Havana, Feb 4 (Prensa Latina) Cuba is a country of avid readers and since 1982 its annual International Book Fair attracts people from all walks of life and ages.
It's a chance to expand home libraries and have a good time as well, in a nation where literacy is a given.
This year's event, spotlighting Argentine authors, publishers and culture, runs in Havana from February 8 to 18 before extending island-wide to 40 cities and concluding in eastern Santiago de Cuba on March 11.
A visitor from the United States, who had to violate his country's travel ban on Cuba to attend the fair in 2006, said "Seeing so many people interested in literature restores one's faith that books can hold their own in the electronic age, at least in Cuba."
The fair begins at the 18th century San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress that the Revolution turned into a permanent museum-cultural center. The facility has a breathtaking view of the Havana harbor and skyline and has large, well-kept grassy areas where people picnic and children get a first glimpse of their new books.
First time foreign visitors are stunned by the huge daily turnouts -more like crowds that one would expect for a soccer game or a salsa concert- to attend book launchings, lectures, poetry readings and make purchases. The large number of activities for children including dance, clowns, theater and readings make the outing a family affair.
Entrance tickets, still costing the equivalent of 8 cents US, are on sale at numerous Havana bookstores that will also be selling titles from the fair at the same discount prices.
The selection from dozens of Cuban publishing houses will run from a few cents for children's books to 25 cents to a dollar for thicker volumes of poetry, fiction or non-fiction. Cuban's reading tastes are varied but children's literature is always of greatest demand at the fair.
Express buses take people for free or close to it from several of Havana's municipalities making it possible to attend despite the city's transportation difficulties.
The Capital Building on Prado Promenade in Old Havana, a replica of the building on Washington's Capitol Hill, is a central place where many catch the bus that crosses the east bay tunnel to the fortress fairgrounds.
Long lines are the norm at the food stands and at book stalls, but most people make a leisurely outing of going to the fair and are patient about waiting their turn to buy.
The first ten fairs between 1982 and 2001 were held in the capital but by 2002, popular demand and a greater publishing capacity has allowed the event to become a national affair, extending first to 18 cities, to 34 in 2006 and now 40 in all Cuban provinces.
At last year's book fair, dedicated to Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez expressed the sentiments of the organizers by saying: "The US Empire sows death with its weapons. In contrast, these are our guns: books, ideas, culture."
This year the large Argentine delegation of authors, artists, publishers and officials will be headed by Secretary of Culture Jose Nun.
The fair also involves several concurrent cultural events, usually featuring aspects of the culture of the guest country.
A sampling of recent Argentine films will be shown at the capital's Riviera movie theater and a special tribute for famed singer and director Leonardo Favio is scheduled.
Forty years of Argentine rock music will be celebrated on Saturday, February 10. Musicians such as Juan Carlos Baglietto, David Lebon, Pedro Aznar and Lito Vitale will join Cuban bands in an open air concert at the plaza across from the US Interests Section.
The fair is attended by so many people that the Ministry of Culture, local and visiting publishers have their hands full printing enough books to meet demand. The organizers estimate an offering this year of 8.5 million copies. The low price of books on the island especially surprises visitors from other Latin American countries where literature has become a luxury item.
Nigerian Nobel Prize for Literature Wole Soyinka, Mexican author and journalist Elena Poniatowska, Italian philosopher and politician Gianni Vattimo and Argentine novelist and playwright David Vinas will be attending the 16th Cuba Book Fair.
The largest foreign book stalls will be from Argentina, Spain, Mexico and Germany with booths also from publishers in Algeria, Bolivia, Ecuador, Haiti, Pakistan, Syria, Australia, Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Great Britain, Venezuela and Palestine.
(*)Circles Robinson is a US journalist living in Havana. His articles and commentaries can be read at: www.circlesonline.blogspot.com