Free speech

Blogger Yoani Sánchez gets by with a lot of help from her friends


Along Yoani Sánchez’s far-flung route, universities, media groups and others have picked up the tab for her airfare, lodging and such.

For more than six weeks, dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has crisscrossed the Atlantic, making a splash and garnering accolades as she hopscotches between high-profile events in Brasilia and Amsterdam, Mexico City and New York, Washington, D.C. and Miami, with an eloquent, unvarnished plea for freedom of expression in her homeland.

But how has this woman with limited Internet access at home in Havana, few high-powered connections, no organization and limited financial resources pulled off a grueling, attention-grabbing itinerary across three continents that would challenge even the most savvy road warrior?

As it turns out, the same way she has managed to make a living in Havana and cultivate hundreds of thousands of Internet and Twitter followers around the globe: by plugging into an extensive, informal network of dedicated supporters who for years have translated her blog and helped Sánchez get her reports on life under communism out to the world — and also by improvising like mad.

In Brazil, where she launched her world tour on Feb. 18 after the Cuban government granted her permission to travel, pro-Castro protesters threw fake dollar bills at the blogger and shouted she was being underwritten by the CIA. Others claimed she was being paid thousands of dollars a month by the Inter-American Press Association, a Miami-based organization that advocates for freedom of the press in Latin America. IAPA officials roundly deny the claim.


The reality appears to be far more prosaic.

Sánchez, whose husband and teenage son stayed at home, has no entourage, no minder, no professional travel planner. She has done nearly all her international flying by herself, friends and supporters say.

Some of the stops on Sánchez’s tour have been the result of seat-of-the-pants planning undertaken by her grass-roots supporters, who helped her take advantage of longstanding invitations from colleges and universities, human-rights groups, journalism organizations and tech conferences to cobble together a schedule and find funding for plane tickets and hotels.

Her flight from Havana to Brazil was covered by business supporters of a film festival that planned to screen a documentary in which she appeared. Another film festival took her to Prague. A Mexican university paid for her travel to Mexico City. The IAPA put up Sánchez, volunteer chair for Cuba of the group’s Freedom of the Press Committee, at its three-day conference in nearby Puebla, IAPA Director Julio Munoz said.

Her flight from the Netherlands to Miami? Paid for by her sister Yunia, a pharmacy tech who emigrated from Cuba two years ago, friends and supporters said. Her Miami point person? Her brother-in-law, José Antonio García, who does have some local connections because he works for the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, an independent spinoff of the Cuban American National Foundation, though leaders say neither group funded her visit.

“There was no grand plan or scheme going on here,’’ said Maria Werlau, a Cuban exile activist in New Jersey who hosted a dinner for Sánchez and a group of her collaborators, most of whom had previously met only on the Internet. “Everything was pretty much put together on the fly.

“She does not have a staff. She could probably use one,’’ Werlau said, laughing.

It was Werlau who helped organize one of the highlights of Sánchez’s tour — her visit to the United Nations, where a protest by the Cuban delegation forced the blogger to meet the U.N. press corps in a cramped hallway. Werlau said she set it up by cold-calling the U.N. news correspondents’ group, which eagerly took up the offer to have Sánchez speak.

“She is a celebrity in some circles,’’ Werlau said.

Sánchez, who has often fielded skeptical questions during public appearances about how she managed to finance and organize the tour, has been emphatic in saying she hasn’t taken any government money.

In fact, says Ted Henken, who coordinated her New York and Washington visits, he advised another Cuban blogger , Orlando Luis Pardo, who accompanied Sánchez on part of her itinerary, to say no to a Washington tech conference co-sponsored by the State Department because it would have covered his expenses.

But because some of the institutions and organizations that hosted Sánchez may receive government funding, Henken, a professor of Latin American Studies at Baruch College in New York, said it’s impossible to say categorically that absolutely no public funds have gone into underwriting her tour.

But, he added, “To the extent that she can prevent it, she doesn’t take any government money.

“We care about image and we care about reality,’’ said Henken, who is also president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

Lost in the mail

Henken turned to the Cuba Study Group, which supports a peaceful transition in Cuba and has previously aided the association in funding U.S. visits by Cuban scholars, for financial help. Study Group co-chairman and Miami businessman Carlos Saladrigas said some of his members came up with $6,000 to $7,000 for a car and driver in New York and Washington and some lodging and air fare. The Cuba Study Group, he said, receives no U.S. government funds.

So careful has Sánchez been about the source of trip financing that she demurred upon learning that a Miami event to which she was invited was being billed as a fundraiser for the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, the group that employs her brother-in-law and receives U.S. government funds. She agreed to attend only after the event, at the Coral Gables Country Club, was scaled down and attendees, including Bay of Pigs veterans and CANF members, were asked to pay only the cost of putting it on, organizers confirm.

Mary Jo Porter, a Seattle transportation planner who has been translating Sánchez’s popular and award-winning Generacion Y blog into English for five years, laughs at claims that the U.S. government is paying for her translation work or the tour.

