Havana’s Book Fair and the Exclusion of People with Disabilities

Dmitri Prieto

Entrance to the La Cabaña Fortress.  Photo: Elio Delgado Valdes

HAVANA TIMES — This year, I attended the International Book Fair at Havana’s La Cabaña fortress only a couple of times. In the past I would go most days.

Though the fair is a good opportunity to get one’s bearings in the world of the printed word today, I cannot help notice that, year after year, the venue is becoming an increasingly fertile soil for commercial and consumerist trends.

And, at the risk of coming across as a pseudo-intellectual snob, I must say that being surrounded by tumultuous crowds that plunge towards posters of soccer player Ronaldo en masse doesn’t always make for a good time.

I have already written about how odd it seemed to me that a place whose history has been marked by typical forms of military authoritarianism – including State sanctioned and not so “legal” executions carried out by an array of different political regimes – should have been made the main venue of Cuba’s book fair.

As the 2015 fair came to an end in this fortress, another series of thoughts came to mind. After treading the uneven terrain of La Cabaña, among crowds darting in all imaginable directions, I thought of those whom society increasingly regards as victims of neglect (among many other underprivileged sectors of society): people with disabilities.

I thought about the visually impaired and those confined to wheel chairs in particular, two groups of people who are conspicuously absent from book fair activities.

I can’t imagine how people with these challenges would be able to enter and move about the fortress when the fair is in full swing.

Though there are stands offering books written in Braille, I didn’t see any blind people around these. Accessing the fairgrounds must be very difficult for those who are unable to see. It must be even more of a hellish ordeal for those who must move about on a wheelchair or with the aid of crutches.

One can get a clear sense of this if one considers the characteristics of the fortress’ terrain and the many architectural barriers one comes across inside, where even those of us without disabilities find it hard to move, forced to hop over gaps or duck regularly.

The 2015 Havana Book Fair.  Photo: Elio Delgado Valdés

The place is full of steps, barricades, narrow entrances and low-laying roofs, none of which have been adapted to meet the needs of those who may have trouble moving or seeing.

It is a baroque, military structure designed for soldiers tasked with firing artillery. Its architectural design makes it a very bad location for a popular event such as the book fair, which should be accessible to anyone interested in reading.

I fondly recall the days when the fair was held at Pabexpo, the exhibition hall of Havana’s International Convention Center. It was a bit far from the downtown area, true, it had less historical significance, true, but the venue was far more in tune with the idea of holding a gathering of those who love books, with or without disabilities.

Havana and other places around Cuba are taking the interests of people with special needs more and more seriously.

It may be advisable to start thinking about a new venue for the book fair that is more inclusive and friendly towards all social groups, where reading (and not the overwhelming violence of a select group of consumers) is the common denominator.