Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez refuses to back down
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez refuses to back down
Published On Sat May 19 2012
By Catherine Porter Columnist
HAVANA, CUBA—I have called Yoani Sanchez 76 times since I arrived in
Cuba eight days ago. Once, I managed to get through for 38 seconds
before the line was cut.
So, finally, I board a sleek, blue 1953 boat of a Plymouth — a
collective taxi for locals — manned by a grandfather named Fidel and
bounce across the city on its grey leather back seat to Neuva Vedado,
where I'm told Sanchez lives.
I know from her blog that she lives at the top of the14-storey building
her husband built as part of a neighbourhood brigade decades ago. I pace
the top two floors looking for a sign and there it is below the peephole
of one door — a small Cuban flag with the words "Internet para todos"
(Internet for all) written across the bottom.
I sit down and wait.
When I finally meet Sanchez that evening, she tells me apologetically
that her cellphone service has been cut since the day before Pope
Benedict XVI arrived on the island with 800 international journalists in
The morning of his public mass in Havana's packed Plaza de la
Revolucion, Sanchez emerged from her building to find lines of police
tape and an officer standing by the exit who told her, "you, you cannot
leave," she says.
She was among the 150 political dissidents Amnesty International says
the government detained and cut off in a "communications blockade" that
"The Raulista system of repression is different than the Fidelista,"
Sanchez tells me, settling down at a table in her family's bright,
book-lined living room.
"Under Fidel, we would go to prison for 15, 20, 30 years. With Raul
Castro, you spent 24 or 48 hours in a police station or locked in your
home, and there is no legal proof, no right to call anyone, no lawyer,
no habeas corpus. The moment the pope's plane took off, our liberties
Sanchez's crime? She is a blogger. She posted her first entry about her
gnawing hunger to a blog site set up by a friend in Germany — since
regular Cubans were then forbidden access to the Internet — five years
ago. Soon after, she wrote about how her building, once the symbol of
collective spirit and work, was slumping into decay, with broken water
pumps and a jerry-rigged elevator and no official cleaner since the job
was "too much work for too little money." She called the post "metaphor
for these times."
The blog, dubbed Generation Y, became a diary of the daily frustrations
of life in modern Cuba — from the single bun she is afforded each day by
the country's anemic ration system, to the televisions that have
replaced teachers in her son's school and the three-day lineups for a
bus ticket to the countryside.
Were Sanchez Canadian, her blog would be considered tame. Even her
criticisms of the Castro regime more poetry than tirade — commenting on
Fidel's "canned speeches past their expiration date."
But this is Cuba, a country where volunteer revolutionary brigades still
report and hound "counter-revolutionaries" and all media is state-owned.
To post her blog, Sanchez pretended to be a Swiss tourist staying at a
deluxe hotel so she could access the web in the hotel's cyber cafe. "Is
dis where I pay for ze Internet?" she says, giving me a rerun of
German-accented English. Even though hotels are now open to Cubans,
along with their Internet suites, the exorbitant cost is a practical censor.
"I felt like Swiss Family Robinson, throwing bottles with messages into
the ocean. I didn't know who was reading them or if anyone was reading
them," she says.
Millions were. The blog garnered Sanchez almost instant international
fame with a fistful of prestigious journalism prizes and commendations,
as well as an online interview with U.S. President Barack Obama. To this
day, strangers around the globe translate her blog into more than 15
languages for free.
Inside Cuba, Generation Y garnered Sanchez two police officers stationed
outside her building most days. Then, in November 2009, she writes about
being yanked into a car and beaten for being a "counter-revolutionary"
by three "heavily built strangers," presumably undercover police officers.
She did not back down. Instead, she continued coaching fellow dissidents
on the tricks and science of joining her in the blogosphere. (They now
have a collective site.)
She sees her writing as love letters to her country, urging change
rather than abandonment. (She did leave for Switzerland in 2002, but
returned two years later to be with her family.)
"This could be a marvellous country," she says. "If I had a microphone
and could talk to people on television here, they'd see I'm not a person
who is violent, who wants to flee to the United States. They'd see I'm
someone who is preoccupied with my country."
Sanchez is 36. She is married and has a 16-year-old son. Together with
her husband, a former journalist who lost his job at the state newspaper
for "not conforming to the editorial line of the newspaper," she earns
enough to fill her tiny belly by teaching Spanish to foreigners in Cuba,
together with the freelance pay from a biweekly column in the Spanish
paper El Pais and the royalties she gleans from two books. (One is a
blogger's how-to guide and the other is a collection of her blog
postings called Havana Real.)
"It gives us economic autonomy, which in a country like Cuba is
political autonomy," she says. "Here, the government has a monopoly on
all the jobs and companies."
The most striking thing about her is her hair — it hangs down past her
waist. Readers have asked if she is growing it like a hair suit in
protest of the Castro regime, but she says laughingly that's not the case.
I ask her why she thinks her blog has unplugged such a gushing reaction.
She says she thinks there are many reasons — the timing coinciding with
Fidel Castro's illness and the world's focus returning to Cuba as a
result, her personal feminine voice opposing a male-dominated state. . .
But mostly, she says she touched the irreverent, apathetic nerve of her
generation of Cubans, who grew up during the hungry "Special Period"
after the collapse of the Soviet empire and were more interested in the
rest of the world than an aging revolution.
"My blog has a life. I'm here, without any Internet and people are
commenting on my blog. The minimum number of comments I get is 1,000 and
the most was 7,746," she says. "Cubans need a public space to speak.
Since there aren't these places here, the Internet has become that."
While other peaceful critics of the regime have been surrounded in the
streets by pro-revolutionary mobs (encouraged by the government,
according to Amnesty International), that hasn't happen to Sanchez.
Perhaps she is protected by her medium — few Cubans can afford even an
hour online at a hotel, which costs half the average monthly salary.
Those who do are more likely to be her age and equally disenchanted.
More and more of them approach her on the street to voice their quiet
approval, she says.
"Cubans are very creative. Much information that's prohibited here and
difficult to see is distributed other ways. We take a memory stick, copy
pages from the Internet with critical news and then we take it to
different houses, so 100 to 200 people can read it," she says. "Here,
information transmits like a virus."
She sees a slowly growing dissidence around her. "It's like an
hourglass," she says. "At the top are the people who believe in the
system. Every day, one person who believes drops to the bottom. That's
irreversible. No one goes the other way."
Just this morning, she celebrated with her friend and fellow government
critic, Jeovany Jimenez. A doctor, Jimenez lost his job six years ago
after writing a letter to the public health ministry protesting the
miserable $2 monthly raise the government had trumpeted with fanfare. He
wrote petitions, declarations, a blog that Sanchez helped him publish.
He had started a public hunger strike in March. Sanchez figured he would
die before the government relented and gave him back his job. She was wrong.
"This is incredible, just incredible. There is no precedent," she says
gleefully. "When you combine tenacity with the Internet and the presence
of citizens, there are good results. It's a hard mix."
Her next posting is about the rearrest of former prisoner of conscience
Jose Daniel Ferrier Garcia.
"My dream is to open a newspaper that speaks about the future and also
about all the things that have happened in the past that no one talks
about — the great silence of the last 50 years," she says.
"I'm still young. I'm 36. I think it will happen."