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.
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 dissident 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 brighter.
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 army.”
From start to finish, her U.N. foray could not have been more perfect or poetic.