Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Call to End the Cuban Book Embargo

The American publishing community joined together today to call on the US Congress and President Obama to end the book embargo against Cuba.

The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly covered the story earlier today.

On Monday, in an unprecedented show of support, Publishers Weekly will print the petition on the front cover of the magazine.  You can see a preview of what it will look like at left.  Over 45 companies, organizations, associations and individuals signed the Publishers Weekly petition, including the CEOs of three big 5 publishers.

You can view the text of industry petition here.

There's also a new, public petition at  Add your support now by signing the public petition here

The American writing community is well-represented in the Publishers Weekly petition with backing from Romance Writers of America (RWA), Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA), American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), California Writers Club, Sisters in Crime, and the San Francisco Writers Conference.
"Access to books and literature is a fundamental human right.  It's for this reason the California Writers Club, an organization representing over 2,000 writers, is proud to sign this important petition to end the book embargo against Cuba."
- David George
  President, CWC.

Among the publishers and distributors signing are the CEOs of Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, Sourcebooks, O’Reilly Media, Kensington, Open Road Integrated Media, Smashwords, Independent Book Group (IPG) and Baker & Taylor.
See the end of the blog post for the full petition and the signers.

Americans - Sign the Petition Today!

There are two petitions in this campaign.  The first petition is the industry petition in which CEOs and top executives drawn from multiple sectors of the U.S. publishing community voiced their support for an end to the Cuban book embargo.  This is the petition that will appear on the front of Publishers Weekly next week.

The second petition is a petition for the American public.  This petition, hosted at, calls on President Obama to take immediate steps to eliminate the embargo as it pertains to books and educational materials.

If you live in the US, please sign it now at

Please sign it and share the link to the petition with everyone you know.  Tweet it, Facebook it, bang pots and pans for it!

If we attract 100,000 signatures, the Obama administration will be obligated to issue a public response at the link above.

The Story Behind the Petition

I conceived of the petition last month while visiting Cuba as part of 40 member publishing industry delegation organized by Publishers Weekly and Combined Book Exhibit.

The delegation was organized by Publishers Weekly and Combined Book Exhibit. You can read about the delegation in the Publishers Weekly stories by Calvin Reid (here and here).

Several days of meetings, held with the support of the Cuban government, represented an historic milestone. The purpose was to build bridges of understanding and explore opportunities for greater cultural and economic collaboration.

The American delegates included authors, publishers, distributors, literary agents, service providers, consultants, and independent booksellers. Cuba was represented by officials from the Cuban Book Institute, the Ministry of Culture and the Cuban Writers Association, as well as Cuban authors, publishers, academics, and students.

While listening to the Cuban authors and publishers, I was struck by how horribly harmful the embargo is to their authors, publishers and readers.

Due to the US embargo, it’s extraordinarily expensive and difficult for Cuban publishers to gain access to even the simplest raw materials of bookmaking, such as paper and ink.  And for self-published authors, even if they had access to self-publishing services or book printers, the set-up fees of such print services would be prohibitively expensive.

Typical Cubans, whether they’re doctors or janitors, earn the equivalent of less than $20 US dollars per month.  This means they don’t have a lot of disposable income to purchase books or publish books.

Yet the Cuban people love books.  I attended the Havana Book Fair where over the course of a few days hundreds of thousands of Cubans attended.  I noticed that the audience skewed toward younger millennials.  These kids and young adults are the future of Cuba.  They’re bright, well-educated, eager to read more books and they're excited about the warming relations with the US.

Cuba has an adult literacy rate that is nearly 100%.  Compare that to the the US where adult literacy is only about 80%.  Cuba has a rich literary heritage.  They value books.

Imagine the amazing stories locked between the minds and fingertips of the Cuban people, just waiting to be revealed to the world.  This is why I created Smashwords.  I want to help these writers and publishers overcome the artificial barriers that prevent their words from reaching reader eyeballs.

Of the approximate 45 publishers in Cuba – all state sponsored and cash-starved – they don’t have access to US markets, or to the services and expertise of the American publishing community.

