Yoani Sanchez is a brave Cuban blogger, who has defied the country’s stringent censorship by a unique ‘transit’ method of blogging – she emails her blog to friends abroad who post them online for her. Her blog, Generation Y, highly critical of Cuban life and politics, is translated into seventeen languages and has an international following.
In 2008, Time magazine listing her as one of the world’s most influential people, said: “Under the nose of a regime that has never tolerated dissent, Sanchez has practiced what paperbound journalists in her country cannot; freedom of speech.”
Sanchez, now 39, was born in Havana. Her father worked his way up from labourer to engineer in Cuban railway, and became a bicycle mechanic when the Cuban state railway system ran into trouble after Soviet aid dried up.
Sanchez studied philology at university and graduated with a degree in Hispanic philology without any interest in the subject. She majored in Spanish literature at the Instituto Pedagogo, and gained a special degree in contemporary Latin American literature. Her thesis was titled: “Words Under Pressure. A Study of the Literature of Dictatorship in Latin America.”
Sanchez left university disgusted “with the world of intellectualism and high culture.” She subsequently managed to study computer science in Switzerland, an experience which enlarged her perspectives and emboldened her desire for personal freedom of expression. After returning home, she helped to establish the magazine Contados, a magazine which caters for freedom of expression. She followed this up with her own blog.
She started schooling during the good years when Soviet aid provided eighty per cent of Cuba’s international trade and foreign aid. But this aid flow stopped when she was attending secondary school and university. She later wrote:
“I left high school in the countryside feeling that nothing belonged to me, not even my body. Living in shelters creates the sensation that your whole life, your privacy, your personal possessions and even your nakedness has become public property. “Sharing” is the obligatory word and it comes to seem normal not to be able – ever – to be alone. After years of mobilizations, agricultural camps, and a sad school in Alquizar, I needed an overdose of privacy.”
Under the nose of a regime that has never tolerated dissent, Sanchez has practiced what paperbound journalists in her country cannot; freedom of speech
Realising her frustration and bottled up anger, friends suggested caution, trying to find inner peace through yoga, Tai Chi, and gym work rather than head for a conflict course with the regime. She tried “silence and evasion.” All this only resulted in more frustration, and she began blogging. After six months as an active blogger, she wrote that blogging helped her deal with the frustrations she felt as a Cuban.
While Sri Lanka is no longer a society where an individual’s rights to privacy and freedom of speech is increasingly at risk, Sanchez comes from a country where private ownership of mobile phones wasn’t allowed until recently, which is hard for us to understand. After working as a freelance Spanish instructor for German tourists at a time of severe economic hardship, she emigrated to Switzerland, with her journalist husband and son joining her later.
She returned home two years later, in 2004, citing ‘family reasons.’ As she had been out of Cuba without special permission for longer than the officially permitted duration, she had lost the right to return and had to destroy her passport to avoid being repatriated to Switzerland.
By 2008, she had abandoned anonymity and began signing her own posts. She was now listed as a ‘counterrevolutionary’ which denied her visas to travel abroad. By now, she was a high-profile critic of the last true dictatorship in the Western hemisphere, reporting on mass arrests to the insidious terror of the national census to the economic straightjacket imposed on Cubans. Her site was being viewed by millions every month and she had been interviewed by several top international publications.
The regime tried intimidation. She was once kidnapped by plainclothes security men and beaten up inside a car. But nothing could deter Sanchez. It tried blocking her blog by filtering access to her site from the Internet, including access from hotels. But all these measures have proved futile. Realising that she was now too big to be beaten into submission, the regime finally allowed her to travel abroad – to Brazil and the Czech Republic – in 2013.
But Sanchez isn’t a machine programmed for revenge. She wrote: “I can get both discouraged and have sudden starts. I alternate between ‘it’s working!’ to ‘it’s not worth the pain.’ She has asked her readers not to be “surprised if the catharsis rises in tone, if I become incendiary, or show a streak of pessimism.” As she told one interviewer: I refuse to use incendiary language, defamation, or harangues, because that only exacerbates the cycle of intolerance that is an obstacle to reasoned debate. Cuba is a very diverse country. You walk out into the street, and you not only find diversity of races but also of opinions.
The official press spends all its time trying to make us believe that this is a very monolithic country, that we all think the same, and it does so with a dose of revolutionary violence and ideological aggressiveness that is paralyzing. We have to find a way to put a stop to this never-ending cycle, to this spiral of aggression that is very characteristic of Cuban journalism.”
Though Sanchez was something of a ‘star blogger’ by 2008, the best compliment paid to her came from ex-president Fidel Castro himself. In a prologue to the second edition of the book ‘Bolivia y algo mas,’ Castro quoted a long passage from Sanchez’ blog and said he was disappointed that young Cubans were now thinking as Sanchez did.
Though this sounded like a criticism, it was a direct acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Sanchez’ beliefs and points of view. Since her blog was blocked from public internet sites in Cuba, Sanchez emails her texts to a ‘citizens’ network’ of Cuban friends abroad, plus those working in Cuban government institutions. Right now, she has an uneasy ‘cohabitation’ with the regime. It still does its best to block her site but allows her to travel abroad. In 2013, she travelled to more than twelve countries in Europe and the Americas.