Wednesday, November 17, 1999
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 62

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About the Cougar

Library exchange may open doors
UH librarians hope visits will improve Cuban-American relations

By Tom Carpenter
Daily Cougar Staff 

UH librarians Tom Wilson and Carolyn Meanley made the history books when they visited Cuba in September as part of an exchange program with the country's Jose Marti National Library in Havana.

The nine-day visit, the first of its kind, was planned after Eliades Acosta, director of the National Library, visited UH in December 1998 for a conference on Hispanic literature. Acosta and Wilson decided such exchanges would be beneficial to both countries.

"There is tremendous potential in Cuba," Meanley said. "The professional context of the trip was secondary to making the personal contacts. To see how creative these people have been just to live, especially when the Soviet money stopped coming in, is amazing."

The exchange was made possible by the U.S. State Department's Support for the Cuban People Project, which began after Pope John Paul visited Cuba in 1996. Although the U.S. government forbids business, political or vacation travel to Cuba, humanitarian and educational visits do take place.

Subjects covered at the library conference included library preservation, technology, services and infrastructure. The Cuban librarians are searching for innovative methods to collect and preserve Cuba's cultural treasures.

A desperate need in Cuba is for storage facilities for Cuban poster art and literary works. Wilson said the librarians discussed secondary storage facilities such as private homes and institutions in the United States.

"The idea is to make a 'virtual collection,' to digitize the works so people can see them on the Web," he said.

But the aftermath of the Cold War still haunts Cuban and American residents. Wilson said the American embargo of Cuba prohibits Cubans from obtaining badly needed technology -- an effect that is magnified when Western nations friendly with the United States also refuse to deal with Cuba.

Wilson estimated the Cuban library system is comparable to that of the United States in the 1970s, but he said the problem is not so much a lack of access to technology as it is a lack of money.

"The embargo tentacles reach out and strangle Cuba," Wilson said. "The governments can't move forward in productive ways. Progress must be made on a person-to-person basis."

Members of the UH delegation took supplies to give the Cuban librarians, including books, pens, pencils and professional magazines. They also took crayons and coloring books for a Cuban Presbyterian church to donate to the island's population.

Wilson said he believes relations between Cuba and the United States will remain difficult as long as Castro is in power, but missions like the nonpolitical exchange the librarians were involved in help to chip away at the two nations' differences.

Meanley and Wilson both said they learned from the trip that life isn't so different in Cuba.

"I saw a fashion show while we were there," Meanley said. "The clothes were attractive and utilitarian, created by Cuban designers and modeled by beautiful Cuban women, just like the runways of Paris or Milan. The Cubans are emphasizing the Cuban economy."

"The cultural and political milieu prohibits access to knowledge about Cuba," Wilson said. "When I returned home, I realized there is a tapestry of perspectives."

Wilson said he is helping to plan another visit to Cuba in the spring of 2000. That mission, he hopes, will be a longer one and will involve more libraries.

He said he believes the trip will be an opportunity to gain a more thorough knowledge of the needs of Cuba's library system and will help establish more friendly relations between Cuba and the United States.

"You don't realize you're making history while you're doing it," Wilson said. "In my mind, the trip was an overwhelming success. It was incredibly intense in a good way. We had an intimate tour of their services and facilities."

Meanley said she was impressed with the Cuban people's patrimony, their love of Cuba and their pride in their country.

"We don't know what that is here," she said. "These people have so little, but their patrimony is the heart and soul of Cuba. This exchange program offers great opportunities for both countries to learn from each other."

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