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.
According to the respected Brazilian magazine Veja, the political counselor of the Cuban embassy in Brazil, Rafael Hidalgo, called militants of several Brazilian leftists organization asking them “to participate in an operation to disqualify Yoani.” The type of dossier distributed by Havana is the type of personal smear attack by tyrants against their democratic opponents everywhere.
Writing about the events, Sánchez said: “Perhaps you don’t know — because not everything is related in a blog — but the first act of repudiation that I saw in my life was when I was only five... People were screaming and raising their fists around a neighbor’s door…Years later I could put together that kaleidoscope of childish evocations and I knew I had been a witness to the violence unleashed against those who wanted to emigrate from the port of Mariel."
"Since then I have experienced several acts of repudiation up close. Whether as a victim, observer, or journalist… never—I should clarify—as a victimizer. I remember a particularly violent one that I experienced with the Ladies in White, where the hordes of intolerance spat on us, pushed us and even pulled our hair. But last night was unprecedented for me.”
The protests became particularly nasty when the mobs blocked the showing of a documentary, Cuba-Honduras Connection. “They only knew how to yell and repeat the same phrases, like programmed automatons...Their neck veins swelled, I cracked a smile. They attacked me personally, I brought the discussion back to Cuba which will always be more important than this humble servant…They were responding to orders, [but] I am a free soul.”
Later Reuters reported that at the Brazilian Congress she said: "I dream of the day when we Cubans can express ourselves freely, and have a legislature where all opinions can be heard. The legislature of my country has a sad record. It has never said 'no' to any law proposed by the government."
According to Reuters, “[Senator Alvaro] Dias called on members of the ruling Workers' Party and the Cuban ambassador to explain to Congress media allegations that the Cuban embassy in Brasilia has spied on Sánchez and distributed a "dossier" on the blogger as part of carefully orchestrated smear campaign.
Among many awards, Ms. Sánchez has received the Maria Moors Cabot citation from Columbia University, the World Press Freedom Hero Award from the International Press Institute, Netherlands Prince Claus Award, and the Spain Ortega y Gasset Prize for Journalism. She was listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2008 and 25 Best Blogs of 2009.
Her blog is translated in 17 languages and her writings have been compiled in the books “Havana Real: One Woman Fights to Tell the Truth about Cuba Today” (Melville House) and “WordPress: A Blog for Speaking to the World” (Anaya Multimedia).
Her range of commentary is wide, but most of it about the complexities of living today in Cuba.
A few years ago, after the completion of a cable between Cuba and Venezuela was expected to increase access of Cubans to the Internet, she wrote: "Promised since 2008, it only made it to our coast this last February, and then lapsed into a silence quite suspicious for an effort that already cost more than seventy million dollars."
On one of the many appeals to the Cubans to tighten their belts, she wrote in her blog; "The renewed exaltation of humility launched by Raúl Castro...confirms for us what we learned in decades of economic crisis: poverty is the road that leads to obedience.”
There is, among some Cubans, a discussion about Sánchez' views on the U.S. embargo (she opposes it), but an overall consensus among practically everyone about her courage and the quality of her writings about realities in Cuba.
After her visit to Brazil, she is expected to travel to the Czech Republic, Spain, New York City, Washington, (where she might meet with Barack Obama) Miami, the Netherlands, Germany, Peru, Sweden, and Switzerland. It would not be out of character if in the next few weeks Cuban diplomats pulled the same stunts on those places to slander her. It also remains to be seen whether General Raúl Castro will honor his pledge to allow her back into the country she loves.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.