“The truth is, all journalists in Cuba are imprisoned,” said Yoani Sanchez, in a downbeat assessment of the plight of free speech in her home country.
The 37-year old Cuban dissident and celebrated blogger behind Generation Y, knows as well as anyone the impact of restrictions placed on chroniclers of daily life in communist Cuba. Despite being named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, Sanchez has, for the past few years, been confined to island life. Until now.
Sanchez, whose attempts to travel abroad have been rejected more than 20 times in the past five years, is currently on an 80-day tour across Europe, Latin America and the United States to speak to those who have been following her story. The trip was only made possible by recent reforms implemented by President Raul Castro, which eased travel restrictions for many Cubans.
Sanchez’s trip has not been without incident, however. In Brazil, she was met by pro-Castro demonstrators during a visit to the Brazilian congress. Similar demonstrations, rumored to be staged, also followed during a recent trip to Mexico.
Little wonder, then, that when Sanchez made her first public appearance in the United States, at Columbia University on Thursday evening, stringent security measures were taken. However, Sanchez received a warm welcome, flowers and a standing ovation as she sat down for a brief Q&A.
Throughout the evening, Sanchez, with her long hair and earth-mother style dress, could be caught tweeting on her iPhone to her 450,000 followers.
One might think Sanchez is always on the internet. But the reality is that she and her fellow Cubans face a battle to gain access to the unfiltered web, like sneaking into a hotel – which, before the reforms, Cubans were prohibited from entering – and spending half a month’s wages to use a computer. Cubans have also created their own digital version of alchemy in creating “internet without internet” by downloading uncensored information to flash drives and sharing it with one another.
Life in Cuba is difficult for dissidents like Sanchez, who have been met with verbal attacks to physical detention, although Sanchez notes the worst imprisonment is that of forced silence. “[We are] imprisoned by censorship, imprisoned by laws, imprisoned on an island that is a prison surrounded by water on all sides.”
But in recent times, the Cuban government, which, Sanchez explained, has taken note of the events during the Arab spring, has been cautious about how they deal with the regime’s detractors. The Cuban government has started to engage with bloggers, creating pro-government blogs to denounce those like Sanchez as agents of outside enemies like the United States. But Sanchez believes this reveals that the government can no longer refuse to acknowledge the power and effect the Cuban blogosphere is having on the people.
And Sanchez only plans to go further in pushing the government’s buttons. “[I]t is time to move beyond the realm of the personal and individual expression of the blog – the catharsis that is the 140 characters on Twitter – into a more civic exercise that would be expressed through an independent press in Cuba,” she said.
Sanchez will take up the project when she returns to Cuba, and she’s unafraid of being charged with “crimes of enemy propaganda”. While the venture will, for now, remain in the elusive digital sphere, at least, she says, it will be ready for all Cubans when the change comes.
What were Sanchez’s first impressions of the US? “Breathing in [New York City], a city so enormous that I’ve only ever seen in films … I am absolutely in shock’.”
After her stop in New York, Sanchez will visit Washington DC and attend a meeting on Capitol Hill organized by senator Bill Nelson of Florida.
“I see it as an opportunity to narrate Cuba as someone who lives on the island, [to] answer their questions and provide them with my perspective. It’s an important moment for Cuba right now, a moment so in flux, where everything can either fall to ruin or be achieved.”
Sanchez, a Havana native, wants to highlight the progress and change that has been taking place in Cuba. But according to Sanchez, the “Raul reforms” were not enacted from “a position of power”; they were put in place because the Castros “are backed against the wall” by civil society in Cuba and abroad. And after Hugo Chavez’s death, which could signal the end of Cuba’s supply of cheap oil, Sanchez expects even more reform.
As for relations with the US, Sanchez tells the Guardian that she retains hope in President Obama. During his first term in office, the president eased travel restrictions on Americans visiting Cuba, along with those on remittances to the country. Those have proved invaluable to Cubans, who earn, on average, just $ 19 a month.
“I believe we are in times of change,” she said. “We need the United States to acknowledge these changes occurring in Cuba – changes that transcend politics and are expanding across the digital world. I would like to be able to say that this new Cuba can count on [President Obama].”
Sanchez acknowledged that the US policy towards Cuba is not entirely shaped by Obama She is also interested in the views of Florida senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American.
Rubio is opposed to lifting the trade embargo, or providing any of the kind of aid provided by the unrestricted travel and money transfers to the island. He recently blasted colleagues and Americans who visit Cuba, saying that travelers are leaving “thousands of dollars in the hands of a government that uses that money to control these people that you feel sorry for”.
Sanchez said: “I respect the different opinions on the embargo. Why? Because they are born out concern for Cuba. There are people who believe the embargo will help Cuba become more democratized. There are also those of us who believe Cuba will become more democratized without it. But all of us agree that we want democracy in Cuba.”
Though Sanchez wants to see an end to the embargo, she warns that the US needs to be “cautious” that lifting the embargo does not “end up breathing life into a regime that is on its last legs”.
And what of the future?
“The promises shouldn’t be made by a leader, a party or an ideology. The promise should come from all Cubans, and it’s a promise with our children that they will have an inclusive Cuba, a bountiful Cuba, a Cuba where no one will be punished for expressing themselves,” Sanchez said.
“I would promise the new generation a Cuba for all Cubans.”