Posted on Saturday, 03.30.13
With wit as her weapon, Yoani Sánchez cuts Castro regime to ribbons
By Juan O. Tamayo
When a hostile questioner pushed Yoani Sánchez in New York earlier this
month to explain how she dared criticize a Castro government that
provides free health, education and welfare services, Sánchez compared
Cubans to birds in a cage.
"Yes, the food and water are free," the Cuban blogger and journalist
replied calmly. "But those things are not worth more than our freedom."
It's that kind of lacerating yet cool language, and the simple yet
powerful ideas it delivers, that have made Sánchez the spearhead of a
burgeoning digital dissident "blogostroika" in Cuba and won her
international fame and prizes.
The 37-year old , who jokingly describes herself as merely an
"impertinent little girl," has in fact become a powerful player in the
binary guerrilla struggle against Cuba's communist rule.
Her Generación Y blog gets well over 15 million hits a month and is
translated into 20 languages. Her Twitter account has nearly 500,000
followers, and Fidel Castro as well as Raúl Castro's daughter, Mariela,
took the time to criticize her.
Sánchez will be in Miami this week for a string of public appearances
and a family reunion during a stop in her whirlwind tour of a dozen
countries in South and North America and Europe that started Feb. 17 and
is expected to last about three months.
It's the first time Cuban authorities have allowed her to leave the
island since 2004, when she returned from a two-year stay in Switzerland
and began launching a string of digital publications.
Sánchez's digital sword regularly skewers Fidel and Raúl as well as
their policies and acolytes. And her tweets — at times fierce, funny or
mocking — are like 140-character thumbs-in-the-eye to the government.
Her power lies in "language that cuts through the hypocrisy and myths
that have clouded the truth about Cuba for so many years," said Ted
Henken, a Baruch College professor who studies social media in Cuba and
has written several articles about her.
She describes herself as a political "free electron" that gravitates
toward conservatives or liberals depending on the issue and does not
insult the other side.
Her husband, journalist Reinaldo Escobar, 65, says that's part of the
secret of her success.
"Yoani writes from a point of moderation, a middle point that many
people can agree with," said Escobar, who was fired from the newspaper
Juventud Rebelde in 1988 for criticizing the government and now works as
an elevator repairman.
She opposes the U.S. embargo, Escobar said, because the Castro brothers
use it as an excuse for all their failures. And since she favors
unlimited travel abroad for Cubans, he said, she also favors
unrestricted U.S. travel to the island.
Havana calls her a "mercenary" paid by Washington, and Castro supporters
threw fake dollars at her in Brazil last month. She denies accepting
improper money and Escobar says they live off their work for foreign
newspapers. Sánchez is the Cuba correspondent for Spain's El País newspaper.
Ironically, a number of moderate exiles and U.S. journalists say they
wonder whether she's too good to be true — perhaps allowed a long leash
by the Castros and spared the police repression that other dissidents
suffer in return for her criticisms of U.S. policies.
Sánchez argues that her fame is her shield from repression. And while
she steadfastly attacks the government, she has not joined any dissident
organization and calls herself an "independent" or "alternative" journalist.
And while Cuban officials argue that Sánchez is virtually unknown on the
island, her supporters point out that the government blocked access to
her blog until recently, and that the state's news media monopoly treats
her as a Soviet-era non-person.
"A baseball player here can be well known, but the question is how
important are his home runs to the future of Cuba," Escobar said in a
phone interview from Havana.
Sánchez can look a bit like a hippie at times, favoring loose cotton
blouses, long skirts and dark hair down to her hips. She speaks softly
and mostly slowly. But even relatives paint her as fiercely headstrong
since the age of 5, said Henken.
Mary Jo Porter, the Seattle engineer who founded the volunteer network
that translates Generación Y and other Cuba blogs, said part of
Sánchez's appeal is the "juxtaposition of her fragility, her small and
slight physical form, with the iron strength so apparent in her voice,
her life and her work."
