1 June 2008

An encounter with Yoani Sanchez in Havana

Havana, 26 May 2008 | Much has been said about Cuban blogger extraordinaire, Yoani Sanchez. Her blog, Generacion Y, has caused quite a revolution, among opposition to and supporters of Castro's dictatorship alike. She recently was granted the important literary Ortega y Gasset prize. Furthermore, Yoani has also been named as one of the world's 100 Most Influential People, by TIME magazine. Little surprise then that I was going to make the most of my visit to Cuba and make the necessary arrangements to meet with her, to determine, on my own, whether what's been written is true or not. So we met in a cafeteria near her building, whose elevator marks in its floor dial two fives, two tens and the eleventh button took us up to the thirteenth, maybe so as to keep bad luck away. Her husband, writer Reinaldo Escobar, shared a few thoughts as well.

Yoani is just another example of a regular citizen, as she calls herself, having a tremendous impact in society, even here, in this beacon of repression and authoritarianism. She said that not once has she written the words democracy, human rights and freedom, though her blog is precisely about that. I had many question in mind, however the first one was:

- People are saying that you're a Cuban agent. What do you have to say about that?

- Yoani Sanchez (YS): Well, I have been accused of many things, but mainly I am perceived as been either an agent of Castro or a pawn of 'The Empire.' With regards to both I have the same approach, that is, I pay no heed to unsubstantiated gossip. I welcome people who come forth and debate ideas. However one must understand the reasons that prompt, both sides, to come up with such opinions. Those opposing this regime may feel threatened in a way, uncomfortable that I am doing something from here than most haven't dared. Clearly, this insecurity, or lack of imagination and resourcefulness if you will, has to be understood in its proper individual and collective dimension. Regarding accusations coming from the other camp, I guess they just proved my point by forbidding my trip to Spain to get the prize. It would have been awkward to travel there and face questions such as "Ms Sanchez, how do you reconcile your argument about lack of liberties in Cuba and the permission granted to you to travel to Spain?" Not only the regime proved me right, when I have argued that civil and political rights are systematically violated here, they've oxygenated me and my cause, and for that I am grateful. Reinaldo adds that some have argued that Yoani has been subject to manipulation. In his opinion, the moment anyone decides to abandon the privacy of its own life, by entering the public sphere, is subject to manipulation by the very exchange of ideas and debate.

- Do you honestly think the Castro brothers are as clumsy as that?

- YS: I applied for travel permission and mi visa wasn't granted based on a technicality, we think. Every Cuban living continuously outside the island for more than eleven months loses the Cuban nationality. Or so the law says. Upon return from living in Switzerland I decided to stay and communicated to the authorities that I had lost my travel documents. That placed me in a legal limbo: although born, raised and having lived all but two years of my life here I, technically, lost my Cuban nationality, which is the only one I have. Therefore it was not a surprise that the regime did not allow me to travel. Reinaldo and I took all the necessary steps to do so, we even alerted the authorities of the scandal that forbidding my trip would cause. The Ortega y Gasset prize and TIME magazine contributed to prove what we were arguing. However the regime would have none of it, the decision was taken at the highest level and not by some obscure bureaucrat.

- Why do you think that this decision was taken at the top?

YS: I reckon they fear that hanging out with other journalists, bloggers and media savvy people would have potentiated my communication abilities and, certainly, would have enhanced my network of contacts and the attention people are paying to my cause.

- So what's your cause?

- YS: I am all up for debate, for the creation of a space where Cubans and interested parties can debate about issues affecting us in a mature, respectful manner.

- But doing so could open a can of worms. You know in Venezuela someone created a website called noticierodigital.com and that platform became just that, a place where people of all walks of life ranted about bread and butter issues and politics. Its founder ended up selling, its new editor ended up quitting, mind you considering the difficulties you face to get online, how will you manage to keep the fanatics at bay and moderate comments?

- YS: funny you'd say that. The site has brought interesting things, among which a group of extraordinary collaborators that, from around the world, keep the peace in the comment section. I assigned them with three tasks: no copy paste is allowed, read not reprinting stuff from other places in order to benefit from the millions of visitors; no stealing of net-identities is allowed and moderators can not post comment for that would create a conflict of interests. Often I post something and the comment section derives onto discussions totally unrelated to my original article, though I like that, I enjoy debate as much as any true democrat.

- I read recently that you couldn't access the site and that it had been hacked.