If you think about it, much of the enabling infrastructure of global publishing flows through the US.  It's where you'll find the major publishers, distributors, literary agents and the myriad other service providers involved in the production, distribution and sale of books and bookmaking technology.

The technology and services of Smashwords, for example, could make it fast, free and easy for any Cuban writer or publisher to produce and distribute an ebook.  We can provide Cuban writers access to the free tools to reach a global Spanish-language audience.  Imagine how transformative even a few dollars in royalties would be to a Cuban writer’s life.

For Cuban readers, I want to make our 60,000 free books available to them along with our 350,000 other low-cost ebooks.  I want to make it possible for Cuban readers to digitally read the books of Cuban and other Spanish-language writers too.

Yet the economic embargo prohibits us from helping writers, readers and publishers in Cuba.  The embargo prevents our retailer and library partners from operating in Cuba.  Financial restrictions prohibit our payment processor – PayPal – from paying authors and publishers in Cuba.  PayPal tells me they want to do business in Cuba but they can’t until the financial transaction restrictions of the embargo are lifted.

During our interactions with our Cuban counterparts, it quickly became clear that both sides of the delegation were eager to work with one another, but we all felt powerless to do so due to the embargo.

So I started wondering what we could do to fix the problem.  Obviously, the answer was to end the embargo.  So the crazy idea I came up with was for members of our delegation to take steps to end the embargo.  Surely, if the multi-billion-dollar US publishing industry could come together and voice their support for ending the embargo, politicians who are otherwise ignoring their citizen constituents would listen to their corporate constituents, right?

I shared my idea with Calvin Reid of Publishers Weekly and Joe Matthews of International Publishers Group.  They thought it had merit.  Soon, word started spreading within the delegation and several people approached me and said they'd support such an effort.  And then, as I was participating on a panel the next day, a member of the Cuban delegation asked if there was anything we could do to end the embargo.  With that soft ball pitch, I said yeah, maybe, we've been batting around this crazy idea...

Following the visit to Cuba, we formed a petition committee of Publishers Weekly (Jim Milliot, Cevin Breyerman, George Slowik, Jr., Calvin Reid) , Combined Book Exhibit (Jon Malinowski and Janet Fritsch) and Jim Azevedo and myself of Smashwords. Publishers Weekly immediately committed to put this on the front of the magazine.  I drafted the original petition and then we collaborated to edit and refine it, and then we worked together to set the strategy for the petition.  What you see to today is the result of an amazing collaborative effort by my fellow organizers and of course the participation of the petition signers, many of whom understand and appreciate the delicate political environment in the US today.

Today, these petition signers made a bold statement that they will stand on the right side of history despite the many voices that seek to perpetuate the past injustices of the economic embargo.

A big thanks to Jeffrey Trachtenberg and his editors at The Wall Street Journal who saw fit to give this story the attention it deserved.  The Wall Street Journal story has elevated our effort to the attention of the broader American public.  The American public now has the opportunity to apply friendly encouragement to their political representatives, challenging our country to stand on the right side of history by lifting the embargo.

The Story Behind the Embargo, and What Comes Next

The US embargo against Cuba has a dark and twisted past.  What we in America refer to today as the embargo (and what Cubans refer to as “the blockade”) grew out of a tangled spaghetti mess of presidential executive orders followed by Congressional actions and statutes, and followed by escalating retaliations and rhetoric on both sides.

Books have been written on the origins and impacts of the embargo.  I'll try to summarize in a few paragraphs.

In a nutshell, much of the mess started in 1960 when President Eisenhower decided to cancel 700,000 tons of sugar imports from Cuba to the U.S.  The Cuban government then responded by nationalizing American oil refineries without compensation (why do some of America’s biggest world blunders always come back to oil?), and then we added an embargo, and then they became dependent upon Russia for oil and military stuff, and then there was the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the world our parents knew almost ended in a puff of radioactive dust, and then the US Bay of Pigs invasion (oops, sorry), etc etc.

