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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.

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.