book fair,” said Hernandez, owner of the publishing house Pax Mexico. “You’re selling directly to people.”

Cuba’s Book Fair selects a different foreign country each year as its honored guest, and this year’s choice was Russia, a sign of Cuba’s renewed ties to Moscow. Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood and South African Nobel Prize Winner Nadine Gordimer were also featured invitees. Gordimer didn’t disappoint her hosts, publishing a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama urging the release of the “Cuban Five,” a group of intelligence agents currently serving long sentences in U.S. federal prisons.

For many fair-goers, though, famous foreign authors were hardly the main attraction. Families and groups of young people sat along the stone walls of the fortress overlooking the Havana skyline, flirting and hanging out with friends. Fried chicken stands sold cold beer and snacks. “In some ways this has become an event that’s got very little to do with books,” said 30-year-old Havana resident Michel Rodriguez. “There aren’t a lot of other entertainment options here, so that’s one reason so many young people show up.”

Rodriguez said he had come mostly for the books, but he was disappointed by the lack of offerings from Cuba’s state-owned publishers. “There are a lot of good writers here whose work never gets published,” he said.