Yoani Sánchez was a student at the University of Havana when she did the unthinkable and wrote a thesis about dictatorships in Latin American literature. It wasn’t a direct criticism of Fidel Castro, but it was too close for comfort in a country where there’s so much that’s officially unthinkable.
Ms. Sánchez eventually fled Cuba for Switzerland in 2002, with her son and husband soon joining her. Then she once again did the unthinkable and in 2004 moved back to Cuba when her husband couldn’t find employment in Europe. It’s not unheard of for people to return to Cuba to live, after having lived abroad, but it is exceptionally rare. Yet as it pertains to doing unthinkable things, Yoani Sánchez was just getting warmed up. In April 2007 she started a blog about real life in Cuba and incredibly she began posting with her real name and her photograph.
Her experiences outside of Cuba have, no doubt, shaped Yoani’s opinions about life on the island, opinions that she shares with her readers several times a week.
A few months before Yoani blogged her first post, Cuba’s communications czar, Ramiro Valdés, told an audience “the wild colt of the new technologies could and must be controlled.”
But such pronouncements by Cuba’s totalitarian leadership did not deter Yoani Sánchez. Today she is arguably the most well-known critic of the Castro regime, with well over 1 million visitors to her blog, Generación Y, each month.
Yoani composes her blog posts at home and uses a USB drive, the kind many of us take for granted, to take her work to a tourist hotel or some other place like an Internet café, where she uploads her thoughts. Generación Y’s server is outside of Cuba, of course, far from the would-be tamers of the wild colt.
I first heard of Yoani and her blog in December of last year when the Miami Herald and the Wall Street Journal featured her in pieces about Cuba’s nascent blogging community. In the short amount of time since, she has become a hero to me.
Cuba is second only to China in terms of jailed journalists, but change is happening under Raul Castro, who is trying to portray his reign as a kinder and gentler dictatorship than the one his older brother presided over: the repression in Cuba, which is the hallmark of any totalitarian tyrant, has gotten much more subtle recently.
Raul simply can’t abide by a Cuban openly criticizing the ridiculous policies enacted by his brother and enforced by his sycophants, but rather than arrest Yoani he’s been content to block her blog inside of Cuba. I suppose he thought that he could mitigate the damage she might do, at least in terms of “corrupting” the minds of the few Cubans on the island that have access to the Internet. But the proverbial horse has already left the barn; on April 4, 2008, Yoani Sánchez won the coveted Ortega y Gasset award for journalism in the digital category. The award is Spain’s equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, an accomplishment for Ms. Sánchez.
Yes, changes are happening in Cuba, but they are not the highly touted changes that Raul Castro is announcing on a daily basis. The changes are happening among the Cuban people, who are beginning to lose their fear and beginning to speak their minds regardless of the consequences. People like the Ladies in White, who recently held a protest in the Plaza of the Revolution demanding the release of their loved ones who are political prisoners of the regime. As one might expect, the protest was broken up by a force of Cuban policewomen and a government-organized mob of women. But still they did it; they challenged the regime for its arbitrary and capricious abuses of human rights.
In a recent piece for the prestigious Letras Libres, Yoani writes about the inevitable changes that are occurring among the Cuban citizenry:
Slowly the hypnotized begin to shake it off, not with a violent snap of the fingers, as in the circus, but ever so slowly as the prolonged influence of Fidel Castro fades. His brother, evidently, does not have the gift of casting the collective spell.
Fidel has been many things, but eventually he will be remembered as the best hypnotist in the history of Cuba. A magician who made millions of people believe that the future was promising and imminent and that any individual sacrifice would be little compared to the collective well-being to come. A seducer who created in the minds of the millions of Cubans a dream of a national dignity strengthened in a fight against the most powerful enemy in the history of the world. In order to maintain that elusive fantasy, at least three generations of Cubans, that of my parents, my own, and that of my son, renounced the guarantees to what should have been the material basis of their personal dignity: decent housing, an adequate food supply, an efficient transportation system, and the most basic rights of expression, information, and free association.
The changes are also happening among the world’s leading media outlets, which have for years accepted a Faustian bargain in which they traded their journalistic integrity for access and the right to have bureaus in Havana. They are finally beginning to report the truth, if only to give some context to the lifting of the most ludicrous restrictions on Cuban citizens. Or perhaps they have been shamed into it. Shamed by the efforts of one particularly courageous blogger who has nothing to gain and everything to lose for portraying Cuban life accurately and faithfully. Time Magazine has named Ms. Sanchez one of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Yoani Sánchez has inspired others as well. Recently, a new Cuban blog made its debut. It’s name: Wild Colt. Unthinkable.