Along the way the US has criticized the Castro regime for human rights violations as if this is justification for maintaining the embargo.  I don’t doubt such violations (I met a woman on my flight to Cuba whose brother was shot in the ‘60s for trying to escape Cuba), but really, isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black?

The US government has been no angel in world affairs.  Yeah, we deserve some respect for helping to save humanity from Nazi and Japanese tyranny in World War II.  But before and after that we had our fair share of screw ups along the way, like Americans stealing America from the native American Indians, or the dark stain of slavery, or the Iran/Contra deal, or the CIA overthrow of multiple democratically elected governments, or for more contemporary examples just look at how our government allows its own people to be poisoned by lead in Flint just to save a few bucks, or how we allow big corporations to buy politicians, or how we continue to cozy up to autocrats and dictators in oil-rich countries (there's oil again!) who strip their citizens of basic human rights, or who behead bloggers for offending Allah or whatever.

But I digress.  I love America.  We’re a wonderful country with wonderful people but we can be pretty clueless quite a bit of the time.  In the case of Cuba, we’ve been stupid for about five decades.  Innocent Cubans have suffered.

It’s actually pretty amazing the Cuban people don’t hate Americans.  Yet you meet with them and what you see are a bright and optimistic people who feel incredibly connected to us, and who want to be more connected.  Most Americans who visit Cuba end up feeling the same reciprocal desire to connect.  To be ambassadors for a better aspect of America.

After all, as any world traveler will tell you, we all have more in common than we have apart.  All too often we allow trivial things like politics, religion, race and place of birth to separate us.  Engagement leads to peace, understanding, respect and mutual benefit.

President Obama realized the embargo was failing to achieve anything productive, and decided that if he could help expose the Cuban people to American culture, tourist dollars and information, he could achieve real progress.

No doubt, the relationship to come will be fraught with stumbles, bumbles, squabbles and awkward moments, not terribly dissimilar to teenagers experiencing their first romantic relationship.

The Obama administration has reestablished diplomatic relations with the Cuban government.  They’ve reopened respective embassies and also made strides to relax travel restrictions and permit limited commercial transactions such as in the field of telecommunications so that the Cuban people can gain increased access to outside information via the Internet.

There’s a great exclusive interview with Obama from December at Yahoo News in which reporter Olivier Knox asks Obama to articulate his Cuba strategy.  In the interview, Obama talks about how the executive branch (i.e. the President) can make tweaks and modifications to the embargo despite the gridlock and obstruction of current Congressional leaders.  It starts with a two minute sample and then jumps in to the full interview.

After listening to the interview, I decided that Obama would really want to lift the book embargo if only someone would suggest it to him.  After all, when you listen to his criteria for the modifications he’s made to date – providing Cubans access to more information via the Internet, more access to American Culture and business practices, doing things that directly benefit the Cuban people, sharing American cultural and humanitarian values – then it’s quite obvious that books could help him achieve his objectives.

Books promote greater cross-cultural understanding and economic development.  Books are the most powerful vehicle for knowledge sharing and free expression.

Next week on March 17, according to Reuters, the Obama administration is expected to announce further easing of restrictions related to commercial and humanitarian assistance.  Their announcement comes on the eve of President Obama’s visit to Cuba March 21-22.

We want President Obama to address the book embargo in his March 17 announcement.  With your help, this might be possible.

In my opinion, the US economic embargo against Cuba is nothing short of a national embarrassment.  It accomplished nothing other than harming the Cuban people.  It’s anachronistic and antagonistic to basic humanitarian and American values.

The American people seem to agree.  According to a Pew poll last year, 72% of Americans now favor an end the US economic embargo against Cuba, including 59% of Republicans.  Gallup has been tracking American sentiment toward Cuba and the embargo for many years, and their findings confirm the Pew finding. Most Cuban-Americans now support an end to the embargo.

Only the US Congress has the power to completely abolish the embargo, and despite growing bipartisan support for the embargo’s end, it’s unlikely we’ll see the embargo lifted until after the next election in November.