But, Porter said, "put food in front of her and she eats like a
lumberjack," and in private she's even more cheerful and funny.
"There's no 'behind-the-scenes-Yoani'… what you see is the real her,"
the translator said.
Born in 1975, Yoani Maria Sánchez Cordero is part of what she dubbed
Generation Y — Cubans whose names are often spelled with odd Ys because
of Moscow's influence over the island at the time. But she came of age
as the Soviet Union collapsed, cut off its huge subsidies to Cuba and
plunged it into its worst economic crisis of the 20th century.
The daughter of a modest family — her father, William, is a retired
train engineer who now fixes flat car and bicycle tires, and her mother,
Maria Eumelia, works as a taxi dispatcher — she studied IberoAmerican
literature at the University of Havana.
Her graduation thesis was titled "Words under Pressure: A study on the
literature of dictatorship in Latin America" and was partly based on a
novel by Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa about the assassination of Dominican
Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961.
Escobar said that they met in 1993 when she borrowed his copy of another
Vargas Llosa novel, and their son Teo is 17 years old.
The couple later taught Spanish, mostly to German visitors, and guided
them around Havana, while at the same time learning German.
Sánchez moved to Switzerland to work in a bookstore in 2002 in what was
planned as the first step of the family's departure, Escobar said. Teo
followed a year later, but a string of factors, including her father's
illness, led them to return in 2004.
Having lost their Cuba residency by staying abroad for more than 11
months, they bought round-trip tickets to Havana for a "family visit"
and tore up their passports after landing to avoid being returned to
Europe. They lived in legal limbo until the government agreed to
recognize their residency again.
Sánchez, who had put together her first computer in 1994 from used bits
and pieces — Escobar said she also fixes the fridge in their Havana
apartment — and experienced the Internet while in Zurich, returned with
a new career: digital journalist.
In 2004 she began launching a string of Internet publications such as
Consenso, Contodos and Convivencia, and later became the webmaster for
Desde Cuba, a Web portal that today hosts 45 blogs, almost all critical
of the Castro governments.
Three years later she launched Generación Y — the first anti-government
blog from inside the island and not anonymous — declaring that she had
tried yoga but still needed to somehow exorcize the demonic frustrations
of life in Cuba.
With the government blocking access to her blog, Sánchez passed herself
off as a German to use Internet cafes in tourist-only hotels and email
her columns to supporters abroad who translated and posted them.
She once donned a blonde wig to slip into an academic seminar on
blogging limited to government supporters.
But prestigious awards poured in for her posts. She won Colombia
University's Maria Moors Cabot prize and Spain's Ortega y Gassett award.
The Prince Claus award from the Netherlands brought her $40,000. Time
magazine put her on its list of 100 most influential people in 2008. And
President Barack Obama answered her written questions in 2009.
The government unblocked access to Generación Y and about 40 other blogs
in 2011, implicitly admitting that it could not really control what
Communications Minister Ramiro Valdes called the "wild pony" of the
Millions of Web pages now circulate in the island on CDs, DVDs, flash
drives and Bluetooth-capable cellphones. In a scene she compared to a
Wild West gunfight, Sánchez wrote that people were meeting in a park,
pointing their phones at each other and exchanging data without nearby
police knowing what was happening.
In more recent years she has founded a bloggers' academy, tweeted alerts
on police arrests or harassment of other dissidents and grown more
Raúl Castro's meek reforms are not enough to rescue the economy from its
quagmire, Sánchez has declared, and once he leaves power — he has
promised to retire in 2018 — it will be difficult for his successors to
Cuba's ruling system is like the old Havana buildings that are
dilapidated yet survive even hurricanes, she told McClatchy
correspondent Tim Johnson during an interview in Mexico last month.
"But one day, they want to fix the door," Sánchez said. "They take out
screws, and the house collapses."
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