April 3, 2013

Yoani Sánchez’s ‘Tweet Up’ lures 250 people to Arsht Center

About 250 people gathered to see and hear the dissident blogger, and many more joined the so-called Tweet Up by cell phone and computer, lobbing questions from cyberspace that ranged from the direct to the provocative to the humorous.

The questions for Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez came in fast via Twitter during Wednesday’s town hall-style meeting at downtown Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

About 250 people gathered to see and hear Sánchez inside a conference room of the opera house. Many more joined the so-called Tweet Up by cell phone and computer, lobbing questions from cyberspace that ranged from the direct to the provocative to the humorous.

The stream of Twitter queries, most written in Spanish, were projected on a big screen behind the stage where Sánchez sat:

“Will you please explain how lifting the U.S. trade embargo can help Cuban people and political reform,’’ asked one.

“How do you pretend to represent Cubans when you live a lifestyle that’s not permitted in Cuba?’’ queried another.

“Why is it that we Cubans can never begin punctually?’’ joked another after the event began 15 minutes late.

Sánchez, who is visiting Miami as part of an 80-day international tour, spoke only Spanish. She did not answer every question posed on Twitter or by the audience. There were simply too many for an event that lasted about one hour — and moderator Pamela Silva Conde, co-anchor of Univision’s news show Primer Impacto (First Impact), selected only about a dozen from the hundreds of questions.

But clearly many in Miami remain interested in the dissident blogger’s point of view on life in communist Cuba, her experiences in South Florida, and her ability to connect with so many followers outside the island.

Among those attending: actor Andy Garcia, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and his predecessor, Manny Diaz, and David Lawrence, former publisher of The Miami Herald and founding board member of The Children’s Trust.

Ramiro Ortiz, a Cuban exile and president of HistoryMiami (formerly the Historical Museum of Southern Florida), said he wanted to see Sánchez because of her courage and credibility as an outspoken critic of the Castro regime who still lives on the island.

“This is an historic event,’’ said Ortiz, who was seeing Sánchez for the first time since she began a public speaking tour of Miami on Monday.

“Here [in Miami] we are talking,’’ he said. “Over there, she is taking action."

Said Tony Friguls, a Cuban exile and Miami resident who also was in the audience: “There is no oppressive regime that can contradict clear and correct information.’’

Others said they were struck by Sánchez’s innovative dissidence, expressed through her blog ( and frequent Twitter posts (@yoanisanchez).

“She’s at the forefront of a digital dissidence, and it’s impossible to stop or contain,’’ said Alejandro Vitale, vice president of a Miami marketing agency.

Vitale said he also was impressed with “the level of connectedness” between the Cuban blogger and her many followers around the world, explaining that he began following Sánchez on Twitter, and “she started following me back.’’

During the Tweet Up, Sánchez spoke of her hopes for her first trip abroad since becoming an internationally renowned blogger about six years ago. “I hope this trip will be the trip that changes my life,’’ she said.

Asked what people in the United States can do to help those in Cuba, she urged Americans to, among other things, give their old cell phones to Cubans on the island because, Sánchez said, cell phones are the second most effective communication tool on the island after television sets.

She accused Cuba’s communist government of promoting rancorous propaganda and hateful speech that divides Cubans on the island and those in exile.

“Cubans are ready for the embrace’’ of liberty, she said.

Sánchez explained her reasons for stating that the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba should be lifted: The Cuban government blames every problem on the decades-long blockade. “I’m tired of the pretext,’’ she said.

She declined to reveal too much about how she publishes her blog from the island because “then they won’t let me do it,’’ she said.

Sánchez also said she expects repercussions upon her return to Cuba.

She said most likely the Cuban government will employ “character assassination’’ as they have in the past by broadcasting images on TV of her face surrounded by American currency, suggesting she is a pawn of the United States — or at a keyboard with images of attack helicopters, suggesting she is a “cyber terrorist.’’

Then Sánchez addressed a question that she said comes up often and “I’ve clarified many times already’’ — How does she pay for her international tour?

Before explaining, though, Sánchez posed a question of her own: “I would like Raul Castro to answer: who finances his lifestyle?’’ she said. “The answer is: the Cuban people. It’s an embarrassment.’’

She said donations solicited online through an independent website helped fund her trip to Brazil, though she did not name the website. She said her trip to Amsterdam was paid for by human rights organization Amnesty International, which invited her to its film festival. Her trips to Mexico, New York and Washington, D.C., she said, were financed by academic institutions.

“I haven’t lacked a roof,’’ she said. “I haven’t lacked a plate of food. What I’ve lacked is the time to eat the plate of food.’’

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