Association of the Blind draws interest at Havana book fair

By Harvey McArthur
and Róger Calero
April 3, 2023

HAVANA — One of the most interesting and lively stands at this year’s Havana International Book Fair, held in February, was organized by Cuba’s National Association of the Blind (ANCI). 

The association regularly has a stand here, at Cuba’s largest cultural festival. This year they featured a daily program designed to promote participation of their members and families in cultural, sports and productive activities. 

Every morning of the 10-day fair, several dozen people took a bus organized by ANCI up to the historic San Carlos de La Cabaña fortress, where dozens of publishers had book displays. They crowded in front of the stand, eager to take part in that day’s program and check out books in Braille or digital book files to take home. Each day’s session focused on a different topic, such as youth, older adults, sports, computer technology and the history and geography of Colombia, this year’s country of honor. 

“Since our founding in 1975, we have encouraged participation by our members in cultural activity and society in general,” said Carlos Ramírez, ANCI’s director of culture and education, as he welcomed a group of visitors. “The quality of a person’s life and their freedom depend on the culture they’ve acquired, and that needs to be cultivated.” 

Since January 1959, when working people here took power and began to transform society, Ramírez told the Militant, “the social programs of the revolution have included not only the blind but all persons with disabilities.” 

ANCI leaders proudly described how people with disabilities, backed by Cuba’s revolutionary leadership, fought to be included in the revolutionary transformations wrought in those early years, breaking down prejudices and other barriers in the process. They were part of the 1959 land reform. They took part in the 1961 mass mobilization of volunteer teachers that wiped out illiteracy in Cuba, as well as subsequent literacy efforts specifically for the blind. They joined in the efforts to create jobs for all. 

One program ANCI put on highlighted Cuba’s participation in the international Paralympic Games. The discussion was led by Enrique Cepeda, a Paralympic gold medal winner. He described how since the 1992 Barcelona games Cuban athletes with disabilities have won 91 Paralympic medals, ranking third in Latin America after Brazil and Mexico. 

“In Cuba everyone has the right to participate in sports” and steps are taken to make that a reality, Cepeda said. Local and national championships are organized to select athletes to compete in the Paralympics. 

In the last year especially, however, shortages of fuel and other essentials, exacerbated by Washington’s economic embargo, have made it harder for athletes to travel to compete in different regions of the island. 

Confronting U.S. embargo obstacles

“We want to develop wheelchair basketball and baseball for the blind,” said Cepeda. “But these require special wheelchairs and other equipment made with U.S. components” that Cuba can’t buy because of the sanctions. “Nor can we buy the special prosthetics that track and field athletes need.” 

Cuba has to import Braille printing machines, white canes, and hearing aids at prices many times higher than what they’re sold for in the United States or other countries. Access to many computer programs and equipment to help people with disabilities is also blocked under U.S. sanctions. 

Computer engineer Alexander Rodríguez Borges demonstrated a new cellphone application called Asista at the ANCI stand. It helps the blind and visually impaired identify paper currency, as well as read labels and identify items, people and surroundings. Rodríguez, who is blind, has worked together with other engineers at the Cuban Institute of Computer Science to develop the software. 

Rodríguez first demonstrated a similar application called Lookout, available from Google. Because of U.S. sanctions, however, many of its functions don’t work in Cuba. And it requires an internet connection, not always available or affordable for many Cubans. The new Asista application works without an internet connection. 

This project began several years ago, Rodríguez said, when he and another engineer would walk the streets of Havana, stopping everyone with a white cane to ask what were the biggest problems they faced in everyday life. At the top of the list was identifying different denominations of paper currency. 

Rodríguez demonstrated how Asista uses a cellphone camera to read bills in Cuban pesos, dollars and euros. It also reads out loud signs on walls and documents held under the phone camera. He showed the audience how the app, which detects shapes and distances, called out the presence of a doorway and steps leading to it. 

On another day, ANCI leaders invited volunteers from the nearby Pathfinder stand to come over and explain the work of socialists in the U.S. to make Pathfinder books available in digital form so working people, blind and sighted alike, can read and discuss the same books as part of building a revolutionary workers movement. 

We also told ANCI members about a recent fight in the U.S. by blind workers to win back their jobs at Amazon, which fired them claiming they couldn’t do the work. The National Federation of the Blind defended the workers, and finally won an agreement by Amazon to provide the job conditions they needed and to rehire them. 

“We know these are not technical problems,” Ramírez said. In capitalist countries, bosses have the material resources but their bottom line is profits. “The problem is their view that people with disabilities are not useful to society.” 

“Our view is that the disabilities are created by the environment,” said Jorge Luis Cabrera, ANCI’s public relations representative. “If job conditions are adjusted to the needs of the blind person, we are capable of doing the work.”