Can you guess who was on prime-time news in Cuba?

Anita’s Revolution presentation at Havana International Book Fair in February 2016

On February 18th, the translated edition of my book, Anita’s Revolution was launched before a standing room only crowd of Cubans at the International Book Fair in Havana. It was a dynamic presentation. I was introduced by the Director of the Literacy Campaign Museum, Luisa Campos Gallardo, who gave a really perceptive talk on some of the book’s highlights. The publisher, Gente Nueva, sold many copies of the book, titled Anita La Brigadista in Spanish. I signed books until cramps in my hand prevented me from signing more. An excerpt from my presentation was shown on Cuba’s prime-time news at 8 pm, again at 11 pm, then again the next morning at 11 am. All very exciting!

A few days later (on my birthday, actually), Madam Campos Gallardo arranged another presentation at the Literacy Campaign Museum. Many of those attending were now elderly “brigadistas”, those young volunteer literacy teachers of 1961, the heroes described in my book. Many recounted their remarkable experiences teaching Cuba’s then illiterate people during the campaign. All were thrilled to have their contribution to Cuba’s history celebrated in a novel. Everyone wanted to know how come it happened that a Canadian wrote their story. I told them it was because the story of Cuba’s literacy campaign with youth at the centre of it is so remarkable, I wanted the world to know about it.

Again, it was a lively encounter. Cubans are so outgoing and lively themselves. Everyone was served a demi-tasse cup of real Cuban espresso coffee, and Surprise! my birthday was celebrated by all present with a real birthday cake. Viva Cuba! and the Cuban people.

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Anita’s Revolution goes to the printer again–this time in Spanish

Anita’s Revolution, my book about Cuba’s remarkable literacy campaign in 1961, will make its appearance in Spanish in February 2016 at Cuba’s International Book Fair. Of course I have been invited to attend, so I will be there (with bells on!) for the book launch at the fair. The title in Spanish will be “Anita La Brigadista”.

If any of you plan to vacation in Cuba in February, you might think of attending the book fair, which is Cuba’s biggest cultural event. Here’s some information about it.

Cuba’s Book Fair in 2016 will take place in Havana from February 11th-February 21st. Each year, the fair shines a spotlight on the literary history of certain countries; this year it’s Uruguay and India. The principal venue in Havana is the grounds and buildings of the historic Fortification of San Carlos, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. In addition to the hundreds of publishers and book exhibits, there will be featured book and author related presentations as well as artistic events. One of those presentations will honour the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Cuba.

The fair is a colourful annual event that attracts tens of thousands of Cubans hungry for books to read, hungry to access the outside world via its literature. In addition to the opportunity to acquire books not available in Cuban stores, Cubans also scramble for the free promotional “merch” that is part of every book fair. For the visitors to Cuba who join the throng, the “scene” at Cuba’s International Book Fair is as interesting as the exhibits and books themselves. The 2014 fair saw over 2000 titles on sale with around 260 writers and intellectuals, 140 editors, 80 Cuban, 60 international, from 41 countries actively involved. A massive 2.5 million books were published. Considered the premier cultural event in Cuba, visitors to the fair numbered 387,000 in Havana alone.

If you have Spanish-speaking friends, please tell them about my book. If they are interested in acquiring a copy, they can contact me via the comment section on this site.

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Cuba’s Annual International Book Fair Coming Up

Anyone planning to be in Havana Cuba in February 2016? If so, may I suggest you take in two things in addition to the pleasures of sun, beach life, mojitos and touring Old Havana to enjoy the fabulous architecture of this UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.

Cubans are hungry for new books to read, so they throng by the thousands to the annual International Book Fair in Havana. It will take place from February 11th to 21st featuring publishers and publications from all over the world. The venue for the Book Fair is The Citadel, a former military barracks–a maze of alleyways and exhibits crowded with Cubans seeking an opportunity to buy books and score “freebies”. The Fair is a special treat for Cubans who often feel isolated from the rest of the world, so it’s a great place to see enthusiastic book lovers in action. For people watchers, there are always lots of international visitors to see as well. If you go, be sure to wear comfortable shoes because the weather is likely to be hot, and the pavement is mostly cobblestone or otherwise quite rough. When the Fair ends in Havana, it then travels to other cities throughout the island.

