NEW YORK — I only knew Yoani Sánchez through her written words.
For six years, I followed her daring reports from inside Cuba, marveled at her groundbreaking exploits on the Internet from the safe distance of my home in Miami, wrote about her — once holding my breath while she sat in a jail cell, hoping my own words would echo and help free her — and now, here she was, sitting across from me at a late-night soiree at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan.
At the dining room table between us, a buffet spread of sandwiches, antipasti and dips had been served. The conversation about family and country in the company of a small group of Cuban Americans and Columbia University faculty flowed like the wine with which we toasted her, mine a Spanish albariño, hers a Chilean reserve red.
The moment was surreal, precious, as unique as this blogger/activist/independent journalist/dissident who has managed to focus — or force, one might say — the world’s attention on the lack of basic freedoms in Cuba. If her popular Generation Y blog, her frequent and fertile tweets and her translated columns are powerful, she’s just as impressive in person, tackling questions from journalists, students and the steady stream of pro-Cuban government characters that appear out of nowhere and disrupt her talks.
“The true thing is that I am here — and I will return” to Cuba,” she said Friday at New York University. “Am I afraid? Yes, I am very afraid.”
She said she’s aware that she is risking her life and expects “a flogging” when she returns to Cuba, but added she hopes the international community will protect her.
Sánchez is here to participate through the weekend in the academic conference The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba, sponsored by NYU and The New School, an arts-oriented university in Greenwich Village.
The event, one of the panelists told me, began as a conversation between two academics and was going to be a modest roundtable until Sánchez’s profile — on the rise during the journeys to Brazil, Prague, Spain and Mexico that preceded her U.S. tour — spiked the demand and the need for high security.
Her three-city U.S. visit will bring her to Miami, where she has a sister and a niece, to speak at the Freedom Tower and Florida International University on April 1.
“I’m here to listen and to learn,” she told me about her visit to the Cuban exile capital.
At NYU, everyone, including journalists, had to walk through metal detectors to get inside the room where she gave a press conference — and Sánchez has a constant escort wherever she goes, including visits to Bloomberg and Google headquarters.
Likewise at Columbia University, home to one of the country’s premiere journalism schools and where she made her first public appearance in the United States, security was tight.
Yet pro-Cuban government activists took seats among the crowd of students and faculty at the packed Lecture Hall, and heckled her, unfurling a black and white banner that said: “You Are Not Free Press, Just Cheap.”
Sánchez, who is traveling after being denied permission to leave Cuba 20 times in five years, reacted to the hecklers with peaceful aplomb, choosing to walk right by her detractors, and not away from them, as she was escorted out of the hall to an interview room where she spoke to reporters.
She told journalists not to give the Cuban government too much credit for the reforms that allowed her travels because they came as a result of pressures from the Cuban people and from the outside world, and not from any conviction that there needs to be fundamental change and “respect” for the rights of citizens.
She said that Cuban exiles and others outside the island could help ordinary Cubans “by gifting them technology.”
Flood Cuba with cellphones, hard drives, memory sticks — anything that helps people connect to the Internet and the outside world, she said.
“Technology protects us,” she added.
It was easy to see that she has more friends than foes in this so-called capital of the world.
When he introduced her, Josh Friedman, director of the Columbia-based Maria Moors Cabot Prizes, described her as a “very authentic, down-to-earth person.”
Sánchez was given a prestigious Cabot citation in 2009 for her blog chronicles, but the Cuban government denied her permission to travel here to accept the award.
She has postponed receiving it until October, when the university wants her to return to collect the prize at the Cabot’s 75th anniversary gala.
“From the podium here at Columbia University, I want to say: Yoani Sánchez is a journalist. Yes, she’s a troublemaker, but you are supposed to be a troublemaker,” Friedman said.
Despite what her critics say, her work — “words under pressure,” Friedman called it — are “devoid of ideology.”
The secret to her reports, he added, is that “she’s a wonderful observer.”
After traveling here from Mexico, speaking at Columbia and doing media interviews, Sánchez was exhausted but agreed to the late-night dinner at the home of Columbia journalism professor Mirta Ojito, a former journalist at The New York Times and The Miami Herald, a Cuban American who, like me, has followed Sánchez closely.
Sánchez only showed her exhaustion when, without missing a beat in the conversation at the table, she took her famously long hair, stroked it into neat strands, and before we knew it, without using a single accessory, fashioned an artful hairdo.
Ojito and I looked at each other across the table and laughed with heart-felt recognition of the Cuban ability to resolver, to make do, and of the human qualities that make this woman — wife to a journalist who works as an elevator maintenance man in their Havana apartment building, mother to an 18-year-old with adolescence issues (“he slams doors,” she said), thorn in the side of the Cuban government and its supporters around the world — extraordinary.
Welcome to America, our complicitous look said, we have so looked forward to this moment.