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.
The idea was taken up again in the 1950s, this time 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, three months after the revolution, three important institutions were created: 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 broad reading public was born that began to need books as an essential part of its existence. 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.
With the creation of the Ministry of Culture in 1976, the Cuban Book Institute considered the possibility of resuming book fairs and did some launches 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. It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that a whole system of fairs was conceived. Many important new authors were introduced to readers and Cubans increasingly sought volumes of national and universal literature, history, science and technology, literature for children and teenagers, and so on.
The 1st Havana International Book Fair took place in 1982 in the exhibition halls of the Fine Arts Museum. The modest representation of publishers and guests included publishers and writers from Latin America. In 1984 the 2nd Book Fair at the Pabellón Cuba and Habana Libre Hotel drew a larger attendance of international publishers, especially from Spain and Mexico.
The 3rd Fair in 1986 was held in the Convention Center and the 4th Fair in 1990, at Pabexpo, until 2000 when it was relocated to San Carlos de La Cabaña Fortress, which has been its principal venue to this day.
From the simple exhibition and sale of books of the early years, the fair now revolves around a central theme and a guest country. As of 2002, the fair, which had only been held in Havana for two weeks, was extended to 30 other cities throughout Cuba from early February to mid March making the book fair the most massive cultural event held in Cuba.
Cuban publishing houses tend to launch new books that they consider to be the most attractive for the fair and many foreign publishers bring books at tempting prices, aware of the fact that the Cuban public is educated, curious and eager, but whose personal finances don’t go too far. Many people save money throughout the year in the hope of leaving La Cabaña laden with bags full of reading material that may quench their thirst for good and entertaining literature for the next 12 months.
Besides purchasing books, people 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 popular concerts in the evenings. Crafts have also always played an important part of these fairs.
The 2012 International Book Fair presented over 2,000 titles, 840 of which were new. Around 260 writers and intellectuals, 600 editors and other professionals from 41 countries actively participated in the event. The attendance was estimated at more than 2.5 million people who bought almost 1.5 million books in 25 days.