The job of translating the blog into more than a dozen languages, she said, is done by volunteers such as a couple in Japan who own a furniture shop, a Dutch lawyer and a Polish woman living in California. A couple living outside Montreal, former Cuban journalist Aurora Moreira and her husband, Chilean-born Camilo Fuentes, run and maintain Sánchez’s blog site, Henken said.

“We’re all waiting for our check from the CIA,’’ joked Porter, who flew to New York last month at her own expense to meet Sánchez for the first time. “It’s been lost in the mail for five years.’’

Though Sánchez has been repeatedly awarded international prizes and frequently invited to speak at conferences and academic institutions around the world, the Cuban government had consistently denied her permission to travel. That changed with recent immigration and travel reforms.

Henken said he contacted Sánchez as soon as she tweeted that she had received her passport, asking where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do. She relayed a list of goals that included visits to colleges and universities, news organizations and Washington. Also on the list: a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

New invitations soon began pouring in from all over the world, he said. U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, a Cuban-American Democrat, and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson were the first to invite Sánchez to visit Congress, but she insisted on seeing a bipartisan group, Henken said.

Henken and other volunteers began blocking out a schedule around planned events sponsored by groups that had long sought Sánchez’s participation, including an Amnesty International film festival in the Netherlands, a Manhattan symposium on the impact of digital technology on Cuban society that was jointly sponsored by the New School and New York University, and the IAPA’s Puebla conference.

Tech groups and conferences in particular have asked her to speak on her use of Twitter and other cyber-tools to spread news and information and circumvent official censorship.

“You notice she is crossing the Atlantic over and over,’’ said Porter. “That’s because the way the whole trip came together was based on other people’s dates on events they had planned. That’s why she’s not making a logical progression around the world. It’s exhausting for her. Everything was so crazy and last-minute and unplanned.’’

So exhausting was the pace, in fact, that on Thursday Sánchez canceled public appearances in Miami, tweeting that she had lost her voice.

During the New York and Washington visits, meals were often on the run, Porter said — including a plateful of cheese and crackers someone grabbed for Sánchez during an interview at CNN so that she could eat in the car en route to another appointment. Often they did not sit down to eat until evening, usually at a supporter’s home or at a thrown-together event such as a dinner at the D.C. home of the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, which has published many of her pieces.

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that also published a long piece by Sánchez and had previously invited her to speak, scrambled to host her on short notice too, Porter said. “They literally changed people’s schedules to do it,’’ she said. “A lot of this for Yoani was also honoring the people who were working with her all along, all these people who have been working and working and working to make the reality of Cuba visible.’’

Sánchez also wanted to visit groups that had awarded her prizes, especially the ones that came with cash attached, Henken said.

Her first stop, Brazil, was selected because she had a long-standing invitation from Brazilian filmmaker Dado Galvão to appear at a screening of his documentary, Conexão Cuba-Honduras. A group of Brazilian businessmen supporting the festival where the film was to be screened covered her airfare and picked up her food and lodging, said Galvão. He also raised additional funds through his blog.

After protesters harassed her at the airport when she arrived in Brazil, and later forced the cancellation of the film screening, a Brazilian hotel association presented her with a couple of nights of free lodging at a Rio de Janeiro hotel, Sánchez said during an appearance at Miami’s Freedom Tower. A Cuban in Salvador gave her an iPad3.

Two Brazilian legislators invited her to speak before an ad hoc committee in the Chamber of Deputies. The National Congress paid for her ticket from Salvador to Brasilia and then from Brasilia to São Paulo, said Deputy Otavio Leite, who extended the invitation to Sánchez along with Sen. Alvaro Dias. In São Paulo, Sánchez stayed at the home of Jaime Pinksy, head of the publishing house Editora Contexto.

In the United States, some logistics and support came from Raices de Esperanza (Roots of Hope), a privately funded group that seeks to empower young people in Cuba. Its members sponsored a breakfast and reception while Sánchez was in New York and also organized a Miami event with the Knight Foundation, where she answered questions that arrived via Twitter.

“We haven’t directly financed her trip or travel. We just took on the costs of the events,’’ said Raul Moas, executive director of Raices de Esperanza.

Intense itinerary

After a couple of needed rest days with her sister’s family in Miami, Sánchez revved up again. García, her brother-in-law, put together an intense itinerary that included a meeting with Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald editors and reporters, her Miami coming-out at Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower, and a tech talk at Florida International University.

“Much like Yoani’s message, which is viral and organic, so too were the logistics for her visit, which were coordinated through a handful of regular, everyday people,’’ said Juan Mendieta, a spokesman for the college, in an email. “It was very grass-roots, and we’re extremely pleased with how everything turned out.”

Next up: Peru and after that, possibly, Argentina. Then it’s off to Europe for the third time before her expected return to Cuba in mid to late May, supporters say. “The trip is still evolving,’’ Porter said.

During the Freedom Tower talk, Sánchez addressed her funding and said money and prosperity are sensitive topics for the Cuban government.

When a Cuban, through talent or solidarity with others, starts to move beyond the “survival level,’’ she said, “that starts to bother the government and it starts questioning the integrity and moral ethics of a person.

“The Cuban government says I am a millionaire — yes, a millionaire in friends,” she said.

McClatchy correspondent Vinod Sreeharsha contributed to this story from São Paulo.

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