Yoani Sánchez is known for her mordant accounts of the vicissitudes of life under a repressive government. Yet on Wednesday night, at an auditorium at Georgetown University simply adorned with a Cuban flag, I was inspired not only by the lyricism of her Spanish, but by her tone of reconciliation and hope. In wide-ranging remarks, the dream of “a Cuba where all Cubans fit” was the recurring theme.
The island of Sánchez’s imagination celebrates intellectual pluralism, suppressed for decades but now growing from a whisper to a clamor in the “virtual Cuba” of dissident bloggers. It also unites Cubans “from the two shores.” Sánchez vividly conjured the image of islanders and exiles looking at two sides of a mirror and recognizing each other, in direct defiance of a government that has separated gusanos (worms) from revolutionaries.
The equally intrepid blogger Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, who joined Sánchez on her whirlwind speaking tour in Washington DC expressed the joy he finds in building bridges with the Cuban diaspora. Responding to requests from Cubans around the world, he snaps photographs of stucco houses shaded by mango trees, family crypts in the Cemetery of Colón, even the graceful slope of Havana’s seawall—all frozen in the memory of the exiliado.
Raúl Castro’s government faces a number of critical issues, including the deteriorating health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the potential loss of his oil and Cubans' impatience with the government’s timid economic reforms. Who would have thought that a slight, humble woman of 37 years figured among them?
Yet the actions of the Cuban government and their sympathizers in Brazil have proved that despite looming economic and political problems, they clearly consider Yoani Sánchez one of their biggest challenges. The question is, why?
Despite the fact that Cuba has one of the lowest rates of access to the Internet in the world, Sánchez has a following of more than half a million outside Cuba. She is emblematic of a generation disaffected with the revolution and its legacy. She is not the only one. She is one of a whole group of bloggers, many of them women, who have taken to the Internet to complain about the daily indignities of living in Cuba today.
In spite of receiving awards for her journalism from Europe and the United States, the Cuban regime had consistently denied Sánchez the right to leave the island. But then this year, the Castro government instituted a new travel policy that grants to Cubans—with some exceptions—the right to travel out of the country (a right enjoyed by people in most countries). So far so good, right?
A few days ago, Yoani Sánchez arrived at her stop, Brazil. There her greeting party consisted of Cuban government-organized demonstrators that have—at almost every appearance—threatened her and tried to prevent her from speaking. It must have felt like home, since the use of government thugs to intimidate and physically threaten dissidents is a common occurrence in Cuba.
Renowned Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez began an 80-day international tour on Monday, after receiving her passport with the relaxation of travel restrictions that eliminated exit visas for Cuban citizens. Sánchez arrived in the Brazilian coastal city of Recife for a screening of Conexión Cuba Honduras (Cuba-Honduras Connection), a documentary featuring her life and work directed by filmmaker Dado Galvao who begun the fundraising campaign to fly Sánchez to Brazil.
Despite overwhelming support from bloggers and local activists, Sánchez’ visit encountered some resistance as a group of protesters backing the Cuban government blocked the screening of the film and called her a “mercenary.” Sánchez expressed her disappointment, but acknowledged that she was expecting the situation.
After her visit to Brazil, Sánchez will attend the Inter-American Press Association’s (IAPA) conference in Puebla, México, where she will present her first report as vice chair for Cuba in IAPA’s Press Freedom Committee. She will later travel to the U.S. in March to participate in “The Revolution Recodified”, a symposium on digital culture and the public sphere in Cuba that will take place in New York City between March 15-17. Sánchez is also expected to travel to Washington DC and Miami, followed by trips to the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Peru, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
After five decades of restricted travel for Cuban citizens, Sánchez’ trip is seen as a test for the new Cuban law. Still she noted that it “seems like the reform we dream of, that of freedom of association and expression is still far away.”
Due to relaxed Cuban travel restrictions that eliminated the exit visa, Brazilian film director Dado Galvo announced Tuesday that prominent dissident and blogger Yoani Sánchez will travel to Recife, Brazil, for a screening of the 2009 documentary Conexión Cuba Honduras (Connection Cuba Honduras), in which she is featured. Sánchez was granted a travel visa and will be arriving in Brazil on February 18, thanks in part to an online initiative led by Galvo, the director of the documentary, who raised funds to purchase her ticket.
Sánchez is best known for her prize-winning blog, Generación Y, which she named after the generation of Cubans born in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when names beginning with “Y” were popular. Her blog is openly critical of life under the Castro regime, and notably contains the only interview that President Obama has granted to a blogger. She has been able to avoid Cuban censorship having her friends abroad post entries that she emails to them. As one of the best-known dissidents in Cuba, many doubted that Sánchez would be able to take advantage of the January 15 exit visa law that allowed Cubans to apply for a passport without a government permit and an invitation letter from abroad. After 20 failed attempts, Sánchez announced via Twitter that she had been granted a passport just 15 days after the law went into effect.
While other notable dissidents, such as Ángel Moya, have been denied the right to travel abroad, this latest development represents a dramatic shift in Cuban policy. The change in travel laws on the island is expected to help spur the economy, and while restrictions are still in place for certain professionals such as athletes and party leaders, the change will allow some of Cuba’s most vocal critics to spread their message abroad.
This week, while teaching a group of people how to upload blog posts, Cuban blogger and dissident Yoani Sánchez learned she was to receive yet another award. This time it was the $50,000 (40,000 euro) Liberty Prize granted by Denmark’s Center for Independent Research (CEPOS). Sánchez said that “the news came when I was doing what I like best, providing people with wings to fly in the IT sky.”