My second suggestion is to visit the Literacy Museum. It houses all the documentation, artifacts, photographs and related history of the literacy campaign of 1961 when Cubans volunteered by the hundreds of thousands to teach a million illiterate people to read and write in less than one year. That remarkable campaign changed history for Cuba and is still held up by the United Nations as the most successful literacy campaign in the world. Make sure you find out hours of operation before going.

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“Normalization” of Cuba/US Relations

December 17, 2015 is a day that will not be easily forgotten in Cuba. That day, it was announced that Cuba and the US would begin negotiations to normalize their political relationship after 54 years of prickly isolation. Everyone I talked to was excited, even ecstatic. Diplomatic relations, embassies, consuls, relaxation of travel restrictions, hopefully even an end to the terrible US trade embargo so punishing to Cuba–all could be on the table for review, all might be possible to change. All might be so much better after many years of isolation from a neighbour a mere 90 miles away.

While I could understand such enthusiasm, I also was concerned about the integrity of those things for which Cuba had fought and made a Revolution. The US is not a fan of Cuba, does not celebrate their universal education system which enables anyone capable of passing the exams to acquire whatever level of education they aspire to without it costing a cent. And though some of the hospitals are shabby and short of materials, health care is absolutely gratis. Child day care is free. Public transportation is cheap. While racism exists, it’s negligible compared to the US. Cuba has much to gain, but it also has much to lose. We can only hope that Cuba and Cubans will not be dazzled and overwhelmed by the promise of material goods that have been lacking for a long time. We hope they will not “sell out”. Some things are worth more.

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Presentation of Anita’s Revolution at new English-language bookstore in Havana

Cuba Libro, the English-language bookstore in Havana, sent out 200 email invitations to attend the presentation of my book, Anita’s Revolution. Fifty people squeezed into a space appropriate for forty. Some of those attending were those young volunteer teachers called “brigadistas“. They’re in their 60s now, but remember well that exciting time in 1961 when as teenagers they were part of the thousands who volunteered for the literacy campaign that taught almost a million illiterate Cubans to read and write in less than a year.

In the audience was a journalist from Montana, an historian, several Canadian tourists, some Cuban teachers of English and some book people. I had just begun my talk when proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of around 22 visiting Art and Architecture students from an American univesity and their prof. My presentation was well-received, and the Q&A period after was lively. The audience was very moved by vivid descriptions by the people who were “brigadistas” in 1961 telling of their experiences as young people teaching adults, the primitive conditions some people lived in then, the varied challenges, and the dangers some experienced from enemies of Cuba’s Revolution.

Thanks to Connor Gory, Cuba Libro’s owner/manager, for organizing the event and providing such a fine introduction. If you go to Havana, go have a good Cuban coffee on the patio of Cuba Libro. The address is Calle 24, esquina 19, Vedado, in Havana.

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News from Havana

I recently returned from three weeks in Cuba, three really interesting weeks. The day after I arrived, December 17th, breaking news was the announced normalization of relations between the USA and Cuba after 54 years of rancour and isolation. I felt I was present at an historic moment.

The reaction in Cuba ranged from quiet elation, to dancing in the streets. One man told me the hair on his arms was standing on end hours after the announcment. On the other hand, people concerned about Cuba being overwhelmed by the giant to the north said they were very glad that the isolation would end, and hopefully some day soon the long-standing embargo against Cuba–the infamous trading with the enemy legislation–would end too. They said Cuba would have to be strong in order not to lose the things the Revolution was fought for–equality, universal and gratis education, free health care, free day-care centres and much more. Watching what will happen in Cuba now will be fascinating.

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