The Cuban bloggers, bold chroniclers of totalitarian rule, are traveling in winter, an apt metaphor for the old order they’re challenging back home, and to a smaller but no less significant extent, for that of the traditional exile.
Yoani Sánchez. Eliécer Avila. Orlando Luis Pardo.
The weather casts a gray patina on their photos from Europe and New York, but their tongues are as sharp abroad as they are inside Cuba when they denounce the arrests of dissidents or illustrate — as they’re doing now with Cuba’s new travel policy — what it’s like to live in their world.
In one word: Treacherous. Whether inside Cuba or out.
Their words are dissected: Do they call it “the embargo,” as in the United States, or “the blockade,” as in Cuba?
Their motives are questioned: Are they true opponents of the regime, or useful fools?
Criticism comes at the ready from all sides, including from Cuban-government-planted bloggers and from those competing for attention and prominence — some of them exiles who were once branded Communist sympathizers themselves.
It’s nasty and dangerous out there, yet the bloggers cross borders, participate in panels, collect prizes for their work that they were given years ago, when the government denied them permission to leave.
“Their humanity shines through,” Ted Henken, a “ cubanólogo” and professor at Baruch College in New York, tells me. He knows the bloggers well. He’s hosting Pardo and Sánchez in New York, and pens the blog El Yuma, titled after the affectionate street term in Cuba for the United States.
Along with their discoveries, the traveling bloggers retweet news that the Spaniard Angel Carromero has confirmed that the deaths of opposition leader Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in a car crash in Cuba were caused by Cuban government operatives. Carromero, who was driving the car and says he was rammed from behind by another car, told Payá’s daughter and The Washington Post that his trial in Cuba for negligent driving was a sham, his confession coerced.
And the bloggers retweet news of new politically motivated arrests and beatings in Cuba — 504, a record number, in February, according to the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission on the island — evidence that, despite the image Raúl Castro wants to portray of reform, the government crackdown on freedoms remains firm.
They’re clever: They tweet and retweet each other and their cohorts, staying on message and seldom respond to criticism.
“My only commitment is with the freedom of Cuba,” Yoani Sánchez, the best-known blogger, said when asked to define herself in Brazil, where she faced pro-Cuban government mobs from the moment she landed.
Soon after that, she became the target of criticism in the exiled diaspora when she said she was worried that the Cuban government was spending too much money on promoting the freedom of five Cuban spies serving sentences in U.S. prisons.
“Ouch,” a Cuban colleague emailed.
But her commentary, obvious sarcasm to those who follow her closely, was misunderstood.
The war of words against her, however, had been unleashed.
On Facebook, a Cuban-American critic began to take apart Sánchez’s choice of words in Brazil. They were too similar to Cuba’s officialdom speech for her taste — as if the Cuban government has exclusive rights to some verbs in the Spanish language. More criticism followed when Sanchez said she favors lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
No doubt some of the ill will is a side-effect of fame.
Sánchez has written her way to prominence through her sharp Generación Y blog, tweets, books, and column on The Huffington Post. After crossing the Atlantic four times on her Europe-U.S. tour speaking at panels and collecting prizes, she will speak at two forums in Miami on April 1.
The youngest of the roving bloggers, Avila, who is in his 20s, has turned out to be quite a revelation.He became an overnight “dissident” in 2008 when, as a student at the University of Information Sciences in Havana, he publicly asked Ricardo Alarcón, then president of the Cuban Assembly, why Cubans weren’t allowed to travel freely. Alárcon’s ridiculously infantile answer — that there would be too many planes in the sky if everyone were allowed to travel — all but finished his career and turned Avila into a YouTube sensation.
And not long ago, in an interview with Sánchez taped in Havana, Avila unveiled Operation Truth, in which he revealed how the Cuban government uses the university’s computer programs and its students to spy on Internet users.
Avila became the first prominent dissident to get the passport that allowed him to see the world for the first time — and it tugs at the heart strings to see the map he updates on Twitter as one invitation leads to another and he travels to Berlin, Prague, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam.
The first one to make it to Miami was the funky and poetic Pardo, who pens the blog Lunes de Post-revolución (Post-Revolution Monday) blog and loves to show off, in an endearing way, in his tweets and writings his knowledge of English. He can pen Spanglish like a Miamian.
He stopped off in Miami a couple of days to visit “the Cuba of the heart, the one we’re missing,” before heading to New York to participate in an academic conference about the impact of digital technology in Cuba.
He called Cuba’s government reforms “a message of desperation and survival…. I don’t think it’s a message [indicative] of an opening.”
Likewise, Avila made his feelings clear from Paris in an interview circulated widely: “We, the new generations of Cubans, don’t want the government to self-reform, we want them to abandon el poder [power]” so that Cubans can choose their leaders democratically.
For me, of all the images the bloggers and others in their company are posting on the Internet, one stands out: Sánchez and Avila sharing a beer in Prague.
It was an ordinary moment, but for them and for us, it’s the counterpoint to an outdated, oppressive regime.
A small victory, and an affirmation of freedom.