Letter from Havana, January 31, 2003
walterlx at earthlink.net
Fri Jan 31 09:58:39 MST 2003
Dear Friends -
It was pouring rain for awhile this morning, but has
lightened up, mercifully. Today is the first full day
that the book fair is open to the public here and we
don't need any rain on this parade! (Whoops, it's
now begun pouring rain again. No, now it's stopped
again. Let's hope it lightens up for the rest of today.)
Last year's book fair was an amazing event with so
many rooms, booths and tables that it took days to
get through the whole thing. I actually don't think in
fact I DID get to see all the tables. Below you will
find a report on last year's festival from IPS service.
These will be followed by a couple of others which
will give readers some of the flavor of this wonderful
Cuban event. If you're reading this in e-mail, most
likely you're not here on the island, which is really
too bad. Plan to come next year if you're not here
already for this edition. Mas, pero mas tarde...
International book fair rivals film festival
By Patricia Grogg
HAVANA, Jan 26 (IPS) - The International Book Fair of
Havana, which this year has been expanded to include 17
other Cuban cities, has become a rival of the world-renowned
Havana Film Festival among the island's most popular major
Some five million books will be on sale at the eleventh
Havana Book Fair, Feb 7-17, and at the fairs held in the
Cuban interior Feb 18 to Mar 11.
"I told them at work that I want to take two vacation days
in February," said RosalÃa GonzÃ¡lez, 55, who also requests a
week of vacation each December so she can "see good films"
at the Havana Film Festival.
GonzÃ¡lez, who says she is a voracious reader, considers the
book fair a good opportunity to stock up, particularly on
children's books. She says, however, that one must go "with
enough money for the prices and enough time to cover the
This literary exposition and book sale has taken place the
last few years in the San Carlos de la CabaÃ±a Fort, an 18th
century military structure that formed part of the Spanish
colonialists defence in protecting its "most precious
The venue for the book fair, on the east side of Havana Bay,
is part of the architectural complex designated a Heritage
of Humanity site by the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), and is
somewhat distant from city centre.
But in spite of the distance, the tenth Havana Book Fair,
held at the site last year, drew some 20,000 people, a total
that will likely be surpassed this year, as the event has
been expanded to cover nearly the entire country.
"People look forward to the fair like they do the film
festival because it has made a name for itself, not only in
books but also for the accompanying programme of events,"
commented GonzÃ¡lez, a Havana schoolteacher.
Book fair organisers reported that they are working with the
city authorities to increase public transportation to and
from the site, and that they are scheduling presentations,
forums and conferences earlier in the day to encourage
participation and so that no one is left stranded at night.
Book sales are to take place in 10 designated areas,
covering an area of 1,700 square metres, while youth and
children's literature will be presented in three large tents
and at 20 other points throughout the fort complex.
Two million of the five million books will be available at
the Havana fair, while the rest will be distributed among
the 17 other book fair venues throughout the country, from
Pinar del RÃo in the west, to GuantÃ¡namo, in the extreme
east, not to mention Nueva Gerona, located on the Isle of
"Without a doubt this will be the most encompassing and
influential of the book fairs held so far," commented poet
Luis SuardÃaz in a conversation with IPS. He stressed that
the expansion of the exposition to other cities will
encourage countrywide cultural exchange and movement.
At all locations, the programme for the International Book
Fair, in addition to book sales, includes panel discussions
on a wide range of topics as well as writer-reader
conferences, said SuardÃaz, one of the organisers.
The organisers are expecting 64 Cuban publishing houses to
take part in the fair, as well as 44 others from 19
countries, including Spain, Italy, France and several from
This year's fair honours France, and will dedicate over 400
square metres of exhibition space to that country's
literature. Two contests will also take place, one for
translations of French poetry into Spanish and one in which
participants are to write an essay on the presence of French
culture in Cuba.
Another highlight mentioned by the organisers will be the
presentation of more than 400 titles published using digital
techniques by publishers in the Cuban interior, books which
until now were unknown beyond their places of origin.
Officials from the Cuban Institute of Books said that the
fair facilitates linkages between Cuban literature and the
publishing world of other countries.
Until the end of the 1980s, the transactions at book fairs
involved the buying and selling of books between members of
the now-defunct socialist bloc, the countries that were
Cuba's main trade partners.
In the 1990s, following the disappearance of the socialist
bloc and the Soviet Union, the principal objective of the
International Book Fair of Havana has been to seek new
alternatives for collaborative projects and joint publishing
efforts involving publishing houses from Cuba and the
The Cuban publishing industry has been hit hard by the
economic crisis the island has been enduring since the early
1990s. Ten years ago, 20,000 to 30,000 copies of a title
would be produced, but today the total reaches just 2,500 to
However, there are some books that involve a much higher
number of copies, such as the recently re-edited The Little
Prince, by France's Antoine de Saint-Exupery, and 'Edad de
Oro' (Golden Age) by Cuba's own JosÃ© MartÃ (1853-1895).
Cuba has approximately 80 publishing houses, many of which
have opted for working with foreign firms in an effort to
breathe life into the book business.
One of the complaints heard most often among Cuban readers
is that, since the free circulation of the dollar was
authorised here in 1993, the "good literature" is only
available on the parallel market and must be paid for in
Prior to the economic crisis in Cuba, the average book price
was 80 cents, but today a popular title by a Cuban author
can cost 20 to 25 pesos, nearly a dollar at the exchange
rate of the parallel market, or equal to 20 to 25 dollars at
the official one-to-one rate.
The average Cuban monthly salary is just over 220 pesos.
Cuban-published books at the fair can be purchased using
pesos, but sales of food and beverages at the event will be
"That will be a problem for those who want to spend the day
visiting the entire exhibition and who don't have an income
in that currency, but people will go nonetheless," said book
enthusiast GonzÃ¡lez. (END)
Reproduced with the permission of IPS. All rights reserved.
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