There’s no group more vigilant than the American Library Association (ALA) when it comes to  fighting even the most hypothetical infringements of the “right to read.” Right now, for example, the ALA, the leading trade group for the 64,000 professionals who staff America’s public, private, and university libraries, is busy, along with several book-publishers’ and writers’ associations, gathering signatures on a petition to amend a never-used provision of the Patriot Act that allows the FBI to comb bookstore and library-lending records to find evidence of terrorist activity. And last year, the ALA loudly protested a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a 1998 law that requires public libraries to install filtering software so that their public-use computers can’t be used for taxpayer-funded porn-site surfing.

With National Library Week coming up in April (April 18-24), we can expect to hear a lot more from the ALA on these two topics, especially since liberal bogeyman Attorney General John Ashcroft is the target.

But when it comes to real, not hypothetical, repression of the right to read–and write–by a left-wing government, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the American Library Association is curiously silent. Early last year the Castro regime rounded up 75 dissidents, including writers, journalists, and intellectuals, afforded them secret kangaroo-court trials, and sentenced them to prison terms (including hard labor) as long as 25 years. The dissidents’ “crimes” consisted of possessing subversive reading material and conspiring to bring democracy to Cuba–all violations of Cuba’s vaguely worded national security act. Some 10 of the dissidents were librarians–that is, they operated small lending libraries out of their homes. The home-based libraries typically lent out anticommunist books hard to find elsewhere  in Cuba, such as George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” For these crimes, the 10 librarians were sentenced to a total of 196 years in prison. The move culminated several years of Castro harassment of Cuba’s 200-odd private libraries.

Even before the jailing, Cuba’s independent librarians had won the support and praise of international human-rights activists such as former Czech president Vaclav Havel, former Polish president Lech Walesa, and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Amnesty International, among other organizations, has protested the gruesome conditions under which Castro’s dictatorship is holding the political prisoners, which include near-starvation, lack of medical care and basic hygiene, “medieval” (as they were described by an observer) 6-foot-by-3-foot cages, and beatings by by other prisoners. Even certified U.S. left-wingers such as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky have joined the protest.

But not the American Library Association. That organization is in thrall to its committees, dominated by Castro-loving extremists who take field trips to Cuba to gab with the Fidelistas employed by the country’s state-run libraries. At the ALA’s annual meeting in Toronto last spring, the librarians refused to approved a condemnation of the Castro regime after the Castro-admirers took the position that the 10 Cuban librarians weren’t real librarians because they didn’t have degrees in library science. The ALA allowed official Cuban librarians to gas on for three hours while denying the single Cuban dissident who showed up the right to speak. Meeting again in San Diego this January, the ALA again refused to condemn Castro’s police state, although the organization’s governing council did issue a mealy-mouthed expression of  “deep concern” about the imprisoned librarians.

Fortunately, there are a few voices of protest to be heard amid the ALA’s conspicuous silence. One is the Friends of Cuban Libraries, operated by Robert Kent, a librarian with the New York City public library system. Another is Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, a principled civil libertarian who wrote last week that the ALA had “disgraced itself” by refusing to speak out against Castro’s outrageous actions against their fellow librarians. Hentoff wrote:

“During National Library Week…I hope rebellious rank-and-file American librarians, ignoring their governing council, will speak for the release of their brothers and sisters in Castro’s three-feet-wide and six-feet-long cells. The International Red Cross is forbidden to visit, as it has been by Castro since 1989.”

As Hentoff and others have pointed out, no librarian in John Ashcroft’s America is sitting in a cage for lending someone a copy of “Animal Farm.”