News and Facts about Cuba

The Yoani Sánchez roadshow at the U.N.

Posted on Sunday, 03.31.13

's U.N. visit

The Yoani Sánchez roadshow at the U.N.

By Maria Werlau

She came in through the visitors' entrance after passing the security

check. When she pushed through the revolving door into the grand hall,

standing there alone, I greeted her with pretended formality: "Welcome

to the United Nations." The hall was packed with Model U.N. students. A

distance back, a U.N. official "welcome committee" stood by: Tuyet

Nguyen, correspondent for a German news agency, who had come to escort

us in on behalf of the United Nations Correspondents Association (UNCA),

and three guests. Two media crews filmed her entry; no one seemed to


She was delayed from filming a last-minute CNN interview, so I was

determined to rush her through the next steps. Passes were secured at

the information desk — she used her Cuban passport as ID and was

photographed like any other visitor. We hurried downstairs and through

the basement parking lot to the Library building where journalists' and

UNCA offices are located during the main building renovation. As we

walked fast and through successive security points, I told her the Cuban

government had blocked our plan and we would have to improvise. We

agreed it did not matter — she was at the U.N. and she was going to

speak regardless. Just minutes before, I had read on my phone that the

tantrum had played out at the highest levels; Cuba's ambassador had

filed an official protest asking the U.N. Secretary General to call off

the "grave attack."

Cuba is very influential at the U.N. It has one of the largest and most

active representations. , Russia, Iran, and the like are strong

supporters — plus Cuba exerts great influence over many other governments.

Cuba's diplomats are known for expertly working the U.N. bureaucracy and

rules. The room change was the least of my worries. At any moment, I

feared, we could be stopped at a security check, escorted out of the

building, or attacked by Cuba's diplomat-thugs. These things have

actually happened at the U.N. in New York and Geneva.

The briefing was planned weeks earlier for the Dag Hammarskjold Library

Auditorium, a large and elegant venue with the necessary audio

equipment. But, the day before, the UNCA liaison mentioned "certain

problems." The auditorium would not be available and we would not have

equipment for the simultaneous interpretation. I imagined great pressure

was at play. Fortunately, with a few U.N. battles under my belt, I had

asked that this be kept from Yoani's official schedule until the

invitation had been sent out. It would be harder to dismantle an event

announced to UNCA members, 200 correspondents from all over the world.

Cuba had complained that UNCA was being "manipulated by spurious

interests," but the truth is much less sinister. I represent a tiny

group with the most meager of resources; most of our work

is voluntary. Familiar with UNCA, I knew it hosts press briefings with

newsworthy sources and freely decides who to invite. So, when I asked

them if they would like to host Yoani Sánchez, they immediately answered

yes — I assumed because she is a world-famous blogger and .

After details were agreed on, I contacted the person handling Yoani's

schedule (a mutual friend volunteering his efforts). Once a time was

agreed, I sent UNCA her biography and suggested a media advisory. Then,

I hired an interpreter. It had all been simple and transparent.

The briefing would now be at "UNCA square" within the journalists'

temporary area during the remodeling. To my dismay, when we arrived we

found it was just an opening within a hallway surrounded by offices.

Next to a large copying machine was a tiny table with three small chairs

crammed behind it. To the side, another small table had refreshments. In

the middle, there were no more than 10 chairs. Most people had to stand

in the hallway and adjoining offices. We looked at each other puzzled,

so I pointed Yoani and the interpreter to the chairs, leaving the third

one for the UNCA host. Though the designated moderator, I stepped aside

— there was no room and no need for another person. Having seen her over

the previous days, I knew all we needed was to let Yoani speak.

A few film crews and correspondents from news agencies and several

countries were there. Italian journalist Stefano Vaccara explained to me

that no biographical commentary was needed, as everyone knew who she

was, and proceeded with a heartfelt introduction. She delivered her

remarks with no notes, as usual, her voice strong despite no microphone.

Orlando Luis Pardo, the Cuban blogger/photographer traveling with Yoani;

Mary Jo Porter, the Seattle engineer who founded a volunteer translating

service to support Cuban bloggers; and I, sat on the floor — there was

no space elsewhere.

Yoani began by saying she was proud that her first time at the U.N. was

"with my journalist colleagues." Though clarifying that she came as a

citizen and joking about being used to working in small spaces, she

pulled out all the stops. She called on the United Nations to support

human rights in Cuba and declared it was time the organization "came out

of its lethargy and recognized that the Cuban government is a

dictatorship." She asserted: "Cuba is not a government or a political

party [but] the fiefdom of one man." Further, she called for U.N.

support of an international investigation of the suspicious death of

Cuban Oswaldo Payá. During the Q&A, the correspondent for the

Cuban news agency, Prensa Latina, asked two questions. Unsurprisingly,

they were from the "40 questions for Yoani" that Cuban regime supporters

have trailed her with wherever she goes. He sounded pretty silly and he

must have known it, as his hands were shaking. She dispatched them

quickly, ably, and with aplomb. It's remarkable that a 37-year-old

petite and unassuming blogger took to the United Nations headquarters in

defense of fundamental rights bearing no more than her determination and

the strength of her word. The poised and eloquent "little person," as

she calls herself, made a mighty military dictatorship of over five

decades run scared to stop her from speaking. Forced into a cubicle, she

could not be silenced. Only five hours after the briefing, a Google

search produced four pages of links to news stories from around the

world in Spanish alone — all highlighting the Cuban government's bully

tactics. The regime and its minions had actually generated the lead to a

great story, made themselves look like fools, and allowed Yoani to shine


Recapping the event with Carmen Rodríguez, UNCA member from Radio Martí,

she recalled José Martí's words: "A just cause coming from the bottom of

a cave is more powerful than any ."

From start to finish, her U.N. foray could not have been more perfect

or poetic.

Maria Werlau is executive director of Cuba Archive

(, a New Jersey based nonprofit organization.

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