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.
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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.’’
Sánchez is on a world tour launched after the Communist government eased travel strictures and granted her an exit visa. During the tour, which has taken her from Rio de Janeiro to Mexico City, Prague, New York and Washington, D.C., Sánchez has been dogged by pro-Castro hecklers and some controversy over her advocating an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba. But neither was much in evidence at the Freedom Tower or at FIU.
A sole heckler at the Freedom Tower was shouted down by other audience members and was removed by police, while outside a dozen demonstrators from the exile militant group Vigilia Mambisa were at pains to say they were not protesting Sánchez’ appearance but expressing their differences of opinion with her on the embargo and the U.S. military base at Guantanamo.
Meanwhile, a small convoy of 18-wheeler trucks bedecked with Cuban flags and banners welcoming Sánchez blared their air horns repeatedly and made a circuit of the Freedom Tower.
Later, at FIU, Sánchez described how cell phones and social media have helped end democracy activists’ isolation from the world and each other, allowing them to organize and disseminate news. She told how activists using Twitter collected a ton and a half of relief supplies for Cuban victims of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 outside official channels, and how an Internet campaign helped free a jailed activist. But she said Internet access is at best sporadic and requires subterfuge, while electronic communications, which the government can monitor, remain risky.
Responding to a question from an audience member worried about the loss of hope among Cuban youth, which Sánchez called one of the worst legacies of the Cuban regime, she urged exiles and Cuban-Americans to counteract it with “an infusion of hope’’ through material and moral support, including donations of cell phones and flash drives, and information.
Cubans beset by scarcity and want on a daily basis will not attempt to change their circumstances, a situation of which the government has taken advantage, Sánchez said.
“You have to try to infect with hope, with information,’’ she said. “Let’s help Cubans have more elevated dreams.’’
Earlier in the day, Sánchez told Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald editors and reporters that limited reforms institute by the Cuban government could backfire on the regime. As people begin to travel abroad under Cuba’s new immigration policy, as cell phone use increases, and as people become less dependent on the government for every aspect of their lives, Sánchez said her hope is for “the effect the reforms may produce that the government hasn’t calculated.”
She added that while Cubans are very worried about the potential loss of generous Venezuelan oil subsidies with the death of Hugo Chávez, there also is the feeling that if there are cutbacks, the government may be forced to undertake more reforms.
Until February, when she began the tour, she had to get her message out via the Internet. Now as she delivers it in person, she is equally as pointed in her critiques.
Asked if she fears repercussions against her and her family when she returns to the island, she said, “This is something I’ve already lived. I have the fear I’ve always had, but no more than usual.’’
And Sánchez dispatched a question about government surveillance and infiltration of dissident groups in Cuba by saying, “I try to act as if it doesn’t exist. I don’t want to be paralyzed by paranoia.’’
She also reiterated her support for ending the embargo because the Cuban government has used it to excuse everything that goes wrong in Cuba. Sánchez, who noted Monday that all her travel has been paid for privately and not by any government, is expected to depart Miami Thursday for her third trip to Europe on this tour, and to return to Cuba in mid to late May.
Herald staff writer Andrea Torres and Herald writer Lydia Martin contributed to this report.