CEPOS’ Liberty Prize is given to individuals who demonstrate a sustained commitment to the ideas of individual freedom and human rights. Sánchez, 35, founded the blog “Generación Y” in 2007 and has since used it as a platform to share the realities of daily life in Cuba. She recently compiled select blog posts into a book titled Cuba Libre: Vivir y Escribir en La Habana. For her elegant prose, brave criticism and dedication to empowering others through digital media, Sánchez was previously awarded the Spanish Ortega y Gassett Prize for Digital Journalism (2008) and Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America (2009). Sánchez was also named one of Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2008 and was selected as a 2010 World Press Freedom Hero by the International Press Institute.
Sánchez has been invited to formally accept the Liberty Prize at an upcoming ceremony in Copenhagen, but it remains to be seen whether the Cuban government will grant her an exit visa to travel abroad. She has been prohibited from leaving the island eight times in the past three years.
For Sánchez, her isolation by the Cuban government allows her to keep in touch with Cuban realities and has not stopped her from writing or sharing her knowledge of Internet tools. “Finding people who read what I write and seeing new faces appear” are sufficient compensation, she says.
Thirty-nine members of the Havana-based human rights group Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) were reportedly assaulted yesterday during a peaceful protest to commemorate International Human Rights Day. An estimated 200 government supporters attacked the women near the Museum of the Revolution as they set free a group of doves and distributed copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
An additional ten people were detained in a separate protest in a park in the neighborhood of El Vedado during which a British diplomat was also forced to leave the premises by pro-government groups. According to Ladies in White director Laura Pollán, this year’s attacks were the worst since the group was founded in 2003. The organization was founded to protest the detention of 75 dissidents during Cuba’s Black Spring.
Susan Purcell, Director for the Center for Hemispheric Policy at the University of Miami in Florida perceives mob violence as a new political move by the Castro Regime to prove "that the demonstrators' views are not shared by the general population”. The assault comes three weeks after dissident blogger Reinaldo Escobar, who's married to blogger Yoani Sanchez, was attacked by a pro-government mob.
Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez says she was detained and beaten Friday, as she and fellow bloggers were walking to an anti-violence protest. She and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo were forced into a car in the Vedado neighborhood of
Sánchez described one of her attackers saying: "This is as far as you're going, Yoani, I've had enough of your antics." Sánchez' blog, Generation Y, which has earned her the Spanish Ortega y Gasset Prize and Columbia University's Maria Moors Cabot Prize and receives an estimated 1 million hits per month, is highly critical of the Cuban government.
The assault on Sánchez comes less than a month after Cuban authorities denied her permission to travel to receive the Maria Moors Cabot Prize in
Tonight Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism will host the 71st annual Maria Moors Cabot Prize for outstanding reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. New York Times veteran Anthony DePalma, O Globo columnist Merval Pereira and Christopher Hawley, Latin America correspondent for USA Today and The Arizona Republic will be present to collect their awards, which include a $5,000 honorarium. However Cuban blogger and dissident Yoani Sánchez, who was awarded a special mention from the awards committee won’t be there. Sánchez confirmed on Monday that Cuban authorities denied her request to travel to New York to accept the prize.
The Generación Y author has won international accolades for the blog she founded in 2007. In 2008 she won Spain’s prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism; later that year Time distinguished her as one of the year’s 100 most influential people. Her blog is translated into 15 languages and receives over 1 million visitors per month.
She is the first blogger to receive recognition from the Cabot Prize Board, which describes her writing as "...a pitch-perfect mix of personal observation and tough analysis which conveys better than anybody else what daily life ― with all its frustrations and hopes ― is like for Cubans living their lives on the island today.”
Ms. Sánchez describes her frustration at not being allowed to leave Cuba to accept the award more eloquently than anyone else could:
“All these difficulties to get permission to leave evoke for me the words of …Carlos Aldana. In an interview in 1991 for the Spanish magazine Cambio 16, the former number three in power in Cuba said: 'This year Cubans will be able to travel abroad freely.' Only it didn’t specify if we were going to do it on the wings of our imaginations and if it would be in a year containing twelve months or nearly two decades.”
Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism announced on Monday that Yoani Sanchez, author of Cuba’s most prominent independent blog, Generación Y, will be awarded a Maria Moors Cabot Prize and special citation for outstanding reporting. For the past 71 years The Cabot journalism prize—the oldest international award in journalism—has been conferred to journalists “who have covered the Western Hemisphere and, through their reporting and editorial work, have furthered inter-American understanding.” Past winners include Peruvian journalist and author, Mario Vargas Llosa and Mauricio Funes, the President of El Salvador.
The school of journalism’s official press release calls Sanchez’s blog “a pitch-perfect mix of personal observation and tough analysis, which conveys better than anybody else what daily life—with all its frustrations and hopes—is like for Cubans living their lives on the island today.” They also announced a special citation to Sanchez “for her courage, talent and great achievement” of putting the rest of the world in touch with Cuba.
In her response from Cuba, Ms. Sanchez said the most important thing about the honor was that it gives her prestige and a degree of “protection” from possible repressive actions by the Cuban government. She also indicated she would “use the prestige and protection that the Cabot Prize brings with it to continue to grow the Cuban blogosphere” and to support other future projects.
It is very unlikely that Ms. Sanchez, who has been labeled a “professional dissident” by the Cuban regime, will be permitted to travel to New York to receive her prize at the award ceremony in October. Instead, she says she travel in a virtual manner, as she does every day through her blog.
Read more about Yoani Sanchez and her consortium of bloggers in “Dispatches from the Field: Is Cuba Really Changing?” in the latest issue of Americas Quarterly.