Yoani Sánchez at the United Nations, March 21, 2013, New York City:
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 notice.
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. China, 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 human rights 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 journalist. 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.