Since President Obama announced in December 2014 that the U.S. would be restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, new developments have come at a steady pace. In July, the U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies in each other’s countries and the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. With travel and commerce restrictions eased, American businesses have begun to explore opportunities in Cuba. The December 2015 decision to restore flights between the two countries, for example, has led all the major American airlines to scramble to set up daily flights to Cuba. With Obama set to visit Cuba on March 21–22, other steps to normalize relations between the two countries are expected.
Despite the progress that has been made, a complete lifting of the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, which would require Congressional approval, does not appear to be close at hand. That is why PW is leading a petition drive calling for ending the embargo on books and educational materials as soon as possible. The Cuban people’s desire, and need, for American books was evident during the February U.S. publishing mission to Cuba, organized by PW and Combined Book Exhibit, in close cooperation with Cuban government officials.
As Zuleica Romay Guerra, president of the Cuban Book Institute, observed during one of the panels organized as part of the mission, the Cuban people have not been able to read American authors for more than 50 years. American readers, meanwhile, have been denied access to the works of Cuban writers.
Ending the embargo on books and educational materials would be an important first step in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba, by allowing for an exchange of information and ideas between them. While we are aware of the need for Cuba to improve its record on human rights, one way forward is for Cubans to be exposed to what is possible in a country where freedom of expression is guaranteed.
The idea for the petition grew out of conversations between American publishers on the mission and their Cuban counterparts. Smashwords founder Mark Coker was a driving force; he talked with the attending American publishers about organizing a petition aimed at lifting the entire trade embargo, or at least the embargo on cultural material. Then, during a day of professional panels on U.S. publishing, Cuban publishers in the audience asked the assembled Americans to join them in calling for the trade embargo to be lifted. Coker realized this was the perfect time to acknowledge that, in fact, U.S. publishers were considering the idea. Once the U.S. publishing contingent was back in the States, a core group composed of Coker, PW executives, and CBE’s Jon Malinowski and Janet Fritsch decided it would be more appropriate to focus on ending the embargo on books and educational materials specifically.
To be clear about what we are asking for: the Berman Amendment, approved in 1988, does allow for the export of books to Cuba on a very controlled and limited basis. Given the confusion about what the amendment actually permits, very few publishers have tried to get permission to export to Cuba. We believe the best way to ensure the unfettered exchange of ideas is for the embargo on books and educational materials to be ended completely.
We are deeply appreciative of the companies and associations that have signed the petition, but want to make clear that this is just a first step. The petition is posted at whitehouse.gov, where anyone can add his or her name to support the effort to promote the exchange of ideas found in books.
Note: this letter has been edited to include information about the Berman Amendment.