- YS: the Cuban regime has many good hackers that's for sure. As per accessing the site from here I don't mind. We have developed a way to have my posts published regardless of hackers attempt and every few days I get sent a digest of comments and screenshots of the site so that I can keep track of it all. With the help of the citizen network that we have developed I will beat whatever they throw my way. Blogging is a totally new phenomena here and the regime does not know how to compartmentalize me, but I guess when they do I will be at risk as all other democrats.

- It strikes me that the reasons that prompt you to start your e-crusade are are very similar to those that prompted me. Do you feel represented by any of the political actors in Cuba?

- YS: no, I don't. The decision to start with this simply stemmed from my utter frustration at not having anyone raising the issues that bother me and a great deal of other Cubans. Mine is a citizen initiative. As I mentioned earlier I have never written the words democracy, human rights and freedom in my blog, however the lack thereof and the nonexistence of interlocutors commenting effectively what I consider relevant brought me to this (Reinaldo jokes saying how humble his beloved wife is).

- Talking of which, how many hits does your blog get?

- YS: In the course of this month it's gotten more than 9 million visitors.

- That's pretty good. However do you not think that the curve will eventually flatten out and people will lose interest, as is normally the case with blogs?

- YS: Indeed, undoubtedly articles in major newspapers, the Ortega y Gasset prize and TIME have contributed to the success of the blog. However none have done more to make it a
cause celebre as the decision of the regime of impeding my trip. Frankly I would have thought they were more clever.

- So what are you planning to do with
16,000 price money?

- YS: we are looking at possible ways to bring it.

- I understand the regime imposes a 20% 'fee' on all dollar denominated transactions.

- YS: yes, that's the case. Given that what I was awarded is in Euros is different though, but not easy.

- Lastly, how could other bloggers collaborate with you/your cause?

- YS: by linking to us; by making thoughtful and coherent comments; by spreading the news. Unfortunately Cubans in general are computer illiterates and is difficult for them to grasp the sheer power of internet. That is why most people don't understand what I am doing or how I do it. I wish more Cubans would start blogging but for that to occur IT-related handicaps need be overcome, and that's not easy considering restrictions imposed in that respect. In any case we are trying to educate others so blogging would become in Cuba a permanent feature, a means of democratizing citizen expression, as in the free world.

I left thinking that I had met two remarkable people. Regardless of the asphyxiating life conditions in Cuba, Yoani and Reinaldo are but two of many individuals here that demonstrate with every day deeds that no amount of repression can dissolve human beings intrinsic determination to live in freedom. For Yoani and Reinaldo are free, even in Cuba.

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Aguaya said...

Hi, Alek!

Thanks for this interview!! and sorry for my English ;-)

Many cuban bloggers outside Cuba are spreading out Yoani's posts. We all need to join us in a common future: to develop the cuban blogosphere as it should. Cubans from inside and from outside: all.

This is why we are planning our first "Blogging Cuba" event August next year, from which Yoani is the honor chair. Take a look at the call for papers (as it is named in other branches). A translation to the English language will be available soon. We wan't the world know that we exist and that Cuba needs us but also people like Yoani and Reinaldo, too.

Greetings from Berlin!!


AB said...

Thanks for the comment Aguaya and don't worry for your English, for neither mine is perfect!! Aqui se habla como uno se siente en el momento de escribir.

Facinating event you guys are preparing, I'm trying to have some Cubans who are doing extraordinary work start blogging, if successful will tell them to paticipate.

Vaya un abrazo desde Marbella!!

Aguaya said...

Ah! de haberlo sabido no hubiera sudado tanto escribiendo en Inglés!!

TODOS son bienvenidos, claro que sí!!

Un abrazo,

Aguaya said...

By the way, Marbella terribly nice. I was there two years ago and was fascinated walking the old town up and down. I even have a plate on a wall at home...

StJacques said...


A fascinating little interview here.  It was nice to see Yoani sit down and talk with someone on the outside.

I've put up an entry directing everyone to come here and read it.



AB said...

Thanks for linking StJacques, Cuba's freedom fighters need all the exposure they can get, although Yoani is in a league of her own.

Libertad Para Cuba said...

Además de blog de Yoani, no olviden leer las noticias de cubanet.org que hacen llegar otros valientes compatriotas desde la isla, periodistas independientes, que arriesgan a diario su libertad fisica y la tranquilidad de su familia por la causa comun de obtener la libertad de Cuba sin los dictadores Castros.