Sunday, November 29, 2009

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba's most popular blogger, has been beaten up by thugs for the offence of describing life under the Castro regime

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba's most popular blogger, has been beaten up by thugs
for the offence of describing life under the Castro regime
By Andrew Hamilton in Mexico City
Published: 5:47PM GMT 28 Nov 2009

With her platted hair and bookish demeanour, Yoani Sanchez does not look
like a threat to the Cuban State. But her blog, an acerbic critique of
the hypocrisies of life on the communist-led island might have made her
just that.

"Generation Y" receives about one million visits a month. It has won two
of the most prestigious awards for digital journalism, and its success
meant that last year Ms Sanchez was voted one of Time magazine's 100
most influential people in the world.

Now, it seems, the island's ruling Castro brothers have decided that
enough is enough, and have unleashed their thugs to try to shut Ms
Sanchez up.

"I was on my way to a peaceful protest against violence with a few
friends when it happened," explained the 34-year-old mother, in a rare
telephone interview with The Sunday Telegraph from her cramped apartment
in Havana's Nuevo Vedado district. "A black car pulled up. The three men
inside called out my name and told me to get in."

When she refused, she said, the men bundled her into the car and started
punching her. "They were saying, 'It's all over, Yoani.' I really
thought they were going to kill me."

She tried to escape but was unable to do so as the handles in the rear
of the Chinese-made car had been removed. When a crowd gathered to help
her, the thugs ordered them to leave, telling onlookers that Ms Sanchez
and her friend - another blogger - were "counter-revolutionaries".
Nearly half an hour later they dumped her again in the middle of the
street, leaving her bruised, scared and sobbing.

"That day I lost all faith in justice in my country," she said.

The Cuban government has not made any comment about the alleged
incident, but the US State Department said it "strongly deplored the

Attacking a blogger might seem an unnecessary strategy in Cuba, where
access to the internet is amongst the lowest in the world and only a
small number of carefully vetted individuals are allowed to have
internet accounts at home. Ms Sanchez believes her roughing up was a
signal that the days of tolerance of Cuba's embryonic blogging community
are over. "The Cuban government is currently nervous, as a result of the
dire state of the economy", she said.

When Raul Castro took over the reins of power from his ailing elder
brother, Fidel, three years ago, there were high hopes that the
changeover might usher in an era of greater political freedom and
economic growth. Instead, the younger Castro is now at the helm of a
country which appears close to bankruptcy, the global economic crisis
having left the country facing shortages not seen since its chief
benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed in the early 1990s.

Revenues from tourism and Cuba's main commodity exports have fallen
dramatically, and residents report shortages of fruit and vegetables at
markets across the capital. The government also recently warned that
"extreme measures" were needed to deal with power shortages, including
compulsory disconnection of air conditioners and refrigerators at peak
periods. Havana's once elegant seafront promenade, the Malecon, is now
often dark at night because of lack of street lighting.

In her online jottings, Ms Sanchez talks angrily of how the daily
hardships of life under Cuban communism were invariably blamed on
America and its economic blockade. "If my friends were leaving the
country en masse, it was because of the United States policy of
harassment; if the cockroaches were crawling all over the walls at the
maternity hospital, it was the fault of the North Americans; even if a
meeting at the university expelled a critical colleague, they explained
to us that he had fallen under the ideological influence of the enemy.

"Today, everything begins and ends with the blockade. No one seems to
remember the days when they promised us paradise, when they told us that
nothing – not even the economic sanctions – would prevent us from
leaving behind our underdevelopment."

A report earlier this month by Human Rights Watch appeared to confirm
that repression had grown even worse under Raul Castro's regime. It
accused him of jailing up to 40 people for the vague offence of
"dangerousness" - defined in Cuban statute as anti-socialist behaviour,
but encompassing activities such as staging rallies, writing articles
critical of the government, and trying to organise independent unions.

Attacking a blogger might seem an unnecessary strategy in Cuba, where
access to the internet is amongst the lowest in the world and only a
small number of carefully vetted individuals are allowed to have
internet accounts at home.

Cubans can log on in tourist hotels, but the cost - equivalent to £5 an
hour - is prohibitive in a country where the average monthly salary is
around £15 a month. When Ms Sanchez began blogging, Cubans were not
allowed into tourist hotels, but she was able to evade suspicious
security guards thanks to her light-skinned appearance and ability to
speak German.

She believes that the internet is something the authorities are right to
fear, pointing out that web-savvy youngsters are nearly always ahead of
their ageing leaders in the digital race.

Her own blog is hosted on a server outside Cuba, and translated by
international volunteers into 15 languages. Her articles are sometimes
dictated by telephone, or emailed by third parties. Although her site is
blocked from Cuba, she claims individual transcripts are distributed
within the country by supporters.

Her efforts have been rewarded by a personal message from US President
Barack Obama, who agreed to answer a list of written questions after she
won a prize from Columbia University's school of journalism. "Your blog
provides the world a unique window into the realities of daily life in
Cuba," he told her. He added that he "looked forward to the day all
Cubans can freely express themselves in public without fear and without

Ms Sanchez believes that the Cuban government may yet resort to
heavy-handed tactics in order to contain popular dissent - not least
because it can no longer depend on the charisma of its former leader to
deter would-be protesters.

Fidel Castro was last seen in public in July 2006. Suffering from an
unspecified intestinal ailment, he now spends his days exercising,
resting and reading in his 1960s bungalow home, on the site of a
pre-revolutionary golf course.

The American film maker, Oliver Stone, was recently granted rare access
for a documentary to be released soon. It will show the man who has
vexed 11 US presidents - and once brought the world close to nuclear war
- in the twilight of his life; surrounded by his extended family, many
of whom have their own houses in his closely-guarded compound.

But the former President, who claims that "revolutionaries never retire"
has not entirely withdrawn from politics. He writes what has been dubbed
as his own blog: occasional, often rambling opinion pieces which are
dutifully published in the state media.

One recent musing, predicted that President Obama will serve only one
term of office before being replaced by a candidate from the "extreme

Ms Sanchez believes, however, that the Cuban system itself might be the
first to fall - and until then, she is determined not to be silenced.
Her blog on her alleged assault is entitled "a regime in its last
throes", and includes downloaded photos of some of the plain clothes
spies who hang around her house. "They have watched us for decades," she
writes. "Now we are watching them."

Yoani Sanchez, Cuba's popular blogger, has been beaten up for describing
life - Telegraph (28 November 2009)

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