New English-language bookstore a 1st in Havana


By Peter Orsi, AP

HAVANA — Anglophones, rejoice: Cuba’s first English-language bookstore, cafe and literary salon opened in Havana on Friday, offering islanders and tourists alike a unique space to converse, thumb through magazines and buy or borrow tomes in the language of Shakespeare.

The brainchild of a longtime U.S. expat, Cuba Libro launched with just 300 books on offer, about what you’d expect to find in the lobby of an average U.S. bed & breakfast. Next to what’s available elsewhere in English in Cuba, however, it might as well be the Library of Congress.

“I know how hard it is to get English-language sources here,” said New York City native Conner Gorry, 43, a journalist living in Cuba since 2002. “So I started cooking this idea.”

Cuba Libro is a play on “libro,” the Spanish word for “book,” and “Cuba libre,” the rum-cola cocktail that, legend has it, was invented in 1900 to celebrate the island’s independence from Spain.

The concept was hatched two years ago when a friend called Gorry to say she had a sack of about 35 books she didn’t know what do with. More donations have come in since.

Locally produced English-language fare includes the occasional translated Cuban novel, two weekly newspapers full of the bland official-speak of state media and a smattering of tourist magazines. Beyond that, it’s mostly books such as translations of the writings of Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and pro-government works denouncing the United States.

One state bookshop offered a few dog-eared texts that pushed the definition of random: “Diving Physiology in Plain English,” a volume published by the Undersea Hyperbaric Medical Society, and “Woe Unto You, Lawyers!” a first-edition critique of the legal profession from 1939 that, judging by a sticker inside, once belonged to the Columbia University Law Library.

Gorry said Cuba Libro is not in the business of offering anything that could be considered “counterrevolutionary.” But Cuba Libro’s offerings do include views not commonly found on an island where the government controls nearly all media.

For starters there’s Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto’s, “Dancing With Cuba,” a nuanced memoir of her experiences in Cuba, warts and all, as a ballet instructor in the 1970s.

Along with back issues of The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, there’s a summer 2010 edition of ReVista, the Harvard Review of Latin America, dedicated to Cuban ally Venezuela. It’s generally sympathetic to the late President Hugo Chavez but also includes an essay by critic Teodoro Petkoff calling Chavez’s government “an authoritarian, autocratic and militaristic regime.”

You’ll never hear that on Cuba’s nightly state TV news broadcast.