In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Disruption of Yoani speech in New York carries echoes of Cuba

What do you know?

I came to the hip “capital of the world” to attend an unprecedented conference on digital media in Cuba — and ended up witnessing an American-style version of what on the island is widely known as “ un acto de repudio.

Literally, the phrase means an act of repudiation, but in any language it’s a calculated, verbally violent attack that escalates and turns uglier and uglier by the moment. It’s the favored weapon of the desperately intolerant to quash a point of view that runs contrary to their deeply held beliefs.

Note this important difference: The point of an “ acto de repudio” is not to express an opposing viewpoint — a value held dearly in our democracy — but to disrupt an event and/or discredit an individual.

And that’s exactly what a group of pro-Cuban-government Americans sought to do Saturday in this cultural hub where one expects intelligent conversation — disrupt the packed conference The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba, at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium, and discredit one of its panelists, the celebrated Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez.

In the United States for the first time, Sánchez, 37, was the last speaker of the last panel of the day, Cuba in a Global Context: Social Media and Political Change, which included U.S. experts on social network analysis who have done fieldwork in Russia and the Middle East.

While the panelists made insightful presentations about how global networks are expanding and fomenting social change, organizers gave members of the audience note cards to write down questions for the panelists. It was an effort to speed up time-consuming translations and people walking up to microphones.

After the questions were collected, conference coordinator Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist and associate professor at The New School, read them to the panelists.

Most turned out to be for Sánchez — and quickly, a pattern of antagonism against her emerged:

How much money is the State Department paying you?

Could Sánchez name five human rights violations in Cuba, since the previous day she had said there were many but hadn’t named one?

Has she ever attempted a civil dialogue with people who support the government?

Sánchez took the questions as an opportunity to present the kind of view of the real Cuba that quickly shatters utopian myths.

Her answers were slam dunks against the regime — and most of the audience applauded her.

The fact that she and the U.S. government coincide on wanting to see democratic change in Cuba, Sánchez said, doesn’t make her “a slave” to U.S. interests, and by the way, when did you ever hear of a person in Cuba who wanted freedom and wasn’t called a CIA agent?

“The rhetorical game,” Sánchez called the practice.

She listed a myriad human rights violations recognized by the Geneva Convention — lack of freedom of speech and assembly, of movement throughout the island, etc., but the last violation she named was a zinger: Lack of access to the Internet.

“That, to me, is also a human right,” she said.

But it was her answer to the question about who she had engaged in dialogue that brought out the rage in her detractors.

Every attempt to debate issues has ended in pro-government people hurling insults, or hasn’t materialized because the other side hasn’t come to the table, Sánchez said.

She gave as an example her attempt to engage Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela, who was abroad promoting her work on gay issues at the National Center for Sex Education, with the question: “Now that Cubans are free to come out of the sexual closet, when will they be able to come out of the political closet?”

To which Mariela Castro answered that what Sánchez needed was sexual therapy, and that she could get it at CENESEX.

“That’s a lie!” a woman in the audience shouted and was immediately joined by others who echoed her from different corners of the auditorium.

One after the other, the pro-Castro members of the audience began shouting tired lines used by the Cuban government and unfurling anti-Sánchez banners smuggled into the auditorium with their personal belongings.

They also threw dollar bills printed with Sánchez’s face into the air and along the aisles

Sánchez supporters grabbed two of the banners away from the protesters and ripped them up.

“Yoani! Yoani!” her supporters began to chant.

It’s amazing the kind of misery a heavy dose of hard truth — the kind that shatters the myths of ideologues — is capable of unleashing.

For those of us who were sitting in the middle of this circus as the tensions escalated, it was scary. There were no metal detectors during this part of the three-day conference and few security officers, so there was no way of knowing if anyone was armed and how far things would go.

Take note, Miami.

The world will soon cast its eyes upon the exile capital to see what kind of reception Sánchez receives. If New York was a dress rehearsal, the provocateurs have already been lined up for a big show.

But I hope we can do better than this and let Sánchez speak her truth, whatever that may be, in peace and freedom.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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