March 11, 2013

Poised yet savage, blogger Yoani Sanchez takes on Cuba’s sclerotic Castro regime

The shouts could be heard easily inside the hotel where Yoani Sanchez was appearing over the weekend. “Down with Yoani!” they resonated from a small clique of pro-Castro protesters who’d gathered outside.

The shouts could be heard easily inside the hotel where Yoani Sanchez was appearing over the weekend. “Down with Yoani!” they resonated from a small clique of pro-Castro protesters who’d gathered outside.

Inside, Sanchez took the calls in stride.

“I’m not afraid of these insults,” she said. She expects to get worse treatment – a virtual “public stoning,” as she called it – when she returns to Cuba – her “cage” – at the end of a whirlwind global tour that began Feb. 17 and is expected to last nearly three months, including a stop next week in Washington.

Watching her address reporters, editors and publishers over two days at a conference in this Mexican city, it is easy to see how Sanchez has become a thorn in the side of Cuba’s creaky regime.

Looking like a throwback to the 1960s, with her loose blouses and her flowing black hair, Sanchez, 37, comes across as poised and unflappable. Yet her language is savage. Her tour – the first time she’d been allowed to leave the island since she became an internationally known blogger and dissident – has been like stepping into a time machine that carried her from an island locked in the past, she said.

“We Cubans don’t deserve what we are living through,” she said. “I think Cubans deserve to be citizens of the 21st century, in all senses, to test the challenges of modernity.”

Sanchez’s soft demeanor is in contrast to her implacable criticism of autocratic rule. For her, the Castro brothers – Fidel and Raul – who have governed Cuba since 1959, are walking dead and their island is on an inevitable countdown.

The tools of her trade – an iPad and a laptop – allow her to narrate life under the Castro thumb in tiny tweets and short blog postings translated into 20 languages that she is able to slip under the digital barrier erected around all but the most loyal of Cuba’s citizens.

Sanchez has won innumerable awards, including Spain’s prestigious Ortega y Gasset journalism honor. She’s was nominated for a Nobel Prize last year. Prior to this trip, her requests to leave Cuba were denied 20 times over five years to pick up such awards.

Her stop in Washington next week will take her to Capitol Hill for an appearance Tuesday before a Senate committee, arranged by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. On April 1, she'll receive a special honor in Miami. She’s already visited Brazil, Spain and the Czech Republic. She will return to Europe and also travel to Argentina and Peru.

“I represent no party nor any political force,” she says. “I consider myself a people’s diplomat.”

She lives in Havana with her husband, Reinaldo, and their 20-year-old son, Teo. Her husband, who was drummed out of his job as a journalist for pressing too hard for reform during the late 1980s, has found a new career as an elevator mechanic – a fortunate choice that allows him to fix the decrepit elevator leading to their 14th-floor apartment.

Sanchez studied linguistics at the University of Havana, later dabbling in journalism and computers. “So what am I? I don’t know – a hyper mixed-up product of the 21st century,” she says. The same goes for her political ideology. “People ask, ‘Are you on the left or on the right?’ . . . I don’t know very well what I am.”

Sanchez says she feels “a strong commitment to freedom, so someone might think, ‘Aha! A liberal.’ But I’m also worried about the poor. I come from a very humble background, very poor. . . . Some people tag me as a communist or a leftist.”

Her father is a train operator and her mother also works.

She opposes the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba, saying it is the pretext on which the Castro regime blames all failures. But she says she has many friends who favor the embargo, and the underlying beliefs that bind them are the longing for freedom for Cuba. The real embargo, she said, is of the civil rights of Cubans.

“I identify myself as a free electron. I gravitate or associate with the nuclei or atoms depending on the strength of their premises,” Sanchez said.

It is a critical posture that has earned her enmity not only from the Cuban government but also of Latin American leftists clinging to hopes of Cuba as an ideological beacon. They accuse her of being a puppet of outside powers, a mercenary. She rejects the charge.

Last month in both Recife and Salvador, Brazil, militants arrived at airports to protest her presence. Elsewhere, leftists have lashed out at her in the media.

On Sunday, some 30 noisy protesters gathered outside the Puebla hotel where she was speaking to a hemispheric group of newspaper publishers. They held up a banner that said “Viva Fidel” and broke past security in an effort to disrupt her news conference.

At the conference, Sanchez spelled out how she believes Cuba is a “geographic prison,” where holding any variant opinion risks jail and where only one loud voice is allowed on state-controlled media.

Microphones are needed for all the other voices on the island, she says, voicing optimism that “very talented Cubans” are well-prepared for the day a democratic transition arrives.

She reiterated that she would return to the island when her trip ends, even if she must do so as a “reverse rafter,” sneaking back into the country, with the aim of starting an independent news outlet that goes beyond blogging.

“I know that this is impossible and that legally it is prohibited. But I won’t be the one putting up these boundaries. Life has taught me that the wall comes tumbling down only when you push it,” she said.

Sanchez estimated that only some 120 “alternative” Twitter users are sending tweets describing island life, constrained by barriers and costs. Using a computer at a tourist hotel can cost $6 to $10 an hour, up to half a month’s salary for ordinary Cubans. Some of those who get past this burden do so thanks to supporters abroad who put credit on their mobile phone accounts.

“Recharging a cellphone in this way turns a person into a possible transmitter, a source of information and news, thanks to the solidarity of many people,” she said. “With a little ingenuity, with lots of difficulties, you can narrate (life on) the island in 140 characters.”

Cuban exiles arriving back for family visits and foreign tourists leave behind mobile phones, flash drives and used laptop computers, she said.

“Climb aboard one of our collective taxis in Havana _ maybe a 1954 Chevrolet _ and amid the noise of a vehicle at the point of collapse, the potholes in the road, the facades of buildings that seem like they are trapped in the past, suddenly a person will pull an iPhone 4 from their pocket,” she said.

Even if tourism has brought a boom in prostitution, she added that “it is also true that it has brought whiffs of freedom.”

She’s heard the rumors that maybe the Castro regime will bar her return. At the least, she expects “an execution by the media, a public stoning . . . stigmatizing of my image, demonizing me.”

“But I’m willing to accept this cost,” she said. The insults, she added, remind her of a saying by Cuban national hero and poet Jose Marti, who said, “To honor, brings honor.”

“I would say that, ‘to insult, brings insults,’ and to the persons who hurl insults, these insults will turn around like a boomerang against them,” she said.

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