Cuban dissident journalist and blogger Yoani Sánchez received an ebullient welcome in her first public appearances Monday in Miami, as she called exiles and citizens of the Communist-ruled island a single people and urged them to overcome divisions imposed by a dictatorial regime to secure a future for their homeland.
In a long day that began with a wide-ranging discussion with journalists at The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald and culminated in an evening talk at Florida International University on how information technology is accelerating change in Cuba, Sánchez charmed, courted and at times challenged audiences of mostly exiles and Cuban-Americans in the blunt, eloquent style that has made her an Internet and old-media darling.
While taking frequent jabs at Cuba’s repressive Communist government, Sánchez touched on subjects as disparate as the role of Twitter and independent journalism in Cuba, the inadequacy of the regime’s modest reforms, her fears about her planned return to the island, her family life and her impressions of Miami, which she is visiting for the first time. She also unapologetically stood by her support for ending the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba and for closing the U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay, which has prompted leery if largely respectful criticism from some exiles.
It was a first encounter for both the journalist and an audience that had known Sánchez only through her Generación Y blog, which is translated into 20 languages; her unvarnished Tweets on daily life in Cuba, and her campaigning for freedom of expression and human rights on the island.
What she’s seen in a few days in Miami, she said, has only affirmed her conviction that the Cuban government is propped up by lies. Instead of the underdeveloped cultural wasteland Cubans are taught to expect, she found Miami to be a vast, vibrant metropolis with a Cuban community that has managed to keep alive traditions and a way of life that have vanished on the island, Sánchez said.
And she marveled at how much at home she felt in the city.
“It’s fascinating to see the Cubans here being so Cuban,’’ she said in an interview. “You see them walking down the street and just the way they move, the way they gesture, the way they speak, how colorfully they dress — it makes me feel like I’m walking down a street in Havana. The familiarity is exactly the same.’’
That commonality undergirded the message Sánchez delivered to some 800 people who crowded into an auditorium for an afternoon forum at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower, formerly a processing center for Cuban refugees. The audience, including a who’s-who of Cuban-American Miami, frequently interrupted with applause as Sánchez answered questions from Miami Herald editorial page editor Myriam Marquez.
“We will need you for the future Cuba, and we need you in the present Cuba,’’ Sánchez told the audience, reading from an opening statement she later posted on her blog. “Without you our country would be incomplete, like someone whose limbs have been amputated.
“We cannot allow them to keep dividing us.... There is not a you and an us. There is only an us. We must rebuild our nation. We by ourselves cannot. Help us unify her, to demolish that wall which, in contrast to that in Berlin, is not made of concrete or bricks, but of lies, silences, bad intentions.’’