Slender, dark-haired, Yoani Sanchez walks the streets of Havana. Passing into and through the shadows of the Castros, she thinks of toasters and lemons, a scarcity of pork and the hunger of children. Fingers curled around the flash drive pushed deep into her pocket, she walks quickly, intending a liaison, a tryst, an encounter far removed from the world’s prying eyes. Her longing is for a computer – her desire, to send her words into the world.
A young Cuban woman who blogs from Havana, Yoani Sanchez has built a worldwide readership. The circumstances of her life, her straightforward words and incisive intelligence make her someone worth reading. They also make her someone to fear, particularly if you happen to be a Cuban official whose only desire is to maintain order and preserve the status quo.
Dictators may smile benignly when philosophers and thinkers use large, rectangular words to ruminate over grand issues like Freedom, Censorship and Ineffective Government. But when pretty young bloggers begin to describe the realities of life in words everyone can understand – toasters and oxen, lemons and milk – dictators pay attention.
I was introduced to Yoani Sanchez in 2008, shortly after beginning my own blog. Curious about her journey, I found an article detailing her blog, Generación Y, in a 2007 issue of the Wall Street Journal. Reading it, I was transfixed by the description of her actions.
”On a recent morning, Yoani Sanchez took a deep breath and gathered her nerve for an undercover mission: posting an Internet chronicle about life in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.”
“To get around Cuba’s restrictions on Web access, the waif-like 32-year-old posed as a tourist to slip into an Internet cafe in one of the city’s luxury hotels, which normally bar Cubans. Dressed in gray surf shorts, T-shirt and lime-green espadrilles, she strode toward a guard at the hotel’s threshold and flashed a wide smile. The guard, a towering man with a shaved head, stepped aside. ‘I think I’m able to do this because I look so harmless,’ says Ms. Sanchez, who says she is sometimes mistaken for a teenager. Once inside the cafe, she attached a flash memory drive to the hotel computer and, in quick, intense movements, uploaded her material.”
At the time, Ms. Sanchez’ own words about her extraordinary actions were modest. “The sensation of losing fear, of risking, is a sensation that is normally irreversible. After you cross certain lines, there is no way back.” A lifetime of internalizing the constraints of life in a dictatorship brought her to blogging as a way to escape her “internal policeman”, a way “to push the limits, to find the line where the internal limits end and the real limits begin.” Comparing blogging to a child’s game of “let’s pretend”, Sanchez said, “You…believe that you are free and try to act like it. Little by little, acting as though you are free can be contagious.”
At the time I discovered Generation Y, most bloggers I knew had chosen to remain anonymous. Whether grounded in caution, insecurity or fear, the anonymity seemed to provide a sense of comfort, a bit of privacy and a certain kind of freedom. It also made issues of honesty and accountability less relevant.
Ms. Sanchez appeared to have few problems with honesty and accountability. She expressed her opinions and defended them publicly from the heart of Cuba’s dictatorship, signing her name and posting her photo in the process. Such forthrightness, I thought, earned her a prerogative or two. I began to imagine Yoani Sanchez, thirty-two years old and living in a crumbling, restrictive nation, turning to me, a sixty-one year old, completely unoppressed woman living in comfort and asking, “What about you? Where is your picture? What is your name? Tell me your convictions.”
After some thought, I began signing my name to my work, pondering Sanchez’ words as I did: “Once you experience the flavor of saying what you think, of publishing it and signing it with your name, well, there’s no turning back. One of the first things we have to do, a great way to begin to change, is to be more honest about saying what we think.”
Ms. Sanchez has a history of saying what she thinks. Admitted to the University of Havana for the study of philology, she nurtured a love for Latin American writers. But her thesis topic, Dictatorships in Latin American Literature, ended her academic career. “The thesis wasn’t overly critical,” Sanchez says, “but the mere act of defining what a dictatorship is in an academic paper made people really nervous, because the definition was a portrait of Cuba.”
Forced to move from academia to the public forums of the Internet, she unnerved the regime less by overtly political criticism of the Castro brothers than by her vivid descriptions of daily life. On March 24, 2008, Cuban authorities became nervous enough to take action. They blocked or slowed access to Sanchez’ blog, reportedly placing filters that delayed viewing of her web page on a server in Germany. Her response, offered here in translation, has been described as classic Sanchez.
“I recognize that I have been misbehaving. I rebel against orders; I look for lemons that never appear; I demand excuses that never arrive; and – a great absurdity of mine – I put my opinions in a blog, with photo and name included.
As you can see, bcause of these thirty-two impertinent years, I am not being corrected. As a result, the anonymous censors of our ravenous cyberspace have wanted to enclose me in the room, turn off the light and not let my friends enter inside. That, translated to the language of the Internet, means to block my site, to filter my Web page; in short, to puncture the Blog so that my compatriots cannot read it.