Two of the three Republican candidates for President – Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – have spoken out against the end of the embargo.  Ironically, their parents came from Cuba.  To the young Cubans I spoke to, these two are a national embarrassment.

But Cruz and Rubio come from a different generation, a generation whose parents fled Cuba in the '60s for political reasons.  It’s this influential generation of Cuban-Americas that has made it politically impossible for rapprochement in the past.  Though according to polls, even this older generation is slowly warming to the idea of normalized relations with Cuba.

The more recent waves of Cuban immigrants coming to America since the 1980s have come for economic opportunity.  These younger Cubans are much more in favor of normalized relations with Cuba, and much more in favor of ending the embargo.  It's this new generation of politically influential Cuban-Americans that give American politicians the political cover they need to chart a new course.

According to a December 2015 survey conducted by the research firm Bendixon and Amadi and referenced by the Miami Herald - 77% of Cuban-Americans age 18-49 support normalized relations between Cuba and the United States.  Fully 53% of Cuban-Americans now support an end to the US embargo, and among 18-49 year olds, the percentage is 66%.

Last year, Donald Trump went against his own party by expressing support for Obama’s efforts to normalize relations.  Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are also in favor of ending the embargo.  One of these individuals is likely to become our next president.

So while Congressional action is unlikely in the near term, President Obama has authority under the executive branch to make immediate modifications to the embargo.

We think it’s time to add books to the list.

Please join our campaign by signing the public petition today at  The link is

The two petitions follow below

The Industry Petition to appear in Publishers Weekly:


In February 2016, a delegation of approximately 40 American publishing industry representatives met with their publishing counterparts in Havana, Cuba. The two days of meetings, held with the support of the Cuban government, represented an historic milestone. Its purpose was to build bridges of understanding and explore opportunities for greater cultural and economic collaboration.

The American delegates included authors, publishers, distributors, literary agents, service providers, consultants, and independent booksellers. Cuba was represented by officials from the Cuban Book Institute, the Ministry of Culture and the Cuban Writers Association, as well as Cuban authors, publishers, academics, and students.

The undersigned companies and individuals - drawn from the American delegation as well as other leading U.S. publishing industry participants - hereby call upon the U.S. Congress and President Obama to lift the economic embargo against Cuba as it pertains to books and educational materials.  This call is consistent with the will of the American people, who, according to a 2015 Gallup and Pew polls, overwhelmingly support the elimination of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Our position:
  • We ask Congress and the President to lift the US trade embargo against Cuba related to the production, distribution and sale of books and educational materials.
  • The U.S. trade embargo is harmful to book culture and runs counter to American ideals of free expression.
  • Books are catalysts for greater cross-cultural understanding, economic development, free expression, and positive social change.
  • Cuba boasts a rich and proud literary tradition with much to contribute to book culture.
  • Cuba's adult literacy rate-nearly 100%-is among the highest in the world.
  • Exciting commercial opportunities exist for the American and Cuban publishing communities to collaborate for the benefit of readers and writers everywhere.
  • The American book publishing community stands ready to help Cuba's writers and publishers gain access to the global book market, and to help the Cuban people gain greater access to the amazing diversity of books published by American publishers.

The Public Petition at (Click here to sign today!)

End the Book Embargo Against Cuba

  • On the eve of his historic visit to Cuba March 21-22, we call on President Obama to utilize executive powers to immediately lift the economic embargo against Cuba as it pertains to books and educational materials.
  • As a basic human right, readers everywhere deserve greater access to books and literature.
  • Books promote cross-cultural understanding, economic development, free expression and positive social change.
  • The book embargo runs counter to American ideals of free expression.
  • Cuba's adult literacy rate – at nearly 100% - is among the highest in the world.
  • Cuba boasts a rich literary heritage.
  • End the embargo to make the works of American and Cuban writers more accessible to readers in each country.
  • 72% of Americans support an end to the trade embargo against Cuba (Pew, 2015)