The Feria Internacional del Libro

The Havana Book Fair is one of the most popular fairs in Havana drawing tens of thousands of people within the walls of the La Cabana Fortress. Don’t be put off by what can at times seem like a mob scene but go and check it out for yourself. All those people add to its vitality and life, and invariably there are loads of ancillary events (recently the world’s largest cigar has been rolled there). This is a real opportunity for Cubans to pick up a wide variety of literature and books from around the world and while for those used to shopping on or in Barnes & Noble, this fair may seem like a strange concoction—actually it works pretty well.

What began as a modest book fair founded by the famous Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier eventually became the most important literary event on the island. Every year, tens of thousands of people pack the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress in Havana, attracted by book launchings of all genres and topics from Cuban and foreign publishing houses, along with panel discussions, poetry readings, concerts, children’s events, and a crafts fair. After Havana, the fair travels to other Cuban cities.

The first known book fair in Cuba was held in May 1937 in the areas adjacent to the esplanade of La Punta Fortress, the Malecón and the Paseo del Prado. Despite government collaboration, it barely had an impact on the country’s cultural life, even in Havana. The poor promotion in the press, the scarce sale of books, mostly of Spanish, Argentinean and Mexican publishers, the low purchasing power of the population and the lack of interest from some potential readers or from the general public conditioned the eventual failure of this first attempt. The idea was taken up again in the 1950s, this time designed to be held along the Paseo del Prado and Parque Central, but this effort also left no mark on the cultural scene of Cuba during those years hampered as the country was by low schooling and an almost general lack of interest in reading.

In March 1959, only three months after the revolutionary triumph, the new government created three important institutions: the National Printers of Cuba, the Cuban School of Graphic Arts and the School of Typography, whose purpose was to produce books that would be available and affordable for everyone. With the Literacy Campaign in 1961, a wide reading public was born, one who began to need books as an essential part of their existence.

With the creation of the National Publishers of Cuba and the strengthening of different cultural institutions that helped Cuban authors to get published, the conditions for conducting book fairs in Cuba would change dramatically. By the mid-1960s, there was already a national industry, a population of avid readers and new writers who contributed to the publication of varied topics and genres.

For three consecutive years in the 60s, Parque Central was the venue of what was then called the Cuban Book Festival, but this never really took off. With the creation of the Ministry of Culture in 1976, the Cuban Book Institute considered the possibility of resuming the organization of book fairs and made some launchings and sales in the small plaza between the Asturian Center and the Manzana de Gómez, with a high turnout due largely to the auction of books and literary competitions.

The 1st Havana International Book Fair took place in 1982 in the exhibition halls of the Fine Arts Museum and was dedicated to Cuban patriot and writer José Martí, Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén and Bulgarian leader Georgi Dimitrov, who had been a printer by trade. The modest representation of publishers and guests included publishers and writers from Latin America.

Since then, the event has expanded in different ways—from the simple exhibition and sale of books of the early years, the fair now revolves around a central theme and a guest country. Activities include prizes to Cuban authors; panels, readings and lectures by outstanding Cuban and international writers; art exhibitions and concerts; launchings and book signing; and, of course, the sale of books. As of 2002, the fair was extended to 30 other cities throughout Cuba from early February to mid March making it the largest cultural event held in Cuba.

The location in La Cabaña Fortress enables the fair to attract diverse audiences. Some people are attracted by new book launchings and others go there simply to enjoy family life ensured by the spectacular view of the city, restaurants and fast food outlets, children’s playground within the deep dry moat and concerts in the evenings, attended mainly by a young festive crowd.

As a sample of the significance of Havana’s International Book Fair, just consider these numbers: In 2012, the fair put over 2,000 titles (840 of which were new launchings) and six million copies on sale. Around 260 writers and intellectuals, and 600 editors from 41 countries were actively involved in the event. A massive 2.5 million people bought almost 1.5 million books in 25 days. These figures, however, fail to reflect the spirit and heart of this event that takes place every year in the historic La Cabaña Fortress. Take a look.

Victoria Alcalá writes about Cuban culture. She has won several prestigious writing awards.

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