Ever since a few days ago, “” is merely an error message on the screen of many Cuban computers – another site blocked for the “monitored” Internet users of the Island. My words, my text, and that of other bloggers and digital journalists, have caused the presser foot of the inquisitors to do its ridiculous part. We have received a slap on the face, the “severe wink” and an admonishment from these arrogant and rebellious adolescents. Nevertheless, the reprimand is so useless and pointless that it is an embarrassment, and so easy to outmaneuver that it turns into an incentive.”
“This breath of fresh air has disheveled the hair of bureaucrats and censors,” she said of her blog, vowing to continue her writing. “Anyone with a bit of computer skill knows how to get around them. The aim of government censors is to block readership in Cuba, where people have limited access to internet. They are admitting that no alternative way of thinking can exist in Cuba, but people will continue reading us somehow. There is no censorship that can stop people who are determined to access the internet.”
Sanchez’ creativity and persistence were rewarded when Generación Y received Spain’s Ortega y Gasset prize for digital journalism. The Spanish newspaper El Pais, which awards the prize annually, said Sanchez won it for her “shrewdness” in overcoming hurdles to freedom of expression in Cuba, her “vivacious” style and her drive to join the “global space of citizen journalism”.
Speaking with the Reuters News Service by telephone from her home in Havana, Ms. Sanchez said, “This is great encouragement for Cuban bloggers, who are still at an embryonic stage. It recognizes that Cuban blogs can be a parallel source of information, reflection and opinions independent from Cuba’s official media.”
The Ortega Y Gasset did much more than that. Winning a prestigious prize in this country gets you dinner, a check, an NPR interview and a swing around the talk-show circuit. In countries such as Cuba, winning an international prize can save your writing and perhaps your life, as the additional attention and scrutiny set up useful barriers between the writer and those who would silence dissent.
In the five years since the birth of Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez has confronted questions common to thoughtful bloggers: “Am I writing for myself alone, or am I seeking to engage the world in which I live? Am I willing to accept responsiblity for my creation and defend my words? Will I accept or refuse criticism or dissent? To the extent that my words touch other lives, what effect do I wish them to have?” Asking and answering such questions inexorably changes the questioner. In her fifth anniversary post, Sanchez says,
“The truth is that when I left home that morning to hang my virtual page on the Internet, I never could have imagined how much this action would transform me. Now, whenever the apprehension that the Cuban political police are “infallible” assaults me, I exorcise this thought by telling myself that “they didn’t know, that day, they couldn’t even guess that I would create this site.”
“What happened afterwards is already well known: the readers arrived and took over this space like citizens take over a public plaza; many others knocked on my door wanting help to create their own spaces of opinion; the first attacks appeared, as did the recognitions. Along the way I lost that 32-year-old mother who only spoke about “complicated issues” in a whisper, I misplaced the compulsive woman who barely knew how to debate or listen. This blog has been like experiencing — in the time and space of a single life — an infinity of parallel existences.”
It’s easy for most of us to overlook the decisions we make on a daily basis because the process of blogging is so easy. We make coffee, we turn on the computer, we begin to type. We post photographs or poetry, we review books or ponder current events, we chronicle our lives. Occasionally, we speak our minds. If we are challenged or rebuffed, if we experience disagreement or simple misunderstanding and have our feelings hurt, we can turn off our computer and walk away without consequence.
In the midst of so much ease and comfort, perhaps we need an occasional pause in order to think about what we are doing. I certainly don’t intend to argue for one form of blogging over another. Poetry, painting and humor have as much right to exist on these pages as family history, book reviews and political screeds – not to mention the ranting, raving and sheer stupidity that can be found. But there is a place for Yoani Sanchez, too – for the lessons she has learned and the lessons she has to teach us about the life-changing power of blogging.
“I have never again been able to walk the streets incognito. That gift of invisibility that I boasted of possessing fell by the wayside, between the hugs of those who recognized me and the attentive eyes of those whose job it is to watch me. I have paid an enormous personal and social price for these little vignettes of reality and yet I would do it again, taking my flash memory to the lobby of that hotel where I launched my inaugural post on the great world wide web.”
It pleases me to imagine Yoani Sanchez still walking the streets of Havana, leaving her house on these delicious afternoons with lime-green espadrilles on her feet, a flash drive in her pocket and a map to the nearest safe internet connection in her head.
Imagine, if you will, her languid smile as she slips past the guard, her studied casualness as she sits at a rented computer and draws her treasure from her pocket. Imagine her relief as the latest set of entries uploads properly, fleeing to the safety of her foreign servers.
Imagine, if you can, that Yoani Sanchez finds herself with an additional ten minutes of allotted time and decides to indulge herself in the luxury of a quick surf across the world wide web. Imagine that, with a click of the keys and a sudden, unbelievable flash of serendipity, she arrives at your blog’s home page and begins to read.
What would Yoani Sanchez think?